Before the Fire

Veteran space reporter Jay Barbree recalls Apollo’s darkest day.

Jay Barbree (left)and Gus Grissom around the time of the astronaut's Gemini 3 flight in 1965. (Courtesy Jay Barbree)

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The three astronauts, in their full spacesuits and strapped inside Apollo 1, were following the script. Gus Grissom was in the left seat, Ed White in the center, and Roger Chafee on the right.

No one saw it; no one knew just when it came to life.

Somewhere beneath the seat of commander Gus Grissom, an open wire chafed. Insulation was worn and torn. The wire, alive with electrical power, lay bare in a thick soup of 100 percent oxygen – one of the most dangerous and corrosive gases known. Exposed to an ignition source, it is extremely flammable. It had been used in the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft without trouble.

But this much pure oxygen inside a ship as large as Apollo was another story.

Gus Grissom shifted his body for comfort.

His seat moved the bare wire.

It sparked.


Flames filled Apollo 1, feeding on the oxygen-soaked materials surrounding the astronauts.

The launch team froze before its television monitors. Muscles stiffened, voices in the blockhouse ceased in mid-sentence. No one knew what he or she was witnessing. It was something horrifying and unbelievable. Flames rampaging inside Apollo 1–a whirlwind of fire raging and burning everything it touched.

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