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  Apollo 1: Would the fire have happened in space? (Page 1)

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Author Topic:   Apollo 1: Would the fire have happened in space?
Yanksman2001
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From: Long Island City, NY, USA
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posted 07-27-2004 04:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Yanksman2001   Click Here to Email Yanksman2001     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In the back of my mind I think I remember reading somewhere that the Apollo 1 fire would not have happened if the spacecraft was in space. Being in zero gravity the fire would not have been able to hold or grab onto anything to burn.

Can anyone clarify this because they would still have been in an all oxygen atmosphere?

ejectr
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posted 07-27-2004 04:57 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for ejectr   Click Here to Email ejectr     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Doesn't sound possible to me. Fire is just rapid oxidation of a material.

sts205cdr
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posted 07-27-2004 05:54 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for sts205cdr   Click Here to Email sts205cdr     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
You may be recalling some speculation that the fire probably wouldn't have spread as rapidly at the lower cabin pressure used in flight, and that the astronauts might have been able to extinguish it.

dtemple
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posted 07-27-2004 09:01 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for dtemple   Click Here to Email dtemple     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The fire might not have happened in space.

During the ground test on Jan. 27, 1967, netting was under the crew couches. It was used to catch anything that was dropped and was non-flight hardware that would not have been used during the mission. The theory (as I recall) is that the arcing ignited the netting, so if the netting was not present one must ask if there would have been a fire or simply a short circuit — either during the test or during the mission.

aneedell
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posted 07-28-2004 10:23 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for aneedell   Click Here to Email aneedell     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I believe what you are referring to is that convection, which occurs in 1g, does not occur in zero g. In 1g when a gas (like oxygen or air) is heated by fire it expands, rises and is replaced by heavier, cooler gas. That is convection, and it provides a flame with a new supply of oxidizer to keep it going.

In a weightless environment, convection does not occur. A flame tends to burn the available oxygen, and then go out.

Allan Needell
Space History Division
National Air and Space Museum

Yanksman2001
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posted 07-28-2004 04:38 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Yanksman2001   Click Here to Email Yanksman2001     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
So is it possible all of our What If's and Alternate Histories are wrong. If the fire had occured during the flight (and yes there were still problems with the Apollo capsule) the crew would have been able to put the fire out. There would not have been a mystery of what had happened. Gus may have been the one to first walk on the moon.

ColinBurgess
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posted 07-28-2004 06:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for ColinBurgess   Click Here to Email ColinBurgess     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Allow me to quote verbatim from "Fallen Astronauts":
The reasoning behind the use of pure oxygen seemed sound enough. In the vacuum of space the cabin pressure needed to be maintained at less than 6 pounds per square inch (psi). Tests had already proved that any fire at this pressure, even in a pure oxygen environment, could be easily contained and extinguished. During ground tests, however, a sea-level pressure of 14.7 psi would envelop the spacecraft. If the outside pressure exceeded that inside the spacecraft by more than 2 psi, there was a chance that the pressure hull could rupture, so it was impossible to test the spacecraft on the pad using the 5.2 to 5.6 psi that would be standard once the spacecraft had achieved orbit. Instead the engineers cranked up the interior to more than 16 psi to exceed sea-level pressure. It would prove to be a fatal error of reasoning: that easily contained fire in space at less than 6 psi would become an explosive inferno at 16 psi. Any fabric would ignite and burn with uncontrollable intensity, and even aluminium fittings would burn in the oxygen-rich environment.
Hope this helps.

Richard
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posted 07-28-2004 06:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Richard   Click Here to Email Richard     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Actually, I believe that the reason is because of atmospheres of pressure of the capsule in relation to being on earth vs. in space. Since the capsule was on earth and "pressurized" the pressure inside the capsule was incredibly high with 100% O2. However, in space, because you are using 100% O2, the pressure needed for the cabin would only need to be a fraction of this in order to sustain life (the pressure needed is the %O2 normally present in earth air times the 1 atm). Although this is still 100% O2, it is at such a low pressure that you would not have the explosive effect and is therefore quite safe. However, it can be dangerous in the fact that it still requires the purging of N2 from the body to alleviate the danger of "the bends" (that is the reason for the astronauts being suited up and breathing O2 before the flight).

I hope this makes sense. I didn't have much time to explain.

KC Stoever
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posted 07-29-2004 09:11 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I quote:
It was once thought that fire at zero g would be self extinguishing because there are no convection currents in true zero g. We fly in a micro g environment and that undoes that old belief. The micro convection currents are apparently sufficient to sustain the flow of new oxygen to the fire and sustain the flame. However, in orbital flight, it is possible to depressurize the space craft so that no oxygen is available to the flame and it will be extinguished. I am Scott Carpenter and I endorse this message.

FFrench
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posted 07-30-2004 02:06 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Scott Carpenter's assertion here via Kris is backed up by recent findings from a research program into the behavior of fire in reduced gravity environments at the NASA Glenn Research Center.

A UC Berkeley summary of the research states:

There is... a perception that in spacecraft, because of the absence of gravity, materials are less flammable than on earth where buoyancy helps the fire. However, recent research is indicating that in fact materials can be easier to ignite, and may burn under less stringent conditions, in the spacecraft environments (reduced gravity, low velocity air circulation) than on earth where buoyancy induces large air currents.
It should also be remembered that the Apollo spacecraft had an oxygen circulation system, and combined with the fact that there were three people moving in a relatively small space, there would be slight air movement at all times.

R.Glueck
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posted 07-30-2004 04:19 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for R.Glueck   Click Here to Email R.Glueck     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Microgravity demonstrations of flame indicate that it would not climb as it does on earth, and therefore, would not have enveloped the astronauts like clutching fingers. My interpretation is that it would have expanded equally from the ignition point in a sphere of hot gases.

In all probability, the fire would have been fatal in the guys were not wearing suits and helmets, but the spread would have been somewhat slower. If they were wearing their suits, dumping the atmosphere would have extinguished it.

Had the men died in space, we would have really been in trouble. Gus, Roger, and Ed, really paved the successful moon landings in their deaths. The capsule was just not a safe vehicle in which to cruise out into deep space and return.

The only crime in the Apollo 1 fire was the "failure of imagination" to recognize what was potentially possible and then to act on it.

dtemple
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posted 07-30-2004 04:47 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for dtemple   Click Here to Email dtemple     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Okay, a fire can spread in space. What would have ignited, though? The Raschel netting under the crew couches for the countdown test would not have been used for the actual flight. Was the Velcro in the crew cabin close enough to the theorized ignition point to ignite? Of course, if enough wiring had been damaged by the short circuit, the crew would have had a crippled spacecraft.

R.Glueck
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posted 07-30-2004 11:31 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for R.Glueck   Click Here to Email R.Glueck     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Hard to say exactly what would have caught, but I think it's sufficient to recognize that plastics and fibers are combustible. Soaked in that amount of oxygen, it's not unfair to hypothesize aluminum sustaining a heat sufficient to travel by conduction to something with a lower flash point. Wire insulation would have been a fine source of fuel until something else broke down.

On a grisly note, while human torsos require intense amounts of applied heat to be consumed in an ambient atmosphere on earth, the only reason the men weren't reduced to ash on the pad, was that the oxygen ran out. The fire snuffed itself before it could consume the astronauts. Had the oxygen kept coming and the pressure hull vented the smoke and waste gases, the contents of the cabin would have been something out of Auschwitz.

Note that in actuality, surface paper burned, but not the checklists and other documents in the cabin. The men's suits were burned through, but their body burns were superficial. It was the heat and pressure of the poisonous waste gases that literally seared their tracheae and lungs.

Now, Scott Grissom asserts that the men could have been revived, but I have to doubt this. Certainly today, fresh oxygen would be applied to the men immediately on opening the capsule. In fairness, it is extremely unlikely this would have done anything to bring back the oxygen deprived hearts, brains, or other organs. We would like to see another outcome, but those men were condemned at the moment of ignition.

Sad and horrible, it still does it's damage in at least one family to this very day, but that was the situation and the gamble played out against the crew of Apollo 1. Space flight is an unforgiving business, and the early astronauts accepted that risk with open eyes.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-03-2004 01:03 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
After so many years, I am still amazed that so many are still interested in the fire.

