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Apollo 1 display
Kennedy Space Center’s “Ad Astra Per Aspera” exhibit honors Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who died in a launch pad fire in 1967. (NASA Photo / Kim Shiflett)

Fifty years ago today, three NASA astronauts died in a launch pad fire when they couldn’t open the hatch of their Apollo command module to escape. Remains of that module have been held in storage for decades, but never put on display. Until now.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opened an exhibit titled “Ad Astra Per Aspera: A Rough Road Leads to the Stars,” featuring the scorched hatch and other artifacts from the mission that never lifted off.

“I think it’s about time that we paid tribute to the crew with a memorial here at the Kennedy Space Center,” center director Bob Cabana, a former shuttle astronaut, said today during the exhibit’s opening ceremonies.

Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed during the pre-launch test on Jan. 27, 1967, after a spark from an electrical short ignited flammable materials inside the capsule where they were sitting.

Within seconds, the capsule’s pure oxygen environment turned the command module into a furnace. The hatch was designed in such a way that it couldn’t be opened quickly from the inside. Rescuers scrambled to get to the crew, but it was too late.

The deaths of the three astronauts marked the most serious setback for the Apollo moon program, but in the wake of the tragedy, NASA vowed to continue the effort.

“We in NASA know that their greatest desire was that this nation press forward with manned spaceflight exploration, despite the outcome of one flight,” NASA Administrator James Webb said at the time. “With renewed dedication and purpose, we intend to do just that.”

During the months that followed, NASA and its investigators identified shortcomings, shook up Project Apollo’s management and made changes in spacecraft systems. The hatch was redesigned, flammable materials were replaced, and the oxygen in the capsule’s air supply was reduced.

Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins, who orbited the moon in 1969 while crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface below, argued that the lessons learned from the Apollo 1 fire were essential to the success of the later moonshots.

“Yes, Apollo 1 did cause three deaths, but I believe it saved more than three later,” Collins said on Thursday during a “Day of Remembrance” ceremony in Florida. “It slowed things down for a year or so, but we gained more than a year in time because of increased reliability.”

Meanwhile, the remains of the command module went into storage at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Those artifacts were brought out and readied for display as a 50-year tribute to Apollo 1’s crew members, with the blessings of their families.

The exhibit features videos and memorabilia from and about the three astronauts.

The highlight of “Ad Astra Per Aspera” is a display case that holds the three elements of the command module’s hatch – the outer boost hatch, the heat shield and the inner structure hatch – and shows how those elements were put together. Another display explains how the flawed hatch was redesigned.

A display case in the “Ad Astra Per Aspera” exhibit shows the three elements that made up the Apollo command module’s hatch assembly for Apollo 1. The hatch was redesigned after the fire. (NASA Photo)
Apollo 1 exhibit
The exhibit pays tribute to the three Apollo 1 astronauts. (KSC Photo)
Apollo walkway
The crew access arm that astronauts walked across to reach the Apollo spacecraft for missions to the moon serves as the exit for the new tribute to the crew of Apollo 1. (NASA Photo / Kim Shiflett)

After seeing the hatches, visitors can walk through a gateway and down the same metal walkway that astronauts used to get to the Apollo spacecraft. The “Heroes’ Walk” leads to a replica white room, and then to other Apollo exhibits.

“Ad Astra Per Aspera” isn’t the only space history exhibit to open this year: Seattle’s Museum of Flight is getting ready to unveil “Space: Exploring the New Frontier” in May.

One of the artifacts to be displayed in the Seattle exhibit is a production-line Apollo command module that NASA used for testing and training. The capsule was originally outfitted with a hatch like Apollo 1’s, but after the fire it was retrofitted with the redesigned “unitary” hatch.

The next few days will bring still more occasions for somber space memories, including the 31st anniversary of the Challenger shuttle explosion on Saturday and the 14th anniversary of the Columbia shuttle tragedy on Feb. 1.

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