50 years after fatal Apollo fire, we remember brave pioneers


Reporter Jim Strothman was alone in The Associated Press office at Cocoa Beach, Florida, that Friday evening, Jan. 27, 1967, covering what should have been a routine countdown test for the Apollo 1 astronauts and listening to NASA updates via a squawk box. Even though it was a ground test, “It was big news,” Strothman, 77, recalled from his Florida retirement home not quite 100 miles away. “It was Apollo 1, man was going to the moon.” Around 6 p.m., he was told everything was fine. “Then there was a long period of silence. I began to get concerned, just a gut feeling like a reporter,” he said.

Once NASA confirmed there was a fire, Strothman dictated the bulletin to the Miami AP office and kept filing updates via phone and Teletype. All three astronauts had been trapped and killed in their spacecraft atop a rocket at what was then called Cape Kennedy. Investigators determined the most likely cause to be electrical arcing from defective wiring. The Apollo moon program was put on hold while the spacecraft was redesigned.”It was not only the biggest story of my career, it was the most unwanted story of my career,” said Strothman, who went on to cover the first two moon landings. On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, the AP is republishing a version of its story.

An Artist impression of what a moon landing might look like
An Artist impression of what a moon landing might look like

CAPE KENNEDY, Fla. (AP) – The three Apollo I astronauts were killed tonight by a flash fire that trapped them aboard the huge spacecraft designed to take man to the moon by 1970.

Locked behind sealed hatches and killed instantly just 218 feet above the ground were:

Air Force Lt. Col. Virgil (Gus) Grissom, a space pioneer and the first man to soar twice into the heavens, Air Force Lt. Col. Edward White II, first American to walk in space, and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Roger B. Chaffee, a rookie eagerly awaiting his first flight.

The three were hooked into a pure oxygen breathing system in their spacesuits and the oxygen fed the fire. Valiant pad workers trying to rescue the trapped men fell back one by one as they fought through dense, acid smoke toward the capsule.

Although the tragedy postponed indefinitely the Apollo’s scheduled Feb. 21 blast off, space officials and President Johnson vowed to press ahead with the moon program despite the deaths.

“Three valiant young men have given their lives in the nation’s service,” Johnson said. “We mourn this great loss and our hearts go out to their families.”

James E. Webb, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, promised to pursue the program with renewed dedication.

“We in NASA know that their greatest desire was that this nation press forward with manned space flight exploration, despite the outcome of any one flight,” Webb said. “With renewed dedication and purpose we intend to do just that.”

The astronauts were the first to be killed in space hardware. Ironically they were killed while the spacecraft was still on the launch pad.

Three other astronauts died in airplane crashes, in the line of duty, but today’s tragedy involved the first “on premises” deaths in America’s space program.

NASA official Gordon Harris said the fire broke out at 6:31 p.m. (EST) while the astronauts were involved in a full-scale simulation of the launch that was to take them into the heavens for 14 days of orbiting next month.

The astronauts’ bodies were left in the tiny compartment for more than four hours while space agency and Air Force investigators probed the cockpit for clues as to what might have set off the fire.

Harris said the astronauts were wearing their spacesuits at the time of the fire and were on a “pure oxygen system.” The bodies were taken to a dispensary at the Cape about 1 1/2 miles from the launch site.

Eyewitnesses reported they could see fire around the spacecraft above the unfueled rocket. Harris said the witnesses reported there was “just a flash.”

Paul Haney, voice of the astronauts, said monitors received no word from the astronauts during the fire. He said they could not have used an emergency escape system because a protective gantry was wrapped around the entire craft during the launch test.

Twenty-seven launch pad crewmen tried to reach the astronauts but were overcome by smoke although they were wearing gas masks, Harris said. He said two were hospitalized in good condition and the others were released.

The fire was reported during a “plugs out” test of the huge booster rocket and spacecraft. Both were operating on their own power systems and not power from the ground.

Each of the victims was married and each had two children.

Grissom, 40, was selected in 1959 as one of the seven original Mercury astronauts. Known as the hard luck astronaut, he had to swim for his life when his craft, Liberty Bell 7, sank after its descent on the second U.S. manned space flight July 21, 1961.

