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Many of the younger set aren't aware, and many of my cohorts have forgotten, that we lost astronauts in the Apollo program, and not just in training accidents in aircraft. I recall it myself somewhat vividly, because it was the day before my birthday. Thirty six years ago today, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee burned to death in a fire on a launch pad during an Apollo flight simulation.
This occurred less than two years before our first Apollo flights to the Moon (though the first actual landing was about two and a half years off, in July of 1969). One can't tell from this article the impact that it would have on the program, of course, but it was immense. There was a great deal of concern that it could be enough of a setback that we wouldn't achieve Kennedy's goal of "within the decade," and like the Challenger disaster, it pointed up many deficiencies in the program management, not just in the dangerous practice of using pure oxygen as a spacecraft environment, but also sloppy attention to detail overall.
In addition to the use of the pure oxygen, the hatch to allow the astronauts to get out had to be unbolted, rather than having a quick release (as for example, airline emergency hatches have). They died before they could even start to undo all the fasteners. There's a dry, and simultaneously chilling, if you have the vaguest understanding of what the crew was going through during the events, timeline available from NASA.
Management was thoroughly overhauled at North American, the lead contractor for the capsule (it was purchased by Rockwell later that year) and, as a result, the program was improved considerably.
A key difference between this accident and the Challenger catastrophe was that in Apollo, we had a goal and a schedule. Accordingly, we dusted ourselves off, analyzed the problem, addressed it, and kept to the schedule.
With the Shuttle, the political reality was that there was no particular reason to fly Shuttles--no national commitment would be violated, no vital experiments wouldn't be performed, no objects would fall from the sky on our heads, and no elections would be lost, if the Shuttle didn't fly.
So, two and a half years after the Apollo I fire, we landed men on the Moon. Two and a half years after STS 51-L, the fleet was still grounded. It didn't fly again until two years, nine months later.
What a difference a couple decades make.Posted by Rand Simberg at January 27, 2003 12:24 PM
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Excerpt: Today marks the 36th anniversary of the fire on the launchpad that killed Apollo astronauts Gus Grissom (the second American
Weblog: Andrew Olmsted
Tracked: January 27, 2003 03:49 PM
Apollo 1 Remembered
Excerpt: Rand Sandberg looks back at the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster, which claimed the lives of astronauts Gus...
Weblog: Chris Lawrence's weblog
Tracked: January 27, 2003 08:14 PM
You are right about needing to remember this day, many of us were alive but don't remember this date for what it is. Here is my rememberance.
I was on my first Boy Scout camping trip, trying to get my "Toten' Chip" so I could carry a knife and hatchet I'd gotten for Christmas. It was bitterly cold in the Knobs of Indiana. We carped and complained all day about the cold and lack of "fun" we were having. We kept complaining until the Scout Master told us about the crew of Apollo 1. He'd gotten a newspaper somewhere and read us the story.
We said some prayers for the families and for the Astronauts themselves and went to back work on our camp site chores, working much harder than before we'd heard the news. We were quieter too, I do remember that.
It's days like that one that make us grow up faster, we began to realize that life was not forever. Some of us, maybe all, dreamed of being Astronuats, it was what you dreamed of as a boy in 1967. That day made all of us think about our own mortality, something not many of us had ever done I expect.
I will mark this day on my calendar so it doesn't slide by again, thanks for the reminder.Posted by Steve at January 27, 2003 01:50 PM
Every one should check out this site and thank God we have men like this in our country!!
www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/Apollo204Posted by Steve at January 27, 2003 03:03 PM
For a feeling of the true horror of the event see these pictures of Roger Chaffee's flight Suit:
Posted by Anonymous at January 27, 2003 08:22 PM
There was a very nice restaurant across the street from North American's Downey CA plant that did the building of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo capsules. After the fire, the NASA bean-counters came in and cracked down on the extensive overtime and the expense-account lunches. Within a year, that restaurant fell to a very suspicious, but unproven arson. By the time Rockwell took over, a lot of the fat in the program had been sweated-out, and a lot of the local hospitality industry had to tighten their belts a lot.Posted by Drew at January 27, 2003 10:35 PM
Not to mention the hookers in the motels down on Lakewood Boulevard...Posted by Rand Simberg at January 27, 2003 10:53 PM
Everyone here seems to be pointing the finger at North American. However, I believe North American fought bitterly with NASA over the use of pure oxygen in the capsule, which was a prime ingredient in the speed and severity of the fire. Which reminds me of Martin-Marietta engineers begging NASA not to launch the Challenger because of the cold. In both cases, the engineers were overruled by NASA management who "knew" better. I was too young to be very effected by the Apollo I disaster, but after Challenger I realized that NASA had lost its way.Posted by Larry Brown at January 28, 2003 07:24 AM
I didn't mean to imply that the fault lay solely with North American--certainly NASA bore responsibility as well. I was just making the point that they took the blame for it (which many believe helped them win the Shuttle contract five years later).Posted by Rand Simberg at January 28, 2003 08:44 AM
Well they had performed experiments in zero G and found that even in a pure oxygen environment that a fire that is started will extinguish on its own. Its the effects that gravity has on a convective action of fire that keeps it burning. In zero G oxygen is fine, it was just a bad idea to use pure Oxygen for a static test on the ground in the presence of 1 GPosted by Hefty at January 28, 2003 06:10 PM
I hate to disagree with you, Hefty, but there's an oxygen-saturation effect regardless of the gravity, and microgravity combustion experiments have shown that flame can still propagate in microgravity, even if it's slowed.
Add to this the increasing pressure, which would by itself cause quite a bit of circulation; so would crew movements.
I think a fairer assessment of the Apollo 1 fire is this: until that fire, the pure-oxygen-atmosphere fire hazards hadn't been closely examined, and weren't appreciated.Posted by Troy at January 29, 2003 09:39 PM
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