The Slow Recovery

Within days after the Thompson Board's report, more than a thousand of those at the Manned Spacecraft Center who were working directly in support of the formal investigation began making suggestions for meeting the board's recommendations. Materials selection, substitution, and stowage inside the command module were thoroughly restudied; and all cloth parts made of nylon were replaced by Beta fiber, teflon, or fiber glass. These substitutes were chosen after more than 3,000 laboratory tests had been run on more than 500 different kinds of materials.32

Of immediate importance was the new unified hatch - unified meaning that the complicated two-hatch system was redesigned into a single hatch. The new component was heavier than the old, but it would open outward in five seconds, had a manual release for either internal or external operation, and would force the boost cover cap out of the way on opening. It could also be opened independently of internal overpressure and would be protected against accidental opening by a mechanism and seal similar to those used on Gemini.

The management of all industrial safety offices within NASA was revamped, with responsibilities flowing directly to the top at each location. At the launch center, fire and safety precautions were upgraded and personnel emergency preparations were emphasized as never before. Also, at the launch complex itself, a sliding wire was added to the service structure to permit a rapid descent to the ground. Reliability and test procedures were more firmly controlled, making it difficult to inject any last minute or unnecessary changes.

At the Manned Spacecraft Center, full-scale flammability testing continued, first to try to duplicate the conditions present on 27 January and then to find ways to improve the cabin atmosphere and the environmental control system. The tests led to replacing all aluminum oxygen lines that had solder joints with stainless steel tubing that used brazed joints. Aluminum tubing solder joints that could not be eliminated from the coolant system were armored with sleeves and seals wherever exposed. NASA decided to keep the water-glycol coolant fluid (covering it with flame resistant outer insulation) and added emergency oxygen masks for protection from smoke and fumes.33

At NASA Headquarters, Webb directed Mueller to revamp and reorganize the major supporting and integrating contractors to put more pressure on North American, as well as on those manufacturing the other Apollo vehicles. Boeing was given a technical integration and evaluation contract, to act as a watch dog for NASA; and General Electric was told to assume a much greater role in systems analysis and ground support.34

The contract situation with North American had reached a peculiar stage even before the fire. The cost-plus-incentive-fee contract NASA had negotiated with North American in October 1965 had expired on 3 December 1966. In late January 1967, the legal status of relations was in some doubt. The objectives of the incentive contract had been to reverse the trend of continuing schedule slips, to get Block I vehicles delivered from the factory, to speed up Block II manufacturing, and to bring costs under control. Progress had been made on all fronts by the end of 1966; the flights of Block I spacecraft 002, 009, and 011 had been 80 percent successful, Block II work had moved along, and the cost spiral had stopped.

Despite the fire, John J. McClintock, chief of the Apollo office program control division, advocated in April 1967 that NASA negotiate a follow-on incentive contract, placing heaviest emphasis on flight performance and quality and less on schedules. North American's business negotiators had already conceded that no incentive fee could be expected for spacecraft 012. The closeout cost for the Block I series was set at $37.4 million. This meant that the learning phase of Apollo had cost $616 million. Furthermore, North American agreed that there would be no charge for changes resulting from the AS-204 accident - such as the wire harnesses, environmental control system improvements, and the unified hatch. Changes that would enhance mission success or operational flexibility - changes in the reaction control system, revised inspection criteria, or features to increase mission longevity - would cost money.35

After the uncertain days of February, NASA officials began to sense that a recovery from the tragedy was under way. Drawing together, workers at all NASA centers, representing a vast amount of technical strength, recovered their morale through hard work more rapidly than might have been expected. Much of Apollo's chance for recovery rested on the fact that the Block II advanced version of the command module was well along in manufacturing and that most of its features were direct improvements over the faults of the earth-orbital Block I. Moreover, the Saturn V, after experiencing difficulties in the development of its stages, seemed on the track now.

