Fifty years ago, Henry Rogers stepped off an elevator into an inferno.
A quality control inspector at NASA, Rogers had been working during a routine launch simulation test for Apollo 1, the first manned Apollo mission, at Cape Canaveral in Florida. But while he was in the elevator, a fire had broken out in the spacecraft cabin. By the time Rogers stepped out into the white room—the area of the shuttle tower that connects with the cabin—flames were erupting and black smoke filled the room.
“He could have gotten back on the elevator and escaped to safety, knowing the dangers involved, but he didn’t hesitate,” the late Stephen Clemmons, a spacecraft mechanical technician who was also there that night, wrote in a 2004 essay. “Instead he made his way through the smoke and fire and began to help any way he could. He had not been trained on how to get the hatches off, but he tried.”
Rogers and five other men including Clemmons, put their lives at risk to try to rescue Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, the three astronauts trapped inside the burning spacecraft. Though they eventually pried the hatches off, it was too late. All three astronauts had died. Years later, many at NASA believed their deaths were the one thing that saved the program, but in the wake of tragedy, the future of the fledgling Apollo program became uncertain.
The legacy of the Apollo fire of 1967 is preserved in history books and lengthy documentaries. But the sheer horror and emotional intensity of having three colleagues—for many in the program, three close friends—suffocate in a burning capsule while scrambling to save them, hasn’t been as well preserved. The severity of that moment has become a footnote in the public consciousness, faded by the decades that have passed and overshadowed by the incredible achievements of the Apollo program that followed.
But for those like Henry Rogers who experienced the tragedy firsthand, the trauma of January 27, 1967 left scars, and a deep sense of regret that’s difficult to capture all these years later.
“We felt very responsible.”
Rogers’s actions that night earned him, and the other men who attempted the rescue, the NASA Medal for Exceptional Bravery, a rare honor given “for exemplary and courageous handling of an emergency by an individual who, independent of personal danger, has acted to prevent the loss of human life.” But he never spoke about the fire at home with his family. He marched forward stoically, the way so many from that generation seemed to do, and continued to work on the Apollo program until its conclusion, in 1975.
Rogers was a veteran who served in WWII and the Korean War. He was a proud member of the team that put the first human on the moon. He was a husband, and father to three boys.
He was also my grandfather.
January 27, 1967, was a Friday, the end of another grueling week ramping up to the Apollo I launch date, mere weeks away: February 21, 1967. The mission was to carry Grissom, White, and Chaffee into Earth’s orbit, allowing them to test out the Apollo launch and flight systems—in particular the Command Service Module—making sure the technology used on the eventual moon landing would be up to the task.
At this point, the Apollo program was in its sixth year. The ambitious human spaceflight program had been launched in response to President John F. Kennedy’s goal, set in 1961, of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade. A great deal of progress had been made since the first manned spaceflight programs, Gemini and Mercury. But the space race with the USSR, combined with Kennedy’s public goal of a moon landing, created a growing sense of urgency to advance the Apollo program at a breakneck pace. As a result, everyone on the Apollo team felt a personal responsibility to put in marathon time.
Henry Rogers, with wife Doreen and sons Randy and Tim (in arms), circa 1951.
A diagram of the spacecraft and control tower from the investigation report. The blacked out passage at the top connected the spacecraft, white room, and tower.
Exterior of the spacecraft in the white room, following the fire.
“All we felt was heat and ashes.”
The fire reached the ceiling and sent “burning chunks of Teflon” flying off the spacecraft, Clemmons wrote in his essay. Along with immediate threat of the flames, there was a looming danger overhead: the 9000 lb escape rocket attached to the tower. If the fire reached it, it could ignite and explode. The five men engaged the only two fire extinguishers on that level to douse the flames closest to the hatch.
“The smoke was so thick that Jim couldn’t see the spacecraft, but could only feel around for the [hatch],” Clemmons wrote. “He was now nearly blind from the acrid smoke. Jerry was almost as bad off. Both were so hoarse they couldn’t talk.”
When Henry arrived, without hesitation, he plunged into the fiery chaos unfolding in front of him. He pulled off his jacket to offer to another man to cover his face. He helped dig up some air masks, and then joined the men trying to open the three-layer hatch.
“The hatch was loose but they couldn’t get it out,” Henry said in his testimony as part of the year-long investigation into the fire. “We had it pushed down enough where we could barely see inside the command module and there was a lot of smoke and heat coming from the inside of the spacecraft. We [looked] in and we couldn’t see anything, so we reached in to see if we could feel anything. All we felt was heat and ashes.”
NASA published the results of an official investigation of the Apollo fire in 1968. According to the 200-page report, Grissom, Chaffee, and White had died of cardiac arrest from inhaling too much carbon monoxide and falling asleep. All three astronauts were gone long before they sustained burns. It was a horrific way to go nonetheless, and the waves of grief affected everyone in the program.
Grissom, White, and Chaffee’s names are carved on the Space Mirror Memorial for astronauts who died on the job, at Cape Canaveral.
The “fallen astronaut” plaque and statue, as photographed on the lunar surface.