27 January 1967: During a “plugs out” test of the Apollo 1 Command Module, two weeks ahead of the scheduled launch of the Apollo/Saturn 1B AS-204—the first manned Apollo Program space flight—a fire broke out in the pressurized pure oxygen environment of the capsule and rapidly involved the entire interior.
The pressure rapidly built to 29 pounds per square inch (200 kPa) and 17 seconds later, at 23:31:19.4 UTC, the capsule ruptured.
The three astronauts, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil I. Grissom, United States Air Force, Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. White II, United States Air Force, and Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Chaffee, United States Navy, were killed.
AD ASTRA PER ASPERA
NASA has a detailed summary of the accident and investigation at:
22 January 1968: At 22:48:00.86 UTC (5:48:08 a.m., Eastern Standard Time) a Saturn IB rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 37B at the Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, Cape Kennedy, Florida, carrying LM-1, an unmanned Apollo Program lunar lander, into a low-Earth orbit.
AS-204 reached Mach 1 at T + 0:59.8, passing 24,574 feet (7,490.16 meters). First stage separation occurred at T + 02:23.6, at an altitude of 194,228 feet (59,201 meters), with the vehicle accelerating through 7,563 feet per second (2,305 meters per second).
The AS-204 S-IVB engine cut off occurred at T + 09:53 at 536,166 feet (163,423 meters) with the vehicle travelling 25,659 feet per second (7,820 meters per second). Orbital insertion occurred at T + 00:10:03 at an altitude of 88 nautical miles (163 kilometers) with a velocity of 25,684 feet per second (7,828 meters per second). The orbit was elliptical with an apogee of 120 nautical miles (222 kilometers) and perigee of 88 nautical miles (163 kilometers). The orbital period was 88.39 minutes.
The Lunar Module separated from the S-IVB stage at T + 00:53:55.24. It was the allowed to cold-soak for about 3 hours. At T + 03:59.46, the LM’s descent engine was fired but aborted by the guidance computer after 4.0 seconds. A little over 3 hours later, at T + 06:10:42, the descent engine was fired a second time, and burned until T + 06:13:14.7.
The ascent engine fired at 06:12:14.7 while the descent and ascent stages were still joined. The engine burned 60.0 seconds. It was fired a second time at T + 07:44:13.
With the tests completed, the orbits of the separated LM stages were allowed to decay. LM-1 quickly re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and was destroyed.
The purpose of the Apollo 5 mission was to test the Grumman-built Lunar Module in actual spaceflight conditions. Engines for both the descent and ascent stages had to be started in space, and be capable of restarts. Although the mission had some difficulties as a result of programming errors, it was successful and a second test flight with LM-2 determined to be unnecessary and was cancelled.
SA-204 ¹ had originally been the scheduled launch vehicle for the Apollo 1 manned orbital flight.
When a fire in the command module killed astronauts Virgil I. (“Gus”) Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee, 27 January 1967, the rocket was undamaged. It was moved from Launch Complex 39 and reassembled at LC 37B for use as the launch vehicle for Apollo 5.
The Saturn IB AS-204 was a two-stage, liquid-fueled, heavy launch vehicle. It consisted of a S-IB first stage and S-IVB second stage. The total height of AS-204 was 181 feet, 0.355 inches (55.17782 meters). The Saturn IB rocket stood 141 feet, 8.644 inches (43.19636 meters), without payload. It had a maximum diameter of 22.8 feet (6.949 meters), and the span across the first stage guide fins was 40.7 feet (12.405 meters). Its empty weight was 159,000 pounds (72,122 kilograms) and at liftoff, Apollo 5 weighed 1,285,044 pounds (582,886 kilograms). The Saturn IB was capable of launching a 46,000 pound (20,865 kilogram) payload to Earth orbit.
The S-IB first stage was built by the Chrysler Corporation Space Division at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana. The first stage was 80 feet, 4.089 inches (24.4878606 meters) long, with a maximum diameter of 21 feet, 8.0 inches (6.604 meters) (21 feet, 5.0 inches across the Redstone tanks). The stage was powered by eight Rocketdyne H-1 engines, burning RP-1 and liquid oxygen. Eight Redstone rocket fuel tanks, with four containing the RP-1 fuel, and four filled with liquid oxygen, surrounded a Jupiter rocket fuel tank containing liquid oxygen. Total thrust of the S-IB stage was 1,666,460 pounds (7,417.783 kilonewtons) and it carried sufficient propellant for a maximum 4 minutes, 22.57 seconds of burn. The first stage of AS-204 was S-IB-4.
The McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company S-IVB stage was built at Huntington Beach, California. The stage was 61 feet, 4.555 inches (18.708497 meters) long, with a maximum diameter of 21 feet, 8.0 inches (6.604 meters). It was powered by a single Rocketdyne J-2 engine, fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The J-2 produced 229,714 pounds of thrust (1,021.819 kilonewtons), at high thrust, and 198,047 pounds (880.957 kilonewtons) at low thrust). The second stage carried enough fuel for 7 minutes, 49.50 seconds burn at high thrust.
