Chapter One: Fire on the Pad
Friday, January 27, 1967, was another balmy southern California winter day with temperatures in the low seventies, but a blizzard might as well have been hammering the North American Aviation plant in Downey. Inside the altitude chamber, where Tom Stafford, John Young and I were buckled into a titanium container not much larger than a kitchen table, there wasn't any air, much less any weather. Time, not snowfall or sunshine, was our concern. The most experienced astronaut crew in the U.S. space program, with five completed missions between us, we were trying to bring a new, untried and stubborn spacecraft up to launch standards, and we weren't having much success.
On the other side of the United States, in Florida's afternoon sunshine, three of our fellow astronauts were conducting similar tests in an identical spacecraft perched atop a giant Saturn 1-B rocket at Cape Kennedy. The world knew Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee as the crew of Apollo 1, and they were scheduled to lift off in less than a month. They weren't having much luck either.
and the two-man Gemini series had proven we could walk in space, rendezvous, and endure long flights. Now the time had come for the start of Apollo, the gigantic undertaking that would realize President Kennedy's dream of putting an American on the Moon, and bringing him back alive, by the end of the decade.
this flight, the bird simply wasn't ready. In fact, I was amazed that we were so far along the path toward launch with so many things still going wrong. Before Apollo could fly, tens of thousands of parts in both the rocket and spacecraft had to work flawlessly, and so far, they hadn't. But the damned Russians were breathing down our necks, and we were going to force that spacecraft to do what it was supposed to do, ever if we had to bend some mechanical and physical laws through sheer willpower. Despite the problems, all signals remained go for Apollo 1.
called a "plugs out" test, which meant that everything was being run as it would be for a real mission, except the Saturn was not fueled. In California, our crew was in a duplicate spacecraft in the middle of a chamber that simulated the vacuum of outer space. The cone-shaped command module had given fair warning that this was not going to be a good day even before I climbed aboard. The forty-pound hatch fell on my foot and I could have sworn the bird had dropped it on purpose, part of its evil plot to keep me, Gene Cernan, from ever flying in space again.
couch, then moved over to my own position on the right side of the crew compartment. Although spacious in comparison to the tiny spacecraft of Mercury and Gemini, there still wasn't much room in Apollo, and I carefully eased my feet down among a clutter of unprotected bundles of wires. A technician helped buckle me in and attach the hoses to my suit, then the radio in my helmet came alive with a burst of static. While waiting for the others to climb in, I stuck a checklist onto the Velcro that wallpapered the interior of the Apollo spacecraft. We had discovered that the sticky stuff was the best way to keep things from floating around in zero gravity.
and scooted into his place on the left side. Finally, John Young, the command module pilot, settled into the empty couch in the middle, and, with the help of the guys outside, hauled the big hatch into place over his head and screwed down the multiple clamps that locked it. The thing was heavy and awkward, a big pain in the ass, and in my case, a pain in the foot as well.
oxygen, the same way all American space missions were flown. Then the air was pumped out of the altitude chamber to simulate the environment of space, although we were really at sea level, only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. When the desired pressure was reached, we checked the suit loops, those serpentine hoses which delivered our life-support systems, and verified the ability of the spacecraft to withstand the vacuum of the "space" now surrounding us. The pressure of the oxygen inside the command module was higher than was the vacuum outside, and pushed against the inward-opening hatch, sealing it so securely that a herd of elephants couldn't have pulled it open. Nobody wanted a hatch to accidentally pop off on the way to the Moon.
we could peel off the bulky suits, jump into a couple of NASA T-38 jets that we had parked at Los Angeles International Airport several days earlier, and fly home to Houston. But first we had to finish the test, even if it took us into the weekend. So we lay there on small couches that looked like little trampolines and monitored the electronic guts of Apollo.
glycol coolant onto the floor of the spacecraft, and electrical short circuits disrupted communications with the control booth just outside the chamber. After a few irritating hours, Tom grumbled, "Go to the Moon? This son of a bitch won't even make it into Earth orbit." Left unsolved, such glitches could stack one atop another and come back to haunt us. Every problem we could find and fix on the ground was one less the guys would have to worry about in space, so we remained locked in our seats, running endless checks of systems, dials, and switches.
the launch date of February 21.
