The Apollo 204 Review Board came to the conclusion that the fire initiated in the vicinity of the Environmental Control Unit (ECU) located in the lower left side of the Command Module. Max Faget suggested it was the result of chaffing to wiring insulation in a bundle of cables adjacent to the ECU access door. This however was pure speculation. Evidence to the contrary included eyewitness statements from NAA personnel who had inspected the wiring on the morning of January 27th.
It raises the question… “What, if anything had changed?” Prior to January 27th the spacecraft had undergone 4 altitude tests at the same pure oxygen pressure level for a total of 6 hours with no problems.The only test difference was a gas chromatograph had been removed from the vehicle on the morning of the fire; the connector powering this device had been left in place.
Post fire evaluation confirmed that movement of the connector would have been sufficient to cause an electrical arc. The connector was still powered at the time of the fire.
Where...... one might ask was the live chromatograph cable located? In the lower left side of the Command Module in the vicinity of the Environmental Control Unit, close to Grissom’s feet.
Significantly, the painstaking post fire investigation discovered the chromatograph cable was not in the position in which it had been left by the NAA personnel on the morning of January 27th.
We may never know with any certainty whether or not this connector was responsible for starting the flash fire on that fateful January day. Whether or not this was part of the suspect gas chromatograh cable. “Lee” Atwood passed away in 1999 and left no details about the items in his personal collection.
But according to Larry Korb, Engineering Supervisor of Metals and Producibility for North American Aviation, and a member of the Apollo 204 Investigation Team supporting the Apollo 204 Review Board...."the type of hardware, the label and the date are all consistent with it coming from the Apollo 204 spacecraft." Further examination by Larry of close-up images suggest this component reached temperatures in the region of 1900 degrees and 2500 degrees farenheit. This is consistent with findings of the Apollo Fire Review Board. Furthermore this presentation is consistent with other known Apollo 1 displays produced by NAA at the time.
It was Atwood himself who confirmed that he had kept items from the Apollo fire in his office. In a paper entitled “Apollo Spacecraft Program and Additional Notes” dated August 1989 Atwood wrote “I have had some samples of the spacecraft wire in my desk since the fire”. Previously, in a paper with equally limited distribution entitled “The Apollo Fire; An Analysis by J. Leland Atwood”, published in October 1988 he came to the conclusion “The most probable source was a slightly loosened wire connection where the cycle of electrical resistance, heat and oxygen corrosion progressively increased until the wire insulation caught fire”
My research suggests this connector, recovered from the Apollo 204 spacecraft just five weeks after the blaze (the ID label on the reverse is dated March 2nd, 1967), is typical of numerous identical connectors used throughout the vehicle, one of which in the opinion of Atwood, possibly this one, was the most likely ignition source.
Atwood commissioned this display as a poignant reminder of a particularly troubling day for every body associated with the space program; a permanent reminder helping prevent blind spots occurring in the future.
There is a tendency to keep hidden reminders of the tragedy. Moves to have the spacecraft placed on display have to date proved fruitless and the vehicle remains locked away in an anonymous hanger at Langley Research Center.
Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee pose in front of the launch vehicle on Pad 34 shortly before they were killed in the spacecraft fire of January 27th, 1967.
With thanks to cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, I was able recently to fly aboard the International Space Station an Apollo 1 crew patch. In space for 6 months, this was my tribute to a crew without whom none of this would have been possible. RIP Gus, Ed and Roger.
Gennady signing the Certificate of Authenticity shortly after his successful mission.