I was on the spacecraft that night and I can tell you, the story published by NASA is full of holes. I don't agree with Scott that his father lived through the fire, because the heat was so intense that it melted aluminum alloy struts in the main frame. Later tests showed that the heat exceded 2500 degrees F.

Without the proper protective equipment suitable for high temperatures, which was not available and the facts that the suit melted, ncludingthe oxygen hoses,and the fire lasted for over four minutes giving off toxic fumes similar to phosgene from the teflon pads used throughout the spacecraft, there is no way that anyone could have survived.

The main cause was a something highly inflamable in the area below Grissoms couch.

Two items of concern was the highly inflamable material, Velcro. Not the velcro itself but the material used to attach it to the walls. A highly inflamable adhesive.

Flight rules was violated because the rubber mats, plainly stencilled "Not for Oxygen Use" was placed on the floor above the equipment bay.

Another thing, there was no method of detecting grease or contaminants prior to the Capsule going to internal pressure. There was a source of grease just outside the capsule near the entrance to the whiteroom swing arm.

Any type of hydrocarbon will form an explosive mixture, shock sensitive after several hours in a 100 percent oxygen atmosphere and will explode into a million parts when jostled or struck.

In an instant, it will cover an area with burning particles.

In several private tests conducted using a small amount of grese, this was verified.

NASA never considered this.

There are several other things that happened that never made it into the report and I'll cover them later.

John K. Rochester
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posted 08-03-2004 05:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for John K. Rochester   Click Here to Email John K. Rochester     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In regards to Scott Carpenter's post via Kris... Is this the first time that anyone is aware of that an astronaut has submitted a post to this wonderful site... regardless, Thank you Scott for giving the perspective of one who has "been there, done that!"

taneal1
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posted 08-09-2004 03:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for taneal1   Click Here to Email taneal1     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Stephen Clemmons:
I was on the spacecraft that night and I can tell you, the story published by NASA is full of holes. There are several other things that happened that never made it into the report and I'll cover them later.
Please do add more details. I'm always interested in first-hand reports rather than speculation.

Rob Joyner
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posted 08-10-2004 01:46 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Rob Joyner   Click Here to Email Rob Joyner     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Stephen, we're a lucky lot here now. Please, at your valuable convenience, tell us anything that you'd like to share about that awful tragedy.

Gordon Reade
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posted 08-10-2004 01:48 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Gordon Reade     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Yanksman2001:
I remember reading somewhere that the Apollo 1 fire would not have happened if the spacecraft was in space.
I recall reading - but I don't remember where- that had the fire occurred in space with the crew suited up they simply would have vented the spacecraft. Fire doesn't do to well in a vacuum.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-10-2004 08:00 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There is so much that happened that night that it's going to be hard to tell it in a few posts but I'm going to try.

I joined the Apollo Program in the spring of 1966 after spending seven years on the Atlas ICBM Program, first as a technician and then as a Electrical Inspector, advancing to the position of Chief Flight Inspector for General Dynamics Astronautics.

During this time, I spent a lot of hours working on accidents caused by Oxygen Contamination. I found out that it was not just a cold liquid or oxidizer but something very dangerous and very deadly.

I was always conscious of things around the rockets that oxygen could get into and cause trouble.

We used a black light (Ultra violet) to detect any contaminants in the systems, along with a plastic tent purged with nitrogen at any open joints. after watching a lot of rockets that blew up because of oxygen contamination, it was apparent that this was something we had to be careful with. Just a grain of sand in the wrong place would hurt us.

Now you wonder what all this has to do with the Apollo 1 Fire, so I'll explain.

When I first went out to Pad 34 as an Electrical Inspector, I was appalled at the reckless way that propellant lines was treated. Lines were opened, washed off with alcohol and reconnected, electrical panels and cables disturbed with no inspection coverage, at least not what I was used to. On the DOD side, 100 percent inspection was normal. But on the NASA side, only survielance inspection was required and a running account was documented by engineering on a test prep sheet, which was the only inspection document required. Incidently design changes were also installed on TPS with out design approval.(Read the Joe Barron Report in the Apollo 1 Investigation Reports) He was right on target.

There was an attitude at Kennedy of "do everything, even if it's wrong" to get us to the moon. It was called "Moon Fever"

The answer when we asked questions about a critical item or procedure that really didn't meet specs, was if you don't like the way we're doing this, tell it to Gus.

Now I had met Gus and Wally in a Bar in Cocoa Beach several months before, not really met him but was in the small crowd that had gathered around to celebrate something. I doubt if he was even conscious of us, at least by name.

But I could tell that he was not someone that would stand to have his orders questioned.

Since he was the Chief Engineer for NASA, his word was law. As far as those of us on Apollo 1, Gus was NASA and as I was told when I said something about the shortcuts we were taking, I was told that Gus said it was to be done that way to save precious time that we didn't have, cause we had to fly to the moon.and if I had a problem with it, I would have to go and explain it to him.

In the months before the ill fated spacecraft arrived at Kennedy, several important meeting was held at Downy about flamable materials in the spacecraft, mainly velcro and rashel netting. and the problem North American engineers was having with a pure Oxygen Atmosphere during checkout on the ground. They had told NASA that the interior of the spacecraft under normal pressure, a pound over atmospheric created a time bomb. NASA engineers poo pooed the ideas, saying they didn't have a problem with the pure oxygen system since they had used it on Mercury and Gemini.

They even published a flammable material procedure that would keep most of the items out of the spacecraft.

This list was totally ignored by NASA. Everyone knew that velcro was highly explosive because of the violatile adhesive used. We ran tests in crew systems lab on the material and 12" burned up in less that one second in normal air.

There are other unfavorable attributes of this materal that came into play during the fire. The adhesive also gave off a highly inflamable gas that adhered to the surface material.

North American Aviation had designed a quick opening hatch(one piece) that opened in three seconds. Gus said he didn't want that since there would be no need for such a hatch in space as no one was going to be going outside and since there were no fuels loaded until launch day, there was no need. I think he was worried that maybe the hatch might blow off on landing like the one on his first spacecraft.

North American even offered to furnish it free but they would have nothing to do with it.

Spacecraft 012 was a block one vehicle and should have never been flown with men aboard. It would probably work but it was the first model and had plenty of built in bugs that kept coming out of the woodwork.

During it manufacture and testing, there were over 1800 critical discrepancies written, which took time to investigate and find fixes, but NASA was adamanant that the schedule would not slip so many of them fell by the wayside. Instead of waiting for the first Block Two (Much superior)which was still in the pipeline, and the fact that the astronauts wanted to fly, block one would have to do.

Tests were being performed both at Downy CA and Kennedy with out proper analysis, many were run end on end, and the results were way below specs but no one wanted to say, Hold it NASA, we need time to fix these problems, mainly because they didn't want to face Gus's wrath. It was fairly well known at Kennedy that Gus was going to be the first man to fly Apollo and he wasn't going to allow anything to get in his way.

Folks, I hate to break off but I'll be back later with the rest of the story.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-10-2004 10:48 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Most of you probably think that I have it in for Gus, but to be honest, he was one of the sharpist engineers in the Astronaut Corps. He probably knew more about the spacecraft than any other single individual in the space program. and as for guts, he had lots of that. Anyone that will ride a small rocket in 1960 had to be either crazy or know something we didn't know.

In my book, He was a real hero.He wanted something real bad, wanting to eventually be the first to land on the moon. That was his ambition.

The only problem he had was communicating with those who was building the Rocket booster and spacecraft.

NASA was mainly at fault, putting more responsibility on him than they should have. As I said in my last post, to those of us on Apollo 1, he was NASA.

NASA should have created a flight safety board made up of Contractors, NASA and their consultants that would approve any change to the spacecraft equipment and stowable items. This would have eliminated many of the nuisance discrepancies that was generated.

During the investigation, they found over 800 modifications that had not been authorized by design engineering. These changes had to come from somewhere.

Later during the investigation of the Challenger and Colombia, they found out that NASA had not learned their lesson from Apollo 1 or Apollo 13.

Now back to the story.

