During one of the United States' first steps into space was the fatal Apollo 1 accident. Three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were participating in a routine test of the Apollo Command Module, when a fire took the lives of the three men.
After President Kennedy's challenge to America in 1961 to have men on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA threw itself into the space race, designing new equipment, rockets and spacecraft to meet his challenge.
Unfortunately, while the Apollo 1 crew was rehearsing their upcoming launch, a problem with the command module's electrical system created a spark in the oxygen-rich environment that led to a fire, killing all three astronauts on board as well as destroying the Apollo 1 Command Module.
The accident halted much of the progress of the Apollo program while NASA and a congressional investigation struggled to figure out what exactly went wrong. Some pointed fingers at contractors, while others blamed a lack of preparation by NASA engineers.
Ultimately, the test designed to test whether or not the Command Module could function on its own internal power failed catastrophically. After the hatch was installed, pure oxygen began filing the cabin at a higher pressure than normal atmospheric pressure. While the crew was running through their checklist, an electrical surge was detected in one of the AC buses. Nine seconds later, the crew reported a fire in the cockpit.
At the time, a 100 percent oxygen atmosphere was not considered dangerous in that environment. Later capsules would use a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen along with hundreds of other safety adjustments to reduce the risk of fire. A new type of hatch that would allow a quick escape by astronauts was also designed and installed on later capsules.
Astronaut Michael Collins says it was the sacrifice of the Apollo 1 crew that kept the program going. He says that if the fire on Apollo 1 hadn't happened where it did, a similar accident could have occurred in space, playing the entire Apollo program in jeopardy.
As tribute, NASA has displayed the hatch from the burned capsule at the Kennedy Space Center in honor of the three men who sacrificed their lives for the space race.