They Didn’t Make It To The Moon First Apollo Mission Caught Fire!

They Didn’t Make It To The Moon | First Apollo Mission Caught Fire!

In the 1960‘s, America embarked on one of its most ambitious efforts: the Apollo program. It aimed at landing the first man on the moon. Among these bold missions, Apollo 1 was destined to be the program’s first crewed flight. Tragically, it never even left the ground. 

During a pre-launch test on January 27, 1967, a devastating fire destroyed the command module, claiming the lives of three astronauts. Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee. A harrowing audio clip captured the last moments within the capsule with the astronauts crying for help. It still remains a chilling reminder of the frontiers of space. Let’s have a closer look at what went wrong and their last words. 

The Ill-Fated Apollo 1 Mission

Apollo 1, also known as AS-204, was more than just a trial. It was to be the first thorough examination of the Apollo command and service module in Earth orbit. The crew included Grissom, an experienced astronaut; White, the first American to travel into space; along Chaffee, a rookie on his first spaceflight. Their flight was scheduled to launch on February 21, 1967. 

This mission tragically became the very end of the space journey. NASA posthumously renamed the mission Apollo 1, in honor of their sacrifice.

Image source: Ranker (The remains of the astronauts as taken out by the fire)

Fire In The Cockpit!

The day of the disaster (January 27, 1967) had a series of minor technical issues that delayed the “plugs-out” test. It was a critical simulation of the launch using the Saturn IB rocket. By late afternoon, frustration was obvious. At one point, Grissom even joked about the poor communication.

“How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?” 

Command Pilot Gus Grissom

Shortly after, at 6:31 p.m., a voltage surge indicated an electrical fault. It soon followed one of the astronauts alerting, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” Within seconds, the situation escalated fatally. The fire ended the communication from the crew in 17 seconds.

Image source: Smithsonian Magazine (On the left Pilot Gus Grissom, in the middle Senior Pilot Ed White and on the right Pilot Roger B. Chaffee)

Last Words Of The Crew

The last recording is taken from a microphone carried by one of the astronauts. In the clip, the astronauts are clearly talking about the fire as soon as it started.

“Hey! There’s a fire in the cockpit. We have a bad fire,” a voice says. The astronauts can then be heard screaming seconds later, before the audio ends. The last communication of the crew (since the first indication of fire) with the team outside ended within 17 seconds according to the reports of the NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive.

Investigating the Catastrophe

Immediately following the fire, NASA called an Accident Review Board to uncover the cause. It was determined that an electrical spark likely ignited the fire. The fire quickly spread with the pure oxygen cabin atmosphere and flammable nylon material. 

The situation got worse as the capsule had an inward-opening hatch. It could not be quickly opened against the cabin’s pressure. The Congressional investigation that followed aired NASA’s internal issues publicly. It also included the revelation of the Phillips Report, which critiqued Apollo’s prime contractor. 

This not only embarrassed NASA but also led to significant procedural changes within the agency.

Image source: LIFE

Changes To Crewed Missions

Following the tragedy, crewed Apollo flights were suspended for 20 months. Only uncrewed testing continued throughout the time. The command module underwent extensive redesigns. The replacement of the hatch to open outward quickly and the removal of flammable materials are some of such changes. 

The cabin atmosphere for future launches was adjusted to include a mix of nitrogen and oxygen, greatly reducing the fire risk. These changes set new safety standards crucial for the success of subsequent missions, including the celebrated Apollo 11 moon landing.

Image source: LADBible / ThoughtCo (Remains of the Apolo mission capsule after the fire)

Legacy and Remembrance

Apollo 1 is an unforgettable chapter in space exploration. The mission’s title itself honors the memory of Grissom, White, and Chaffee, whose sacrifice was key in refining the safety of subsequent missions. 

Apollo 7, carrying Apollo 1’s backup crew, successfully orbited the Earth in October 1968. It marked the program’s return to crewed flights and set the stage for the eventual moon landing.

Image source: UNILAD


The Apollo 1 disaster, though a heartbreaking setback, led to critical advancements in spacecraft design and operational procedures. It ensured the safety of missions that followed including the moon landing. The story of Grissom, White, and Chaffee shows their ultimate sacrifice and resilience. Their legacy lives on. It is a reminder that the path to discovery has both triumphs and tribulations.

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