A Day To Remember - The Apollo Fire
Grady’s Space Chronicles
A Day To Remember - The Apollo Fire
The Apollo One fire on the Launch Pad, is a day to remember. These are my accounts and events of that NASA’s tragic accident that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Remembering that day will live forever.
An order was received to provide the astronauts on the Apollo Saturn Program, a way of self rescue if they got stuck in space due to engine failure, they could do an EVA and fix the problem. That action was received by the MSFC's Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory and was assigned to me, being the MSFC's Cape Launch Coordinator, which would speed up the project's completion.
I organized a work team with different stage contractors, developed a plan with the KFC Launch Coordinator, Dr. Albert Zeiler. NASA Headquarters indicated that the Saturn IB Apollo 1, SA-204 Rocket, sitting on Launch Pad 34A, should be used for quick development of this emergency plan. The date was January 27, 1967, I had items built to assist in developing a procedure as NASA's Headquarters wanted the procedure ready in time for the next launch of Apollo 2. The emergency plan,if any engines fail to start or needs restarting on the Fourth Stage or the Command Module, a procedure would be provided to the astronauts to rescue themselves and not be marooned in space.
The plan involved MSFC, MacDonald Douglas, Chrysler and IBM team members. MSFC to provide a two step work stand and overall project coordination. MacDonald Douglas was to provide a work platform(catwalk) as all items could be stored and assembled inside the Instrument Unit(IU.) Chrysler would provide a Diagnostics Cart that traversed catwalk. IBM would provide instruments for the Diagnostics Cart and test procedures since they provided the IU itself. The astronauts could EVA to the Instrument Unit on top of the Fourth Stage, assemble the work platform around inside the IU and place the Diagnostics Cart on the platform. Astronauts would proceed around the catwalk and do diagnostic procedures on the boxes at different stations and find the problem and take action. If needed, the astronauts would EVA to the engine compartments and start the engines.
On Sunday, January 22, 1967, I flew to Melbourne, Florida, checked out a government car and travel up US Highway lA to Cocoa Beach and the Polaris Motel, where I always made my stay location when I travel to KSC on routine trips to coordinate the rocket launches. I had coordinated with my team members to meet the next day at the Vehicle Missile Processing Building (VMPB). A review of our written step by step planned procedure was a requirement of the KSC's Scientific Board, which always met on Wednesday's mornings. A careful review and approval before any access to the launch vehicle had to be approved. All team members had with them their assigned components for the plan.
On Monday morning, I met with my team members with the Pad Engineer, Brownie, in a Office Trailer at the Launch Pad base. The plan was discussed with Brownie and his two assistants. One thing led to another and all were working hard to do this project. Some viewing from the access door of the IU on the vehicle was made. As stated by the armed guard at the Instrument Unit (IU), only a few could be inside at a time. But, he too, got involved in this interesting project. Brownie ask him to let a couple of us go inside to make measures for the catwalk and the cart passageway. The guard cooperated fully, we signed his log.
By that Tuesday, we were all inside the Saturn rocket doing work and the Scientific Board had not yet met to consider the plan. I counted 22 workers inside the IU, when only 8 maximum should be allowed at one time. On Wednesday, we continued to work around many technicians in the IU. That afternoon, word was received that the plan had been approved.
On Thursday, with the plan approved, we officially entered the SA-204's Instrument Unit and other areas to try out our items and look for storage of them during flight. I seen some terrible things going on in the IU. A photographer standing on top of the thin Fourth Stage tank covers, taking pictures of different work being done. There were too many people onboard and there was a disregard for manned flight safety rules. This was the first manned Apollo flight for Brownie and Pad 34A. They may not have been cautioned or briefed by the KSC managers, as we had been at MSFC, on manned flight work safety rules. We had some interference between the Cart and boxes as we moved along the catwalk and recorded our needed changes.
On Friday morning, I checked out and left the Polaris Motel early in route to the Cape and pulled over at a gas station for gas. Traffic was awesome every morning as thousands of workers had to be at work by 8 AM. As the station attendant was about to pump my gas, a Stingray came powering in from the traffic to my pump's other side. It was none other than astronaut Gus Grissom, the Commander of Apollo 1. Of course, Gus got his gas first and powered off into the traffic without looking. I could hear the tires as workers were braking to let him in. Astronauts seemed to think they were required to look well and be associated with speed while going about their job for the astronaut's public image. The Apollo 1 astronauts were busy doing countdown procedures every day. Today, the astronauts were doing a "plugs out" communication test.
