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IN OUR VIEW/Three More Stars: Apollo astronauts perished tragically 55 years ago this week

January 23, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.

By 1967, NASA had wrapped up the Mercury and Gemini programs and was preparing for the launch of te first Apollo-series spcaecraft.

Apollo 1 was to lift off that February. It was the first two-module design, featuring a command and a service module, as well as the first to carry three astronauts into orbit. Hopefully, the team would be in orbit for up to 14 days.

And they would be if Command Pilot Gus Grissom had his way. The veteran astronaut was determined to keep the spacecraft, in orbit for the full two weeks. An original Mercury astronaut and combat veteran of the Korean War, Air Force Lt. Col. Grissom was the second man in space and the first astronaut to fly two missions into space.

He would be joined on Apollo 1 by Air Force Lt. Col Edward White -- the first American to walk in space -- as senior pilot and U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. Roger Chaffee. Apollo 1 was to be Chaffee's first space flight.

The mission had been plagued with trouble. NASA had several disagreements with North American Aviation, builder of the Apollo capsule, over design and construction. More than 700 changes were required. Grissom even termed the capsule a "lemon."

One of the major arguments was over the atmosphere inside the capsule. North American Aviation argued a oxygen-nitrogen mix was safer. NASA wanted a pure oxygen environment. North American Aviation said pure oxygen was fire risk. NASA said an improperly managed oxygen-nitrogen mix could cause decompression sickness.

Another was whether the spacecraft's hatch should open outward or inward. NASA wanted the doors to open inward to prevent it fro being accidentally blown. North American Aviation and the astronauts argued the hatch should open outward because of the possibility of fire.

NASA won both times. An both would be fatal victories.

At 1 p.m. on January 27, 1967 -- 55 years ago this week -- at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 34, Grissom, White and Chaffee entered the command module to test the internal power capabilities. After some initial problems, the doors were sealed at 2:42 p.m. and pure oxygen pumped in as the countdown began for the simulated launch.

There were more problems. The communications system refused to work properly. The countdown has held until it could be fixed. The hours ticked by.

Until 6:31:04 p.m., when all hell broke loose.

In the control room, NASA officials heard Chaffee say "Hey!" and then Grissom shouted "Fire!"

"We've got a fire in the cockpit," Chaffee said. White yelled out, "Fire in the cockpit."

And then Chaffee's last words: "We've got a bad fire! Let's get out! We're burning up! We're on fire!"

At 6:31:21 p.m. -- just 17 seconds after Chaffee first called out -- the capsule ruptured open from the heat and flames.

All three astronauts were dead. A NASA investigation failed to pinpoint a cause for the fire, but found numerous instances of substandard wiring and flammable material in the module. A later MIT probe said that static electricty from the astronauts moving in the seast could have sparked the blaze in the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere.

What was known was that the explosive oxygen atmosphere had instantly spread the fire and the crew were unable to work the inward-opening escape hatch against pressure from the fire.

Design changes in the wake of the fire delayed the first manned Apollo flight by 21 months. Eventually, the Apollo program would carry man to the moon.

Launch Complex 34 continued in service for a while but has been abandoned for years. It's pretty much gone save for an old concrete and metal launch platform bearing two plaques dedicated to the astronauts of Apollo 1.

As one say: "In memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice so others could reach for the stars."

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