I was transferred to the Spacecraft Ground Crew shortly before Apollo 1 Arrived at Kennedy. It was a beautiful ship, seemed to be well put together. During the following months, we put it through its paces in the Altitude Chamber and in the checkout bay. There were a lot of small things that kept coming up, particular in the communication systems.

Some of these problems were now building up to a point that someone in NASA should have called a short breather to really find out where we stood. but we all had Moon Fever and couldn't stop.

Well. that's it for tonight.

R.Glueck
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posted 08-11-2004 10:20 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for R.Glueck   Click Here to Email R.Glueck     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Wow! This is all in character with the other testimonies that have been offered, and, from what I've read, none of it is speculative, which is a refreshing difference.

You do not "lay it on Gus". I can clearly see everything you are saying as it happens. Cover up? No. Rewriting a more palatable story for a fallen hero and his comrades, well, yes. But the crew's complicity in the accident should be acknowledged. After all, they were the ones who got into spacecraft 012, fully aware of the engineering risks of spaceflight.

It doesn't justify what happened to them, doesn't make it easier. It does recognize that the crew agreed to the terms of the capsule's condition at the time of the accident.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-15-2004 10:36 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Now back to the story.

During the days that were spent checking out the spacecraft at Kennedy, we were constantly being stopped because of VIP's,(congressman, politicians) their aides and secretaries that were allowed to get inside the spacecraft for tours. It was even better when astronauts would come with them to pose for pictures.

This also included woman friends of the astronauts that usually showed up at night on the weekends that the astronauts were in town.

These VIP's were more important than the tests being performed.

Because of the tight schedule and the limited working space inside the craft, engineers and technicians often had disputes as to whose work was more important and priorities went by the wayside.

There were several fights that had to be broken up.

Now this was detrimental to the spacecraft because it was not built for this kind of activities.

The lower equipment and floor directly under the seats was wide open with no protective covers, exposing miles and miles of wire, aluminum tubing, valves and electrical devices.

Protective covers was not needed in space so there were no provisions made.

The excuse was, "covers were not needed, and would add weight to the spacecraft." Now I'm not saying that Gus had anything to do with this decision, but it was dictated by NASA engineering and planners, not North American Aviation. (The block one vehicles was designed for automated radio controls, a large black box that sat on the main floor.)

NASA spacecraft engineers didn't realize the the booster engineers at Marshall on Saturn 1 and Saturn V launch vehicle had a fifteen percent safty factor on launch weight built into the design. This would have allowed several thousand pounds more on the spacecraft if needed.

We were being held to grams.

This indicates that yes, we needed to conserve weight, but not to the point that it would affect safety.

Thats why I said earlier that the Block 1 vehicles was not designed for manned space travel.

Incidently, North American wanted to install covers on the lower equipment bay floors to protect these items but NASA(Gus) said they didn't have time to design these covers and besides it was not needed.

For ground operations, they could use a four inch thick rubber mat to protect this area.

There was constant inspections to find nicked wires, loose bits of trash and materials that seemed to fall between the wires.

All the workers that entered the craft had to wear special clothing and nylon bunny boots, but the Vips only had to remove their shoes and don a shop coat.

North American had no control over these visitors.

During the investigation after the fire, NASA tried to say that a spark caused by the lower Door on the Enviromental Control Unit rubbing a wire started the fire. No one asked why these wires were exposed, who decreed it and and why there was a rubber mat installed because it would have placed the blame squarely on NASA and their engineers.

They also didn't bother to mention the traffic inside the spacecraft from VIP's.

There was only so much that North American could do under these circumstances. NASA was running the show and even if N.A.A. wanted to make the spacecraft safer, they had to fight NASA and their chief engineer.

That's it for now. more later.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-19-2004 11:55 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There were many things that came out in the Apollo 1 accident investigation that didn't really make sense.

NASA could never explain where all the debris or flammable material under a supposed spark came from.

What kind of material could burn so rapidly? We know that it started somewhere below Grissom's seat, but the only material in this area was teflon wire, aluminum and stainless steel tubes If it fell into the teflon, it would be more of a smoulder than a real fire. It had to be something more than that.

The two rubber pads were under the hatch area, just below the seats in the equipment bay. An area about three feet wide, containing the loose wire bundles occupied the rest of the floor area.

Note: we cleaned the spacecraft at the end of each shift with alcohol and kimwipes removing any speck of dirt or trash.

There is a slim possibility that the rubber pad was moved to the area near the ECU by White or Grissom which would have provided fuel if the spark had fallen on top, but according to NASA, the spark was below the area where the pad would have been.

An electrical spark, 24-28VDC would cool in an oxygen atmosphere if there was no fuel present to sustain the fire. It would not just sit there and smoulder, getting hotter until it burst into flame on it's own as Wally Schirra and Gene Cernan said.

Three things are required for a fire. Fuel/ oxidixer and a heat source. They may have had the spark and the oxygen but where did the fuel come from?

They said it was spilled water glycol that had dried, leaving a flammable film that caught fire. They also said water glycol lines burst under the heat and sprayed fire like a torch. Now most of these lines were aluminum and stainless steel and the material inside could possibly burn but only as a secondary fuel source once the heat got hot enough to burn the lines in two and dry the material.

All this took place in less that 17 seconds. To go from a spark to a major fire in this timeframe is stretching something a little far.

There had to be something else.

They said that there was no explosion inside the craft, yet Grissom's boot was blown off, not burned as they tried to say. We found parts of his boot outside the spacecraft and later when we removed the heat shield, we found something else (a body part)that indicated there had been an explosion.

Grissom's autopsy report indicated that he only had a small bruise on his left foot. That doesn't jib with what was reported from the investigating team. Incidentally this was conveniently left out of the report.

They said the fire went out as soon as the pressure bulkhead ruptured and fresh air flowed into the spacecraft putting out the fire, depriving it of oxygen. This only allowed fresh air to come in at atmospheric pressure, still enough oxygen to support combustion

I was always curious why the fire continued on for several minutes until all the flammable material had burned out. There was still oxygen being fed to the spacecraft (90psi)through the oxygen system from bottles located outside the spacecraft and continued long after we removed the three hatches.

The ECU was completely destroyed and the burned out O2 lines were venting O2 directly into the spacecraft.

Since the astronauts suits were hooked up to the ECU, and it being destroyed, no oxygen could get to the suits, contrary to what Scott Grissom says.

It was also funny that NASA had determined the cause just days afterward, long before the spacecraft even left the pad for the pyro building. "An Electrical Fire of undetermined origins."

They told us that if any of us had anything else that gave a different picture, we were to forget it in no uncertain terms, like "you could get fired if you talk or dispute anything NASA says."

Throughout the investigation, they looked for this elusive source of spark, even cutting every individual wire inside the crew compartment in short lengths (6"), cutting off the insulation. Each section was examined under a microscope looking for that damaged area cause by a spark and not fire. They didn't find it.

There is no evidence, at least from a burned wire, that would indicate a short as they described.

There is nothing that they found that will back up their published finding.

I for one would like to see an independent Panel of experts with no axe to grind examine the evidence and issue a final ruling.

I think NASA issued a squeaky clean report that had so much massaging from the public relations group that it couldn't be believed.

They had to publish finding that took everyone off the hook so they not would look like the incompetents they were.

Of course we had Gene Cernan, a squeaky clean astronaut to head up the investigating team so we would get a report that everyone could accept.

That doesn't make it so.

There's too many questions that need to be answered and everything, both inside the spacecraft and outside on support systems should be taken into consideration.