I parked at the gate to Pad 34A and was waiting for the Pad Leader to pick me up. Both lanes were used for one way traffic in the mornings and evenings to and from the Pad. The guard kept me well inside the gatehouse as it had been drizzling rain. I notice a large noisy flock of seagulls overhead. As time went by, I got close to the door to see if my ride was coming when it happened, something the Guard didn't want to happen to me. A seagull bombed me in the doorway, on my right jacket sleeve. It was a direct dive bomb approach by the seagull, aiming for the doorway. The guard used paper towels and water from the water bottle and cleaned me up, he was so apologetic to what the seagull did. He said the Pad was built on top of a nesting ground and they were familiar with this.
It already had been a day to remember. I knew that my day was to going to be more eventful and I looked forward to satisfactory accomplish our task and find a storage place for our rescue equipment inside the spacecraft. But that had to wait until the noon lunch break period when the astronauts were out and the pressure system was down to get inside to look and measure. At 12:30 PM, I got to go in the spacecraft, looking under and behind the seats for available storage space. There was not enough storage space found.
When I first looked inside the spacecraft it looked like a tornado hit it. The onboard computer was removed as well as equipment near the floor under the kick shelf. Electrical connectors were left uncapped on the cables and dangling. Trash was in the floor, seats were covered with flammable nylon and the spacecraft was in a mess. Instruments and switches were hanging out of their panel with notes on them. I was thinking Dr. von Braun would have killed us if we did this kind of work at MSFC. I recognized the unsafe type of electrical cables and connectors by the spacecraft contractor. They appear to be the same type for aircraft that was not suitable to us at MSFC from the contractor‘s subsidiary rocket engine branch.
We found in mating that type of connectors, causes scouring marks on the pins and that sets up electrical static discharge around the scouring, as well as pins being pushed back into the connector. Later, the pushed back pins would be pulled out and that causes a crack in the pin solder connection on the wire, another static discharge area. In a 14% Pure Oxygen content atmosphere, a spark will set off an inferno.
The astronauts returned, I checked out and drove to Patrick Air force Base to catch a shuttle flight back to Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal Airstrip (MSFC). I just had walked inside my home at 6:40 PM when the TV Evening Network News announced there was a fire in the spacecraft onboard Apollo I, it had killed astronauts Grisson, White and Chaffee. I was shocked at these events. I knew Gus from the Mercury Program. Later, I was called by KSC to return to face General Sam Phillips, who was conducting an investigation into the accident. Seems I could have done something wrong while inside and at 1 PM, I was the last person out of the spacecraft when the astronauts reentered.
The spacecraft was moved on Sunday and placed in Patrick's AF Base Hanger 'H'. My testimony was not convincing on what I had seen. The official source of the fire was a electrical arc from a wire at Grisson's feet, under the kick shelf and was caused by wire chaffing. My project was overcome by events and was cancelled. Friday, January 27, 1967, was a day of remembrance.
Somehow, an idea got to Hollywood and a movie was made entitled, “Marooned,” a 1969 film directed by John Sturges starring Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus, and Gene Hackman. I suspected the MacDonald Douglas engineer on my team had something to do with the movie.
Ed White, a AF Lieutenant Colonel, was the first one to learn how to space walk on Gemini 4 in 1965. He was buried with full military honors at the West Point Cemetery and in 1997 was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Grissom and Chaffee are both buried in Section 3 of Arlington National Cemetery.
The gory details about the spacecraft fire was late on Friday and it was not removed from the Pad until the following Sunday. It was placed in Patrick Air Force Base’s Hanger "H", cause it had a large cooler. The bodies were not removed until the following Wednesday. With over 2000 degrees in the fire, it was a blacken, scorched spacecraft. Ed was able to get 4 of the 17 bolts removed from the hatch before he died. Inside their lungs were blackened. The investigation lasted a long time and the fault was shared between NASA and the contractor, North American.
It’s hard to get pass this tragedy, We didn't want to kill anybody. I knew Gus Grissom well and had time with him in Huntsville and the night before, at the Cocoa Beach Holliday Inn Piano Lounge. He could be seen at many of the strip’s restaurants and bars. He always drew a crowd and loved to talk about flying and space. He felt that NASA was going to pick him for the first moon walk and he could have been if he had not died. These astronauts were heroes and Ed White’s efforts to escape made NASA redesign the hatch to a quick release design.