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The Untold Story of the Apollo 1 Fire

Six rescuers tried to save the Apollo 1 astronauts from a suffocating, fiery death. My grandpa was one of them.
January 27, 2017, 4:13pm

Fifty years ago, Henry Rogers stepped off an elevator into an inferno. A quality control inspector at NASA, Rogers had been working during a routine launch simulation test for Apollo 1, the first manned Apollo mission, at Cape Canaveral in Florida. But while he was in the elevator, a fire had broken out in the spacecraft cabin. By the time Rogers stepped out into the white room—the area of the shuttle tower that connects with the cabin—flames were erupting and black smoke filled the room. "He could have gotten back on the elevator and escaped to safety, knowing the dangers involved, but he didn't hesitate," the late Stephen Clemmons, a spacecraft mechanical technician who was also there that night, wrote in a 2004 essay. "Instead he made his way through the smoke and fire and began to help any way he could. He had not been trained on how to get the hatches off, but he tried." Rogers and five other men including Clemmons, put their lives at risk to try to rescue Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, the three astronauts trapped inside the burning spacecraft. Though they eventually pried the hatches off, it was too late. All three astronauts had died. Years later, many at NASA believed their deaths were the one thing that saved the program, but in the wake of tragedy, the future of the fledgling Apollo program became uncertain. The legacy of the Apollo fire of 1967 is preserved in history books and lengthy documentaries. But the sheer horror and emotional intensity of having three colleagues—for many in the program, three close friends—suffocate in a burning capsule while scrambling to save them, hasn't been as well preserved. The severity of that moment has become a footnote in the public consciousness, faded by the decades that have passed and overshadowed by the incredible achievements of the Apollo program that followed. Read more on Motherboard