Failure of Imagination: Remembering Apollo One

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Apollo One SealThere are very few subjects in life that deeply interest me. History is one of those subjects, and the exploration of space is yet another. Naturally, the history of space exploration goes beyond intriguing me — I devour the subject every chance I get.

Only two of my four children are old enough to grasp and understand stories of space exploration. They know the stories of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. I love telling them the stories of my heroes and how the U.S. was the first to put a man on the moon.

As I have told my children the stories of those fearless men, they have become my children’s heroes as well. Three of those heroes perished forty-five ears ago today. My children know this story. They know the men’s names, and they know the lessons learned from the loss.

The Accident

On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were in the Apollo One spacecraft on launch pad 34 at Cape Canaveral. NASA and the astronauts were conducting a routine “plugs-out” test in which the spacecraft was tested to see if it could operate under internal power while detached from cables and umbilicals.

During the test, there was a radio communication problem which made it difficult for the astronauts in the command module to communicate with those in the nearby Operations and Checkout Building. Grissom commented, “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?”

Minutes later, engineers in the Operations and Checkout Building witnessed a voltage spike in the command module. Seconds later, they heard Roger Chaffee through the radio say “Hey!”

Apollo One Crew
From left to right: Ed White, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee

Scuffling sounds followed and then Chaffee shouted, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”

Engineers outside the spacecraft saw flames licking the inside of the hatch’s window and Ed White desperately trying to open the hatch. Seventeen seconds later, over the radio there were more shouts of desperation followed by a scream of pain, then a hiss.

In a blinding burst, the command module ruptured. Flames rushed out and began licking the outside of the spacecraft. Rescue crews attempted to put out the fire and save the three men inside, but the intense heat and thick smoke prevented any rescue.

Five minutes later, the fire lessened and was snuffed out. Grissom, White, and Chaffee were dead.

Investigation and Cause

A massive multi-tiered investigation followed. NASA and North American Aviation (which had manufactured the command module) each conducted their own internal investigations. Over a period of a few months, it was determined that a wire, which had become stripped of its teflon coating, had caused an electric arc. During the plugs-out test, the command module had been pressurized with pure oxygen. With the electrical arc and the pure oxygen environment, the fire was easily started.

Due to the pure oxygen environment, items in the command module which were not normally combustable, such as the massive amount of velcro, had ignited almost instantly as the fire had spread. As the fire grew, the pressure inside the command module increased, which had caused the command module to rupture outward.

Although the cause of the fire and its severity had already been determined, some in congress still felt the need to head their own investigation (surprise, surprise). It was largely a witch hunt that did nothing to help the tragic situation.

At the congressional hearings, astronaut Frank Borman, who was on NASA’s investigation team, was asked what had caused the fire.

Borman answered, “Failure of imagination.”

NASA knew that a fire was a real possibility in the spacecraft, but they always imagined it occurring in space and not on terra firma. They never imagined a fire being an issue during such a routine plugs-out test, otherwise the test would have been considered dangerous. This failure of imagination cost the lives of three heroes.

Lessons Learned

NASA and North American Aviation without question learned their lesson. They imagined all sorts of tragic scenarios and a complete rehaul of future spacecraft went underway. Emergency procedures were frequently practiced on the launch pad. The hatch was redesigned with safety and ease of escape in mind. Procedures changed, attitudes changed, NASA was more determined than ever to get a man safely to the moon by the end of the decade (the 60’s).

What should [i]we[/i] learn from the failure of imagination related to Apollo 1? We must not fail to imagine is an obvious answer. Beyond that, and maybe more importantly, we must not ignore or mock those who [i]do[/i] imagine. We should listen to those who warn, no matter how outlandish their claims may be. We should not blindly heed their warnings, but we should examine them, extensively if needed.

For example, there are those who imagine the economy collapsing beyond repair. We must imagine such a thing occurring so we can be prepared if it does, or maybe we can lead a charge or movement to prevent such a collapse. Stocking up on food storage and other supplies would prepare us for such a scenario. How many times has it been suggested that every household have a 72-hour supply of necessities in their home for emergencies?

There have been some, warning of the federal government becoming a tyrannical dictatorship and The Constitution and our freedoms being lost. It’s a possibly outlandish claim, but what if it really occurred? What would have caused it, what will life be like afterwards, and could it have been prevented? How could it have been prevented? Are their warning signs of it occurring now? Yes, indeed there are. Will it happen? Possibly.

If we ignore, mock, ridicule, or protest people who do us the service of imagining tragedy occurring, we are only endangering ourselves and our families. We have the duty to listen to those on the watch towers of life warning us of possible doom.

