April 3, 1926 - January 27, 1967: Age 40
Gus Grissom was one of the first humans to fly in space. Originally a military pilot who served in Korea, he was chosen as one of the seven astronauts in Project Mercury back in the early 1960s. As part of the program, he flew into space in July 1961, becoming the second American in space.
During the mutual Soviet-American hostilities known as the Cold War, the average American simply assumed that American technology was superior, and that Americans were ahead of the whole world in everything. The successful Soviet launch and orbit of the satellite Sputnik was a rude shock. The US government, then under Eisenhower, formed NASA among other things, with a view to achieving/regaining technical superiority over the Soviets, and four months after Sputnik an American satellite, Explorer, was launched.
The Soviets were again first in launching a living being into space: the little dog Laika, celebrated elsewhere in this blog. They were also first with a human space traveller: Yuri Gagarin entered orbit in April 1961. Again, the Americans were several months behind.
What they did not know, and what most Russians also did not know, was that the Russian space program was plagued by accidents and setbacks due to rushing engineering ideas into production before fully testing them, then covering up the accidents and occasional fatalities that resulted. The rapid progress that resulted pushed the Americans hard, although they cannot be said to have been guilty of taking unreasonable risks intentionally. There were fewer American accidents. Gus Grissom, however, was killed by one of them.
Apollo was the American space program that was to culminate with putting a man on the moon. Apollo 1 was designed simply to take a crew into orbit. It was much bigger and more complex than any previous design. The craft was delivered with many unresolved flaws, including the question of whether the hatch to the command module should open outward or inward, and whether it should have exploding bolts for a quick exit. Some, including the astronauts, felt that it should open outward, but others feared that might lead to an accidental opening. The issue was still unresolved on the afternoon of January 27, 1967 when Grissom and his two colleagues, Ed White and Roger Chafee, entered the module fully suited for a series of launch simulations. The afternoon was plagued with problems and delays, many due to difficulty in communications between the crew, control room, and the operations building. At 6:30pm the simulated countdown was still being held at T minus 10 minutes.
The crew were in their seats running tests when Chaffee was heard to say "Hey...". There were scuffling sounds, and then White shouted "Fire! We've got a fire in the cockpit." After 10 seconds of sounds of movement Chaffee yelled, "We have a bad fire! We're burning up!" Ed White was seen on television monitors reaching for the hatch release handle while flames were spreading in the cabin. The transmission ended a few seconds later. The cabin had ruptured due to the heat and rapidly expanding gases.
Ground crew had a hard time getting control of the fire. Toxic smoke was leaking from the module, and it took five minutes to open the hatch (no exploding bolts!). It is likely that the three astronauts died quickly. Their bodies were badly burned, and their spacesuits, made of a nylon-based material, melted.
After this, the unresolved design issues were addressed: the hatch, the material for the space suits, using pure pressurized oxygen, and in general the gradual increase of flammable materials that had crept into the design. In July 1969, a little over two years after the accident and eight years after Grissom's pioneering Mercury flight, Apollo 11 reached the moon and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface. According to NASA's head astronaut Deke Slayton, had Grissom been alive, he would very likely have taken that first step, as he was one of the original Mercury astronauts during the first orbits in the early 1960s.
In 1998 an extraordinary miniseries about the Apollo program called From the Earth to the Moon was released. You can see the segment dramatizing the actual fire in Apollo 1 here, on YouTube. I strongly recommend viewing the whole series, if you have a chance; it should be possible to rent it or you might be lucky enough to catch a re-broadcast.