Eric Berger writes a riveting account of the launchpad accident that claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on Jan. 27, 1967, including the last words spoken from the cockpit to Ground Control as the oxygen fire broke out.
When the news was broadcast on national television that evening, my mother went into our bathroom and wept openly for one of the few times in her life. None of her children knew anything, of course, about pure oxygen atmospheres or lightweight wires or machine-driven bundling that could lead to short circuits. All we knew was that there were three men crowded into a tiny space way up at the top of a huge rocket. It did occasionally cross my mind during the Gemini missions that, if there ever was trouble, the astronauts might not be able to do anything about it; but, like NASA itself, the possibility of an accident on the ground never occurred to me.
The later accidents–the Challenger explosion, the Columbia shuttle disaster–I accepted with an adult heart and mind as a part of the enormous risk and reward of manned spaceflight. The crews on those two flights accepted the risks and potential rewards the same way. Apollo 1 was a different animal, though.
Unlike Challenger and Columbia, whose crews likely never knew what hit them, Apollo 1’s crew did know, but could do nothing to help themselves. That immense fire in that tiny, tiny space, burning alive those brave men, filling their lungs with toxic gases, and forcing them to know–probably for the first time in their lives–what fear is, terrifies me to this very day.