More on this later, if any out there want to discuss it. I'm all ears to a better explanation.

dtemple
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posted 08-21-2004 08:11 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for dtemple   Click Here to Email dtemple     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Stephen Clemmons:
What kind of material could burn so rapidly?
I asked a friend of mine who has a B.S. in chemistry what he though about teflon in a 100% O2 atmosphere at 16.7psi with a spark as an ignition source. In his opinion, he believed the teflon would burn furiously. I don't know if a B.S. in chemistry is enough for such an evaluation, but I do recall Wally Schirra stating something to the effect that he should have thought of the danger from the atmosphere in the spacecraft. He recalled a lab experiment he witnessed showing how steel wool would burst into flame under such conditions. Getting back to the teflon... Even if the teflon burst into flame it would have had to ignite other items. Perhaps it did if burning embers came from such a fire and landed on the velcro, netting, and padding. Or perhaps the heat alone from the fire caused spontaneous combustion of other items (?).
quote:
They said that there was no explosion inside the craft, yet Grissom's boot was blown off, not burned as they tried to say. We found parts of his boot outside the spacecraft and later when we removed the heat shield, we found something else (a body part) that indicated there had been an explosion.
What could cause an explosion? Are you speculating the beginning of the fire was an explosion or do you mean you believe there was an explosion just after the fire began?
quote:
I was always curious why the fire continued on for several minutes until all the flammable material had burned out.
I had not heard the fire continued after the cabin rupture and even after the hatches were removed. I do recall there were secondary fires started within the white room and the service structure surrounding the spacecraft.
quote:
Throughout the investigation, they looked for this elusive source of spark, even cutting every individual wire inside the crew compartment in short lengths (6"), cutting off the insulation. Each section was examined under a microscope looking for that damaged area cause by a spark and not fire. They didn't find it.
Wouldn't the wiring that shorted (assuming that is what happened) have had its insulation destroyed to the point that such evidence would be impossible to find? What I have heard is that NASA could not determine the exact origin of the fire, but theorized that it started where a door could have chaffed a wiring bundle. This door was in the general area of the most heavily destroyed section of the spacecraft (wasn't it?).
quote:
Of course we had Gene Cernan, a squeaky clean astronaut to head up the investigating team so we would get a report that everyone could accept.
Actually, Frank Borman headed the investigation team - not saying Gene Cernan did not participate, but rather he did not head that team. I have read Cernan's book, but do not recall what, if any, responsibilities he may have had on that team.

Your comments, Stephen, are some of the most interesting I have read on the Apollo 1 fire. Some of what you have said so far meshes well with commentary I have heard from another source. Other commentary is completely new to me. Please continue when you have the opportunity.

R.Glueck
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posted 08-22-2004 12:03 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for R.Glueck   Click Here to Email R.Glueck     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Nit-picking point, but steel wool burns quite rapidly and quite hot at atmospheric pressure in normal air. It's a demonstration I do in my science class every year. Try it at home with a piece of Brillo.

These posts are very interesting. I still feel that the Apollo 1 commission report is pretty solid, but new details, some of them necessarily grisly are revealed in this writing.

I am going to assume the "body part" referred to would be a toe, or toes. The boot issue is entirely new to my information. Schirra and others have stated that the crew could have had open caskets, had that been desired.

I asked Scott Grissom if Betty viewed Gus's body prior to the burial, and he told me she responded in the negative. A bit surprising for me.

The astronauts pressure suits are kept in duffles along with the charred wreckage, and are displayed on the internet. Somewhere I have a photo of each. Grissom's suit is severely burned away, whereas White's is almost intact and Chaffee's almost perfect. In 16psi pure oxygen, literally anything will burn, and furiously.

Again, I want to point out that covers of flight plan books were singed and burnt, but the interior manuals were only lightly consumed on the edges. Thick soot covered everything, and the helmet covered were melted. This tells me (and I am only a science teacher, not a combustion physicist) that the fire was hot, dirty, and furious, but short lived.

That oxygen was still being pumped into the capsule is a point I can't contest, but certainly hoses were melted and perhaps some pipes melted? The fire did explode into the white room and secondary fires ignited. The pressure hull did rupture and blow flames, soot, and superheated poison gases into the white room.

All this tells me the astronauts died frighteningly, but were asphyxiated early into their escape attempt. If their hearts were beating after unconsciousness, I would assume any circulation was pushing oxygen deprived blood, and for a very short time. The men's lungs and tracheae would have been seared and physiologically useless. The temperature and pressure inside that capsule would have forced its way into their breathing passages. Poor Roger Chaffee probably had the worst experience of any of the three.

Point is, resuscitation was not going to bring these dead men back to life. An investigation would be a prudent thing to do, at least in terms of accounting for a second by second timeline of events. Reviewing tapes and recordings with modern techniques might tell us more (I doubt it), but in the end, the three trapped men are still dead, and nobody could save them. It was a fire trap into which three knowledgeable men willingly went, aided by many other knowledgeable men, all of whom, regretfully, disregarded a basic tenant of chemistry.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-22-2004 02:21 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by dtemple:
Actually, Frank Borman headed the investigation team - not saying Gene Cernan did not participate, but rather he did not head that team.
Thanks for your comments. First, let me apologize for getting Gene mixed up with Frank Borman. And my sincere apologies to Gene.

I was remembering some of the things that Gene said after the fire. He's still squeaky clean as far as I'm concerned. One of the better astronauts that came out of the program. Frank was also a fine astronaut but he was prone to follow the NASA lead, which was alright too. He worked for them.

Now to get back to the questions at hand.

I stated that I thought there had to be another reason for the fire that was not examined. Why was the investigation only confined to the spacecraft?

  1. Where did all the debris come from? I said that the only thing in the spacecraft in the fire area was teflon coated wiring, aluminum and stainless tubing, all below the level of the ECU Panel door.Everything else was above the floor.

    It is true that teflon will burn rapidly in 100% oxygen, but first it has to melt to a point in excess of 500 degrees. As a solid, it will not burn, no matter what the surrounding oxygen content is. It must first change to a fluid, which in turn must turn into gas. This requires heat, a lot of it, in order to burn furiously.

    Try this on for size. Take a piece of Nylon rope and see how long it takes to get it burning and the amount of heat required.

    Remove the heat source and see how long it take to extinguish.

    That is my point, where did this heat come from in such a short time frame.(17 seconds.)

  2. Stainless steel will not burn under any circumstances. It will melt when the material reaches a cherry red almost orange color, probably in the 1400 degree range.

    Having worked with metals for many years, I can tell you that it can't be cut like mild steel and it will not explode in many pieces. It is not a brittle material. It will rupture first.

    Now my question. NASA said that the glycol lines leading into the ECU ruptured, then sprayed waterglycol like a torch.

    Where did the heat come from to make this happen in 17 seconds?

    In order to work with stainless, it has to be cut or sawed or ground and welded with higher rod current, Next to Titanium, it is one of the toughest and most durable materials in the industry. It takes high heat to even discolor the surface.

    During a launch of an Atlas rocket, when the temperature on the pad reached well over two thousand degrees for 30 seconds or more,it was enough to score the surface steel on the launcher but the stainless steel tubes only discolored and was reused again and again.

    Now steel wool, made from high carbon steel, on the other hand will burn in pure oxygen, because the strands of steel are so thin and absorb oxygen readily. The carbon content under heat supports this combustion.

  3. Was there an explosion in the ECU area?

    My premise was that there was an explosion in the area around Grissom's left foot, possibly coming from the ECU, which could have exploded. It had all the material needed, fuel(glycol) oxidizer and a source of heat.

    It had to have occurred prior to the pressure bulkhead blow out, because we found the boot part outside of the spacecraft on the floor.

    If it had occurred after the fire started, it would have remained inside the spacecraft because the moving force of the explosion had dissipated.

    I have always felt that it was something brought into the spacecraft and not the spacecraft itself.

    It could have been something like grease brought in by a worker or even Grissom. As an astronaut in his suit, he couldn't have seen too much of where he stepped and depended on workers to keep the area safe.

    The source of grease was there, just outside the door at the hinge point of the swingarm.

  4. Pressure hull rupture allowed fresh air to come inside, extinguishing the fire.

    Something called oxygen saturation comes into play in this scenario. The spacecraft had been sealed for over three hours, under 17 psi, which forced all nitrogen and minor gases out, and oxygen molecules replaced these gases. Everything in the spacecraft; the skin of the men, all of the surfaces and open spaces were now fully 100% O2 saturated, including the rubber pads and velcro.

    If fresh air had come in as theorized, the pure oxygen would have adhered to the surfaces until something called dissipation occurred.

    Even with fresh air blowing over the surface,Oxygen is considered a very tenacious gas and doesn't leave the surface of anything kindly.

    During the mid to end of the Fifties, we had to train on handling oxygen. One example that we witnessed was a fully dressed dummy that was placed in the LO2 loading vent area for several hours. Then carried out to a field and left to stand in fresh air for twenty minutes.

