On September 12th 1962, at the height of the space race with Soviet Union, which America was losing, President Kennedy announced that, “We choose to go to the moon”. He created the Apollo program, and directed that all other NASA programs provide support for that goal.
Almost five years later, Apollo One was scheduled for a low earth orbital test of the Command and Service Module. This was the first manned test of the Apollo program, and began the final phase of testing before a mission that would actually land on the lunar surface.
On 27 January 1967, US Air Force Lt Cols and Gemini and Mercury space program veterans “Gus” Grissom and Edward H. White, and NASA prodigy US Navy Lt Cmdr Roger Chaffee were conducting a routine test of the Apollo One command module. They were to spend the day inside the self-contained module testing the equipment. An internal pure oxygen system was used to allow the astronauts to breath.
For five hours pure oxygen slowly soaked into everything. Communications between the module and mission command were intermittent at best, and Grissom complained in one of the few clear transmissions that, “How were we expected to get to the Moon if we couldn’t talk between a few buildings”.
About 5 ½ hours into the test, a wire over the urine collection piping arced and started a fire. In garbled transmissions the increasingly panicked astronauts stated they were fighting a fire, then screamed to get out. Engineers raced to module but couldn’t get the inward swinging hatch open because the pressure from the smoke and fire sealed it shut. The engineers and mission command watched helplessly as the astronauts burned to death.
The investigation into the Apollo One fire took over a year, and set the program back two years. However, the tragedy resulted in many changes in the modules that were instrumental to the success of the Apollo 11 mission in May 1969, and the survival of the crewmembers of Apollo 13 in April,1970.
On the pad where Grissom, White and Chaffee died, is a simple plaque that reads in part, “ad astra per aspera” — a rough road to the stars.