"We have a fire in the cockpit!" were words no one expected during a routine test for what was to be a momentous space mission. But that was what horrified NASA personnel heard on Jan. 27, 1967, as three astronauts prepping for a flight to the moon perished in a fire in the Apollo 1 command module. The Washington Post and NPR remember Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on the 50th anniversary of their deaths, which happened in the span of five minutes and put the space agency's Apollo program on hold as officials tried to figure out what went wrong. A history of the incident on NASA's website documents the timeline that day, which started around 1pm with complaints of communications issues and a weird odor. "How are we going to get to the moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?" one of the astronauts complained.
But it was around 6:30pm when things took a turn from annoying to awful. Seconds after the cry for help, the module "ruptured," and flames and gas poured out. The astronauts were said to have died almost immediately by suffocation from toxic gas and burns, with nearly everything inside the module incinerated. The cause: a cabin filled with pure oxygen and lots of combustible material, as well as "vulnerable" plumbing and wiring. Changes that NASA made after the tragedy included filling the cabin with both oxygen and nitrogen, making astronaut suits nonflammable, and setting up a new safety program. Apollo 7 was in the air less than two years later, and on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11, manned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, made it to the moon. Chaffee and Grissom are buried at Arlington, while White is interred at West Point. (The Post talks to their children.)