    Then the instructor used a cigarette lighter to start a flame on the lower pant leg. After twenty minutes in the fresh air, which according to NASA's theory should have removed all traces of excessive O2, it burned furiously, completely destroying the dummy almost in seconds, and another dummy, that had been in regular air for the same time frame would not ignite.

    As explained to us, it takes at least thirty minutes for a completely O2 saturated item to dissipate, or it will burn up in a few seconds.

    If we were working in this area, we had to stand in the wind for at least thirty minutes before even lighting up a cigarette, because they said that O2 on our skin and clothes could very well ignite.

    Another example of what oxygen can do occurred during launch preparations for an unmanned Saturn V launch.

    A guard drove a vehicle through the main oxygen dissipation area at pad 39A where gaseous oxygen from oxidizer tank filling was allowed to settle out. His car caught on fire. A firetruck went in to put the fire out and he too caught on fire. another vehicle went in and the driver saw what was happening and backed out before he too was on fire.

    The trucks had been reduced to steel rubble, kinda like swiss cheese.

    It seemed that the heat from the exhaust and grease on the engine, mixed with 100 percent O2 caused the fire.

Now back to the Apollo 1. The only reason the fire went out was that all the consumables had burned out,probably within two minutes and eventually the fresh air only acted as coolant,

The pressure bulkhead blew within the first twenty seconds after the initial call for help.

When we opened the hatch four minutes and fifteen seconds after the first alarm, all we found was a lot of heavy poisonous smoke and searing heat.The inside was completely gutted.

This fire was so hot that it melted some of the Aluminum support structure in the ECU area. Estimated temperature 2500 degrees.

We could still hear the oxygen venting into the spacecraft.

As I said earlier, there's just too much that NASA didn't tell or tried to gloss over to make their story palatable.

I want to apologize for being long-winded but in order to get my points across, it just takes time.

R.Glueck
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posted 08-22-2004 05:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for R.Glueck   Click Here to Email R.Glueck     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Mr. Clemmons, would you be able to discuss perhaps, the astronauts as they were found on opening the hatch? I realize this is lends itself towards the grisley, but nobody who was on the scene has been willing to discuss how the bodies were removed, whether anyone actually reached into the capsule, or even go into the capsule, to check for signs of life. We are told tht the bodies lay in place, with melted nylon snaring them liek a spider web. I would like to know more, with discretion, of course. This has been a most interesting discourse on the Apollo fire.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-23-2004 02:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
It's refreshing to know that there are so many out there that are still interested in Apollo 1.

The main point on the investigation was the source of the fire. NASA had said long before the investigation started that it was an electrical fire and moved heaven and earth to try and prove their theory.

But they had a problem. Even though they had the spacecraft and could examine it thoroughly, it wouldn't cooperate. It continued to hold it's secret.

First, an electrical fire leaves tracks. Ask any fire investigator.

Because of the tremendous burst of energy or explosion at the point of contact between a live wire and ground, the material at this point gets white hot and parts of the wire and contact material explodes due to rapid expansion, resulting in a shower of small sparks over an area.

These sparks consist of white hot material and the size of the material will determine to some degree the type of short and subsequent damage.

The affected wire will get white hot, hot enough to destroy the integrity of both the wire and the insulation. Melted wire is the term we use. A condition called frying. Even a switch or device will almost melt if the circuit breakers don't kick out.

If a wire shorts out in a wire bundle, it's easy to spot cause the damaged wire will melt the insulation on every wire it touches.

There is another condition where a wire frays against another wire, but no spark.

This is called a leak and usually goes to a normal ground in another circuit. The only thing this will do is give a crazy reading or perhaps activate another circuit.

The first track left on a direct short is smoke and wire damage. If the spark is large enough, whatever it falls on will show evidence of heat or flame, not only affecting the material but anything around it. This smoke is different, usually much heavier and darker that regular flame will produce.

The sparks will also give off a pattern of pitting which can pinpoint the exact point of short.

So now the investigators were looking for a fried or damaged wire and pitting which would have been easy to see, probably black and very stiff and a large glob of metal that fell into the wire bundles.

There was no evidence that the wire frayed by the ECU cover got hot or shorted out. All the wire that they inspected under a magnifying glass only showed evidence of external heat, no spark marks, no material transfer between adjoining wires and equipment.

Evidence of the lack of damage was NASA's own admission that they found nothing incriminating.

Even the wrench that received a lot of attention showed no pitting or burn marks.

The infinite detail that they used to disassemble the spacecraft and it's components was incredible.

Each part had a separate test prep sheet, giving all the details. They went back to engineering drawing, retrieved all the data such as screw and bolt torque, type of material and installation history.

A very detailed procedure for removal was compiled and then the item was removed from the spacecraft.

It was then dissected, opened up for all to see. No problems were found. Everything worked as designed. The basic design of the spacecraft proved to be very sound.

Now they were finding that there were many modifications performed without the proper paperwork, most based on the discrepancies that the NASA group had found wrong during their walk through inspections and required fixing.

I heard the figure of better than eight hundred items, but don't quote me on the exact number.

When they finally wrapped up the investigation, which was only confined to the spacecraft, they published their findings.

"An Electrical fire of undetermined origins." What a cop out.

Now comes the good part.

Since NASA knew that they had messed in their hardhat, they had to find a culprit to blame it on. After declaring in print and in the press that North American was a shoddy contractor and we technicians were dumb country yocals, they persuaded North American to accept the fault and get on with the program.

"Stormy" Storms, head of NAA at the time didn't want too because he said that NAA didn't build a faulty spacecraft. He was replaced.

If N.A.A would accept the blame and pay the Widows of the astronauts they would be awarded the Shuttle contract for four shuttles.Something smelled and it wasn't the Indian River.

Here was a company that had been smeared all over the news as being incompetent, with shoddy work performers, being given the biggest contract in NASA's history over Boeing, General Dynamics, McDonald, Douglas and Chrysler.

Now we know these companies were good and reliable.

Of course we in NAA felt real good about this cause it would mean work long after Apollo ended.

But the bad smell still stuck in our noses.

That's it for today. Tomorrow's episode, the fire itself.

mdmyer
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posted 08-24-2004 10:18 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for mdmyer   Click Here to Email mdmyer     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I seem to remember reading a very detailed account of the Apollo 1 fire in a book but I can't remember which book it was. I think it mentioned that someone entered the Apollo 1 and pronounced the astronauts dead. This account detailed the actions of the people trying to rescue the astronauts as well.

What book do you guys think gave the best account of the fire?

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-25-2004 08:48 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There is a book called "Apollo, The Race to the Moon," by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, Simon and Schuster, copyrighted in 1989 that is the most accurate of all the accounts.

I have read all the books that were published by the astronauts and find them sadly lacking in facts about the fire, some even went so far as to make up a story because most of them had a problem.

None of the men on Apollo 1 fire that night would talk, has ever allowed an interview or discussed the fire in any detail.

I am the first, as far as I know that has ever spoken in print about that night.

And that was only twenty years after the fire, because I felt that the real story has never been accurately portrayed.

Larry McGlynn
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posted 08-25-2004 06:24 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Larry McGlynn   Click Here to Email Larry McGlynn     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Mr. Clemmons, this thread has been fascinating. I would like to ask a question, if I may?

What did you find inside the cabin, once your crew was able to remove the hatch and extinguish the fire?

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-26-2004 07:45 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I am very sorry that I have not got back to telling the rest of the story, but I have been rather tied up with a great grandson that has come to live with us.

As for those questions about what was found inside the spacecraft, you'll just have to wait until I get to that part and I promise you, it won't be too long, and it'll be worth it.

In the meantime, get a copy of "Apollo, The Race to the Moon", by Charles Murray, most libraries will have a copy and get the background. They did a fine job, not shackled by NASA or the astronauts in telling the real story of the Apollo Moon Program. Very accurate and full of tidbits of information.

MiliputMan
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posted 08-26-2004 11:28 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for MiliputMan   Click Here to Email MiliputMan     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Mr. Clemmons, this thread is amazing! A lot of people are posting on it but I hope that, like me, a lot more are just reading along.

