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Apollo 1

At 1 p.m. on Friday, January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee entered their Command Module atop a Saturn 1B on Pad 34. The astronauts were training for the first crewed Apollo flight, Apollo 204, an Earth orbiting mission scheduled to be launched on February 21.

After hours of combating a number of problems, a communications glitched forced a hold in the count at 5:40 p.m. At 6:31 one of the astronauts reported, "Fire, I smell fire." Two seconds later White was heard to say, "Fire in the cockpit." The fire spread throughout the cabin in a matter of seconds. The last crew communication ended 17 seconds after the start of the fire. The Apollo hatch could only open inward and was held closed by a number of latches which had to be operated by ratchets. It was also held closed by the interior pressure, which was higher than outside atmospheric pressure and required venting of the command module before the hatch could be opened. Because the cabin had been filled with a pure oxygen atmosphere at normal pressure for the test and there had been many hours for the oxygen to permeate all the material in the cabin, the fire spread rapidly and the astronauts had no chance to get the hatch open. Nearby technicians tried to get to the hatch but were repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke. It took about five minutes for the technicians to open the hatch. By then, the astronauts had already perished.

The Apollo program was put on hold while an exhaustive investigation was made of the accident. It was concluded that the most likely cause was a spark from a short circuit in a bundle of wires that ran to the left and just in front of Grissom's seat. The large amount of flammable material in the cabin in the oxygen environment allowed the fire to start and spread quickly. A number of changes were instigated in the program over the next year and a half, including designing a new hatch which opened outward and could be operated quickly, removing much of the flammable material and replacing it with self-extinguishing components, using a nitrogen-oxygen mixture at launch, and recording all changes and overseeing all modifications to the spacecraft design more rigorously.

The mission, originally designated Apollo 204 was officially assigned the name "Apollo 1" in honor of Grissom, White, and Chaffee.

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