The Fatal fire on Apollo 1 and what was learned from it

The mission for a man to walk on the moon changed forever in 1967, when a flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a launch rehearsal test. Three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died despite the best efforts of the ground crew. It would take more than 18 months, and extensive re-designs, before NASA sent more men into space.

NASA was given an ambitious goal, set by President Kennedy in 1961, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. Earlier Mercury and Gemini flights had been the first steps toward that goal, testing how humans behaved in space and how to do technical spacecraft procedures such as rendezvous. Now the Apollo missions would take astronauts all the way to walk on the moon.

But on this particular test, there was a myriad of problems which pointed towards the tragedy. Apollo 1 had its difficulties from the onset and the astronauts were frustrated that developments so far had not included their consultation. That morning, the astronauts donned their suits and detected a strange smell in the breathing oxygen: this took about an hour to repair. Then the communications system malfunctioned, voices were muffled, and the control tower struggled to hear the astronauts. Suddenly, one word sent shockwaves to those outside. ‘Fire!’ Engineers raced immediately to the capsule and fought to open the heavy and cumbersome door, but as it was eventually prised open, the tragic scene unfolded.

After the fire which claimed the lives of the three astronauts, the NASA review board found there had been a stray spark, probably from damaged wires, and this had probably started the fire in the pure oxygen environment. Flammable features such as nylon netting and foam pads, fuelled the blaze and it quickly spread.

Additionally, the hatch door, intended to keep the astronauts and the atmosphere securely inside the spacecraft, was too tough to open from the outside in an emergency. The astronauts had struggled in vain to open the door during the fire, but the pressure inside the spacecraft sealed the door and made it impossible to open.

The investigation listed a damning set of circumstances, failures and recommendations for future spacecraft designers to consider.

Several changes were made to the design of the Apollo spacecraft to improve crew safety. The flammable oxygen environment for ground tests was replaced with a nitrogen-oxygen mix. Flammable items were removed. A new respect developed between the astronauts and the contractors concerning design changes, which were implemented more effectively. Most notably, the door was completely redesigned so that it would open in mere seconds when the crew needed to get out in a hurry.

The prevention of a fire was a priority in the Apollo missions after the tragedy. It is interesting to note that in the original incident report of the Apollo 1 tragedy it mentions that a portable fire extinguishers would be included specifically for future Apollo missions – might this mean that Apollo 1 did not have a fire extinguisher at all? A chilling thought. For all your fire safety needs including fire risk assessments, installation and maintenance of fire alarms, smoke alarms, extinguishers, fire blankets and fire safety training for your staff contact us at Bath & West Fire & Safety.

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