NASA’s first deadly disaster: Apollo 1

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I only barely remember the disaster. It was on this day, but in 1967. In recent years, I’ve wondered why my memory of the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 space craft is so vague. I have memories of earlier space activities, but most of those memories are really memories of reading about things in books and magazines, and playing “astronaut” more or less constantly. I had limited access to a TV and TV coverage of every detail of life everywhere all the time had not been invented yet. But really, the main reason I only barely remember the event despite my intense interest in the space program was probably because it was downplayed. I think my parents downplayed it and I think Walter Cronkite downplayed it because it was so horrific.

If you don’t know about the event, here it is in a nutshell: Three astronauts were caught in a fire in their capsule during a test on the launch pad. The details are actually rather interesting. They were not burned to death (though that certainly would have ultimately happened) but rather suffocated because their breathing supply was interrupted. They were trapped in the capsule and the capsule itself actually ruptured from the pressure built up from the fire. Post hoc analysis tells us that this should never have happened, but of course they clearly did not know that at the time. Further post hoc analysis tells us that they could have known about it at the time had there been more cooperation and openness among scientists and engineers working in the USSR and the USA.

Amy Shira Teitel has probably written a post about this for the anniversary of the event, on her blog, but since I’m speaking to you now from the recent past (two days ago) I can’t say for sure. Go check it out, and if there isn’t one you can read this post and this post which she put up a couple of days ago.

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