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FILE PHOTO: Astronauts, from the left, Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee stand near Cape Kennedy's Launch Complex 34 during training for Apollo 1 in January 1967. NASA/Handout via REUTERS


By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - NASA on Friday marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 1's fatal launchpad fire with the first public display of the scorched hatch that trapped three astronauts in the spaceship during a routine pre-launch test.

NASA astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died when thick smoke filled the crew module of the Apollo 1 capsule on Jan. 27, 1967.

The men were unable to open the capsule's three-part hatch before being overcome by smoke. Emergency rescue teams rushed to battle the fire at the launchpad, located at what is now Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, but were too late.

The hatch has now been taken out of storage and incorporated into a new display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to honor the fallen astronauts and serve as a reminder of the risks of spaceflight.

"Had that accident occurred in space, we'd have never known exactly what had happened," former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford said at a ceremony to mark the exhibit's opening.

Investigators discovered several problems with the Apollo capsule design that led to the fire, including an electrical wiring issue, a pure-oxygen environment and flammable materials throughout the crew cabin.

NASA made dozens of changes and resumed flying in October 1968, setting the stage for the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969.

The deaths of these "three great heroes ... helped save at least one other in flight, maybe two," Stafford added.

The ceremony was one of several events this week where NASA also paid tribute to the Space Shuttle Challenger crew, killed during launch on Jan. 28, 1986, and the Shuttle Columbia astronauts, who died when the spaceship broke apart as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003.

A private evening service is being held on the launchpad where the Apollo 1 fire occurred.

Kennedy Space Center director and former shuttle astronaut Bob Cabana, who spearheaded the new exhibit, said it is intended to highlight the importance of a work culture where people feel free to voice concerns. Management and communications problems contributed to both space shuttle accidents, investigators found.

NASA is preparing to turn over crew flights to the International Space Station to privately owned by SpaceX and Boeing Co as early as 2018.

Cabana said the companies must learn from NASA's mistakes.

"I always have concerns," Cabana said in an interview. "We have to continue to speak up and make sure that everyone is heard."

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; editing by Colleen Jenkins, G Crosse)

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