The 1964-1965 Project FIRE tests gave engineers confidence that the Apollo Command Module would survive Earth atmosphere reentry when it returned from the moon. In 1966, engineers proposed new tests to show that Apollo-shaped crew capsules could withstand the even greater demands of returns from Mars or Venus.
On 14 April 1964, an Atlas D rocket lifted off from Cape Kennedy, Florida, bearing the first Flight Investigation Reentry Environment (FIRE) payload. Project FIRE was intended to gather data on Earth atmosphere reentries at lunar-return speed – about 36,000 feet per second (fps) – to aid Apollo Program engineers in developing the heat shield for the conical Apollo Command Module (CM) (image above). Project FIRE, initiated in 1962 and managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, focused mainly on testing instrumented model CM capsules in environment simulation chambers. Engineers realized, however, that there would be no substitute for data gathered in the spaceflight environment.
NASA readies the first Project FIRE flight test (April 1964). Image: NASA.
The Atlas rocket lobbed the Project FIRE payload, known as the Velocity Package (VP), onto an arcing course toward remote Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Ascension, a British possession, had ...