Fifty years ago NASA suffered one of its earliest and most devastating accidents, with the Apollo 1 fire. To commemorate the anniversary and pay tribute to the three astronauts who died in the conflagration, the space agency has opened a new exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center called "Ad Astra Per Aspera - A Rough Road Leads to the Stars." The collection of tributes and artifacts, which includes the hatches from the Apollo 1 Command Module, is described as "part museum, part memorial and part family scrapbook."

On January 27, 1966, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee were carrying out a routine test on Launch Pad 34 in preparation for their upcoming flight when a fire broke out in their space capsule. The pure oxygen atmosphere in the Command Module caused the flames to spread so fast and with such intensity that the crew were overcome by fumes within seconds and the spacecraft interior reduced to charred wreckage.

"Although the fire took place across the river on Launch Pad 34, their story didn't end there and their legacy lives on today," says Sheryl Chaffee, daughter of Roger Chaffee.

The three-part hatch that was in place on the Apollo 1 spacecraft is shown in a tribute to the crew of Apollo 1(Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

The exhibit, which was dedicated today, contains tributes to the crew of Apollo 1 and their achievements, to introduce them to a new generation. In addition, the exhibit includes the first public showing of the three-part hatch that sealed the space capsule during the test, and contributed to the fatalities due to the inability to open the complicated mechanism in time. It was later replaced by a single, quick-opening hatch for subsequent missions.

"Grissom, White, Chaffee, President Kennedy – I think these names are appropriately mentioned together," says Michael Collins, the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 11. "Apollo 1 tragically cost three lives, but I think it saved more than three lives later. Without it, very likely we would've not landed on the moon by the end of the decade."

View gallery - 3 images