mobile-bannertablet-bannerdesktop-banner
American astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom in the Apollo Mission Simulator, a replica of the capsule in which they died.
American astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom in the Apollo Mission Simulator, a replica of the capsule in which they died.Ralph Morse—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
American astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom in the Apollo Mission Simulator, a replica of the capsule in which they died.
Readying for Apollo I tests, Cape Canaveral, Fla., 1966.
Apollo I astronauts (l-r) Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom, Fla.
Apollo 1 astronauts (l-r) Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, photographer the week before the fatal fire at Pad 34, from which their mission was to have launched in February 1967.
Apollo 1 astronauts Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom, 1967.
Apollo 1 astronauts (front to back) Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom, Cape Kennedy, Fla.
Roger Chaffee with his wife Martha and their children, Sheryl and Stephen, in their Houston home, 1965.
Astronaut Ed White leaps off a truck before an attentive audience of his fellow astronauts during a training exercise, 1963.
In a husband-and-wife appearance before the press, Pat and Ed White (far left) and Pat and Jim McDivitt share delight with the news that President Johnson has promoted the astronauts after the flight of Gemini 4 in 1965.
NASA astronaut Ed White and his wife Pat at home.
During a family work-out on the horizontal bar, Bonnie Lynn and Eddie White compete against their father, astronaut Ed White.
Astronaut Edward White and family, Houston.
Astronaut Edward White and family, Houston.
Astronaut Gus Grissom in his space suit.
Gus Grissom often found relief from the pressures of being an astronaut simply by going fishing. He casts for sea bass near Cape Kennedy.
Astronaut Gus Grissom with his sons.
Home a hero after his successful 1965 mission in Gemini 3, [Gus Grissom] greeted his parents who came from Mitchell, Ind. for the flight.
Gus Grissom at home with his son.
114363332.jpgGus Grissom with his wife Betty and their sons Scott and Mark.
Apollo I and II crews
LIFE magazine, February 3, 1967
LIFE magazine, February 3, 1967
LIFE magazine, February 3, 1967
LIFE magazine, February 3, 1967
American astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom in the Apollo Mission Simulator, a replica of the capsule in
... VIEW MORE

Ralph Morse—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
1 of 26

The Apollo 1 Launchpad Fire: Remembering Grissom, White and Chaffee

Jan 26, 2014

Men and women have been rocketing into space from the Earth's surface for the past half-century -- long enough that much of the general public now views space missions as relatively safe, rote endeavors. Sure, inconceivably complex and technically nuanced projects like setting an SUV-sized state-of-the art roving laboratory on the surface of Mars -- without breaking it -- can still grab the world's attention. For countless people, however, when it comes to manned missions like the discontinued Space Shuttle program or flights to and from the International Space Station, the thrill is long gone.

But the business of space exploration is not, and has never been, safe. Explosions, fires, parachute failures and other disasters have left scores of astronauts, cosmonauts, test pilots and crew workers dead and wounded through the years. Some (Challenger and Columbia, for example) are spectacular, terrifying catastrophes. Others are smaller, quieter calamities -- but for anyone involved who survives, injured or not, the experiences are life-changing.

Here, LIFE.com recalls one of the worst disasters in NASA's history -- and its first public tragedy -- when astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire inside their command module on a Cape Canaveral launchpad on Jan. 27, 1967. As TIME's Jeffrey Kluger (the author of Apollo 13) once wrote, when commemorating the three astronauts:

Test pilots can sense straightaway if they're working with a good vehicle or a bad one, and the Apollo 1 crew . . . knew almost immediately that they'd been assigned to a stinker. By late 1966, the last of the sturdy, two-man Gemini spacecraft had flown, and NASA was rolling out the three-man Apollo ships that would, at last, carry men to the moon. The spacecraft were sweet-looking machines, but in test-runs on the pad, they were a mess. The electrical system fritzed, the communications died, repairs and upgrades were late in coming. . . . Most worrisome, however, was NASA's insistence on continuing to use 100% pure oxygen in its atmospheric systems — an explosively flammable gas that had worked fine so far in the Mercury and Gemini ships but that could burn like gasoline in the presence of so much as an errant spark . . . Early one Friday evening, when the Apollo 1 astronauts were locked down in the spacecraft for a practice session out on the pad, just such a spark got loose from a frayed wire next to Grissom's seat. In less than a minute, all three men were dead. For a while, it seemed, the Apollo program would perish too.

The program, of course, survived, and less than three years after the 1967 launchpad fire, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins flew Apollo 11 to the moon and back -- leaving human footprints on the lunar surface -- in what some consider the signature triumph of the 20th century.

Workers at North American Rockwell plant assembling the Apollo 204 module. Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.