By early May, Webb and his top staff were looking for ways to show Congress that Apollo was on the road to recovery. Mueller proposed flying a Saturn V as soon as possible. Phillips stressed the building and delivery of standard vehicles. Any modifications of support missions other than the lunar landing (such as Apollo Applications) should, he and Mueller agreed, be entirely separate from the mainstream of Apollo. Moreover, the science program in Apollo should be carried strictly as supercargo.36

At the time of the accident, the flight schedule had listed a possible lunar landing before the end of 1968. After the impounding of material evidence and the halting of oxygen chamber testing until the investigation was over, that Apollo schedule was obviously no longer valid. Several weeks after the fire Seamans told Mueller to scrap all official flight schedules for manned Apollo missions, using only an internal working schedule to prevent avoidable slips and cost overruns. By March, Mueller had told Seamans that NASA could commit a Saturn V to a mission. In June Low said he believed that the spacecraft had turned the corner toward recovery, since the changes related to the fire had been identified and were being made. Even if everything went perfectly, however, more than 14 months would be needed for complete recovery.* 37

To make certain of stronger program control in the future, Low decided that all proposals for changes would have to pass an exceedingly tough configuration control board before being adopted. He asked George W. S. Abbey, his technical assistant, to draft a strongly worded charter for the control board. Low next announced that he, Faget, Chris Kraft, Slayton, Kenneth Kleinknecht, William Lee, Thomas Markley, and Abbey (as secretary) would meet for several hours every Friday. When medical and scientific affairs were on the agenda, Berry and Wilmot N. Hess would join the group. Low himself would make all final decisions, and his new board members had the authority to ensure that his decisions were carried out.38

If Apollo had seemed complicated before the fire, it appeared even more so afterward. If it gave an impression of being hurried in late 1966, it gathered still more momentum in late 1967. If an extreme level of attention had been given to aspects of crew safety and mission success before the deaths of Grissom and his crew, it rose yet higher after they were gone. But among the Apollo managers there were still nagging fears that something might slip past them, something might be impossible to solve. By mid-1967, however, they were so deep in their work that they could not avoid a growing confidence.

Atwood said the biggest mistake had been locking the crew inside the spacecraft and pumping in oxygen at a higher than sea-level pressure. There was no way to eliminate fire hazards under such conditions. So NASA and North American substituted a nitrogen-and-oxygen atmosphere at ground level, replacing the nitrogen gradually with pure oxygen after launch. Bergen, who had taken over the leadership of North American's Downey division from Storms, moved into the factory while recovery work was going on. He made a practice of appearing on the plant floor, walking around asking questions, during each of the three shifts. Some of the workers wondered if he ever slept. During visits to Downey, Low was often to be seen watching plant activities on Saturdays. Many doubted, Bergen later said, that the recovery could be made in a reasonable time because "everything had come to a screeching halt." Bergen credited Gilruth's assignment of Borman and his group and Healey's performance as manager of spacecraft 101 as the keys to getting the command module back into line.39

NASA's leaders, after reviewing the progress, decided that it was time for a flight demonstration to prove that the bits and pieces of Apollo had been picked up and were being put back together. Apollo-Saturn Mission 501, with command module 017, was set for early autumn of 1967. If the first flight of the Apollo-Saturn V combination was successful, the rest would follow in due course.40

As early as 9 May 1967, Houston proposed four manned missions - one with only the command and service modules, the other three with all the vehicles - before any attempt at a lunar landing. Headquarters in Washington believed that the lunar-landing mission might be possible on the fourth manned flight, which Houston thought was unrealistic - "all-up" should not mean "all-out." Kraft warned Low that a lunar landing should not be attempted "on the first flight which leaves the earth's gravitational field":

There is much to be gained from the operations which could be conducted on the way to and in the vicinity of the moon. The many questions of thermal control away from the earth's environment, navigation and control during translunar flight, communications and tracking at lunar distances, lighting conditions and other flight experiences affecting astronaut activities in the vicinity of the moon, lunar orbit and rendezvous techniques, the capability of the MSFN to provide back-up information and many other operating problems will be revealed when we fly in this new environment. It would be highly desirable to have had this experience when we are ready to commit to a lunar landing operation, thereby allowing a more reasonable concentration on the then new problems associated with the descent to the lunar surface.41

Deputy Administrator Seamans and his aides made a swing around the manned space flight circuit in June, visiting Kennedy, Huntsville, Mississippi Test, Michoud, and Houston. In the course of the tour, Seamans observed a definite upsurge of confidence within the Apollo team, although there were still worries. For example, at Kennedy, with planning predicated on a six-week checkout of the Apollo-Saturn in the Cape facilities and launch during the seventh week, there was some feeling that the schedule for the launch of Apollo 4** was extremely tight. Huntsville was still worried about the S-II stage of the launch vehicle, which had gone through a rather tough year of testing in 1966. And Houston, as a result of fire-related changes, was fighting the age-old problem of fattening spacecraft. On top of this, the lunar module was still having ascent engine instability problems, also left over from the preceding year.42

The next month, in July, Mueller and an entourage visited the North American plant at Downey*** to see what the contractor had done about the Thompson Board's recommendations. As they walked around the manufacturing area, Mueller seemed generally pleased with progress.43 Within a very few months, that progress was to be demonstrated in a very satisfactory manner.


