Monday, January 26, 2009

Beginning NASA's toughest week

January 27 begins a sad week for NASA. We observe the anniversaries of the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger explosion, and the loss of Columbia this week.

January 27, 1967 was the date of the launch pad fire that killed the crew of what became known as Apollo 1. The crew died of asphyxiation in a fire that swept through the pure oxygen atmosphere inside their capsule while they were performing a test. America had lost several astronauts before in jet aircraft accidents, but never in an actual space vehicle

This badge is from the "Mission Failure Investigation Team," which was charged with finding and correcting the cause of the fire. The team quickly learned that, in the rush to get the mission into orbit, NASA and its contractors had allowed a horrible collection of stripped wire, 34 square feet of flammable Velcro, and nearly 70 pounds of other flammable materials to creep into the design. In a high-pressure, pure oxygen environment, the slightest static spark could have been enough to start a raging inferno.

I remember hearing the news of the fire on the radio. We were riding in our Ford Econoline van that morning in Naha, Okinawa, where my dad was stationed. We were completely stunned at the news. As much as a 10-year-old boy could understand the situation, my feelings were disbelief that something like that could happen to a US space capsule, and a deep fear that the Apollo program would be cancelled. I was particularly sad at the loss of Ed White, who had been very much a personal hero and a source of fascination for me after his Gemini IV spacewalk.

As horrible as the tragedy was, the prevailing opinion is that NASA would never have gotten man to the Moon by 1969 had the accident not occurred. It focused NASA on doing things right rather than rushing ahead blindly, making for much safer spacecraft. It also forced NASA to rethink its strategy for incrementally testing the Apollo hardware in Earth orbit, helping NASA instead focus on "all-up" testing that began with Apollo 8 in December 1968.

In memoriam Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee...