Spontaneous Combustion of Peanut Butter?

A friend of mine who grew up in Huntsville, Alabama says it was “common knowledge” when he was growing up that the Apollo 1 fire was caused by a peanut butter sandwich smuggled into the 100% oxygen atmosphere in the test capsule. The alleged sandwich then allegedly caught fire, and we were short three astronauts.

My friends and I, upon hearing this, were incredulous, but couldn’t rule it out. Thus, we turn to you:

Is the oil content in peanut butter sufficiently high that it will spontaneously combust at high partial pressures of oxygen? Is it metastable? Is it just a sandwich spread?


Under 100% O[sub]2[/sub], chemical reactions do accelerate greatly. One experiment I remember was sticking a small ladlefull of smoldering phosphorus into a bottle of O[sub]2[/sub]. It quickly turned into what looked like a 200 W lightbulb.

I’d never heard the peanut butter sandwich theory before, though. What I heard was that it was all the Velcro used throughout the capsule that caught fire explosively.

(Now are you sure you want that stuff on you kids’ sneakers?)

I’d go for the “its just a sandwich spread” answer on this one. I can’t find anything about peanut oil in the Fire Protection Handbook (18th ed) under peanut, oils, cooking oils, or in the chapter on Oxygen Enriched Atmospheres. Interestingly, the only oil mentioned in the Oxygen Enriched Atmospheres chapter was “pump oil,” which apparently does not ignite in a 100% O2 atmosphere. Hmph.

Apart from that, I’d say your friend was blowing smoke (no pun intended).


I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine - Kurt Vonnegut