time and space

The Day the Astronauts Died

By Richard Corfield
Sunday, January 28, 2007

About half a mile to the east of the bustle of the Kennedy Space Center visitors' center at Cape Canaveral is a little-visited part of American space history. Here the Atlantic breeze sighs among the stunted palms and the palmetto grass and whines through the twisted steel gridwork of abandoned skeletal launch gantries.

It is Launch Pad 34, site of one of the first -- and worst -- disasters in space history. It was here 40 years ago this weekend, on Jan. 27, 1967, that astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed within seconds when a fire swept through the capsule of Apollo 1. The cause was later found to be faulty insulation around a wire, which sparked and ignited the contents of the capsule, pressurized in an atmosphere of pure oxygen. In such an environment ordinary materials burn with blowtorch intensity.

Then there was the door. The engineers who had designed it were so nervous that it could rupture in the hostile vacuum of space that it had to be held shut with no fewer than 12 bolts. In addition, the door was so heavy that White and the other astronauts -- superfit specimens all -- used it to practice shoulder presses. It had not been made for rapid egress, and nobody at NASA had even considered the possibility of fire on the launch pad. Bolted inside a steel capsule in such an atmosphere, Grissom, White and Chaffee never stood a chance. When they slipped into their chairs of canvas at 1 p.m. local time that fateful day, they were already in their own communal coffin.

The disaster paralyzed NASA and the burgeoning American space industry. All work on the Apollo program was halted while the cause of the fire was determined and steps taken to prevent a repetition. There was little time, though, because the late president John F. Kennedy had mandated that the United States land a man on the moon -- and return him safely to Earth -- by 1970, less than three years away.

In the end, neither NASA nor North American Aviation, the capsule's designer, was really to blame. Both were simply responding to a culture that mandated that things get done the fastest way possible. As a result, shortcuts were taken. In Grissom's case, a terrible coincidence surrounded his death. Only six years before, in the summer of 1961, he had become the second American to fly into space aboard the Mercury-Redstone spacecraft Liberty Bell 7. When the capsule landed in the ocean, its door blew off, and Grissom nearly drowned. Grissom's nemesis was ever to be the door to his spacecraft.

By a twist of fate, this weekend also marks another NASA anniversary of an event in which the culture of haste resulted in tragedy. On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. The causes and consequences of that disaster were disconcertingly similar to those of the Apollo 1 fire. An inquiry traced the source of the launch failure (explosion is not a word that is welcome in the NASA lexicon) to a single "O" ring that joined two segments of the solid rocket booster. Such rings worked in all conditions except at low temperatures, and NASA managers had decided to launch that cold January morning against the advice of at least some of the Morton Thiokol engineers who manufactured and maintained the boosters. Unlike the shuttle's liquid-fueled main engines, the solid rocket boosters, once ignited, could not be shut down. The Challenger Seven were, in effect, dead before they even left the ground.

The investigation that followed included some of the heaviest hitters in the American space and science community. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was involved, as was Charles "Chuck" Yeager, the first to break the sound barrier and the original bearer of Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff." Also on the panel was Richard Feynman, considered to be among the greatest physicists of his time.

Armstrong and Yeager were old hands with NASA procedures and may have understood -- although certainly never condoned -- the labyrinthine workings of that monolithic organization. But Feynman was irate over what he identified as a culture of mismanagement at the heart of NASA, where schedules and prestige were put before science and safety. It was Feynman who demonstrated most graphically what must have happened that fateful day. At the news conference where the investigators announced their findings, he took an O ring at room temperature and twisted it to show its superb flexibility under the right conditions. Then he dipped it into a glass of iced water and repeated the experiment. The ring snapped in half.

There was no denying it: The immediate cause of the Challenger disaster was clear, as were the reasons behind it. NASA should have waited for warmer weather before launching, but it took a risk to stay on schedule -- and lost. Feynman was scathing. "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled," he said. The shuttle fleet was grounded while the issues were addressed and resolved, delaying for years the launch of satellites and the development of the international space station. When flights resumed, all seemed well, until 2003, when NASA's first space shuttle, the venerable Columbia, broke up over Texas while approaching Cape Canaveral, having been damaged at launch by a piece of foam that broke off its external fuel tank and hit a wing.

Three years ago, President Bush announced a replacement for the space shuttle fleet. Named Orion, these vehicles will carry four to six astronauts into orbit atop a booster, the Ares, which is based on the tried-and-tested Saturn V that took men to the moon in the 1960s and '70s.

It will be a titanic endeavor, because not only will the Orion-Ares combination serve the international space station, but it is the vehicle that is expected to take people back to the moon by 2015 and then to Mars, by NASA's reckoning, by 2020.

So it is appropriate that plans to return humans to space and ultimately take them to the planets are advancing apace. For NASA, though, there is a deeper opportunity, and that is to learn from its mistakes. We live in an overcrowded and abused world, and sooner rather than later we will have to contemplate the first steps in our species' next journey -- the colonization of the planets. This is a good weekend for NASA to remember that it holds not only America's, but the whole of humanity's, next footsteps in trust.


Richard Corfield is author of "The Lives of the Planets: A Natural History of the Solar System," forthcoming from Perseus Books.

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