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At 6:31 Eastern Standard Time on January 27, 1967, 3 astronauts were killed on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy Space Center located in Florida, USA. A fire erupted and destroyed the capsule occupied by the astronauts before they could escape. The source of the fire was never definitively identified.

How did it happen?

Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee had entered the Apollo 1 capsule a few hours before the accident in order to test the capsule’s launch system. The mission itself was not scheduled to run until later that year. After being strapped into their seats, the tests proceeded despite Grissom complaining of a sour smell in his space suit’s air supply. 10 minutes before the scheduled launch test, the astronauts reported a fire in the capsule. NASA mission control could hear the cries of the men inside for a period of 17 seconds before the capsule itself was torn open by the expanding gases from the fire itself. The ground crew did not reach the capsule until well after the astronauts had perished. Their nylon space suits had fused together from the heat which made recovery attempts difficult. All 3 astronauts were killed.

Aftermath

The cause of death for the crew was determined to be smoke inhalation. They were all also badly burned over most of their bodies. What started the fire was debated by investigators, but given that so many different flammable substances were used in the construction of both the capsule and the men’s space suits, there were a number of candidates. A stripped copper wire was suspected of initially igniting the blaze, given that it was located close to a flammable coolant line. The extensive use of Velcro and a pure oxygen environment were also contributing factors.  The atmosphere in the capsule was a very high 16 psi, and over 25 kilometers of electrical wiring were used in its construction.

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