* During fiscal 1970 budget hearings before the House space committee, Congressman James Fulton asked George Mueller on 11 March 1969 to give a "statement in the record of the actual cost in dollars . . . and actual delay caused . . . by the Apollo 204 fire. . . ." Mueller's submitted reply said, "The estimated additional direct cost to Apollo . . . resulting from the Apollo 204 accident is $410 million, principally in the area of modifications to the spacecraft. The accident delayed the first manned flight test of the Apollo spacecraft by approximately 18 months."

** Grissom's crew had received approval for an "Apollo 1" patch in June 1966, but as the time for the launch approached NASA Headquarters was leaning toward calling that mission "AS-204." After the accident, the widows asked that Apollo 1 be reserved for the flight their husbands would never make. Webb, Seamans, and Mueller agreed. For a time, mission planners in Houston called the next scheduled launch "Apollo 2." In March 1967, Low wrote to Mueller, suggesting that, for historic purposes, the flights should be called "Apollo 1" (AS-204), "Apollo 1A" (AS-201), "Apollo 2" (AS-202), and "Apollo 3" (AS-203). In April, Julian Scheer, Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, notified the centers that the NASA Project Designation Committee had approved the Office of Manned Space Flight recommendation of "Apollo 4" for the first Apollo-Saturn V mission (AS-501), but there would be no retroactive renaming of AS-201, -202, or -203. Much correspondence followed, but the sequence of, and reasoning behind, mission designations has never been really clear to anyone.

*** In May, North American's Space and Information Systems Division in Downey had been renamed simply the "Space" Division, to reflect its major mission.


32. Senate Committee, Apollo Accident, pt. 7, pp. 553-83; NASA, "NASA Contracts for Beta Fiber Study for Apollo," news release 67-90, 14 April 1967.

33. Senate Committee, Apollo Accident, pt. 7, append. 1 through 3.

34. MSC, "Exhibit A, [Boeing TIE Contract] Technical Work Scope," 16 and (approved) 17 May 1967; William H. Lohse datafax transmission to MSC, Attn.: Edward R. Mathews, "Boeing letter contract," 31 May 1967; NASA, "Boeing-NASA Sign Contract for Integration," news release 67-161, 16 June 1967; George H. Stoner bulletin for Boeing Aerospace Gp. dist. "B" and Corporate Hq. dist. "DDO," "Apollo Technical Integration and Evaluation Assignments," 26 June 1967; MSC, "Proposed Strengthening of GE Support," 15 May 1967; Low to Dir., MSC, "General Electric Company Long Range Plan," 26 May 1967; NASA, "GE Awarded Contract for KSC Support," news release 67-158, 14 June 1967.

35. J. Thomas Markley memo for record, "Contract Changes," 30 March 1967; MSC, "NASA Working Group Thoughts on NAS 9-150 Extension," 18-19 April 1967; John R. Biggs to Webb, no subj., 21 April 1967, with encs., Bernard Moritz to Dir., Procurement, "MSC request to extend Apollo Contract NAS 9-150 with North American Aviation, Inc., by Letter Amendment," 28 Oct. 1966, and George J. Vecchietti to Moritz, subj. as above, 27 Oct. 1966, with encs., Vecchietti to MSC, Attn.: Dave W. Lang, "Request for Approval to Issue Letter Amendment to North American Aviation in accordance with Article 1 (b) of Contract NAS 9-150 (Apollo)," n.d., and Shea draft letter to Harrison A. Storms, Jr., n.d., John G. McClintock to Mgr., ASPO, "Briefing: CSM Incentive Contract," 27 April 1967, with encs.

36. Thomas E. Jenkins memo for record, "Apollo Programming Meeting, April 27, 1967: Attendees: Webb, Seamans, [Willis H.] Shapley, Mueller, [DeMarquis D.] Wyatt, [Lee B.] James, Skaggs, Phillips, [William A.] Fleming, [David] Williamson [Jr.], von Braun, [Charles W.] Mathews, [Raymond A.] Kline, [Frank J.] Magliato, [Richard L.] Callaghan, [Col. Lawrence W.] Vogel, [Bernhardt L.] Dorman, Scheer, [William E.] Lilly, Shea, [Paul G.] Dembling, [Harold B.] Finger, Vecchietti and Jenkins," 28 April 1967; idem, "Apollo Programming Meeting, May 3, 1967," 3 May 1967; Seamans memo for record, "Apollo Program Decisions unmanned flights of the 1/204, CSM 017/501, and CSM 020/502," 1 May 1967; Biggs memo for record, "Apollo Reprogramming Meeting, May 4, 1967," 4 May 1967; "Apollo Post-Accident Recovery Program: Webb Review, May 3-4, 1967," copy of handwritten document, 4 May 1967.