I can't get enough of those first-person stories about the space program. Sadly the only time we can hear you guys (the real workers and not the PR people) is when some big tragedy happens and we can finally get those stories through the public hearings of an investigation.

I learned the coolest facts about the space shuttle development during the CAIB investigation than from countless hours of browsing on NASA websites.

Keep on writing and when you're done with this subject, feel free to veer into any others.

taneal1
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posted 08-26-2004 04:47 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for taneal1   Click Here to Email taneal1     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Pardon me for interrupting this fascinating Apollo 1 information. Perhaps someone could answer a question for me. The description of how to open the "inner hatch" has always confused me.

Astronauts and engineers alike have described it as Tom Stafford does: "Getting both [hatches] open involved inserting a ratchet handle in half a dozen spots and cranking away, then pulling the pieces apart."

The implication here and elsewhere is that the 6 latch bolts had to be released seperately, inserting rotating and reinserting the ratchet.

However, per the CM 012 manual: "The mechanism is manually operated using the tool set Torque Wrench. ...normally stowed in a drawer, and just prior to entry inserted and locked in the inner hatch opening mechanism. The inner hatch may be...unlocked by rotating 360 degrees counterclockwise."

The accompanying diagram depicts the latch mechanism. The 6 latches are connected together by a gangbar and appear to operate simultaneously. I see only a single point where the Torque Wrench could be inserted.
It appears that you retrieved the wrench, inserted it, and rotated it once through a full circle...

To remove the Outer Hatch a different tool was inserted and rotated 90 degrees. The BPC hatch is not described here but my understanding was that it had a handle to be pulled or pushed.

A question for Stephen: Was the Torque Wrench found in the locking mechanism or nearby? If not, was the wrench located in the area of the fire's alleged origin? I would think that it would be stored where Ed White could have reached it easily, yet I've never read that he was able to even begin the inner hatch opening procedure.

Thanks for any info you can provide!

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-27-2004 12:54 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
First both hatches had to be ratcheted in place because the locking fingers around the perimeter of the door were connected to linkages operated by a gear mechanism.

A pinion gear was accessable from the outside, the main gear from the inside. These fingers were recessed in the hatches themselves and were at an angle so that as they began to move out of the recessed position into the groove in the door frame, the hatch would close and compress the seals in the door frame.

There was a different opening system inside, using the same mechanism, but a different gear. it only took ninety degrees on the inner hatch and a full turn on the outer hatch.The reason for the torque wrench was to prevent breakage of the linkages because of the high torque involved to unseat the fingers.

There was a chance that the opening mechanism could break because of high torque required to move the main gear,whereas we used a small pinion gear to move the big gear. If too much pull was exerted, the ratchet would just slip.When I say big, it really wasn't. I think it was two inches in diameter.

They didn't worry about the seal at this time because they just wanted out.

The outside was different. Since the pinion gear (I believe the ratio was 40:1) operated the linkages through a main gear, the outside hatches took forty turns with a "T" handle hex wrench inserted in the drive mechanism. I think the size was 1/2" but don't quote me, it's been so long ago.

This slow movement was needed to secure doors against the pressure seals without damage. The inner hatch was also forty turns with the same "T" Handle. You can't get much torque with a "T" handle and besides, it really wasn't needed. It would almost spin with two fingers.

During the fire, this was what slowed us down, because in all the confusion, fire and heat, we could only get a few turns at a time before having to back off.

Particularly the inner hatch, which got so hot that the "T handle was too hot to touch with the bare hand.

The BPC cover had a similar arrangement but I don't remember how many turns of the "T" wrench was required, I think it was twenty or less because there was no pressure seals involved. It did have a seal but it was not critical. I think I might know someone that could tell us for sure, course he's old like I am and real hard of hearing.

Overall, it was a poorly designed hatch but it filled the bill for NASA. That's what they wanted.

Tom, I hope this answers your question.

I promise, I'll get on the subject of the day of the fire tomorrow.

taneal1
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posted 08-27-2004 01:05 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for taneal1   Click Here to Email taneal1     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks, Stephen. A perfectly clear explanation. Not only "how" the hatch opened, by "why" the actions differed when opening the hatch from the inside or outside.

rjurek349
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posted 08-29-2004 05:26 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for rjurek349   Click Here to Email rjurek349     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
This has been and is one of the most informative and interesting threads I have yet read on these boards. Mr. Clemmons -- many thanks for not only speaking up, but also for the authoritative details. Can't wait for more.

spaceuk
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posted 08-30-2004 04:05 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for spaceuk     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
What would happen if fire on board a spacecraft in orbit?

The reports on Mir accidents and Apollo 13 explosion give some indication of what to expect in certain scenarios.

And didn't the Soviet's have a small fire when undertaking a Vulcain furnace welding experiment many many years ago. (Too many from my viewpoint!)

I recall the tragic Apollo 1 fire as I was gearing up to write an article on Apollo programme for Spaceflight magazine. We (editor/I) subsequently postponed the article until later as a mark of respect and because various spacecraft items would be redesigned.

I still have the letter from James Webb, NASA, after I had sent condolences to the families and NASA following the fire.

Spacepsycho
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posted 08-30-2004 06:06 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Spacepsycho   Click Here to Email Spacepsycho     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Mr. Clemmons, thanks for the behind the scenes details of the Apollo 1 fire and it's better than what was written in the Cox/Murray book. A family friend helped investigate the fire, he was so shocked and saddened at losing the astronauts, that he could never tell me the details of this tragedy and he was never the same after it.

I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for the next part of your story.

Stephen Clemmons
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posted 08-30-2004 07:34 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Stephen Clemmons   Click Here to Email Stephen Clemmons     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks for all the comments. I am going to send the rest of the story today and hope you enjoy it. I hope it's not to long and please feel free to email me or comment because the story should be told.

This is an excerpt from my book, "Men of Apollo" which I hope to release later this year. It is copyrighted and I have had some misgivings about releasing parts of it prematurely, but I feel that there are many of you out there that want to know the real story.

Real Heroes
By Steve Clemmons (Copyright 2004)

It has been nearly forty years since the night of the fire that killed three of America's best astronauts, Virgil I Grissom, Edward White II and Roger Chaffee. In the years following the fire, it was almost impossible to forget the tragic events that night and even today, what happened that night is firmly etched in my memories.

My thoughts go back to the 27th of January 1967 to a lonely launch complex named Pad #34 on the north side of Cape Canaveral, Florida. I had the misfortune of being next to Apollo 1, America's newest spacecraft built by North American Aviation, at the crucial moment when it burst into flames.

Even though it has been nearly 40 years, the memories are as fresh as that fateful day and no matter how hard I try to forget, I still see the smoke and flames. I can still hear the cries of my teammates as we try to get the hatches open. I can still see the flames reaching up toward the Solid Booster Rocket mounted on top of the spacecraft. I can remember my hopes that the astronauts suits would just hold until we could get in.

The events of 9-11 in New York City brought it all back -- the fires in the WTC Twin Towers --fireman rushing into the inferno to do their job -- confusion and cries for help that kept the TV scenes rolling day after day.

We too had our heroes that evening, but they were never acknowledged and history has all but forgotten them except for the memories of those who were on the pad that night.

The White Room on the top floor of the Gantry Tower, level 8, provided service access to the spacecraft. Here North American Aviation (NAA)Technicians, Jim Gleaves, Leadman, Jerry Hawkins and myself, Steve Clemmons, Pad Leader Donald Babbitt and L.D. Reese, Quality Control Inspector was standing by to support the final test leading up to a launch three weeks later. It was known as the plugs out test and completion would certify that the spacecraft was ready for launch.

I was monitoring the panel feeding oxygen through a flexible hose into the spacecraft through access port #14. Donald Babbitt, Jim Gleaves and Jerry Hawkins were monitoring headsets and speakers for any instructions to help in the test. They were lounging in chairs scattered around the room, following the various conversations between the astronauts and CapCom.

On level 7, twenty feet below, two technicians and a quality control inspector were standing by the umbilical panel located on the service module, ready to catch the cables that would be jettisoned at some point in the test. The rest of the crew had left the tower for the evening break and was supposed to return between 6:30 and 7:00 to relieve us.

