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.
But for those like Henry Rogers who experienced the tragedy firsthand, the trauma of January 27, 1967 left scars, and a deep sense of regret that's difficult to capture all these years later.
"We felt very responsible."
Rogers's actions that night earned him, and the other men who attempted the rescue, the NASA Medal for Exceptional Bravery, a rare honor given "for exemplary and courageous handling of an emergency by an individual who, independent of personal danger, has acted to prevent the loss of human life." But he never spoke about the fire at home with his family. He marched forward stoically, the way so many from that generation seemed to do, and continued to work on the Apollo program until its conclusion, in 1975.
Rogers was a veteran who served in WWII and the Korean War. He was a proud member of the team that put the first human on the moon. He was a husband, and father to three boys.
He was also my grandfather.
January 27, 1967, was a Friday, the end of another grueling week ramping up to the Apollo I launch date, mere weeks away: February 21, 1967. The mission was to carry Grissom, White, and Chaffee into Earth's orbit, allowing them to test out the Apollo launch and flight systems—in particular the Command Service Module—making sure the technology used on the eventual moon landing would be up to the task.
At this point, the Apollo program was in its sixth year. The ambitious human spaceflight program had been launched in response to President John F. Kennedy's goal, set in 1961, of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the decade. A great deal of progress had been made since the first manned spaceflight programs, Gemini and Mercury. But the space race with the USSR, combined with Kennedy's public goal of a moon landing, created a growing sense of urgency to advance the Apollo program at a breakneck pace. As a result, everyone on the Apollo team felt a personal responsibility to put in marathon time.
"What I remember is that they were really pushing people, and dad was working a lot of overtime," Ron Rogers, my uncle and Henry's youngest son, told me. "They were really pushing the pedal on this because there was so much politics involved."
Henry "Buck" Rogers was born on March 25, 1923, along with his twin sister, Betty, in Charlotte, North Carolina. His parents later moved the family—the twins and sister Jean—to the small town of White, Georgia. They grew up poor; Henry once had to wear his sister's old shoes because the family couldn't afford new ones for him. Other times he went to school barefoot. As a boy, Henry would pick cotton or sell boiled peanuts at baseball games to help make ends meet.
"He would talk with a fake lisp to try to make people feel sorry for him to sell more peanuts," my father, his oldest son Randy, told me recently.
Henry was 16 when WWII broke out, and he joined the Navy immediately, lying about his age and binging on bananas in order to gain enough weight to enlist. It meant dropping out of school, but he later earned his high school diploma during his time in the service. He fought at Pearl Harbor, and in the Battle of Midway.
After years of war tours, Henry was in a stopover in Detroit, sometime around 1943. There, at a five and dime store, he met a fiery redhead Canadian girl from across the river in Windsor, working as a cashier. Even though he would be leaving in the next few days, he asked her out, and they started dating long distance, writing letters to each other. In 1944, they were married and two years later, at the tender age of 23, Henry became a father—though he was away on duty at the time. The first of three sons, my dad, was born in December 1946.
Henry served in the Navy for 15 years, followed by a five-year stint in the Air Force, before retiring from service. But his time in the military gave him valuable skills in engineering and maintenance, which opened the door for him to work at the Martin Marietta Corporation, a company that built rockets and later became Lockheed Martin. In 1965, he made the leap from Martin to NASA, where he spent the rest of his career.
As a quality control inspector, Henry's job was to make sure materials and elements of the spacecraft were up to snuff, to report any damage or defects, and to look for possible improvements. NASA, today, describes this role as having the "utmost importance," because QC inspectors "support the space program and safeguard the lives of our astronauts."
The night of the fire, Henry was on his way up to the white room to assist on the final simulation, an emergency escape. The team had spent the day conducting a standard last check of all the systems called a "plugs out" test. It consisted of a full countdown rehearsal, followed by disconnecting the ground systems (that's the "plugs out" part) to see if the systems on the launch vehicle and the spacecraft worked on their own. The white room attached to a swing arm that connected it to the spacecraft. To reach it, you had to take an elevator up 200 feet to level A8, where an open air platform connected the control tower to the white room.
The test had gotten underway around 1 PM. Though it was mostly business as usual, there had been some issues with the communications connections. It was difficult for mission control to make out what the crew was saying inside the shuttle, and vice versa, leading Grissom to famously ponder after hours of static: "how are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?"
At 6:20 PM, the decision was made to take a 10 minute break to try to sort out the communications issues before the emergency evacuation simulation.
Suddenly, at 6:31 PM, a call over the comms line:
Henry heard the call while he ascended the elevator. But unbeknownst to him, the scene in the white room where he was heading intensified rapidly in just a matter of seconds.
"All of a sudden someone, we believe it was Grissom, said 'fire,'" John Tribe, the spacecraft propulsion manager for Apollo, who was in the control room in a separate building that night, told me. "That was followed, shortly thereafter, by Chaffee saying 'we've got a fire in the cockpit.'"
At that moment, the team in the white room sprung into action. Jim Gleaves, the lead technician, ran towards the spacecraft to try to open the hatch and get the crew out. Meanwhile, Don Babbitt, the pad leader for North American Aviation—the company that made the Apollo spacecraft—moved to pick up the phone and call for help.
