January 29, 2017 2 Comments
last Friday, Apollo 1 burned on the pad at Cape Kennedy, lost with it were Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom as Command Pilot, Edward H. White II as Senior Pilot, and Donn F. Eisele as Pilot. I was a disaster that all Americans, and in fact, the world shared with us. And as the details became known, it only became worse. From NASA
“Something about it just doesn’t ring right”:
One week prior to CM-012’s arrival at KSC, the crew and Apollo Spacecraft Program Office manager, Joseph F. Shea, participated in a meeting at which the crew expressed their concerns about the amount of flammable material in the CM.
Shea ultimately passed CM-012, over the crew’s specific concerns, through inspection. In response, the crew sent him a photo of themselves in prayer over the CM, inscribed with the words: “It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to go over your head.”
Shea subsequently ordered the manufacturer to remove all flammables from the CM, and CM-012 was moved to Kennedy with a “conditional Certificate of Flight Worthiness” – with 113 “significant, incomplete, planned engineering changes” needing to be addressed at KSC.
Subsequent to delivery, a further 623 engineering changes were ordered to CM-012 – significantly compromising simulator engineers’ ability to provide an accurate representation of the craft to the crew during training.
Nonetheless, the CM and SM were mated together in September, and the CSM underwent a series of altitude chamber tests, first unmanned, and then with both the prime and first (then second) backup crews between September and December 1966.
But technical issues with the CSM persisted.
An Environmental Control Unit in the CM had to be sent back to its manufacturer twice for design changes and operational leaks.
Moreover, the mated CSM had to be de-mated for inspection of the SM’s propellant tank after a tank on another SM ruptured during testing at its manufacturer.
In the latter part of 1966, Apollo 204’s backup crew was changed to Walter M. Schirra, Donn F. Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham.
There’s lot’s of technical information in the article, and it’s fascinating. So is how it affected NASA, and provides a clue as to why it was so long until the next, the Challenger disaster.
Moreover, with all of these changes came new practices and manufacturing standards for Apollo and NASA.
But the culture change began far earlier.
On 30 January, just three days after the fire, Gene Kranz held a meeting with his staff in Mission Control. Addressing his team, he said, “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent.
“Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities.
“Competent means we will never take anything for granted.
“Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today, you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write “Tough” and “Competent” on your blackboards. It will never be erased.
“Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
With this message, Kranz guided his team through numerous test flights, shakedowns of the lunar equipment, and successfully – and as safely as possible – landed the first two men on the moon on 20 July 1969, fulfilling President Kennedy’s goal.
Resonance with today:
Launches are exciting. For many, they are the main event in spaceflight – the most visible aspect to missions that are otherwise unnoticed.
But a desire to launch – as Apollo 1 showed – should never be driven by schedule pressure from a company/agency or from the general public.
Nor should such a desire suppress a need to speak toward things that don’t seem, look, or feel right.
As SpaceX now prepares to return east coast launch capabilities via historic LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, it’s easy to clamor for a launch – to be excited for it – and become verbal as the launch slips due to pad readiness.
But a desire to launch should never override a calm, measured return to launch capability – whether that launch is a crewed or uncrewed mission.
For as much as NASA learned the lesson of what can happen when schedule pressures override safety with Apollo 1, they learned that lesson again 19 years and one day later when schedule and mounting delays overcame judgement and the advice of engineers – for which the Challenger seven paid.
So too was this lesson painfully re-learned again 17 years and four days after Challenger, when an unspoken but building schedule desire to launch Node-2 Harmony to the ISS led – perhaps subconsciously – to a “dispensation” of the External Tank foam debris problem, to which the crew of Columbia was lost.
While our failures are not as spectacular as Appolo 1, this catastrophe is a reminder to us all that we need to do it right, no matter the time it takes. Brave men’s (and women’s) lives may well depend on our decisions. I’ve had a long career in technical fields, and you know, one of my proudest boasts is this: Nobody ever died because of what I have done wrong or wrongly left undone. Part of that I learned from Apollo 1. So did many others, at NASA, and many other places as well. It crossed my mind often as I walked into Grissom Hall at Purdue. There are many lessons to take from the American space program. This may have been the hardest, losing brave men always is.