The Day the Astronauts Died





About half a mile to the east of the bustle of the Kennedy Space Center visitors' center at Cape Canaveral is a little-visited part of American space history. Here the Atlantic breeze sighs among the stunted palms and the palmetto grass and whines through the twisted steel gridwork of abandoned skeletal launch gantries.

It is Launch Pad 34, site of one of the first -- and worst -- disasters in space history. It was here 40 years ago this weekend, on Jan. 27, 1967, that astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed within seconds when a fire swept through the capsule of Apollo 1. The cause was later found to be faulty insulation around a wire, which sparked and ignited the contents of the capsule, pressurized in an atmosphere of pure oxygen. In such an environment ordinary materials burn with blowtorch intensity...

By a twist of fate, this weekend also marks another NASA anniversary of an event in which the culture of haste resulted in tragedy. On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. The causes and consequences of that disaster were disconcertingly similar to those of the Apollo 1 fire...


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