First Casualties in American Space Exploration

Today in History, January 27, 1967:

The crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chafee are performing a test launch in the command module of their craft when fire breaks out.

The test was considered to be a no risk event, as fuel had not yet been loaded. However the capsule was filled with a volatile level of oxygen and too many flammable materials. The escape hatch design required too much time for removal in the event of emergency.

The astronauts had expressed concerns about the safety of the craft during previous testing, going to the effort to provide the project’s chief with a photo of them praying in from of a model of the capsule, “It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to go over your head.”

The testing had been paused more than once that day to work on issues, such as Grissom’s mic being stuck open. At 6:31 PM the astronauts first reported a fire in the cockpit. With a matter of seconds they spoke of it twice more. The fire spread quickly in the small space, killing all three men.

Autopsy results indicated all three died of cardiac arrest from high concentrations of carbon monoxide.

Grissom, White and Chafee were the first courageous astronauts to die in the NASA program, but they would not be the last. With all of the dangers involved in the new frontier, it is amazing NASA has the safety record it does.

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