June 30, 2022

FTV: Tragedy to Triumph


     Things happened in rapid succession in the wake of the tragic Apollo 1 spacecraft fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grisson, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967.  NASA administrator James Webb quickly conferred with his internal board of review to assess the best way to deal with the crisis.  He summoned astronaut Frank Borman to the Cape but it took the Texas Rangers to track him down at a remote lake where he and his family were just settling in for a relaxing weekend at a friend’s cabin.  Webb himself headed to the White House to meet with President Johnson with two immediate goals in mind:  get the President to authorize NASA’s board of review to handle the investigation and to put Frank Borman in charge of the commission.  Johnson and Webb sealed the agreement to do just that with a handshake.  Webb never let on that he had already assembled his accident-review team the night before he met with the president.

     Frank Borman was the ideal choice to head the NASA accident-review board.  He was the second oldest in the second group of astronauts (known as the ‘New Nine’) and a veteran of a two-week long Gemini 7 mission he flew with Jim Lovell.   Gemini 7 had been designed to test how the human body would hold up in space for the length of time an entire lunar flight would take.  Borman was well respected as soon as he joined the program and the success of the G7 mission only increased his ‘space cred’ in the NASA family.  In their book Chasing the Moon (2018, Ballantine Books), authors Alan Andres and Robert Stone describe Borman as one who, “Avoided unnecessary chitchat, more often speaking with a calm but forceful authority that seldom prompted a rebuttal.  A single ice-cold stare from his penetrating eyes could silence a room in seconds.”  As he flew his T-38 trainer jet from Houston to the Cape, air traffic controllers along the way noticed his NASA call sign and offered their condolences to him and the rest of NASA.

     Years later, Borman explained his feelings upon arriving at the Cape in the wake of the accident:  “[A group of us] went out and got bombed that first night.  I don’t drink anymore, but that night I got bombed.  We ended up smashing our glasses on the floor like flyers in some old time World War I movie.  That was it, the next day we went to work on the investigation.”  After a trip to examine the damaged spacecraft still sitting on the launch pad, it was obvious the crew had no chance.  Although their bodies and flight suits were not severely burned, the interior of the capsule was a charred mess.  NASA made the mistake of releasing a press statement saying the crew had died ‘instantly’ but when the audio tapes were reviewed during the investigation,  the team learned the Apollo 1 astronauts had survived long enough to radio, “Get us out of here!”  The crew were suffocated by the cloud of toxic smoke that quickly filled the cabin.  It was a mistake that would haunt the space agency’s credibility with the press and public for a long time. 

    The discarded fire extinguishers and the twenty-six workmen who had fought the blaze (two ended up hospitalized) confirmed the ferocity of the fire.  Andres and Stone describe the scene when Borman’s group made their first inspection of the accident site:  “The outside of the spacecraft was partially blackened with soot, and through the open hatchway Borman could see the center couch where Ed White had been lying a few hours earlier.  In the air was a strong odor of burned paper and foam material.  A layer of dark-gray ash covered everything on the left side of the spacecraft, while on the right there were flight manuals and other things that appeared slightly browned but otherwise untouched.  In the center, prominently visible, were twin oxygen hoses that had been attached to White’s space suit,  Both showed signs of having been severed with a blade as White’s body was removed.”  The position of the bodies showed the crew was in the middle of their emergency hatch opening procedure when they were overcome.  As designed, the hatch took 90 seconds to open – 90 seconds too long for the doomed crew.  It also opened inward and the increased pressure caused by the inferno prevented the bodies from being recovered until the blaze was out and the internal atmospheric pressure reduced enough to allow it to finally be unsealed.

     The first thing the review board did was to impound documents and data about the accident.  Next, they began the process of collecting eyewitness accounts.  As they examined the technical data, it soon became clear no single cause for the fire could be isolated.  The Apollo 1 capsule was wrapped in a tarp, lowered from the top of the Saturn 1B rocket, and delivered to the vehicle assembly building.  It fell on Borman to enter the spacecraft and dictate the position of every switch on the instrument panels to indicate their state at the moment the fire broke out.  North American Aviation sent an identical spacecraft to the Cape so it too could be disassembled along with the one destroyed in the fire.  It was a long, painstaking process and in the end, what the team found was disturbing.   