The Lunar Module was a two-stage vehicle designed to transport two astronauts from Lunar Orbit to the surface of the Moon, provide shelter and a base of operations while on the Moon, and then return the astronauts to lunar orbit, rendezvousing with the Apollo Command and Service Module. It was designed and built by the Grumman Aerospace Corporation at Bethpage, Long Island, New York.
The Descent Stage incorporated extendable landing gear, a hypergolic-fueled rocket engine to brake from orbital speed, establish a landing trajectory, and then decelerate for landing. The TRW Space Technology Laboratories Lunar Module Descent Engine (LMDE) produced a maximum of 10,500 pounds of thrust (46.706 kilonewtons), and could be throttled from 10–100% thrust. The stage also carried support equipment, oxygen, water, etc., needed by the astronauts, and equipment for use during surface activities.
To return to Lunar Orbit, the Descent Stage was left behind, and the Bell Aerosystems Lunar Module Ascent Engine (LMAE) was fired. This engine also used hypergolic fuel and produced 3,500 pounds of thrust (15.569 kilonewtons).
LM-1 weighed 36,342 pounds (16,484 kilograms).
¹ The Apollo Program Saturn rockets were designated as both AS-xxx and SA-xxx. The AS-xxx designation was applied to the complete vehicle, or “full stack,” while the SA-xxx designation applied to only the multi-stage rocket assembly.
3 April 1926: Virgil Ivan Grissom was born at Mitchell, Indiana, the second of five children of Dennis David Grissom, an electrician, and Cecile King Grissom. “Gus” Grissom attended Mitchell High School, graduating in 1944. He was a member of the Hi-Y Club, the Camera Club, and the Signal Club.
Upon graduation from high school. Virgil I. Grissom enlisted as an aviation cadet in the Air Corps, United States Army, at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Lawrence, Indiana, 9 August 1944. He was assigned to basic flight training at Sheppard Field, Texas, but the War came to an end before he could graduate as a pilot. Then reassigned as a clerk, he requested to be discharged from the Air Corps, which he was in November 1945.
Grissom married Miss Betty Lavonne Moore at Mitchell, Indiana, 6 July 1945. They wood have two sons, Scott and Mark. (In Korea, Grissom named his F-86 Scotty after his first son.)
After the war, Grissom enrolled at Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, and in 1950, graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering.
He then re-joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950 and was trained at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and Williams Air Base, Arizona, where he specialized as a fighter pilot. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, U.S. Air Force, in March 1952.
Lieutenant Grissom was assigned to he 334th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, based at Kenpo Air Base (K-14), in the Republic of South Korea. He flew 100 combat missions in the North American Aviation F-86 Sabre. Grissom was promoted to first lieutenant, 11 March 1952. he requested to fly another 25 combat missions, but that was declined and he returned to the United States. Lieutenant Grissom was then assigned as a flight instructor at Bryan Air Force Base, Texas.
Grissom attended a one year program at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, and earned a second bachelor’s degree in aircraft engineering. He was then sent to the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California (Class 56D). After completion, he was assigned as a fighter test pilot back at Wright-Patterson.
One of 508 pilots who were considered by NASA for Project Mercury, Gus Grissom was in the group of 110 that were asked to attend secret meetings for further evaluation. From that group, 32 went on with the selection process and finally 18 were recommended for the program. Grissom was one of the seven selected.
Major Grissom was the second American to “ride the rocket” aboard Mercury-Redstone 4. He named his space capsule Liberty Bell 7. The spacecraft reached a maximum altitude of 102.8 nautical miles (118.3 statute miles, 190.4 kilometers) and traveled 262.5 nautical miles (302.1 statute miles, 486.2 kilometers) down range. During the 15 minute, 37 second, flight, Grissom was weightless for 5:00 minutes.
Next he orbited Earth as commander of Gemini III along with fellow astronaut John Young. He was back-up commander for Gemini VI-A, then went on to the Apollo Program.
Gus Grissom was selected as the commander for Apollo I in January 1968. This was to be the first manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft. Ed White and Roger Chaffee were the other members of the flight crew.
As commander of AS-204 (Apollo I), LCOL Virgil I. Grissom, USAF was killed along with Ed White and Roger Chafee during a test on the launchpad, 27 January 1967.
Gus Grissom was an Air Force Command Astronaut with over 4,600 hours flight time. He was the first American astronaut to fly into space twice, and logged 5 hours, 7 minutes of space flight. For his military service, Grissom was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Air Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster (two awards); the American Campaign medal; the World War II Victory Medal; teh Korean Service Medal; the United Nations Korea medal, and the Korean War Service Medal of the Republic of South Korea. For his NASA service, he was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor (posthumous); the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
Had he lived, it is very possible that Grissom would have commanded the first Apollo mission to land on The Moon.
The remains of Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom, United States Air Force, NASA Astronaut, are buried at the Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.