“The Astronaut Wives Club” paints a very grim picture about what happened to Gus Grissom (Joel Johnstone) during the botched Apollo 1 test launch — but how much does the show’s depiction represent real life?
According to Space.com, it’s true that NASA didn’t take the proper precautions to ensure the astronauts’ safety before the Apollo 1 test launch. There was a delay on the day of the launch because Grissom smelled a sour buttermilk odor in his suit’s oxygen supply.
That took approximately an hour to fix, but during the test launch there were communication errors. Grissom is noted to have asked how could NASA expect to communicate with astronauts on the moon if they couldn’t do it between a few buildings?
Where history and “The Astronaut Wives Club” diverge is NASA blaming Grissom for the fire. He was implicated for a hatch door blowing off in an earlier mission (the Liberty Bell Mission). But there is no record of NASA blaming the astronaut for the fire in the Apollo 1 test launch.
The actual culprit was sparks from damaged wires near Grissom’s couch on the shuttle. The wire sparked in a pure oxygen atmosphere, and due to the astronauts’ position in the shuttle they couldn’t see the fire starting beneath their feet. By the time they realized there was a fire it was too late for them to escape the shuttle.
Congress did a follow-up investigation following the NASA board’s and found several issues that needed to be fixed before the space program could continue. Those changes include: Flammable oxygen environment for ground tests being replaced with a nitrogen-oxygen mix, flammable items were removed, and most notably, the door was completely redesigned so that it would open in mere seconds when the crew needed to get out in a hurry.
The incident also led to a new respect developing between the astronauts and the contractors concerning design changes, so that they were implemented more effectively.
While there’s no certified report of NASA getting a memo about astronaut concerns in the shuttle, Scientific American has documented events leading up to the Apollo 1 test launch that should have warranted better safety precautions on space shuttle flights and tests.
Thanks to the Congress investigation, NASA was forced to slow down the Apollo mission calendar. It took 18 months after the Apollo 1 incident to send men into space again.
The men that died on the Apollo 1 mission — Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — are remembered every year on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, along with the astronauts on the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003)crews.