We must listen to those in our churches, synagogues, and temples, who have also been asking us to prepare. Prepare for your family, but also prepare for others who will fail to imagine.

When we take notice of those who imagine, we do not need to live our lives in a state of panic and paranoia. We simply need to plan for the worst case scenario, but live to expect the best case scenario.

The Three Men

I had previously mentioned that the three men who perished in the Apollo 1 fire are among my heroes, so I feel it would be a mistake to not mention a few words about the three men on the anniversary of their deaths.

Gus Grissom

Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom was in the NASA space program from the very beginning in 1959. He was a veteran of both the Mercury and Gemini programs, and he was the first astronaut to have the distinction of flying in space twice.

Grissom nearly died towards the end of his first Mercury flight, which had been the second manned space mission of the United States. After a successful mission, his spacecraft, the Liberty Bell 7, splashdown in the ocean. Grissom patiently waited for the rescue helicopters to arrive and attach the rescue cable to lift him and the Liberty Bell 7 out of the water.

In Gus’s own words, “According to the plan, the pilot was to inform me as soon as he had lifted me up a bit so that the capsule would not ship water when the hatch blew. Then I would remove my helmet, blow the hatch and get out.” As Gus was waiting for the signal from the helicopter pilot, the hatch of the spacecraft spontaneously blew with a POW! Water quickly began rushing into the craft.

Grissom quickly removed his helmet, pulled himself out through the opened hatch, and hurriedly began swimming away from the sinking capsule. The Liberty Bell had been equipped with a special dye which would help the pilot see the craft more easily in the water. The dye package was attached to the craft via a set of lines and when Grissom began swimming away from the capsule, he became entangled in the lines. Attached to the sinking spacecraft, Grissom frantically managed to free himself, and he safely swam away from the Liberty Bell.

Gus treaded water for a few minutes as one of the helicopters attempted to rescue the sinking capsule, but the added weight of the water inside made it impossible. Gus then realized that he was having a difficult time keeping his head above water. He realized that he had forgotten to shut a valve in his buoyant space suit. With the valve opened, air had been seeping out and water had been trickling in.

None of the helicopter pilots had realized that Gus was in trouble, thusly, no one was dropping him a rescue line. With the powerful helicopter rotor blades churning the water around him, Gus had to fight even harder to keep from going under, and with each breath he drew, he could not prevent salty water from coming in as well. He was frantically waving for attention, but no one noticed. He thought, “Well, you’ve gone through the whole flight, and now you’re going to sink right here in front of all these people.”

A third helicopter arrived and dropped him a horse collar. He quickly put it on, backwards, and was dragged fifteen feet through the water before being hoisted up. He arrived on the helicopter exhausted. He reached for a life jacket, quickly buckled it around him, and collapsed.

The scary moments after the splashdown of Mercury 4 did not deter him from participating in future missions. He once said, “If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our god-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.”

Gus was a private person. He knew some would treat him like a celebrity, and he would often wear a disguise when he ventured out in public. Whenever a reporter saw through the disguise and stopped to question him, he would often give brief to-the-point answers and leave. When he moved his family to Texas, he had a house built which lacked windows on the side of the house, which faced the road. He did this for not only his privacy, but for the privacy of his wife Betty and their two sons.

Gus spent most weekends with his family, refusing to bring work problems home with him. During the summer, the family enjoyed boating and water skiing, and in the winter they would travel to Colorado to go snow skiing.

Ed White

At the age of twelve, when other boys were flying paper airplanes, Ed White got into an old T-6 trainer with his father. Although he wasn’t even big enough to be fitted for a parachute, his father let him take the controls of the plane. Instead of reacting with fear, Ed reacted with a calm determination. Flying the aircraft felt very natural to him.

After high school, he enrolled and graduated from West Point, and enlisted in the Air Force as a pilot. While serving in Germany, Ed read an article about the future role of astronauts. He felt as if being an astronaut was his calling. In his own words, “this is it – this is the type of thing you’re cut out for. From then on everything I did seemed to be preparing me for space flight.”

After serving over three years in Germany, Ed moved his wife, their son, and their daughter, back to the United Sates where Ed began school and began training. Afterwards, Ed was one of the nine selected in a group of hundreds of applicants to join NASA for the Gemini program.

Upon becoming an astronaut, Ed moved his family to Texas. He was shocked to find that when children learned he was an astronaut, they would gleefully surround him and ask him for his autograph. He thought it was very strange, especially considering that he hadn’t even been in space yet. Besides that, he thought of himself as a member of a great team, just another cog in a large wheel. He didn’t think of himself as a hero.

