It was 49 years ago today, January 27, 1967, that a launch rehearsal for the Apollo 1 mission turned into a tragedy. The launch was scheduled for February 21. The rehearsal was a simulation of the countdown and launch. The spaceship cabin was filled with 100% oxygen.
Just after 6:31 that evening, the routine test took a turn. Engineers in mission control saw an increase in oxygen flow and pressure inside the cabin. The telemetry was accompanied by a garbled transmission that sounded like “fire.” The official record reflects the communications problem. The transmission was unclear, but the panic was obvious as an astronaut yelled something like “they’re fighting a bad fire — let’s get out. Open ‘er up” or “we’ve got a bad fire — let’s get out. We’re burning up.” The static made it impossible to hear the exact words or even distinguish who was speaking.
Efforts to open up the capsule were useless, because the doors opened to the inside, and the pressure in the capsule was too high. The highly flammable oxygen blazed out of control. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died that day, the first casualties of the U.S. space program. It took a year of meticulous investigation to determine exactly what happened, and what would be changed to keep it from happening again. You can read the whole story of the Apollo 1 disaster at Scientific American. -via Digg
(Image credit: NASA)