On January 27, 1967, Apollo-Saturn (AS) 204, later named Apollo 1, was on the launch pad with the astronauts moving through ground simulations in what was called a “plugs out” test. The three astronauts to fly on this mission—Gus Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Ed White, the astronaut who had performed the first United States extravehicular activity during the Gemini program; and Roger Chaffee, an astronaut preparing for his first spaceflight—were aboard running through a mock launch sequence.
At 6:31 p.m., after several hours of work, a fire broke out in the pressurized spacecraft and the pure oxygen atmosphere intended for the flight added great intensity to the blaze. In a flash, flames engulfed the capsule and the astronauts died of asphyxiation within seconds. It took the ground crew five minutes to open the hatch. When they did so they found three bodies. Although other astronauts had been killed before this time—all in plane crashes—these were the first deaths directly attributable to the U.S. space program.
Shock gripped the nation during the days that followed. James E. Webb, NASA Administrator, told the media at the time, “We’ve always known that something like this was going to happen soon or later….who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?” The day after the fire NASA appointed an eight-member investigation board, chaired by longtime NASA official and director of the Langley Research Center, Floyd L. Thompson. It set out to discover the details of the tragedy: what happened, why it happened, could it happen again, what was at fault, and how could NASA recover?
The members of the board concluded in their final report in April 1967 that the fire had been caused by a short circuit in the electrical system that ignited an excessively larger amount of combustible materials in the spacecraft fed by the pure oxygen atmosphere that had been pressurized at sea level in excess of what would be allowable during flight. The board also found that it could have been prevented but that poor design, shoddy construction, and improper attention to safety and redundancy had virtually mandated the accident.
Among its other tasks, Thompson’s board disassembled the Apollo 1 spacecraft and inspected all of its components. It was later placed in controlled storage in an airtight sealed container with a nitrogen environment at the Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia. It remains there to the present, although the nitrogen environment was lost years ago.
Several times individuals and institutions have requested that this spacecraft be placed on display either in whole or pieces of it as a means of commemorating the sacrifice of the astronauts and the risky nature of spaceflight. NASA has always refused these entreaties, arguing that it would cheapen the memory of the lost astronauts. In 1990 it tried to entomb the capsule in a missile silo at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base along with the debris from the Challenger accident, but a public campaign led by David Alberg accusing NASA of trying to “bury” its disasters ended that.
In 1996 Betty Grissom, widow of Gus Grissom, requested that NASA allow display of the Apollo 1 capsule at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida, for the thirtieth anniversary of the accident. Members of the White and Chaffee families indicated that they had no objection to this action. NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin acknowledged the legitimacy of the request, but declined to honor it, writing that “NASA has never released space artifacts related to the deaths of astronauts for exhibit.” He offered to work with the families to create an appropriate exhibit “celebrating the lives and achievements of the Apollo One crew.” Such an exhibit never materialized.
The issue of disposition of the Apollo 1 spacecraft arose again in 1999 when NASA considered what should be done with it long-term. Five options quickly emerged:
- Preservation and Storage by the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
- Permanent Entombment and Memorial at Launch Complex 34, Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
- Permanent Entombment in Silo and Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex, Florida.
- Permanent Entombment and Memorial at the Grissom Museum in Mitchell, Indiana.
- Continued Storage at Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia.
Each of these options had positives and negatives. NASM proposed “that the capsule be transferred to the NASM under terms of the artifact agreement. The museum would establish a comprehensive preservation/loan agreement with the Kansas Cosmosphere, similar to the NASM’s recent agreement to restore the Apollo 13 command module. No future plans to display the capsule would proceed without the full agreement of NASA.”
In the end NASA chose to do nothing with the Apollo 1 spacecraft, in effect leaving it in limbo at the Langley Research Center. A serious effort emerged a year after these discussions which called for an Apollo 1 memorial at the Kennedy Space Center’s Apollo/Saturn V Center tour facility or at the site of the Apollo 1 accident, Launch Complex 34. Neither of these options came to fruition.
When the NASA Administrator was faced with making a decision about doing something with this spacecraft, his response was that he saw no way to avoid a difficult political situation should he choose either to place it on display, no matter the tastefulness of the exhibitry, or choose to entomb it anywhere. Dan Goldin saw no reason to make any decision whatsoever on the matter since leaving it as it was would not engender any political repercussions. The capsule remains at Langley to the present, not on display, neither properly preserved nor entombed.