Grissom teamed with Navy Cmdr. John W. Young on March 23, 1965, to fly this country’s first three-orbit mission in Gemini 3 and became the first spaceman to maneuver a spacecraft in flight.

White, 36, was a handsome, friendly, brown-eyed man who was born into a military family at San Antonio, Tex., and was graduated from West Point. He ranked No. 1 in physical aptitude in his class of 1952 and set a record in the high hurdles.

White spent 21 thrilling minutes outside Gemini 4, during a four-day orbital flight with Air Force Lt. James A. McDivitt.

Chaffee, 31, was slight and dark-haired. He joined the space program in 1963 with the third group of astronauts after logging more than 1,800 hours in jet aircraft.

A space agency official said minor difficulties had occurred during the countdown with the communications and environmental control systems. But he said investigators did not know whether the fire stemmed from the two troublesome systems.

All data was impounded jointly by the Air Force and NASA and newsmen were not allowed to view the scene. Spokesmen said it would be tomorrow morning at the earliest before reporters were permitted at the site.

Harris said it was quite possible that none of the victims had any knowledge that there was a serious problem aboard. He said the craft and rocket were not fueled and explosive devices aboard the spacecraft had been inactivated and could not have caused the disaster.

The backup crew for the scheduled 14-day flight now becomes the prime pilots of Apollo I.

They are Navy Capt. Walter M. Schirra Jr., who like Grissom, was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts; Air Force Maj. Walter Cunningham, and Air Force Maj. Donn F. Eisele. Neither Eisele nor Cunningham has yet flown in space.

Cunningham, 34, was selected as an astronaut in October 1963. Eisele, chosen at the same time, is a former experimental test pilot. He is married and has four children. Cunningham is married and has two children.

The parents of the dead astronauts went into grief stricken seclusion.

“My God, don’t talk to me now. My son just got killed,” said Chaffee’s father, Donald, when reached in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Grissoms’ parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Grissom, went into seclusion at their Mitchell, Ind., home and Mayor James A. Fortner set up a police guard at the home of the Grissoms and called for the state police.

White’s father, Retired Army Gen. Edward H. White, said at his St. Petersburg, Fla., home that he and his wife “do not wish to be disturbed.”

Vice President Hubert Humphrey joined the president in promising “the United States will push ever forward in space …”

Humphrey, who often visits the Cape in his capacity as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council said:

“The deaths of these three brilliant young men, true pioneers and wonderfully brave, is a profound and personal loss to me. I have had such close relationships with them that my sorrow is very deep. My heart goes out to their families and loved ones.”

In addition to this formal statement, the president sent personal messages to the three victims’ families.

Five other astronauts and top U.S. space officials were at the White House celebrating the signing of the historic treaty on peaceful uses of outer space at the hour the three spacemen were killed.

The five astronauts attending the ceremony were: Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Neil Armstrong, Richard Gordon and James Lovell. A pioneer in space rocketry, Werner Von Braun, also was at the reception, along with other NASA leaders.

The tragic news came to the White House only a short time after the last guest had left.

Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Space Committee, said he did not know what action, if any, his committee, might take as a result of the accident. “So far, I don’t know enough about it,” he said.

But two member of the committee said they did not believe the accident at the Cape would slow down the American space effort.

Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., said that while the accident had taken a horrible toll the space program’s averages have been “mighty high.”

“I don’t think this indicates any dereliction on the part of those conducting our space program,” Stennis said. “Perhaps it is only the law of averages catching up with us. These simulation programs have paved the way to the real thing….despite this accident I think we must proceed with the programs.”

Sen. George D. Aiken, R-Vt., said he was particularly struck by the tragedy because he had been discussing America’s space program with astronauts at the White House ceremony of the signing of the space treaty.

The other three astronauts killed in the line of duty were Theodore C. Freeman, who died in the crash of a jet trainer Oct. 31, 1964, near Houston; 

Elliot See Jr., and Charles A. Bassett II, who died Feb. 28, 1966, “when their jet struck the building housing their space capsule at St. Louis, Mo”

Freeman was on a routine proficiency training flight when a goose hit his windshield as he was coming in for a landing.A space agency investigation board determined that the inability of the pilot to see in bad weather was the cause of the second accident,mitigating the goose of any wrongdoing.