50 years ago, the Apollo program began with a deadly tragedy

On March 21, 1966, NASA announced its crew selection for the AS-204 mission — the first crewed mission in the program aimed at reaching the moon.

Astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee were chosen to carry out a 14-day low orbital test of the Apollo Command/Service Module, with a launch date of Feb. 21, 1967.

The men were well suited to the task. Grissom was a decorated fighter pilot and veteran of projects Mercury and Gemini, White was the first American to perform a spacewalk during Project Gemini and Chaffee had served with both men as the capsule communicator for the Gemini 4 mission.

As the astronauts spent months training for their mission, the Command/Service Module was tweaked, modified and finally mated to its Saturn launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 34.

There's always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight; it can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly.

On January 27, 1967, the astronauts reported to the launch pad for a "plugs-out" test to see how the spacecraft operated on internal power.

See photos from the Apollo fire below:

Remembering Apollo 1
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Remembering Apollo 1

March 30, 1966

Edward H. White II, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, and Roger B. Chaffee.

Image courtesy of NASA

April 17, 1966

Mechanics install the heat shield on the Command Module.

Image courtesy of NASA

June 1966

The Apollo 1 crew practice water egress procedures in a swimming pool at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas.

Image courtesy of NASA

Aug. 22, 1966

The Apollo 1 crew check out the couch installation on the Apollo Command Module at North American's Downey facility.

Image courtesy of NASA

Oct. 18, 1966

NASA suit technicians assist Grissom during suiting operations prior to tests at Kennedy Space Center.

Image courtesy of NASA

Oct. 18, 1966

The Apollo 1 crew prepare to enter their spacecraft inside the altitude chamber at the Kennedy Space Center.

Image courtesy of NASA

Oct. 27, 1966

The Apollo 1 crew aboard the NASA Motor Vessel Retriever (MVR) in preparation for Apollo water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico.

Image courtesy of NASA

December 12, 1966

Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee.

Image courtesy of NASA

Jan. 6, 1967

Apollo Spacecraft 012 is hoisted to the top of the Gantry at Pad 34 during the Apollo/Saturn Mission 204 assembly at Cape Kennedy, Florida.

Image courtesy of NASA

Jan. 17, 1967

The Apollo 1 crew poses before a training exercise.

Image courtesy of NASA

Jan. 28, 1967

A section of the Command Module shows the aftermath of the deadly fire.

Image courtesy of NASA

May 9, 1967

NASA administrators sit before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Services after the Apollo 1 fire.

Image courtesy of NASA

The Apollo 1 mission patch.

Image courtesy of NASA


The test was not considered hazardous, as there was no fuel present and all pyrotechnic systems were disabled.

The three astronauts were strapped into the cramped module, the hatch was sealed and the spacecraft was pressurized with a pure oxygen atmosphere.

The astronauts were running through a checklist of preparations when a power surge sparked a fire.

The fire spread rapidly in the pure oxygen environment, and the high pressure in the cabin made the egress hatch virtually impossible to open. Within seconds, Grissom, White and Chaffee asphyxiated and died.

NASA and both houses of Congress conducted exhaustive investigations into the incident and crewed missions were halted for months.

Extensive design changes to the Command/Service Module were implemented, and stringent safety protocols were implemented.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities... Competent means we will never take anything for granted.... These words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control. ---- NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, speech to Mission Control

Grissom and Chaffee were buried at Arlington National Cemetery and White was buried at West Point Cemetery.

At the request of the astronaut's widows, the mission designation was officially changed from AS-204 to Apollo 1.

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