Why I Need a Spacesuit (The Apollo 1 Tragedy)

During a launch simulation at 6:30 p.m. on January 27th, 1967, a significant voltage transient was recorded on the Apollo/Saturn-204 spacecraft.

  • voltage (noun) – The rate at which energy is drawn from a source that produces a flow of electricity in a circuit; expressed in volts.
  • transient (adjective) – Lasting only for a short time; impermanent.
  • transient voltage – A time varying voltage value. Transient says that the voltage value changes, especially from a steady state, to a new value, then back again.

Beginning at 6:31 p.m., the crew – Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee – gave the first verbal indication of an emergency.  A fire in the Command Module was reported.

“Fire, I smell fire,” Chaffee reported.

Two seconds later, White was heard to say, “Fire in the cockpit.”

After twelve seconds, Chaffee yelled, “We’ve got a bad fire! Let’s get out! We’re burning up! We’re on fire!”

Some witnesses said they saw White on the television monitors, reaching for the hatch release handle as flames in the cabin spread from left to right and licked the window. Only 17 seconds after the first indication by crew of any fire, transmission ended abruptly with a scream of pain as the cabin ruptured after rapidly expanding gases from the fire overpressurized the Command Module.

  • overpressure (noun) – A transient air pressure, such as the shock wave from an explosion, that is greater than the surrounding atmospheric pressure.
  • atmospheric pressure – The force exerted on you by the weight of tiny particles of air (air molecules).  Although air molecules are invisible, they still have weight and take up space.
  • Earth’s atmospheric pressure is about 14.7 psi (pounds per square inch).  The Apollo overpressurized to 29 psi.

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. It would have taken at least 90 seconds to get the hatch open under ideal conditions. 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 of getting the hatch open. No chance.

Spacecraft technicians ran towards the sealed Apollo, but before they could reach it, the Command Module ruptured.  They were repeatedly driven back by the heat and smoke.  Many feared that the fire might set off the launch escape system atop Apollo.  There were also fears the fire might ignite the solid fuel rockets in the launch escape tower above the Command Module, likely killing nearby ground personnel.

Roughly 5 minutes after the fire had started, technicians succeeded in getting the hatch open.  By that time the flames in the Command Module had gone out and the astronauts had perished, probably within the first 30 seconds due to smoke inhalation and burns.

As the smoke cleared they found the bodies but were not able to remove them. The fire had partially melted the astronauts’ nylon spacesuits and the hoses connecting them to the life support system. Grissom’s body was found lying mostly on the deck. His and White’s suits were fused together. The body of Ed White (whom mission protocol had tasked with opening the hatch) was lying back in his center couch.  Chaffee’s job was to shut down the spacecraft systems and maintain communications with ground control. His body was still strapped into the right-hand seat.

It became apparent that extensive fusion of suit material to melted nylon from the spacecraft would make removal very difficult. For this reason it was decided to discontinue efforts at removal in the interest of accident investigation and to photograph the Command Module with the crew in place before evidence was disarranged.  Photographs were taken, and removal efforts resumed at approximately 12:30 a.m. on January 28. Extraction of the crew took about 90 minutes and was completed about seven and a half hours after the accident.

The name Apollo 1, chosen by the crew, was officially assigned retroactively in commemoration of them.

After the Apollo 1 tragedy, the Apollo & Skylab A6L spacesuit was upgraded to be fireproof and given the designation A7L.

In preparation for the new year, I’ve considered investing in one of these suits for personal use.  This would be to my benefit in that I’ve started playing with Fire again.

Sometimes I can feel her eyes on me.  She’s even showing up in nightmares.

I don’t want to get burned.

3 Responses to “Why I Need a Spacesuit (The Apollo 1 Tragedy)”

  1. Tova Says:

    I love their story.

    http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/fa3f737aa8/the-fear-of-being-alone-by-reba-schappelle-from-tubulargoldmine

  2. Ashleigh Says:

    I just thought I should note that Tova’s comment was meant for the next post. She does not in fact love the store of the Apollo 1 tragedy. I hope.

  3. Lecia Ballestas Says:

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