NASA's first disaster was a matter of poor design. After a 20-month engineering overhaul and three unmanned missions, Apollo 7 finally took the program to space. And the astronauts gave Earthlings a real-time look of life in orbit.
After the Apollo 1 disaster, NASA had to retrace its every move, piecing together the reasons why the first manned mission went catastrophically wrong. For months after the fatal fire, NASA’s investigators tore apart the charred Apollo 1 spacecraft. The exact cause of the blaze was never identified, but the final report highlighted a number of factors including the spacecraft’s pure oxygen environment, the amount of combustible materials in the crew cabin and the inward-opening hatch. Many of these issues were raised by the Apollo 1 astronauts. But the crew, along with NASA, knew that the Apollo missions walked a dangerous line of risk and reward.
The Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft immediately underwent major modifications. Unlike the Apollo 1 CSM, the redesigned module was equipped with an outward-opening hatch that could be released from the inside in seven seconds. Arguably, the most incriminating error with the Apollo 1 spacecraft was the fact that the sealed cabin was pressurized with 100-percent oxygen. This system would have been safe in space, but at sea-level, the high pressure made the Apollo 1 spacecraft extremely combustible. Moving forward, NASA would use a mixed gas atmosphere while on the launch pad and then switch to a single pure oxygen atmosphere once in space. Along with fireproofing as much of the CSM as possible, the agency also made structural changes to its launch complex and mandated strict safety procedures for both astronauts and ground control.
About 20 months after the fire, NASA was ready for its first manned Apollo mission. On October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 took to the sky and entered orbit. The mission’s objective was to ensure the redesigned CSM spacecraft was capable of operating effectively in Earth orbit. The Mission Commander, Wally Schirra, was the only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. He was joined by rookies, Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele. All eyes were on the Apollo 7 team, as the crew, albeit reluctantly, put on the first live TV broadcast in space. After spending more than ten days performing all the mission objectives, the crew returned to Earth and safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. The successful end to the Apollo 7 mission proved that NASA’s hard reset was worth it. In the months since the Apollo fire, the space program reinvented itself, showing that it was dedicated to ensuring the safety of its own.