Lessons Learned: How Apollo 1 Made Space Travel Safer

There is a new space race dawning. Americans, and indeed much of the world, seem to have caught a new strain of space fever, a craze not seen since the glory days of Apollo. NASA shirts and accessories are more frequently seen in public than they have been in decades. It seems a new generation of Americans are eager for a return to the moon and beyond.

At least part of the new enthusiasm came from President Trump’s promotion of NASA, with a new pledge to go back to the moon with a new spacecraft, and his creation of a new federal agency, Space Force. 

Other interest stems from the commercialization of space with Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, both of whom have wowed the whole world with their amazing exploits in space thus far. Musk is even talking about a trip to Mars. 

But with new curiosity comes the same risks we had with Apollo. No matter how easy SpaceX and Blue Origin make it look, it is still a very dangerous endeavor, just one minor problem away from a disaster.

Fifty-five years ago, on January 27, 1967, America suffered its first tragedy in the manned space program, the fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1 on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy.

The astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were set to fly the first manned mission of Apollo on February 21, a little more than three weeks away. Yet one major test remained, the “plugs-out” test, whereby the systems of the spacecraft would be tested while operating under its own power. The crew would be in full spacesuits, locked inside the capsule, simulating a launch countdown. This test would prove the ultimate flight-worthiness of the spacecraft.

But more than five hours into the test, with problems aplenty, a frayed wire sparked and caused a fire. Finding ample fuel in the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere, while feeding on flammable materials throughout the interior of the spacecraft, a small spark soon turned into a raging inferno burning at more than 1200 degrees. It quickly destroyed oxygen hoses supplying air to the astronauts, causing them to inhale toxic smoke. They asphyxiated in seconds.

The tragedy shocked the country and derailed Apollo. Some even thought the program might be finished. But NASA rolled up its sleeves, created an official Review Board to study the fire and recommend changes, and re-designed the spacecraft. The investigation found sloppy work and shoddy workmanship by the contractor, North American Aviation, as well as issues within NASA itself, namely pushing too hard, too fast to meet President Kennedy’s deadline to reach the moon by the end of 1969. 

With the program grounded for nearly two years, engineers worked to understand the problems that caused the fire and find solutions to prevent a future catastrophe. In all, more than 1300 changes were made to the Apollo spacecraft, costing NASA half a billion dollars. But the costs were well worth it, greatly improving space flight safety. 

Among the changes: The wiring was improved to prevent sparks, while flammable materials were removed or greatly limited inside the capsule. This also included the astronaut’s space suits, which were changed to non-flammable Beta cloth. 

But the major changes included switching from a cabin atmosphere of 100 percent oxygen, which, under pressure, is nothing short of a bomb, to a two-gas mixure with nitrogen, and a new hatch that could be opened quickly. The original hatch took several minutes to open, trapping the Apollo 1 crew inside. The re-designed hatch could be opened in seconds.

To assist astronauts in the event of a future fire, the new spacecraft had an emergency oxygen system and a venting system that could relieve pressure, for in the Apollo 1 tragedy the pressure rose so high the capsule actually ruptured. And, finally, NASA installed a new escape system to allow the crew to get off the launch complex more quickly. 

Jerry Goodman, a NASA engineer on the re-design team, remarked to the author: “It was a significant effort to fix all the problems. I can’t stress that enough. It was miraculous to do what we did in that span of time.” The result was the world’s greatest spacecraft that made nine trips to the moon between 1968 and 1972.

With new adventures by SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as NASA’s renewed effort in space with new capsules of its own, the lessons of Apollo 1 should never be forgotten as we fly higher and faster into the future.


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