The Spacecraft Tarot: Apollo 1

Death is a fundamental part of life.

As this tarot deck explores the universal themes in both people’s lives and space-exploring craft, we delight in tales of new beginnings, awe-inspiring discoveries, and successful missions.

However, we must not misrepresent the duality of life. We must not leave out the stories that these moments of victory and triumph are built upon: stories of pain. Stories of regret. Stories of failure.

As humankind pushes the capabilities of intellect and technology to dare explore the unexplored, sadly some pay the ultimate price. The death tarot card honors the process of mourning the fallen. The death card is an ode to our loss — whether it is the end of a relationship, the conclusion of a project, or the death of a loved one.

While many view the death tarot card as a bad omen, it need not be that at all. It might simply serve as a very helpful reminder to do what we need to do to learn from our loss, while also not allowing ourselves be pulled down by its weight. Learn from the past — and then let go.

The Apollo 1 tragedy is a sobering reminder of the inherent risks of space exploration. The loss of three brilliant astronauts is a loss that can never be made up for. From this tragedy, NASA learned painful lessons on how to prevent similar tragedies, made adjustments to make the Apollo spacecraft safer, and ultimately fulfilled dream of the Apollo program to successfully land human beings on the Moon.

Two months prior to the Apollo 1 tragedy, NASA had successfully concluded the Gemini program in 1966. The Gemini program built on the prior success of the Mercury program to further test the capabilities needed to land humans on the Moon, such as spacecraft rendezvous and docking methods and the astronauts’ abilities to fly longer duration missions.

Astronaut Ed White embarking on his 23-minute spacewalk on June 3, 1966 , the first spacewalk conducted by American. Image Credit: NASA

12 Gemini missions accomplished a number of firsts for the United States’ space efforts. Gemini 4 astronaut Edward H. White II became the first American to embark on a spacewalk on June 3, 1966. While attached to the Gemini spacecraft by a 25-foot umbilical line, White maneuvered in space using a handheld gas-powered unit. White later said that the end of his spacewalk was “the saddest moment” of his life. When Gemini 7 launched on Dec. 4, 1965, astronauts Jim Lovell and Frank Borman would spend two weeks in Earth’s orbit — the longest-duration spaceflight at the time.

Although the Mercury and Gemini programs accomplished a lot of important milestones in Earth’s orbit, NASA was still under an enormous time pressure: President John F. Kennedy had tasked America’s space program with planting boots on the lunar surface by the end of the decade, and NASA had yet to fly a crewed Apollo mission. Apollo 1 was to be the first.

The Apollo 1 crew possessed a wealth of expertise: White was chosen as the senior pilot of the mission, and command pilot Gus Grissom was an original Mercury 7 astronaut with a Gemini flight under his belt as well. Apollo 1 was to be Roger B. Chaffee’s first spaceflight, although he had served as a capsule communicator for Gemini 3 and 4.

The Apollo 1 crew. From left: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. Image Credit: NASA

On Jan. 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 crew conducted a preflight test referred to as a “plugs-out test” inside of the Apollo capsule. The test was to verify that systems were ready for flight operations. Because the test did not involve any fuel, it was not considered a hazardous test.

Despite concerns from both engineers and astronauts about faulty wiring and the pure oxygen environment inside of the capsule, NASA moved forward with the design of the Apollo capsule as it was. During the plugs-out test, several other problems appeared: Continuous static interrupted communications between astronauts and the control room. A foul odor emitted from the oxygen tank.

As the crew began to express their frustration, a flash fire ignited inside of the cabin. Due to the increased flammability of the single-gas environment, the flames engulfed the capsule in less than thirty seconds. It took the ground crew five minutes to open the three hatches separating them from the crew, but by then they were too late: the crew had perished in the fire.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, NASA was left with the loss of three accomplished astronauts, the burned husk of the Apollo 1 capsule, and a list of unanswered questions about what happened and how to move on from it.

An Apollo 1 investigation team, composed of astronauts, engineers, and NASA leadership, was assigned to answer those questions. They identified both technological issues as well as cultural problems within the organization that ultimately jeopardized the safety of the crew. NASA was on an enormous time pressure to launch the first Apollo mission, which led engineers to waive concerns if addressing them would require extra time to fix. Following the success of the Mercury and Gemini programs, the engineers also failed to imagine disasters that they hadn’t yet encountered.

The investigation team produced findings that would improve the safety of the Apollo spacecraft: they reduced the amount of flammable materials and sources of ignition inside of the cabin. They also created a hatch that opened outwards instead of inward and developed a quick way to open it. And they also opted for a less flammable, dual-gas environment inside of the cabin. After making these changes, hundreds of flammability tests over the course of many months determined that the fire hazards of the Apollo spacecraft had been greatly reduced.

The Apollo 1 insignia. Image Credit: NASA

Most importantly, the culture changed. Apollo 1 was a wake-up call: ensuring the safety of the crew was finally given priority over meeting deadlines.

The technological and cultural changes made all the difference. When the Apollo program finally returned to crewed flight over a year and a half later with the Apollo 7 mission, the Apollo spacecraft was safer than ever before. Subsequent Apollo missions eventually led to Apollo 11, which on July 20, 1969, successfully landed two NASA astronauts on the lunar surface — fulfilling the dream that began with the original Apollo 1 crew. To honor the memory of their fallen colleagues, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left an Apollo 1 patch on the surface of the Moon.

Sadly, some lessons would have to be relearned. NASA’s Challenger explosion in 1986 and Columbia disaster in 2003 would again result from flawed organizational structures, unreasonable time pressures, and cutbacks in safety standards. Each tragedy would cost the agency precious lives, punctuating the inherent riskiness of human spaceflight and serving as a painful reminder of what happens when safety is compromised to meet deadlines.

Just as the death tarot card reminds us to honor the fallen and learn from past mistakes, the Apollo 1 tragedy is forever remembered, studied, and memorialized. Every year, on the agency’s Day of Remembrance, NASA comes together to remember those who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of discovery. Survivors tell their stories. Wreaths are laid on tombs. Historians share the lessons learned to fight complacency.

As we move through life, death — pain — loss is inevitable. It is tempting to dwell. But in order to move on from the past, we must be able to take it in, accept it, and learn from it.

The family of Roger Chaffee place wreaths at the graves of the Apollo 1 crew members as part of NASA’s Day of Remembrance on Jan. 31, 2017, at Arlington National Cemetery. Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

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