• U.S.

Space: Blind Spot

7 minute read

The 14-volume report on last January’s Apollo disaster and full-dress hearings in both houses of Congress last week underscored a tragic irony.

Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died by fire on Cape Kennedy’s Pad 34 because some of the best engineering talent in the U.S., hypersensitive to the perils of space, failed to recognize the grave dangers of a simulated flight only a couple of hun dred feet above the ground.

“It was our blind spot,” confessed a top National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer. North American Aviation’s highest officials shared the blind spot. Said President J. Leland Atwood: “The pad testing seemed to be almost mundane and routine. If I thought of the pad testing, without any fuel aboard and without preparing to launch, as anything potentially dangerous, it would have been a little bit beyond my comprehension.” Said Astronaut Frank Borman, a member of the review board who might fly an Apollo himself some day: “We overlooked the possibility of a spacecraft fire.”

2,000 Squawks. That oversight was only one of the charges made by the review board in a searing report that runs some 3,300 pages and weighs 19 Ibs. Although six of the eight board members work for NASA, they lodged a broad indictment against the conduct of the entire $23 billion Apollo program by the space agency and North American, the prime contractor. There were, said the report, “many deficiencies in design and engineering, manufacture and quality control.”

The investigators worked for ten weeks. With 1,500 technicians assisting them, they painstakingly traced possible sources of trouble along 20 miles of electrical wiring, re-enacted the blaze in a mock-up spacecraft, exhaustively analyzed the innards of the burned Apollo spacecraft. NASA also stripped down two intact production models. In one, inspectors discovered more than 2,000 “squawks,” or lapses in quality control. Hundreds of the complaints were of the paint-fleck variety, but there were also such serious flaws as improperly fitted electrical connections and exposed conductors.

Faulty Conductor. Some of these flaws were disturbingly similar to those found in the burned craft, where the wiring revealed “poor installation, design and workmanship.” Though the investigators acknowledged that the precise cause of the fire “most likely will never be positively identified,” they said it was “most probably” caused by a faulty conductor in an equipment bay under Grissom’s couch. Apparently, current from the conductor “arced”-or spurted—to another object, and the blaze began. Almost immediately, it raged out of control in the cabin’s 100% oxygen atmosphere, which was capable of turning any spark into a conflagration. Some 70 Ibs. of inflammable materials such as nylon netting and chemical coolant fed the flames.

Within the cabin, pressure soared from 16.7 lbs. per sq. in. to 29 Ibs. per sq. in., rupturing the cabin wall. Robert Van Dolah, a Bureau of Mines explosives expert and a member of the investigatory panel, testified that an escape hatch capable of being opened in two or three seconds could have saved the crew. Such a hatch is now being manufactured, but the one used in Apollo took 90 seconds to open, even in normal circumstances.

“Get Them Out.” When the cabin wall ruptured, escaping pressure sucked the flames across the astronauts—first Grissom, then White, finally Chaffee. Dense smoke and carbon monoxide rapidly filled the cabin. Though the astronauts suffered burns, it was asphyxiation that killed them. So intense were the heat and smoke billowing from the cabin into the “white room” near the craft that rescuers were repeatedly driven back and their gas masks, designed to protect against toxic fumes rather than smoke, were quickly exhausted.

Approximately five minutes after the first cry of “Fire in the cockpit!”—believed to have come from Chaffee—technicians finally got the escape hatch open. Space Center Fireman James A. Burch grabbed a flashlight and leaned into the charred cabin. “I shined the light completely around inside the capsule,” he said, “and I couldn’t see anything except burnt wires hanging down. I told the man on the headset, There’s no one in there.’ He said, ‘There has to be. They are still in there. Get them out.'” Burch returned to the cabin, only then saw the three.

Blurted Theory. The blunt candor of the report surprised officials of both NASA and North American. Testifying before Texas Democrat Olin Teague’s House Subcommittee on NASA Over sight, North American’s top brass seemed defensive and often vague. “In spite of my feeling of deep responsibility for our organization,” said Atwood, “I do feel that the responsibility must be widely shared.” At one point, North American Vice President John McCarthy quarreled with the board’s conclusion that faulty wiring probably caused the fire. Pressed for alternatives, he blurted: “It has been theorized that Grissom could have kicked the wire that would have been attached to the gas chronometer.” That would have caused an abrasion in the insulation and made possible the arc that ignited the blaze. When New York Democrat William Fitts Ryan angrily disputed that suggestion, McCarthy retreated. “I only brought it up as a hypothesis,” he said.

Insufficient Dedication. The hearings in both House and Senate made it plain that relationships between NASA and North American—and often between NASA headquarters in Washington and its own operational centers at Cape Kennedy and Houston—were seriously flawed.

Major General Samuel Phillips, program director for Apollo in Washington, testified that in late 1965 NASA was so unhappy with North American’s performance that it considered for a time withdrawing part of the company’s assignment. Phillips sent North American a detailed memorandum of NASA’s com plaints (which the space agency has refused to release). Said NASA’s deputy administrator, Dr. Robert Seamans: “There has not always been at North American sufficient dedication either to engineering design or workmanship.” The company, he went on, “did not address itself properly to training its personnel, supervising their efforts, and inspecting work that was done.”

Privately, NASA officials have long complained about what they call North American’s “time clock” approach to its $2.8 billion Apollo contract. One year, the company was running $250 million over its budget until NASAfinally cracked down and forced the paring of 3,000 employees it considered superfluous. NASA also assigned extra teams of quality-control inspectors to police workmanship.

High Point. Despite his surprise at the report’s severity, NASA Administrator James Webb did not dispute its findings. Instead, he accentuated the positive. “The board has found error, but it has also found the capability to overcome error,” he said. Displaying a flash of the evangelical fervor that has characterized his six-year reign as NASA’s boss—a job that the North Carolina born lawyer owed to his solid friendships with Lyndon Johnson and Oklahoma’s late Senator Robert Kerr— Webb declared: “If any man in this room asks for whom the Apollo bell tolls, it tolls for him and me, as well as for Grissom, White and Chaffee. It tolls for every astronaut test pilot who will lose his life in the space-simulated vacuum of a test chamber or the real vacuum of space.”

To Webb, the drive to explore space is “a high point in all mankind’s vision.” In the wake of the Apollo tragedy, he conceded that the venture is a dangerous one, but added that “either the country is going to take the risk and get on as we did in Mercury and Gemini, or we will not have a manned-space-flight program.” U.S. policymakers have already made their choice. Though the tragedy at Cape Kennedy has set back the first manned Apollo flight by a year, they are still committed to sending men to the moon by 1970.

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