CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Forty years ago Saturday, no one saw it. No one knew just when it came to life.
Somewhere beneath the seat of Apollo 1 Commander Gus Grissom, an open wire chafed. Insulation was worn and torn. The wire, alive with electrical power, lay bare in a thick soup of 100 percent oxygen — one of the most dangerous and corrosive gases known. Exposed to an ignition source, it is extremely flammable.
It had been used in the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft without trouble. But this much pure oxygen inside a ship as large as Apollo was another story.
Grissom and his Apollo 1 crewmates, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were on the launch pad undergoing a full dress rehearsal countdown when Gus shifted his body for comfort.
His seat moved the bare wire.
Words from the whirlwind
The launch team froze before its television monitors. Muscles stiffened, voices ceased in mid-sentence. They didn't know what they were witnessing. It was something horrifying and unbelievable. Flames rampaging inside Apollo 1 — a whirlwind of fire burning everything it touched.
The medical readings showed Ed White's pulse rate jumped off the charts — showed the three astronauts burst into instant movement.
The first call from Apollo 1 smashed into the launch team's headsets.
One word from Ed White.
Then, the unmistakable deep voice of Gus Grissom.
"I've got a fire in the cockpit!"
Instantly afterward, Roger Chaffee's voice.
Then a garbled transmission and then the final plea:
"Get us out!"
Then words known only to God, followed by a scream ...
Hope ... then disappointment
In the blockhouse, the chief of astronauts, Deke Slayton, jumped from his chair, shouting, "What the hell's happening?"
Eyes stared in horror at the monitors. Flames expanded swiftly, built to a white glare before subsiding, and Deke thought he saw a shadow moving inside. He couldn't be sure, and then he saw bright orange flames flickering about Apollo 1's hatch.
Hellish flames followed by thick smoke.
An icy chill moved over his skin. Those calls of fire, that final garbled scream — they had come from inside Apollo 1.
Pad crews were rushing to the scene, trying to get to Gus, Ed and Roger. Astronaut Stuart Roosa, on console in the blockhouse, was trying frantically to talk with them. Again and again he called, desperate, his face chalk white.
Then, there was a shot from the pad over the radio loop: "Get a doctor out here, quick!"
Deke Slayton heard that! You don't need a doctor for dead men. It was a glimmer, just a small hope, and he grabbed two doctors standing nearby and they headed for the blockhouse door.
Deke lived a lifetime in that mad run to the launch pad. He and Gus had been fishing buddies, hunting buddies for years. "Hang in there, buddy!" Deke shouted inside his head. "Hang in there!"
They reached the gantry, rode the elevator to Level 8, rushed into the White Room. The hatch was already open.
The doctors leaned in, studied the scene, and then pulled away slowly.
One turned to Deke. "They're gone," he said, shaking his head.
Deke held his position. Just for a moment. Gus was in there. He had to see himself. He stepped over and leaned inside the hatch. It was all burnt. Everything was black ash. It was a death chamber. He caught himself. He was about to lose it. Then he saw it. Their suits! Their suits had protected them from the flames. None of them had burns. "It was all that goddamn crap they were breathing," Deke cursed. "It killed them, damn it. The fire sucked the oxygen right out of their lungs."
Deke caught himself again. He paused, took a breath, and suddenly and strangely he was thankful. He was realizing how quick death had been. He reached down and touched Gus's gloved hand. "You didn't suffer, buddy," he said, choking back the emotion. "Thank God you guys didn't suffer."
Then Deke Slayton walked into the darkness and cried.
Later, Deke would promise his astronauts this would not happen again, and it didn't on the chief astronaut's long watch. The design changes that NASA made after the loss of Gus, Ed and Roger reduced the threat of fire inside a spaceship a hundredfold.
Slideshow: Planetary pleasures Following the Apollo 13 emergency, 200,000 miles out in space, astronauts James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise found their way home safely because of the lessons learned after the Apollo 1 fire.
Many experts agree there were no astronauts lost during the Apollo moon landings because of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee's sacrifice.
This old space writer would like to second that.
Jay Barbree is in his 49th year with NBC News. He has never missed covering a single launch of American astronauts for the NBC network. Barbree is currently writing the history of space flight for Smithsonian Books, titled "Live From Cape Canaveral." The book is to be released in late September for the 50th anniversary of Sputnik's launch.
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