Forty-five years ago today, NASA suffered perhaps the worst tragedy in the history of American spaceflight. On Jan. 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 — astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — were killed in a cabin fire during a prelaunch test exercise. While this was not the first space-related fatality, it was the most public and harrowing loss of life NASA had yet endured, and it nearly derailed public and political support for the Apollo program.
NASA nonetheless endured, and just 30 months later placed a pair of Americans on the surface of the moon. Moreover, those aforementioned inaugural moonwalkers, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would likely be the first to point out that they never would have set foot on the Sea of Tranquility without the work performed by, and lessons learned from, the Apollo 1 crew.
The Apollo 1 tragedy directly altered innumerable NASA policies, foremost among them the composition of space vehicle cabin atmospheres. The Apollo 1 fire was caused in part by a pure oxygen atmosphere inside the capsule cabin. Every NASA flight since has used an oxygen-nitrogen mix for cabin atmosphere during launches. The insistence on largely non-flammable materials in cabin designs, and the quick-egress ability of space vehicle hatches, are also direct consequences of the Apollo 1 tragedy.
Often lost in the obsession with preventing another Apollo 1 fire were the contributions made by Grissom, White, and Chaffee during their lives. In fact, one Apollo 1 practical joke became unofficial NASA policy following the accident, in part as a memorial to the astronauts, and in part because it was a good idea.
WHAT APOLLO 1 PRACTICAL JOKE BECAME UNOFFICIAL NASA POLICY FOLLOWING THE LOSS OF THAT MISSION’S CREW?