It’s a sombre, desolated place. Weeds growing between the concrete cracks, a wind that whines through the remaining structure that was once LC-34. People visit it regularly, read the two plaques, and bow their heads in prayer or sorrow. This is launch pad 34, the pride of Cape Canveral, Florida in the early sixties. It was primarily used to launch the giant Saturn 1 and Saturn 1B rockets heaven-wards.
So why then do people claim that they hear not just the mournful wind, but the screams of men? Why have the authorities stopped official tours to the location? Why do certain groups want to have the place exorcised?
The answer lies in what happened on the evening of Friday 27 January 1976. Three of the United States’ finest astronauts were aboard for Project Apollo: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. First off Grissom complained of a foul odour- like sour buttermilk. Air samples showed nothing wrong. Roger Chaffee climbed aboard, taking the right-side seat, and Ed White took the centre seat. The command module’s hatch was closed, the Saturn IB boost cover was sealed and pure oxygen was steadily pumped into the cabin. Their fate was sealed.
There were lots of minor problems, mainly with the communications and the countdown was stopped a number of times. Suddenly the controllers noticed the crew’s biomedical readings jump. This was a tell-tale indicator of increased oxygen flow in their space suits. At the same time, around 6:30:54 pm, other sensors registered a brief power surge aboard Apollo 1. Ten seconds at 6:31:04 later came the first cry and only from the spacecraft that contained language. It was the voice of Roger Chaffee. The word was “fire”. The other sounds were distressing screams as the men expired.
Five days before on 22 January 1967, shortly before flying to the Cape for a ‘plugs-out’ launch pad test, Grissom plucked a lemon from a tree in his Houston backyard, flew it to Florida in his baggage and hung it over the Block 1 spacecraft’s hatch. He had no confidence in the mission. It was a combination of an “atmosphere” in the cabin of pure oxygen and an immovable hatch, that was coupled with a mysterious ignition source, never traced, that would spell incineration for Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a chamber of death.
Many visitors, relatives and witnesses to the tragedy, including NASA employees, say a weird feeling comes over all who approach the now-abandoned launch pad and some habe heard the mercifully brief dying screams of the astronauts, and the single word “fire”. As the space programme moved, LC-34 was closed to the public. No one wanted to be reminded of one of the darkest days at Cape Canaveral, and relatives didn’t want to risk hearing the screams of their loved ones each year when visiting the shrine to their ambition, and the place of their death.