about communication problems. "I can't hear a thing you're saying," he barked to the launch team. "Jesus Christ ... I said, how are we going to get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?" Gus didn't mince his words or his actions. As one of the Original Seven astronauts, he had already flown in space twice, and now commanded Apollo 1. Everyone in the program knew that Gus firmly believed that when the first American stepped onto lunar soil, the name patch on his suit would read: GRISSOM. If Gus didn't like something, he let people know; at one point he had hung a huge lemon on a balky command module simulator to compare the malfunctioning space-age machine to a broken-down automobile. Such outbursts added even more color to his crusty reputation.
the astronaut ranks. A West Pointer and the son of a general, slender and good-looking and straight as an arrow, Ed had been the first American to walk in space, just eighteen months ago. The third crewman was a nugget, a rookie. Roger Chaffee had never flown in orbit, but had so impressed our bosses that they assigned him a coveted spot on the first Apollo. Roger was my next-door neighbor and one of my closest buddies.
The litany of problems we were experiencing both at the Cape and Downey had strained the already uneasy relationship between the astronauts and North American Aviation. All of the spacecraft of the Mercury and Gemini programs had come from the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, and a strong bond of trust had grown between the McDonnell engineers who built the machines and the astronauts who flew them.
The news that North American had won the bidding to be the prime contractor for the Apollo command module had come as a shock to us. We knew the company had a tremendous reputation for building airplanes, but spacecraft were entirely different animals. As the months passed, many of us felt the North American design teams seemed determined to reinvent the wheel rather than build upon what already had been proven to work, an attitude that was difficult to accept in a program that had already endured 20,000 system failures.
suggestions. Just because we had already flown in space and would be the pilots to fly their new creation did not make us experts in their eyes. The North American engineers were working under immense pressure and were not about to let some astronaut "wish list" further complicate the program's already staggering costs and tight schedules. The result was more of an uneasy truce than a full partnership between us.
models, were never meant to go to the Moon, but only to orbit the Earth. Each Apollo flight would build upon the experiences of those before it and stretch our space bridge a little closer to the lunar surface. The Block Ones were little more than buckets of bolts, but damn it, they were the only buckets we had, and by God, we were going to make them fly!
to the Moon, were coming down the line, but would not be ready any time soon, and we desperately needed a launch now. The Russians had put up three unmanned lunar probes in the past year and the space race was scalding hot.
voice of a technician crackled in our headsets: "We're going to terminate the test now and bring you guys down."
tests, "holds" that stopped the clock while something was checked out. We would sit tight and work on other things while the problem was fixed. It might be a few minutes or it might take hours, but it was part of the job.
one, especially the crew, wanted to stop a test before it was complete, because the whole thing might have to be run again, which could take us into the weekend. Besides, dumping the vacuum from the chamber, undoing that damned, complicated hatch, and climbing out while wearing our space suits was not easy.
hang on, finish, and go home. After several hours of work, the problems seemed to be mounting rather than diminishing. Patience was never an astronaut virtue.
was strange. We never took calls, no matter how important, during a test, but they had already started bleeding air into the chamber.
In minutes, technicians would unlock the hatch and help us out.
Maybe something had changed. Something was always changing in the space program. Maybe we had been assigned to be the prime crew on a lunar landing mission. Why not? We had more total hours in space than any other crew in the program, and we were already the official backup crew for the next Apollo flight. But a telephone call about something like that could wait. Whatever it was had to be important.
landing. Or maybe it was our worst nightmare come true, and the Russians were on their way to the Moon. The only other time I could recall such vagueness had been when we lost two astronauts in an airplane crash just before the Gemini 9 mission. I kept it all to myself.
"Might be your campaign manager, Senator," I said. "Maybe the president is calling," cracked John. Tom, disgusted with the termination, didn't think we were funny.
like pulling sardines from a can. John and I stretched our aching muscles as we walked to the Ready Room while Tom snatched the telephone from the hand of a technician waiting right outside the command module. We didn't bother getting out of the suits because we might have to return to work, and taking off a space suit wasn't as easy as slipping out of a sports coat. John and I relaxed for the first time all day, sipping cups of hot coffee and talking about whether we would get home earlier than usual or have to remain in California and start this test all over again tomorrow.
some pretty hairy experiences with T.P., and knew the man to be totally unflappable, always in control. I had never seen him like this. Before we could ask what was wrong, he stared at us and spoke with a halting voice. "There's been a fire on the pad."
"Are the guys all right?"