"As he turned, there was a venting sound, a sort of WHOOOOSH!, followed by what seemed to Babbitt to be a sheet of flame shooting from the spacecraft and arching over his head, charring the papers on his desk," Catherine Bly Cox and Charles A. Murray recount in their seminal history on the Apollo program, Apollo: Race to the Moon.
As a formal investigation into the fire would conclude, the pressure vessel on the spacecraft had ruptured, and the fire exploded onto the swing arm, blasting Gleaves back against the door and flooding the room—and the men—with fresh flames and thick smoke. During this time, the workers in the control room were stunned, listening to the astronaut's distraught communications and helpless to do anything.
"There was a 10 second pause, and then an anguished cry from Chaffee: 'Get us out of here! We're burning up!'" Tribe told me. "And then there was a scream. And then it was all over."
From the time of the first announcement of fire to the pressure vessel blowing out, a mere 18 seconds elapsed: just enough time for Henry to ascend up the tower. At this point, Gleaves, Babbitt, Clemmons—as well as L. D. Reece and Jerry W. Hawkins, two other men who had been working in the white room—had already been trying to fight the flames and pull the astronauts out to safety.
"All we felt was heat and ashes."
The fire reached the ceiling and sent "burning chunks of Teflon" flying off the spacecraft, Clemmons wrote in his essay. Along with immediate threat of the flames, there was a looming danger overhead: the 9000 lb escape rocket attached to the tower. If the fire reached it, it could ignite and explode. The five men engaged the only two fire extinguishers on that level to douse the flames closest to the hatch.
"The smoke was so thick that Jim couldn't see the spacecraft, but could only feel around for the [hatch]," Clemmons wrote. "He was now nearly blind from the acrid smoke. Jerry was almost as bad off. Both were so hoarse they couldn't talk."
When Henry arrived, without hesitation, he plunged into the fiery chaos unfolding in front of him. He pulled off his jacket to offer to another man to cover his face. He helped dig up some air masks, and then joined the men trying to open the three-layer hatch.
"The hatch was loose but they couldn't get it out," Henry said in his testimony as part of the year-long investigation into the fire. "We had it pushed down enough where we could barely see inside the command module and there was a lot of smoke and heat coming from the inside of the spacecraft. We [looked] in and we couldn't see anything, so we reached in to see if we could feel anything. All we felt was heat and ashes."
NASA published the results of an official investigation of the Apollo fire in 1968. According to the 200-page report, Grissom, Chaffee, and White had died of cardiac arrest from inhaling too much carbon monoxide and falling asleep. All three astronauts were gone long before they sustained burns. It was a horrific way to go nonetheless, and the waves of grief affected everyone in the program.
"As members of the launch team, we felt we had lost three of our own and we felt very responsible," Tribe, the propulsion manager, told me. "How the hell could we have put three guys into those conditions?"
The investigation revealed a number of small missteps that had added up to disaster. The most glaring was that the atmosphere inside the cabin was pure oxygen. This may sound like an obvious mistake, but as Cox and Murray point out in their chronicle of the Apollo program, pure oxygen is necessary in orbit. With only a third of the cabin pressure as Earth, normal air—which is about 78 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen—wouldn't be capable of sustaining life while in orbit. But while doing ground tests, it proved disastrous to put astronauts into a capsule of pure, pressurized oxygen.
There were also some design flaws that enabled the initial spark to ignite, and go unnoticed, and to incinerate nearby, highly-flammable materials, causing the fire to grow out of control in mere seconds. Then there was the hatch itself: designed to open inward (nearly impossible to do if the cabin pressure increases), and three-layered, making it a slow, burdensome process to open, and delaying the rescue efforts.
Each of these errors provided an important lesson for the Apollo program moving forward, and resulted in major improvements to the spacecraft design. These lessons may not have been learned without such a tragedy, and they helped American astronauts win the race to the moon in 1969 with Apollo 11.
Grissom, White, and Chaffee did not die in vain, Tribe said.
"I have a personal feeling that, without their loss in 1967, we might not have gotten to the moon, literally, because what we learned from that accident made a safer program," he told me.
If the fire hadn't happened when it did, where it did, these dangerous design flaws may have gone unnoticed until it was too late, and we may have sent astronauts into orbit—or worse, to the moon—doomed to their deaths. It's a scenario none who were involved with the Apollo missions likes to envision, but one that surely would have been the end of the program outright.
Instead, 18 months after the fire, NASA launched Apollo 7, completing the mission intended for Apollo 1. Eight months and three missions later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon.
And in 1971, the crew of Apollo 15 secretly carried a small statue of a fallen astronaut, and a plaque, to the lunar surface. It was a memorial to the astronauts who lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration, who paved the way for crews like Apollo 15 to visit the moon, and return safely back home.
Somewhere on the surface of the moon today, this plaque still sits, with eight names carved into it. Among the names listed: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
As for my grandfather, I never got a chance to meet him. After leaving NASA at the conclusion of the Apollo program in 1975, he enjoyed just four years of retirement before he died from pancreatic cancer. But in my family home, in Canada, there's a memorial of our own: to Henry, and to the men he tried to save. We keep his medal, for exceptional bravery, in a humble wooden frame.