37. Seamans to Assoc. Admin., OMSF, "Official NASA Apollo Schedules for Manned Missions," 16 Feb. 1967; Low memo for dist., "Apollo Program Review," 5 June 1967, with encs.; Carl R. Liebermann to Dir., Apollo Prog., "Minutes of Apollo Program Meeting at MSC on 2 June 1967," 7 June 1967, with enc.; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight, 1970 NASA Authorization: Hearings on H.R. 4046, H.R. 10251 (Superseded by H.R. 11271), pt. 2, 91st Cong., 1st sess., 1969, pp. 183, 185.

38. Low memo, "Apollo Configuration Control Board," 17 June 1967.

39. Frank H. Samonski, Jr., and Elton M. Tucker, "Apollo Environmental Control System," proposed technical note, October 1970; Blount interview; Bergen to James, 6 Nov. 1967; Bergen, interview, Downey, 15 May 1969; Atwood, interview, El Segundo, 16 July 1970.

40. Statements by Webb, Seamans, and Mueller on Apollo Reprogramming before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA special release, 9 May 1967, p. 10.

41. Rodney G. Rose to John P. Mayer, Henry E. Clements, and Jerome B. Hammack, "Proposed Apollo Flight Program," 9 May 1967, with enc., "Apollo Flight Program," May 1967; Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., to Mgr., ASPO, "Requested comments on Apollo Flight Program Definition," 1 June 1967.

42. Carl R. Praktish to Seamans, "Report covering visits to KSC, MSFC, MTF, Michoud, and MSC - June 26-June 28, 1967," 24 July 1967; John Coursen to C. William Rathke, LM engineering memo, "Weight Increases to the LM Attributable to Actions Following the KSC Accident," 8 September 1967; Low memo for record, "Apollo weight changes," 29 Sept. 1967, with encs.; Lt. Gen. Frank A. Bogart to Gilruth, 23 June 1966; Seamans to Mueller, "Apollo Saturn Nomenclature," 6 Jan. 1967; Low to Donald K. Slayton, "Apollo 204 patch," 20 Jan. 1967; Phillips to Dep. Assoc. Admin. (Mgmt.), NASA, "Apollo Mission Designations," date illegible; Mueller to Seamans, "Apollo/Saturn Nomenclature," 9 Feb. 1967; Scheer to Seamans, no subj., 17 Feb. 1967; James to Phillips, no subj., 22 March 1967; Mueller TWX to KSC, MSFC, and MSC, "Apollo and AAP Mission Designation," 25 March 1967; Low to Slayton, "Designation of Apollo spacecraft," 31 March 1967; James to Col. M. L. Seccomb, "Action Item," 20 April 1967, with enc., Low to Mueller, 30 March 1967; Manfred von Ehrenfried to Chief, Mission Ops. Div., "Apollo 2 IVA Activity Consideration," 24 Feb. 1967, and "Apollo 2 Mission Planning (S/C 101)," 28 Feb. 1967; Mueller TWX to KSC, MSFC, and MSC, "Apollo and AAP Mission Designation," 28 April 1967; Low memo, "System for numbering Apollo spacecraft," 1 May 1967; Phillips note to Mueller, 4 May 1967; Phillips TWX to MSC, MSFC, and KSC, Attn.: Gilruth et al., "Apollo Launch Schedule," 9 May 1967; Scheer to Bart J. Slattery, Jr., et al., no subj., 17 July 1967; George R. Morgall to Eugene M. Emme, NASA History Div., 4 Oct. 1969; Emme to Morgan, 9 Oct. 1969; Morgan to Low, 11 Oct. 1969; Low to Morgan, 29 Oct. 1969.

43. Mueller notes on his visit to North American on 8 July 1967 to review CSM and S-II program status; Low to Phillips, 14 July 1967; R. E. Carroll TWX to NASA Hq. et al., "Redesignation of S&ID as Space Division," 9 May 1967.


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