Death at the Cape

On the afternoon of January 27, 1967, Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee, prime crew of Apollo mission AS-204,* were reclining in spacecraft 012 atop their Saturn IB launch vehicle at Kennedy Space Center's launch complex 34. Flight and launch crews were conducting a "plugs-out" simulation to determine that the spacecraft would function properly on internal power. The test had been frequently delayed by problems with communications and the environmental- control system; these were exasperating but not abnormal and certainly not a portent of the day's climactic event. Just after 6:31 p.m. horrified ground crews heard a cry of alarm over the communications circuits and saw a bright glow through the spacecraft window. Seconds later the command module ruptured, filling the "white room" at the end of the access arm on the service structure with thick clouds of smoke. Technicians worked frantically to pry open the hatch but were repeatedly driven back by the smoke and heat. By the time they got the hatch open Grissom, White, and Chaffee were dead. A few minutes later medical help arrived, only to find that nothing could be done.** Officials quickly secured the launch pad and began the grim task of removing the bodies. NASA Administrator James Webb immediately appointed Floyd L. Thompson, director of Langley Research Center, chairman of an investigating board*** to determine the cause of the tragedy.1

Manned space flight unquestionably entailed hazards, and it can be argued that much of the public's fascination with the early manned space flight programs grew out of the perception that it was an exceptionally dangerous business.2 This perception somewhat exaggerated the true situation. Space flight was dangerous, but NASA engineers at every level clearly realized the hazards and went to considerable lengths to minimize them. All the astronauts were aware of the risks and considered them acceptable. Not a man among them would have stayed in the program if he had believed his life was being wilfully risked for the sake of an ephemeral propaganda triumph. Emphasis on producing safe, reliable hardware permeated the program. The astronauts were active participants in design and development; frequent astronaut visits to contractor plants helped to ensure a workable design. Crewmen who had been assigned to flights followed their own spacecraft through assembly and testing. Not less important, the visits impressed on contractor employees the fact that the lives of real people - not anonymous consumers, but people they knew - depended on every component of the system.

One result was that in 5 years 19 Americans had flown 16 earth-orbital missions without serious mishap. Although disaster had flirted with both Mercury and Gemini,**** flying in space seemed to be no more dangerous than piloting high-performance aircraft - perhaps less so, for the only astronauts to die before the fire were killed in airplane accidents.

Not surprisingly, most attention had been focused on the dangers in space. Immediately after the fire, Administrator James Webb expressed a widely held view when he said, "Although everyone realized that some day space pilots would die, who would have thought the first tragedy would be on the ground [emphasis added]?"3 Perhaps the AS-204 fire was more traumatic because it did occur on the ground. Whatever the reason, public reaction was vigorous. After a brief period of shock, the nation's press began to ask questions, not only about the cause of the fire but about the wisdom of the manned lunar exploration program.4 While Thompson's investigating board probed the charred spacecraft and traced its history from California to the Cape, NASA clamped a tight lid on speculation as to possible causes, issuing only brief interim reports. In spite of calls for an independent congressional investigation, both the Senate and House space committee chairmen agreed to defer public hearings until NASA could complete its own probe.5

In early April the investigating board submitted its report concluding that the precise point of origin of the fire could not be positively identified. Investigators had found physical evidence of electric arcing from wires with damaged insulation. Sometime during manufacture or testing, apparently, an unnoticed incidental contact had scraped the insulation from a wire, thus providing the path for a spark-exactly where, the investigators could not say, but the evidence pointed to a spot near Grissom's couch where components of the environmental control system had repeatedly been removed and replaced during testing.6 The arc had ignited flammable material and in the pure oxygen atmosphere# the resulting fire had spread with astonishing rapidity.

Contributing to the disaster were an appalling number of factors that could only be called oversights, to put the best possible face on it. The simulation had not been considered hazardous because neither the launch vehicle nor the spacecraft contained any fuel, nor were the Saturn's pyrotechnics installed; consequently no emergency equipment or personnel were at the launch pad. Wiring carrying electrical power was not properly protected against accidental impact. Far too much flammable material - some 70 pounds (32 kilograms) of nylon netting, polyurethane foam, and Velcro fastening - had been haphazardly spread around the command module, creating unobstructed paths for flames. No provision had been made for the crew to get out of the spacecraft quickly in case of emergency. The hatch could not be opened in less than 90 seconds. Neither the board's report nor the congressional hearings that followed could explain why so many technical experts had failed to notice that spacecraft 012, as it sat on the launch pad on January 27, was simply a bomb that needed only a trigger to set it off. Confident in Apollo's design approach, which emphasized eliminating the possibility of ignition by electrical components, and unaware of the intensity and speed of fires fed by pure oxygen, both NASA and contractor engineers had grossly underestimated the consequences of a flaw in their hardware or procedures. Many other problems had demanded attention throughout the fabrication of this prototype command module, and - perhaps lulled by success in past programs - everyone had overlooked the hazards that were accumulating in the spacecraft.