It was very quiet and we were talking among ourselves about the conversations between the NASA engineers in Block House and the astronauts. The astronauts had been in the Capsule since about 2:00 p.m. that afternoon and tempers were getting a little frayed. There had been problems all day and the most irritating of these problems was poor communication between the spacecraft and Cap Con. Somewhere on the Cape, someone had left a headset mike open. In those days, headsets had hand controls with mike buttons which were always jamming.

We could tell that Grissom was getting agitated because of the scuffling noises coming from his side of the spacecraft, which would suggest that he was getting restless. At 6:20 P.M., a hold was called to allow the engineers time to try and get the communications cleared up and straighten up some of the procedures. We kinda relaxed as we knew it was going to be awhile and there was nothing we could do.

There was some minor chitchat between the Block House and Capsule, and the engineers were getting ready to pick up the count. The test conductor had just announced that the count would resume at 6:30.

The last test of the day was the Emergency Egress where the astronauts would declare an Emergency and exit the spacecraft on their own. We had been expecting this to start at any time so it was no surprise when we heard the word "Fire, we've got a fire in here." It has never been established as to exactly what was said.

At first we thought that they had jumped the schedule and this was part of the procedure.

I yelled out to Jerry Hawkins, "Did you hear that? Did they say there's a fire inside?" "Yea, sounded like it." Jerry yelled back but we still didn't believe it.

L.D. Reese, the NAA Quality Control Inspector threw his headset down and ran toward the lone fire extinguisher on that floor, he had heard the words clearly.

I looked over toward Jim Gleaves and he had a shocked look on his face. He realized that we were in trouble.

I heard Jim yell, "Let's get the men out" as he started to run toward the door leading out to the swing arm, just a few short feet away. He stopped, realizing that he didn't have the tool to open the hatches.

We needed a "T" handle allen wrench to open the hatches and it had been placed in the leadman's desk because we didn't think it would be needed. Jerry Hawkins ran to the desk and opened the drawer, frantically searching for the wrench.

Donald Babbitt, the pad leader, was trying to contact the blockhouse but the headsets went dead. He was still trying to confirm what we had just heard.

A million questions were running through my mind.

Is it a fire?

Did I hear it right?

Is it part of the test?

Then I happened to look up at the small window above Chaffee's seat. It had turned bright orange. It was then that I realized that we had a real fire on our hands.

My first words, almost a scream was "Oh God, it's happening, we've got a fire on board." But no one heard because they were scrambling to find the tool.

They had also seen what I saw, the orange window.

I was sitting next to access port #14 monitoring the O2 panel, which was feeding breathing oxygen into the ECU system. I started calling the engineer in the blockhouse on the headset, but for some strange reason, the headset went dead. (Later I found out that the Test Conductor had ordered communications cut in fear that word would get out about the fire.)

I had a choice. If I shut off the panel, it could starve the capsule of oxygen and if the astronauts had survived the original fire, they would die, and if I didn't, it would feed the flames making the situation much worse. I jumped up and ran toward the intercom box which was against the back wall and frantically turned the channel selector, looking for an active channel.

Nothing. I needed answers' NOW.

Jim started toward the door, followed by Donald Babbitt and L. D. Reese when the capsule erupted in flame. The force of the blast knocked Jim against the door, which opened inwardly toward the spacecraft. Their nylon suits and shop coats were now on fire from the hot chunks of burning material that was showering down all over the clean room.

As Jim got up and struggled to get the door open, Jerry found the tool and followed them out on the swing arm.

I looked back to where I had been sitting. The chair, engulfed in flames, was reduced to a bare metal frame. The O2 panel was almost hidden in the heavy smoke and fire shooting out of access port #14.

(This is the opening that shows up on most of the pictures of the fire where the most damage occurred)

I knew that I would have to get back to it somehow if I could get an answer.

But nobody seemed to be on any channel, just dead silence.

By this time, flames were reaching the ceiling, sending out burning chunks of Teflon and thick acrid smoke and secondary fires were breaking out on level 7, just below us.

Flames continued to shoot out of the access ports, almost like blow torches. I continued to try to reach somebody in the blockhouse hoping the headset would come back on. I wanted to stay in the area to see if they wanted me to turn off the oxygen panel.

For what seemed like hours, I waited, but it was only about forty five seconds.

And the area was getting hot, the carpet was now burning and I decided that I had better get out while I could and debated whether to shut off the panel or leave it running. Finally, I decided to leave it on and evacuated to the Swing Arm white room to join my teammates.

I would guess it was almost one minute since the fire started.

The Swing Arm White Room was positioned next to the spacecraft command module and was a part of the service structure clean room during ground tests. The only way in was to exit the Service Clean Room onto the catwalk, turn right and go to the end, about six feet from the door to the service clean room.

According to Jerry, it was sheer pandemonium when they first arrived, Heavy biting acrid smoke, heat and flames filled the small room, hardly large enough for three people. Jim entered first, followed by Jerry. Just as they reached the capsule, another blast of fire and smoke shot out into the room, driving them back out on the swing arm.

They decided to wait until the flames subsided before going back but they knew only seconds remained if they were going to get them out alive.

And these precious seconds were ticking away.

In the meantime, L.D. had found another fire extinguisher (note there was only two on that level) and was now looking for gas masks. If they could get a mask that worked, they could go back in.

Fire and dense smoke continued to pour out of the spacecraft and both levels of the service filling both rooms with flames, heat and thick acrid smoke.

Jim and Jerry couldn't wait for a mask and went back in.

Donald was trying to find a headset that worked so he could establish communications with the blockhouse. We needed help badly. Mostly something to put out the fire.

I think in the back of our minds, we were worried that the 9000 lb. escape rocket sitting over our head might go off. It only took a flame of 400 degrees in one of the engine nozzles to set it off. The fire balls now coming out of the spacecraft were floating up around the rocket, captured by the penthouse walls that protected this rocket from the elements.

The smoke was so thick that Jim couldn't see the spacecraft, but could only feel around for the BPC Hatch locking hex hole with the T-Handle, he was now nearly blind from the acrid smoke. Jerry was almost as bad off. Both were so hoarse they couldn't talk. They found the hole and inserted the tool.

There was a problem because the BPC Hatch had only been partially installed and seemed to hang up and it took extreme force to dislodge.

They finally got it off and passed it out the door, then started on the second hatch.

I arrived just as they started removing the 2nd hatch. I realized that Jim was in bad shape, near the point of collapse and persuaded him to go to the umbilical tower and get some fresh air. Jerry and LD continued to remove the hatch.

There was a guard standing next to the elevator.

"How about sending the elevator down so we can get some help up here?" I asked.

"I can't, I have to keep it here in case any of the astronauts survived," he replied.

"Well, anyway, would you watch out for Jim, he's pretty bad off," I replied.

Then I returned to the fire.

One problem was that as a matter of safety, we would always send the Gantry Elevators to the top floor in case someone had to get down in a hurry. Now the elevators had to descend to the ground, then return, a full two minutes.

Jerry, LD and I were working in short 20 second relays on the second hatch, but we were having a problem. The lower edge of the Boost Protective Cover extended well below the lower crown of the heat shield, acting like a giant inverted funnel for the fire and smoke coming from the spacecraft and secondary fires on level 7.

This directed the fire inside the BPC to the hatch opening.

Donald Babbitt found a headset that worked and was trying to coordinate rescue efforts from the blockhouse.

I don't believe that our crew on the ground knew what was happening and was not aware of our situation. When L.D. or I would go out into the fresh air on the swing arm we started yelling at the top of our voices "Get help, we need fire extinguishers and Scotty Air Packs." Every time we went out, we called out for help.

Some of the men heard us, poured out of the Tech Trailer and headed for the tower, bringing fire extinguishers. They knew that we were in trouble and the thoughts of that escape rocket going off was at the top of their mind. If it did, all of us were cooked.

There was no time for the elevators to come down so they started climbing 200 ft of stairs. One extinguisher, shown on the picture of the fire damaged access port #14 was originally on the ground, but was carried up the steps by two technicians

On one of his trips out to fresh air, L.D. found another fire extinguisher and some gas masks in an old foot locker. These masks were used for UDMH fuel handling but were of no use for the smoke we were encountering. When we tried to peel the protective tape on the inlet side of the canister, the tape had seized due to age and would not come off. So much for the gas masks.

