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The Aero Experience is a celebration of Midwest aviation and aerospace achievement. We invite you to join us as we explore the treasures of Midwest aviation through first-hand experiences. Our contributors take turns flying lead, and we are always looking for new destinations. Check in with The Aero Experience frequently to see where we will land today, and then go out and have your own aero experiences!

Blue skies,

Carmelo Turdo, Mark Nankivil and Fred Harl - The Aero Experience Team

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Apollo 1 Crew Remembered on Anniversary of Tragic Fire

By Carmelo Turdo
The crew of Apollo 1 will be remembered across America January 27 on the 45th anniversary of the tragic fire that destroyed the spacecraft and killed 3 astronauts at Cape Kennedy Launch Complex 34.  The crew consisted of Lt. Colonel Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom (USAF), command pilot; Lt. Colonel Edward Higgins White, II (USAF), senior pilot; and Lt. Commander Roger Bruce Chaffee (USN), pilot.  The accident occurred during the Plugs Out Integrated Test. The purpose of this test was to demonstrate all space vehicle systems and operational procedures in as near a flight configuration as practical and to verify systems capability in a simulated launch.  The mission was due to be launched on February 21, 1967 as the first manned Apollo flight.

Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee (NASA photo)
Selected in the first astronaut group of 1959, Grissom had been pilot of MR-4, America’s second and last suborbital flight, and command pilot of the first two-person flight, Gemini 3. Born on 3 April 1926 in Mitchell, Indiana, Grissom was 40 years old on the day of the Apollo 1 fire. Grissom received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 1950. His backup for the mission was Captain Walter Marty “Wally” Schirra [shi-RAH] (USN).

Edward White had been pilot for the Gemini 4 mission, during which he became the first American to walk in space. He was born 14 November 1930 in San Antonio, Texas, and was 36 years old on the day of the Apollo 1 fire. He received a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1952, an M.S. in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1959, and was selected as an astronaut in 1962. His backup was Major Donn Fulton Eisele [EYES-lee] (USAF).

Chaffee was training for his first spaceflight. He was born 15 February 1935 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was 31 years old on the day of the Apollo 1 fire. He received a B.S. in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University in 1957, and was selected as an astronaut in 1963. His backup was Ronnie Walter “Walt” Cunningham.

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. Ironically, the command and service modules (capsule and propellant/rocket/utility sections) were constructed by North American Aviation, not McDonnell Aircraft who designed the earlier successful Mercury and Gemini manned spacecraft.  Both North  American (Rockwell) and McDonnell (Douglas) were absorbed into the Boeing Company decades later.

The Mission Designation and Patch Design

The mission now known as Apollo 1 was originally designated AS-204, and the launch vehicle that finally bore the designation AS-204 carried a lunar module, or LM, as the payload, instead of a command module. The missions of AS-201 and AS-202 with Apollo spacecraft aboard had been unofficially known as Apollo 1 and Apollo 2 missions. AS-203 carried only the aerodynamic nose cone. On April 24,1967, NASA's Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, Dr. George E. Mueller, announced that the mission originally scheduled for Grissom, White and Chaffee would be known as Apollo 1, and said that the first Saturn V launch, scheduled for November 1967, would be known as Apollo 4. The eventual launch of AS-204 became known as the Apollo 5 mission. No missions or flights were ever designated Apollo 2 or 3.

Apollo I Patch (NASA graphic)
The patch worn by the astronauts of AS-204 did indeed have "Apollo 1" embroidered on it, worn on practice ground missions in 1966 and 1967.  Just a week before the tragedy, NASA withdrew its permission to label the mission "Apollo 1" until it was officially redesignated.  For more information about the evolution of the Apollo 1 mission patch, please visit

At 6:31:04 pm please pause to remember the crew of Apollo 1 - one of three crews who lost their lives in the pursuit of American manned space flight.

(Portions of this posting provided by NASA)

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