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This Day in History: Apollo 1 ends in tragedy

On this day in 1967, the first manned Apollo mission ends in heartbreak. Apollo 1’s crew had been at Kennedy Space Center, preparing for their upcoming launch. Unfortunately, they never made it into space. Instead, all three astronauts were tragically killed during what should have been a simple launch rehearsal.

But, then again, nothing had ever felt quite right about Apollo 1.

“[E]very time we’d turn a corner there were things that were left undone or answers that we didn’t have or we were moving down a wrong path,” flight control director Gene Kranz later said. Yet everyone assumed that things would work out—just as they always had before.

Perhaps, but something still prompted the Apollo crew to take a picture of themselves bowing in prayer. As a joke, they sent it to Apollo program manager Joe Shea with an inscription: “It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to go over your head.”

The joke would come back to haunt everyone.

On January 27, the Apollo crew was running a countdown simulation, in their capsule on the launch pad. The rehearsal dragged on for hours. At one point, there was so much trouble with the radio that Command Pilot Gus Grissom snapped: “How can we get to the moon if we can’t talk between three buildings? I can’t hear a thing you are saying.”

Trouble began just after 6:31 p.m. when Senior Pilot Ed White was heard to shout “Fire!” Then Grissom yelled: “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” Much of what was said in those terrifying seconds was garbled because of the communications problems that Grissom had been complaining about. But someone said something that sounded like “We’ve got a bad fire.” There was a plea to get out. Then a scream. Then silence.

The entire sequence had taken about 17 seconds. In the meantime, the interior of the Command Module had exploded in flames. Monitors showed that it was 2,500 degrees in there! It would take pad technicians a crushingly long 5 minutes to get the capsule doors open. By then, it was much too late.

The source of the problem was later determined to be a faulty wire near Grissom’s seat. The abundance of flammable material and the highly pressurized, pure oxygen atmosphere in the Command Module did the rest.

The nation was horrified, but those at NASA had the added burden of knowing they’d contributed to the loss of friends. It was a hard time. “Key people from Houston,” one administrator wrote, “would fly up to Washington to testify and literally sob all the way on the plane.”

But something else happened at NASA in those days, too. Technicians, engineers, and astronauts decided to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and move forward. They would not allow one failure, however tragic, to keep them down.

The problem before Apollo 1, Kranz would say, is that “we were not tough enough; we were avoiding our responsibilities, we had not assumed the accountability we should have for what was going on during that day’s test. We had the opportunity to call it all off, to say, ‘This isn’t right. Let’s shut it down,’ and none of us did.”

From that day on, if someone saw something that didn’t seem right or that didn’t make sense, they were expected to speak up. They would learn from their mistakes. They would meet JFK’s challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

And, as you know, that’s exactly what NASA did just 2.5 short years later when Apollo 11 completed its mission.

Rising to the challenge: An American tradition since at least 1775.

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