Predictions of Trouble

Many men, including Grissom, had presumed that serious accidents would occur in the testing of new spacecraft. A variety of things could go wrong. But most who admitted in the back of their minds that accidents might occur, expected them somewhere off in space.

Some individuals had misgivings about particular aspects of the spacecraft. Dr. Emmanuel Roth of the Loveface Foundation for Medical Education and Research, for instance, prepared for NASA in 1964 a four-part series on "The Selection of Space-Cabin Atmospheres." He surveyed and summarized all the literature available at the time. He warned that combustible items, including natural fabrics and most synthetics, would burn violently in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the command module. Even allegedly flame-proof materials would burn. He warned against the use of combustibles in the vehicle.2

In 1964 Dr. Frank J. Hendel, a staff scientist with Apollo Space Sciences and Systems at North American and the author of numerous articles and a textbook, contributed an article on "Gaseous Environment during Space Missions" to the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, a publication of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "Pure oxygen at five pounds per square inch of pressure," he wrote, "presents a fire hazard which is especially great on the launching pad. . . . Even a small fire creates toxic products of combustion; no fire-fighting methods have yet been developed that can cope with a fire in pure oxygen."3

Further, oxygen fires had occurred often enough to give safety experts cause for extra-careful procedures: at Brooks Air Force Base and at the Navy's Equipment Diving Unit at Washington, D.C., in 1965; and at the Airesearch Facility in Torrance, California, in l964, 1965, and 1966.4

One man saw danger on earth, from hazards other than fire. In November 1965, the American Society for Testing and Materials held a symposium in Seattle on the operation of manned space chambers. The papers gave great attention to the length of time spent in the chambers, to decompression problems, and to safety programs. The Society published the proceedings under the title of Factors in the Operation of Manned Space Chambers (Philadelphia, 1966). In reviewing this publication, Ronald G. Newswald concluded: "With reliability figures and flight schedules as they are, the odds are that the first casualty in space will occur on the ground."5

Since Newswald was a contributing editor of Space/Aeronautics, it may well be that he contributed the section entitled "Men in Space Chambers: Guidelines Are Missing" in the "Aerospace Perspective" section of that magazine during the same month that his review appeared in Science Journal. The editorial reflects the ideas and the wording of his review. The "Guidelines" writer began: "The odds are that the first spaceflight casualty due to environmental exposure will occur not in space, but on the ground." He saw no real formulation of scientific procedures involving safety - such as automatic termination of a chamber run in the event of abnormal conditions. "By now," he stated, "NASA and other involved agencies are well aware that a regularly updated, progressive set of recommended practices-engineering, medical and procedural - for repressurization schedules and atmospheres, medical monitoring, safety rescue and so on, would be welcome in the community."6

Gen. Samuel Phillips, Apollo Program Director, had misgivings about the performance of North American Aviation, the builder of the spacecraft, as early as the fall of 1965. He had taken a task force to Downey, California, to go over the management of the Saturn-II stage and command-service module programs. The task force included Marshall's Eberhard Rees and the Apollo Spacecraft Program Manager, Joseph Shea; they had many discussions with the officials of North American. On 19 December 1965, Phillips wrote to John Leland Atwood, the President of North American Aviation, enclosing a "NASA Review Team Report," which later came to be called the "Phillips Report."7 The visit of the task force was not an unusual NASA procedure, but the analysis was more intensive than earlier ones.

In the introduction, the purpose was clearly stated: "The Review was conducted as a result of the continual failure of NAA to achieve the progress required to support the objective of the Apollo program."8 The review included an examination of the corporate organization and its relationship to the Space Division, which was responsible for both the S-II stage and the command-service module, and an examination of North American Aviation's activities at Kennedy Space Center and the Mississippi Test Facility. The former area belongs more properly to the relations of North American Aviation with NASA Headquarters, but the latter directly affected activities at Kennedy Space Center.

Despite the elimination of some troublesome components and escalations in costs, both the S-II stage and the spacecraft were behind schedule. The team found serious technical difficulties remaining with the insulation and welding on stage II and in stress corrosion and failure of oxidizer tanks on the command-service module. The "Report" pointed out that NAA's inability to meet deadlines had caused rescheduling of the total Apollo program and, with reference to the command-service module, "there is little confidence that NAA will meet its schedule and performance commitments."9

Phillips and his task force returned to Downey for a follow-up week in mid-April 1966. He did not amend the original conclusions; but he told President Atwood that North American was moving in the right direction.10

The astronauts themselves suggested many changes in the block I spacecraft design. In April 1967, Donald K. Slayton was to tell the Subcommittee on NASA Oversight of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics that the astronauts had recommended 45 improvements, including a new hatch. North American had acted on 39 of these recommendations. They were introducing the other six into later spacecraft. "Most of these," Slayton testified, "were of a relatively minor nature."11 The only major change for later spacecraft was to have been a new hatch. And the astronauts had recommended this not so much for safety as for ease in getting out for space-walks and at the end of flights.12

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