We had to hold our breath and could only stay in the area a short time, probably about twenty to thirty seconds because of the dense biting smoke. Fire and hot smoke continued to pour out of the BPC opening, preventing us from getting more than three or four turns at a time. (Each Hatch required 40 turns of the T Handle to release the finger latches)

Just as we were preparing to remove the 2nd hatch, the handles were too hot to hold. Jerry grabbed the extinguisher and directed the CO2 onto the handles, cooling them long enough for us to remove the hatch.

We were now getting heat and black smoke from the area between the pressure bulkhead and the heat shield which prevented us from getting to the third hatch mounted to the pressure bulkhead. Occasional flames would flare up and Jerry used the second extinguisher to batt them down as well as cool the third hatch. The three of us continued to work in 20 second spurts until the third hatch fell inside.

Four minutes and fifteen seconds had passed before the last hatch gave and dropped inside, but just partially, because it seemed that something was blocking the way, (this something proved to be the body of Ed White.).

Meanwhile, on level 7, the men, shocked and totally surprised when flame, smoke and bits of burning debris started to rain down on them, evacuated the room looking for fire extinguishers and anything else to fight the fire.

Fire had now broken out all over the room, setting the heavy rubber cushions around the door and floor opening on fire. When they returned with two fire extinguishers, they tried to put the small fires coming from the heavy rubber pads but flames were still shooting out from around the service module and the spacecraft. Heavy smoke filled the room, making it impossible to breathe.

Jessie Owens, a NAA propulsion engineer came down the back stairs from level 8, his hair and eye brows singed and clothes half burned off. He had been caught just at the instant fire started shooting out of access openings as he was trying to get to the spacecraft, but the flames drove him back.

Shortly afterward, men began to arrive with fresh extinguishers and they went on to extinguish the secondary fires. They were trying to get to level 8 but that area was still burning. The main fire in the spacecraft was slowly going out on it's own. They began to mop up the remaining fire and proceeded to the swing arm white room, by this time, the fire was out and the hatches had been opened.

One man that stood out was Dale Higgenbottem, NAA QC, was standing on the back side of the fire on level 8, directing his extinguisher at the fireballs going into the penthouse. I have always felt that his efforts prevented a bigger catastrophe.

This part of the story has never been told: It is from conversations that occurred at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base Hospital several hours after the fire by some of men.

Workers had started to evacuate the tower according to standard procedure. When they heard the cries for help coming from the top of the tower, they stopped and started running back into the tower, bringing fire extinguishers they had located in various places, not knowing what they were going to find.

They expected the rocket to blow at any moment.

Others poured out of the various support trailers located at the base of the tower, all heading toward the tower which was in imminent danger of blowing up because of the solid rocket motor and explosives packed in various places inside the rocket.

Forty three extinguishers were found on the two levels after the fire, only four were available at the start of the fire.(two on each floor)

The umbilical tower elevator had been locked out on the top floor waiting for the normal egress of the astronauts and the attendant had orders not to go down without the astronauts. This prevented help from coming up the only way not blocked by fire. Level seven and eight enclosures which protected the spacecraft and service module had been sealed with heavy rubber bumper seals for environmental purposes and the steel entry doors had been locked on the orders of the Test Conductor and Pad Security.

Using fire extinguisher bottles as rams, they tried to beat the doors in but to no avail. This created a problem getting in from the outside, as the only other way in was through the umbilical access covers located on the side of the clean room on level 7, not accessible by ladder or decking. Several men climbed out on the steelwork to reach these opening, then when they had gained access, opened the doors from the inside.

When they reached the 7th level, they started putting out the fires coming from the heavy rubber bumpers and seam seals that insulated the spacecraft service area. By this time, some of the fire had died down and the smouldering rubber was creating huge quantities of heavy black smoke. Without gas masks, they continued to work their way up to level eight and onto the Umbilical Swing arm.

They all knew that several hundred pounds of explosives had been installed and a 9,000 lb. thrust solid fuel rocket booster was mounted on top of the spacecraft, either of which could go off at any second.

Later, I remember talking to one man, Dale Higgenbottom, NAA QC, armed with a fire extinguisher who had made it to back side of level eight. He was watching for balls of fire that would float toward the penthouse(the housing around the Escape Rocket), which he would attempt to extinguish. He did a good job because the rocket didn't ignite. They counted 43 empty fire extinguishers on levels seven and eight after the fire was over. The escape rocket as well as the support structure had substantial fire damage.

It took us four minutes and fifteen seconds to get the three hatches off and by this time, other workers had arrived to relieve us. Several small fires still lingered but these were now being quickly extinguished.

As the last hatch fell, I was kneeling on the right side and Jerry on the left. I could get in but could only go so far because of the heat and smoke and restricted opening. I felt around the center seat, still barehanded, for Ed White's body but could not find it.

I could see from the damage that it had been a bad one, but amazingly, the small lights around the seats and consoles were still burning. I could hear noises coming from the inside, venting air making weird, almost human squealing sound, crackling, popping noises of metal cooling. I could see something on the couch where Chaffee was supposed to be, but it was just a black shape in the dark. I backed out and Jerry went in. He looked around, feeling for anything that would indicate they were there, and came out, tears in his eyes, "They're gone, Steve, they're gone. I can't find them."

At first we thought the bodies were cremated but there was no way we could tell.

With tears streaming down our face, partially from the searing gases and partly because of the sheer disappointment that we couldn't save the astronauts, we backed away from the hatch opening. L.D., who by this time had found a workable gas mask, slipped into the partial opening almost up to his waist. He thought he heard something, which turned out to be the same squealing noises heard earlier, and jerked his mask off, hoping to give it to any astronaut he found alive. He slowly backed out, big tears streaming down his face, saying "They're dead, they're all dead."

We backed out of the way for the Donald Babbitt, the Pad leader to take a look. He looked inside and with tears streaming down his face, speaking over the headset to the test conductor, "I can't tell you what I see."

That let everyone know it was bad.

I guess it's all right for grown men to cry, anyway we really didn't care what people thought, we had just lost the crew and the spacecraft, both our responsibilities and we couldn't do anything about it.

According to all reports from the NASA Medical Staff, Everything was to no avail as the astronauts were dead, killed within 18 seconds after the first explosion.

NASA never acknowledged the contributions of these men on the tower that night and their names were never published.

In fact NASA acted like it was our fault. The only ones that received NASA Commendations were the six of us on level eight and that was only after Congress told them to.

We always thought that was rather unfair. The entire crew considered the spacecraft and astronauts their responsibility. We had trained from day one working around Aircraft and rockets that the crew was number one and to handle anything that might happen. At that time, we were the only ones who knew how to get the hatches open so we couldn't wait for someone else to get the men out. We were only doing our job.

Yet these men that came back to the tower that night came back, not because they had too, but because they responded to our urgent calls for help, knowing full well the danger they faced. I don't think they considered the fact that they could be injured or killed but only knew that they had to do something.

Investigations that followed showed that if the main fire inside of the spacecraft had continued for one more minute with the same intensity, peaking at twenty-five hundred degrees, the ending would have been very tragic. The solid fueled booster rocket could have ignited, and the explosives would have gone off, destroying the pad and everyone within 1000 feet of the structure

I almost left out the part that Hank Rogers, a NASA QC inspector, played but not intentionally. He was on his way up in the elevator to level eight that night when he stepped out into a room of horror and immediately saw that the spacecraft was on fire.

He could have gotten back on the elevator and escaped to safety, knowing the dangers involved but he didn't hesitate. Instead he made his way through the smoke and fire in level 8 to the swing arm and began to help any way he could. He had not been trained on how to get the hatches off but he tried.

These men were our real heroes that evening. Even if NASA has forgotten and has tried to ignore the events of that day, I feel that I can speak for the spacecraft crew in saying thanks to those that came back.

I am sorry to report that Jerry Hawkins, L.D. Reese and Dale Higgenbottom have passed away in recent years.

This is not the end of the story. The best is yet to come.


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Ultimate Bulletin Board 5.47a





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