CAPE KENNEDY -- America's first three Apollo astronauts died only 218 feet off the ground Friday night in a blazing explosion inside their space capsule atop its launch pad.
An electrical spark apparently turned the Apollo 1 capsule into an instant inferno, killing the three space age heroes whose names were household words and dealing the nation's moon exploration program a serious setback. It was the world's first known space tragedy.
Veteran space pilots Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, 40, and Edward H. White, 36, and rookie Roger Chaffee, 31, died in flames while lying on their backs in their moonship in a routine ground test for their Feb. 21 orbital flight.
They were believed to have died instantly in the fire which blazed up without warning in pure oxygen in their sealed cabin.
Twenty-seven launch pad workers were felled by smoke in a desperate attempt to rescue the astronauts.
Rescue teams found the charred bodies of Grissom, America's second man into space; White, the nation's first spacewalker; and Chaffee strapped in the couchlike seats of the blackened Apollo cabin perched 218 feet atop a two-stage Saturn rocket.
The bodies of the astronauts remained in the spacecraft for more than seven hours while technicians tried to find out all they could about the reasons for the tragedy. They finally were removed at 1:55 a.m. EST and taken to a dispensary at the base.
NASA said that assistant director for manned spaceflight, Dr. George Mueller, had appointed a board of inquiry to investigate the tragedy and its members would be announced sometime today. "The members of the board are mostly composed as a general rule of those people who are closely associated with the hardware (equipment) involved," NASA said.
Although three other U.S. astronauts had been killed in airplane crashes and several Russian cosmonauts were rumored to have perished, the deaths were the first to be recorded in man's attempt to conquer space.
President Johnson mourned the deaths as a "tragic less" and said the "three valiant young men have given their lives in the nation's service."
James E. Webb, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), vowed "We will go ahead with the spaceflight program.
"Although everyone realized that someday space pilots would die, who would have thought that the first tragedy would be on the ground?" he said.
The wives of the dead spacemen were informed of the tragedy one hour and 15 minutes after it happened, and went into immediate seclusion with their children. Each of the astronauts had two children.
One of the first persons to visit Martha Chaffee after her husband's death was Nassau Bay, Tex., Police Chief Jess Young. He said later, "Martha is taking it real well."
Alan Shepard, America's first man in space, rushed to the Chaffee home to comfort the family and Jim McDavitt, a Gemini astronaut, visited White's family. Wall Schirra, commander of the backup team and a neighbor of Grissom, went to the Grissom home immediately upon arrival at Houston from Cape Kennedy.
Aim at moon
The astronauts were the nation's first three-man space crew in the Apollo program designed to put men on the moon in 1969.
There was no immediate word on just how far the explosion set back the timetable but early estimates were a delay of at least three months. Astronauts Walter Schirra, Donn E. Eisele and Walter Cunningham were the backup team for Apollo 1 and presumably will move into the void left by Grissom, White and Chaffee.
The program, which originally called for two orbital flights, has been plagued with troubles and last November the second flight was canceled to keep Apollo on schedule.
The command module (astronaut's cabin) apparently was destroyed, but the service module just below it appeared undamaged. If the command module for Apollo 2 is substituted for the burned cabin, it will require several months of extensive testing to make it ready for flight.
Engineers must pinpoint the cause of Friday's tragedy before committing other astronauts to the spaceship.
An electrical spark which ignited the pure oxygen of the pressurized cabin was the apparent cause of the fiery explosion aboard Apollo 1.
Dense smoke poured from the hatch while ground crewmen rushed up a high speed elevator in a rescue attempt.
Because of its intensity and spontaneity, the fire "had to be oxygen fire started by an electrical flaw," a NASA official said. "I don't see how it could have been any other way."
Grissom, an Air Force lieutenant colonel from Mitchell, Ind., had flown the second Mercury spacecraft through its suborbital flight in July 1961, and took the first manned Gemini flight for three orbits March 25, 1965.
White, also an Air Force lieutenant colonel, took the first U.S. spacewalk on the Gemini 4 flight June 3, 1965. The son of a retired Air Force Gen. Edward White Sr., White was a native of San Antonio, Tex.
Chaffee, of Grand Rapids, Mich., never had been in space. The Navy lieutenant commander as a ground controller on previous space missions had conversed many times with astronauts in flight.