There is no such thing as a safe space flight: launching atop what amounts to an enormous, barely controlled explosion; flying through the near-vacuum of Earth orbit; and then plunging back to the surface with only a perilously fragile heat shield for protection. Eighteen American and Russian astronauts have lost their lives since the first space flights in the 1960s. Tragically, the crew of Apollo 1 - Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee - never even made it off the ground. They were killed by a fire during early preparations for launch on January 27, 1967.
As with all Apollo missions, Apollo 1 was assigned a crew of three: Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee. Later on, the crew would be divided upon reaching the Moon, with a command module pilot remaining with the bulk of the spacecraft in orbit, and the other two taking the lander down to the lunar surface. However - and this perhaps makes the incident even more tragic - Apollo 1, also designated AS-204, was only to be a test flight. The three men would fly the command module into Earth orbit without a lunar module, stay up for as much as two weeks testing flight systems and their own ability to survive long periods of time in space, and then splashdown.
Grissom, the commander, was a highly experienced astronaut, having previously flown on both Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. An Indiana-born air force officer who flew an F-86 Sabre in the Korean War and subsequently trained as a flight instructor and test pilot, Grissom flew the Liberty Bell 7 into space in 1961, only the second American to reach space. He flew again on Gemini 3, the first manned Gemini flight in 1964, and was then chosen to command the first Apollo flight.
Edward White, the senior pilot, was another U.S. Air Force officer, fighting during the Korean War and then becoming a test pilot. He was recruited by NASA as part of Astronaut Group 2 in 1962, too late to join Grissom on the first Mercury missions but in time to make the first American spacewalk as the pilot of Gemini 4 in 1965. It was White who made the desperate and unsuccessful attempt to open the hatch aboard Apollo 1 in 1967.
Roger Chaffee, the second pilot, was a navy officer from Michigan. He was also the most junior of the astronauts aboard Apollo 1. Chaffee had stayed with the U.S. Navy during the early 1960s, flying a reconnaissance aircraft during the Cuban missile crisis, before being selected as part of Astronaut Group 3 in 1963. It was Chaffee who first reported the fire aboard the capsule in 1967.
The command module, the core of the Apollo space mission, was substantially larger and more sophisticated than the previous Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, and had resulted in a wide variety of design debates. Over the objection of the principal contractor, NASA had insisted upon a pure oxygen air mixture for the module, rather than an Earth-normal mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, citing previous success with the approach in the Gemini and Mercury spacecraft. In addition, based on a near-disastrous unintended emergency hatch opening on Grissom's first space flight, during the Mercury project, NASA turned down a suggestion for an outward-opening hatch with explosive bolts, which could be fired in an emergency to allow rapid exit. On Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, the hatch had blown open just after landing; had it opened earlier, he would have been killed. NASA, in a controversial decision, decided that a fully secure hatch during flight was more important than an easily-opened hatch in the unlikely event of an emergency.
Both decisions were fateful ones. On January 27, the three men were strapped into the command module performing a test of the ship systems under its own power, when, during a routine checklist, they suddenly reported a fire within the spacecraft. In the oxygen-rich atmosphere, the fire spread horrifyingly quickly - and the astronauts were unable to open the hatch. Within about one minute, all three men were dead.