Anniversaries: Apollo I and Challenger

Glenn Reynolds reminds us that this week brings two unhappy anniversaries in our nation’s space program.   Forty-two years ago today, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee perished in a capsule fire that almost derailed the Apollo program and our eventual triumph on the Moon.  Twenty-three years ago tomorrow, we lost seven more astronauts in the Challenger explosion — Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and teacher Christa McAuliffe.  Wired recalls the Apollo I disaster:

Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee are killed on the launch pad when a flash fire engulfs their command module during testing for the first Apollo/Saturn mission. They are the first U.S. astronauts to die in the line of duty.

The command module, built by North American Aviation, was the prototype for those that would eventually accompany the lunar landers to the moon. Designated CM-012 by NASA, the module was a lot larger than those flown during the Mercury and Gemini programs, and was the first designed for the Saturn 1B booster.

Even before tragedy struck, the command module was criticized for a number of potentially hazardous design flaws, including the use of a more combustible, 100 percent oxygen atmosphere in the cockpit, an escape hatch that opened inward instead of outward, faulty wiring and plumbing, and the presence of flammable material.

Regarding the cabin atmosphere and hatch configuration, it was a case of NASA overruling the recommendations of the North American designers. North American proposed using a 60-40 oxygen/nitrogen mixture but because of fears over decompression sickness, and because pure oxygen had been used successfully in earlier space programs, NASA insisted on it being used again. NASA also dinged the suggestion that the hatch open outward and carry explosive bolts in case of an emergency mainly because a hatch failure in the Mercury program’s Friendship 7 capsule had nearly killed Gus Grissom in 1961.

One of the best depictions of the Apollo I disaster came as part of the miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, produced by Tom Hanks after Apollo 13. It corrected what I thought was a very unfair depiction of Gus Grissom in the otherwise-brilliant film The Right Stuff.  In that movie, Grissom came across as a self-pitying, cowardly bumbler. The movie strongly suggests that Grissom blew the hatch on his Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7 and then demanded to be rescued ahead of his spacecraft for no reason.  Actually, investigations well-known by the time The Right Stuff was made showed that Grissom didn’t blow the hatch, and nearly drowned prior to his rescue as his suit filled with water and almost pulled him down.  On the anniversary of his death, we should set the record straight.

In reality, Grissom was an engineering specialist driven to perfectionism.  He was one of only three other astronauts chosen to fly in all three of NASA’s moon programs, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo (Wally Schirra and Alan Shepherd were the others, but a rare disease kept Shepherd out of Gemini flight).  He bucked NASA hard on the Apollo capsule, at one point hanging a lemon on it in protest of deficiencies that he felt NASA was too slow to address.  His death was doubly ironic, in that the fire forced NASA to go back to the drawing board and make the changes necessary to succeed in landing a man on the moon.  The Admiral Emeritus worked his entire career on the space program, and he tells me that the miniseries did an excellent job of portraying the program in the Gemini and Apollo years.

Over the last couple of weeks, the First Mate and I have watched When We Left Earth, the Discovery Channel documentary series on the entire space program from its inception to the International Space Station.  It also covers the Apollo I and Challenger disasters in some detail with documentary footage and incredibly honest interviews with the people involved.  We’ve been watching the blu-ray version and it’s worth viewing in that format.  Obviously, a lot of the earlier documentary footage is not in a high-definition format, but all of the interviews are, and even some of the earlier space footage comes alive in blu-ray.  Ed White’s groundbreaking spacewalk in the Gemini program is one of those moments, and it’s breathtaking.

If you get a chance to watch either or both this week, it will remind you of the incredible bravery of the men and women who volunteer to be the pioneers of today.  It’s also a good way to remember those we’ve lost as we find our way to the stars.

Update: I completely forgot that Schirra flew in Apollo as well.  I’ve edited the post to correct the oversight.  It’s also the 42nd anniversary, not the 41st.