In the months following NASA's investigation, responsibility for these conditions was liberally distributed among contractors and NASA managers alike. Charges of sloppy workmanship and poor quality control by the spacecraft contractor - which NASA should have corrected - seemed justified. Critics asked again whether the "end-of-the-decade" goal was, for no good reason, pushing Apollo out of control and whether there really was a "space race" that justified such haste. James Webb and George Mueller, who took most of the heat of Congress's investigation, doggedly and successfully defended the program's objectives as well as its schedule, aided by generally sympathetic congressional committees.7

The Apollo project survived the fire shaken but undeterred. NASA continued to aim for a lunar landing before 1970, but management (especially contractor supervision) would be tightened, procedures (especially safety precautions) would be thoroughly investigated, combustible materials in the spacecraft would be rigorously controlled, and new and less flammable materials (particularly fabrics) would be sought.8

Perhaps the greatest damage was to NASA's standing with Congress. The space agency no longer seemed larger than life, especially to members who had never been strongly committed to either side of the manned space flight debate.9 Webb left an atypically bad impression in his appearances before the Congressional committees. He responded testily to suggestions that the Thompson board, made up of NASA's own people, was unlikely to get to the bottom of the accident, and was not cooperative when committee members asked for a report on the performance of the spacecraft contractor.10

The Thompson board pointed out numerous deficiencies in the design of the spacecraft and recommended changes in management and quality control throughout the program. Even while the board was preparing its report NASA was hard at work evaluating changes. Obviously the command and service module needed the most attention, but the lunar module was equally rigorously scrutinized, and no aspect of the Apollo program was spared detailed examination for hazards.11

How much the lunar landing would be set back no one knew.## Throughout 1966 the Office of Manned Space Flight had been working toward two unmanned test flights of the Saturn V starting in 1967, to be followed by three manned flights to check out the launch vehicle, both spacecraft, and the complex support system for the lunar landing. NASA's public position was that "lunar flights," orbital or landing, would begin before the end of 1969. Planning schedules showed several "simulated" lunar missions - which might orbit the moon but not land - the first of which might be flown as early as October 1967 on AS-503 or as late as August 1968 on AS-506. The initial landing might be assigned to AS- 506, but the earliest mission unambiguously categorized in OMSF's master schedules as a "lunar mission" and not a "simulation" was AS-507, scheduled for November 1968.12

The fire wrecked that timetable, and for four months afterward all monthly OMSF launch schedules were stamped "UNDER REVIEW." At the end of May 1967, a new master schedule showed only four Saturn V flights preceding the first lunar landing: two unmanned, to check out the launch vehicle; one earth-orbital flight to gain experience in simultaneous operation of the command and service module and the lunar module; and one lunar mission simulation. The Saturn V flights were interspersed among eight Saturn IB missions; as many of these would be flown as necessary to discover and correct flaws in the spacecraft and operations. The May schedule still showed the first landing in the last quarter of 1968, but no one was authorized to mention any date more specific than "before the end of 1968" in public.13

* Unofficially called "Apollo 1," the flight was more commonly referred to as "AS-204" - the fourth flight of a Saturn IB vehicle (Saturn IB flights were numbered in the 200s, Saturn V missions in the 500s). When flights were resumed, mission numbers started with Apollo 4, for reasons that were never completely clear.

** Postmortem examination disclosed that the crew had died of asphyxiation by toxic fumes produced by incomplete combustion of the synthetic materials in the spacecraft. All had been burned, but not severely enough to cause death.

*** Other members were astronaut Frank Borman, MSC; Maxime A. Faget, MSC; E. Barton Geer Langley; Col. Charles F. Strang, USAF; Robert W. Van Dolah, U.S. Bureau of Mines (replacing Franklin A. Long of Cornell University, who had represented the President's Science Advisory Committee); George C. White, Jr., NASA Headquarters; John J. Williams, Kennedy Space Center; and George T. Malley, Langley, counsel. George W. Jeffs of North American Aviation was asked to serve as a consultant.

**** Grissom's Mercury capsule flooded and sank when its hatch accidentally blew off as he awaited recovery from the second suborbital Mercury flight. On Mercury's second earth-orbital mission Scott Carpenter overshot his landing area by nearly 300 kilometers, and for a while his fate was in question. Gemini had produced two incidents: Gemini VI's Titan vehicle shut down immediately after ignition, leading to a few anxious minutes, and a malfunctioning thruster set the Gemini VIII spacecraft spinning wildly, requiring premature termination of the mission.

# During the simulation, as it would be at launch on a real mission, the command module atmosphere was pure oxygen at 16.4 pounds per square inch (113 kilonewtons per square meter) pressure - 10 percent above normal atmospheric pressure.

