Professionalism/Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 was to be the first manned space mission for NASA's lunar landing program. The target launch date was February 21st, 1967, but during a "plugs-out" test on January 27th, 1967 a cabin fire inside the Command Service Module killed three crew members (Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee). [1]

After the accident, NASA set up the Apollo 204 Accident Review board to investigate the cause of the fire. A hearing was also held by committees in the United States Congress.[2]


During the Cold War, the United States of America and the Soviet Union competed in a nuclear arms race. The space race was an extension of this conflict, as launching a rocket into space was seen as proof of the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.[3] Success in space exploration also symbolized technological and ideological superiority.[3] Thus both countries put a heavy weight on space exploration. From 1950-1966 the USA and the Soviet Union each launched over 15 spacecraft without any catastrophic failures.[4] By 1967, both President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev focused on sending a man to the moon.[5]

Apollo 1 patch
Apollo 1 crew in simulator

The AccidentEdit

Apollo 204 spacecraft after the fire

On January 27, 1967, NASA conducted a Space Vehicle Plugs-Out Integrated Test of the Apollo Command Service Module.[6] This Plugs-Out Test simulated launch without the use of fuel tanks and was therefore designated non-hazardous.[6] During the test, the cabin was pressurized with a 100-percent oxygen atmosphere.[7] At 6:30 P.M. EST, a voltage surge was recorded; less than a minute later, the crew reported a fire.[8] 17 seconds after the report of fire, all transmissions from the crew ceased.[8] The crew lost consciousness due to cardiac arrest and was unresuscitatable within 4 minutes.[9]

After the AccidentEdit

Congressional HearingEdit

After the accident, congressional committees overseeing space programs launched investigations.[2] Out of the hearings came a public disclosure of problems between NASA and North American Aviation, the subcontractor who handled design of the Command Service Module. The investigations also unearthed a memo from Samuel Phillips, an Apollo Program Director.[10] The memo was sent a year before the accident and detailed quality and budget problems with the Apollo program. NASA had initially tried to hide the existence of this memo, highlighting an unwillingness to admit internal problems. [11]

Changes to the CSMEdit

In line with NASA protocol, the Apollo 204 Review Board, an internal NASA investigation, was created immediately following the accident. The review board recommended many changes to the Command Service Module.[7] NASA adopted a number of these suggested changes for future missions, including removal of combustible materials from the cabin, an outward and rapidly opening hatch to allow quick exit, and emergency oxygen supplies. The pure-oxygen environment was changed to be 30% nitrogen at liftoff, and over 1,400 wiring problems were remedied. New Block II suits were introduced with non-flammable material. [12][13]

A New Chapter for NASAEdit

The failure of Apollo 1 led to a renewed culture of safety in NASA. This is best highlighted by a speech given to Mission Control by Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director at the time.

"From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities... Competent means we will never take anything for granted... Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control."[14]

An Office of Flight Safety was established in NASA. Previously safety had been a subset of a certain program, but with the Office of Flight Safety separately established, safety could be an equal concern to the end goal of a mission.[12]. In addition, trained emergency response teams would be present at launch pads.

Generalizable LessonsEdit

Competitive Business CultureEdit

One of the main flaws of both NASA and the Soviet Union's space programs were their competitive business cultures. Both focused on defeating the other side as opposed to concentrating on careful mission planning and practices. This sentiment is captured in President Kennedy's "Moon Speech" on September 12, 1962.

"...vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. We choose … not because they are easy, but because they are hard…that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."[15]

The pressure for the Americans was amplified because they were not first for many space exploration landmarks. The Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space, sent the first man into space, and conducted the first spacewalk. This increased the urgency for the United States to land a man on the moon first.[4]

The Space Race was aptly named; both the USSR and the United States focused on the end goal. The Apollo 1 accident and the Soyuz 1 incident (in which Vladimir Komarov, a Russian cosmonaut, was killed on re-entry due to parachute failure) both exhibit the effects of rushed space missions due to political pressure. Soyuz 1 in particular was known to be technically unsound. These accidents prompted NASA and the Soviet space program to reevaluate their space missions; NASA did not attempt another manned spaceflight for 20 months after the planned launch of Apollo 1.[16]

Even after the mission, the U.S. Senate Report on the accident focused on the negative impacts of potential delays to putting a man on the moon.

"The Apollo 204 accident, however, may well cause the date for an American landing on the moon to by accomplished early in the next decade outside the schedule set in 1961. That would be regrettable."[17]

Deviation of NormsEdit

The success of both space programs in the 1960s affirmed unprofessional behavior, leading to a deviation of norms. NASA's Project Gemini (1962-1966) launched 10 astronauts into space, while the Soviet Union's Vostok and Voskhod programs (1961-1966) similarly launched 7 cosmonauts into space.[4] Thus both believed that their development of spacecraft was safe and thorough enough to ensure crew safety. Apollo 1 and the Soyuz 1 accidents revealed otherwise. For Apollo 1, many wiring problems were investigated after the accidents[7]. Although these problems did not cause the accident, they indicate a lack of thorough investigation by NASA and North American Aviation. Similarly, 200 detected design problems in the Soyuz 1 were not fixed before its launch. [18] For both, the fact that these problems were ignored can be attributed to political pressure but also points to a lack of concentration on crew safety.

Some may also argue that this was not so much a deviation of norms as an inadequate establishment of norms. Both countries had no manned space launches before the 1960s, [4] thus both were in the process of creating their standards during the time of the Apollo 1 accident and had no defense from the flawed motivations created by the competitive culture of both programs.

Limitation of ProfessionalsEdit

The Apollo 1 crew expressed their concerns about their spacecraft's problems by presenting this parody of their crew portrait to ASPO manager Joseph Shea on August 19, 1966.

Though the three astronauts who died during the Apollo 1 were frustrated with the development of the program, within NASA's framework many of their concerns were not heard or addressed.[19] A week before delivery of the Command Service Module, the astronauts met with Joseph Shea, Apollo Spacecraft Program Office manager, to conduct a spacecraft review. The astronauts were concerned by the amount of flammable material in the cabin. Joseph Shea ordered the removal of such materials, but his request was ignored; the flammable material aided the rapid spread of fire during the accident.[20] This illustrates the limited capacity of professionals to influence bureaucratic practices.


  1. Apollo 1 History
  2. a b Apollo 204 Review Board and Congressional Hearings
  3. a b National Air and Space Museum, Space Race: The U.S.-U.S.S.R. Competition to Reach the Moon , p. 1-10.
  4. a b c d National Cold War Exhibition: Space Race
  5. Apollo 1
  6. a b Report of the Apollo 204 Review Board: Events, pt. 1
  7. a b c Report of the Apollo 204 Review Board: Findings, Determinations, and Recommendations
  8. a b Report of the Apollo 204 Review Board: Events, pt. 2
  9. Report of the Apollo 204 Review Board: Investigation and Analyses
  10. Philips Report
  11. Tough Decisions, NASA Monogram
  12. a b NASA Response To Findings, Determinations, And Recommendations Of Apollo 204 Review Board, Apollo 204 report
  13. History of Spacesuits
  14. Briefing of "NASA Update on the Space Shuttle Columbia" (Disaster) by NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe and Scott Hubbard on August 26, 2003
  15. JFK Moon Speech at Rice University
  16. Manned Apollo Missions
  17. Apollo 204 Accident: Report of the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, United States Senate
  18. Soyuz 1
  19. Murray, Charles, & Cox, Catherine. Apollo: The Race to the Moon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989), p. 184.
  20. Murray and Cox, Apollo, p. 185.