After months of training at NASA, White was scheduled to go up in Gemini 4 with his friend James McDivit. As launch day approached one object of the mission was added and Ed was assigned to be the first American to engage in an EVA, otherwise known as a spacewalk.

On launch day, he gathered three special items to bring with him during the EVA: a St. Christopher’s medal, a gold cross and a Star of David. Ed, who was a devout Methodist, had later said, “I had great faith in myself and especially in Jim, and also I think I had great faith in my God. So the reason I took those symbols was that I think this was the most important thing I had going for me, and I felt that while I couldn’t take one for every religion in the country, I could take the three I was most familiar with.”

The launch went well, and the time for the EVA had arrived. With millions upon millions of Americans listening in to his radio transmissions, Ed White opened the hatch of the Gemini 4 spacecraft. With a propulsion gun, Ed emerged from the hatch and floated outside into the empty vacuum of space. He reported that he felt no sensation of falling or even of speed, even though he and the spacecraft were flying through space at a speed of 17,500 MPH.

He did the appropriate tests with the propulsion gun, seeing how well it performed in maneuvering while in a weightless environment. After the test, Ed took time to take in the grandeur of the earth below him. A photography buff, Ed said, “I’m going to work on getting some pictures… I can sit out here and see the whole California coast.”

As Ed was taking pictures, Jim McDivit, still in the spacecraft, was taking pictures of Ed through the spacecraft’s window. Focused on taking pictures of the awe inspiring wonder of God’s creation, Ed was unaware he was floating closer to the spacecraft. When Ed bumped the window, millions of Americans heard the playful banter between the astronauts with Jim saying to Ed, “You smeared up my windshield, you dirty dog. You see how it’s all smeared up there?”

Still in awe of the magnificent earth below him, the flight director radioed for Ed to head back into the spacecraft. Being a West Point man, Ed did not want to disobey an order, so he momentarily feigned a radio problem so he could stay out just a bit longer. When he eventually headed back into the craft, he said, “It’s the saddest moment of my life.”

Roger Chaffee

As a young man, Roger had one day marveled at the sight and sound of airplanes flying over his head at the time. He pointed to the aircrafts and said, “That’s going to be me someday.”

As he grew, his love for model airplanes expanded into other areas, model trains, electricity, engineering, boy scouts, and space travel.

After high school, he earned a BS in aeronautical engineering and later became a pilot for the Navy. In 1962, Chaffee was accepted as one of 1,800 applicants for the third group of NASA astronauts. As he was working on earning another degree, the initial pool of 1,800 was wittled down to about 200, but Roger still had a chance.

While waiting for a possible phone call from NASA, Roger decided to go calm his nerves. Roger did many things to relieve stress. He loved wood-working, working on home improvement projects, gun collecting, and hunting. Instead of waiting at home for a phone call, Roger geared up and went hunting for a few days. When he came back home days later, he learned that he had gotten the call from NASA confirming that he was accepted as an astronaut.

His career at NASA was short. When the crew was announced for Apollo 1, he had been considered a rookie, having never flown in space. Nevertheless, Grissom and White both admired him for his “do the best you can” philosophy, his upbeat attitude, and his vast engineering skills.

Gus Grissom once said, “Roger is one of the smartest boys I’ve ever run into. He’s just a dang good engineer. There’s no other way to explain it. When he starts talking to engineers about their systems, he can just tear those guys apart. I’ve never seen one like him. He’s really a great boy.”

An Eagle Scout, Roger always strived to live up to the scout oath. He said, “Probably the greatest thing a man can say to himself, or have as his philosophy when he has to tackle a tough job, or make a big decision, is the first eight words of the Scout Oath: On my honor, I will do my best…”


Portions of these men’s stories, as well as other NASA stories were dramatized in the HBO miniseries “From The Earth To The Moon,” produced by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks. It is a wonderful series which explores the Mercury, Gemini, and especially the Apollo programs. The series can be bought here at An entire episode is devoted to the Apollo One accident. It is easily my favorite miniseries. It is well worth the money.


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One thought on “Failure of Imagination: Remembering Apollo One”

  1. This is a great article. I have always been fascinated by space. Within this post, I took noticed of the NASA employee stating they had no imagination. Today I hardly see imagination, especially when it comes to climate change. Everyone is claiming carbon dioxide for global warming; however, we tend to forget solar variability. We don’t have enough data on solar viability to know how much it effects the climate and we have been measuring this since the 70’s. Surprise!

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