## Two years later Mueller told a congressional subcommittee that the fire had delayed the first manned flight by 18 months, but in the interim progress was made in areas other than the command and service module.

1. Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, NASA SP-4205 (Washington, 1979), pp.214-17; Charles D. Benson and William Barnaby Faherty, Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations, NASA SP-4204 (Washington, 1978), pp. 390-94.

2. One author has characterized the media coverage of the early period as based on the unspoken view (based on several widely publicized failures) that "our boys always botch it and our rockets always blow up," and suggests that journalists uncritically emphasized the risks of manned space flight. Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979). Wolfe's conclusion - supported by the (admittedly subjective) recollections of the present author, who watched many of the launches, from Mercury through Apollo, on television - gains credibility after viewing a television documentary entitled "Spaceflight," broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System in May 1985. In an interview on that program Walter Cronkite, who was a principal figure in the Columbia Broadcasting System's coverage of manned space flight, recalled that the history of failure in rocket tests up to 1961 heightened his perception of the danger to the astronaut. The astronauts did not share this apprehension; their day-to-day participation in hardware development gave them an informed estimate of the danger they faced.

3. "Entire Crew of Mission Set for Feb. 21 Is Lost; Grissom, White, Chaffee," Washington Post, Jan. 18, 1967.

4. "Is Moon Travel Worth the Cost?" Chicago Tribune, Jan.29, 1967; "The Space 'Success Schedule,'" Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 30, 1967; "A Time for Deliberation," Washington Evening Star, Feb. 1, 1967; "Haste in Space," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 20, 1967; "The Legacy of Counterfeit Crisis," ibid., Apr. 13, 1967; Jerry E. Bishop, "Moon Race: Can't Machines Do It?" ibid., Apr. 16, 1967.

5. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 219-21.

6. Ibid.; Report of Apollo 204 Review Board to the Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Washington, 1967), Floyd L. Thompson, chmn., Apr. 5, 1967. See also House Subcommittee on NASA Oversight of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, Investigation into Apollo 204 Accident, hearings, 90/1, Apr. 10 to May 10, 1967; Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Apollo Accident, hearings, 901 and 902, pts. 1-8, 1967-68; idem, Apollo 204 Accident: Report, 5. Rept. 956, 90/2, Jan. 30, 1968.

7. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 222-27; House, Investigation, passim.

8. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, p. 225.

9. Oscar Griffin, "Rep. Rumsfeld Criticizes NASA For Lack of Reports Before Fire," Houston Chronicle, July 19, 1967; "NASA Losing Its Support, Casey Says," ibid.; W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space; A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4208 (Washington, 1983), p. 84-91.

10. House, Investigation, pp. 10-11; J. V. Reistrup, "Webb Defends Judgment on Apollo," Washington Post, Apr. 11, 1967. Considerable misunderstanding was generated when members of the committees demanded to see the "Phillips Report," which both NASA officials and North American executives professed not to recognize by that name. The members of Congress were referring to a hard-hitting critique of NAA's management, which Gen. Sam Phillips had submitted to NASA and to the contractor in late 1965 [see Chap. 6], but because it took the form of notes enclosed with a letter it was not called a "report." When the document was finally identified, however, Webb, Mueller, and Phillips provoked charges of a cover-up by refusing to furnish it to the committees on the grounds that public disclosure could undermine NASA-contractor relations; William Hines, "Ryan Says NASA Knew of Apollo 'Incompetence,'" Washington Evening Star, Apr. 26, 1967; Thomas O'Toole, "NASA Accused of Covering Up Troubles," Washington Post, May 11, 1967. On this point S. Rept. 956 [see note 6, above] stresses the effect of NASA officials' behavior on the legislators' confidence in the agency; see "Additional Views of Mr. Brooke and Mr. Percy," pp. 12-14, and "Additional Views of Mr. Mondale," pp. 15-16. For more extensive discussion of the fire and its aftermath, see Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots; Benson and Faherty Moonport; and the records of the Senate and House committee investigations cited earlier. As the investigations proceeded, the press raised allegations of questionable political deals that gave North American the contract for the command and service module; see Harry Schwartz, "Unanswered Questions on the Apollo Tragedy," New York Times, Apr. 15, 1967 ; William Hines, "Apollo: A Shining Vision in Trouble," Washington Star, May 21, 1967. These allegations were never put in the committee records and remained unsubstantiated. Three years later, however, they were revived in Journey to Tranquility (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1970), by three English journalists, Hugo Young. Bryan Silcock, and Peter Dunn.

11. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 225-32; Benson and Faherty, Moonport, pp. 401-402.

12. OMSF, "Manned Space Flight Schedules, vol. I, Level 1 Schedules and Resources Summary," Dec. 1966; House Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1967 NASA Authorization, hearings on H.R. 12718, 89/2, pt. 2, pp. 72-76.

13. OMSF, "Manned Space Flight Schedules, vol. I, Level 1 Schedules and Resources Summary," May 1967.

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