     The exact location of the spark that ignited the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere was impossible to pinpoint, but the cause of the accident was not.  They determined the accident was the culmination of a series of bad decisions:  the choice of the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere inside the capsule,  the hatch design requiring 90 seconds to open from the inside, inclusion of combustible materials inside the spacecraft, and vulnerable electrical wiring were a few prime examples.  Instances of poor installation, workmanship, and design also played their part.  The most shocking conclusion, however, was the fire had been entirely preventable.  Besides the factors already listed, the working relationship between NASA personnel and North American Aviation’s management had deteriorated.  To his displeasure, Director Webb discovered there were multiple times when safety-and-reliability memos about the state of the spacecraft had not been brought to him.  The astronauts coined their own phrase to explain what happened:  “Go Fever.” Putting the timeline before safety caused deficiencies in the spacecraft systems to be glossed over or ignored to keep the program from slipping behind schedule.  “Go Fever” killed them.

     It was left up to Frank Borman to sit in front of a congressional panel and answer their questions and, in some cases, act as a lightning rod for those who had cooled on the expensive lunar program.  Then, as now, some representatives on the panel were more concerned with grandstanding for their constituents.  They were less concerned about getting to the bottom of the accident than they were about appearing frugal for the voters.  Webb himself told Borman, “I don’t want you doing anything to try and protect me or NASA.  The American people have a right to know exactly the unvarnished truth, and I want you to tell them.”  It was fortunate that Webb had Borman as his frontman during the congressional hearings because his name, face, and biography were already known to the public.  Borman still believed in the Manned Lunar Program and his candor in front of the congressional committee tipped the balance away from canceling the project completely.  Andres and Stone described Borman’s mission to save Apollo:  “Borman was valued as a direct, articulate witness, unafraid to speak his mind.  Webb considered Borman the ideal public face of NASA:  a humble, serious, hardworking, and patriotic American committed to fulfilling Kennedy’s mandate.”

     Borman’s testimony pointed to the flaws that were allowed to slip past NASA’s management safeguards as the prime suspects for the accident.  He also professed confidence that once the design weaknesses were corrected, they would have a better, safer spacecraft going forward.  Borman went on the record stating, “[He] would gladly fly the Apollo spacecraft with confidence after all the recommended changes had been made.”  Asked if NASA had enough confidence in their own program to continue, Borman turned the tables and asked the committee, “I think the question is really, are you confident in us?”  Borman’s comment tipped the scale even farther away from the panel voting to delay or cancel the program.

     A few days earlier, a representative from West Virginia had called for sweeping changes in NASA’s management.  At the conclusion of Borman’s closing comments, the same representative asked for a moment to speak, adding, “Mr. Chairman, I think we ought to end these hearings just as fast as possible and get on with the space program.”  The chairman responded, “Amen” and the chamber filled with applause.  Borman made the rounds of the various network television political-discussion programs to assure the American public their findings would be acted on and the program would get back on track.

     Borman’s role in saving the Apollo program wasn’t done yet.  The Manned Spacecraft Center’s director, Robert Gilruth, approached Frank as soon as he returned to Houston with a special request.  Gilruth asked Borman to again step back from his astronaut duties temporarily and oversee the redesign of the Apollo spacecraft at North American (now Rockwell after a merger) in California.  It would be Borman’s job to make sure the contractors kept to NASA’s  ‘zero-defects perfection’ demands.  What they had thought would be a many weeks long process stretched to nearly a year, but the timeline was acceptable:  they could make a much safer vehicle and still have a chance at meeting Kennedy’s goal of placing a man on the Moon and returning him safely before the end of the 1960s decade.

     The American public’s infatuation on the lunar landing program had cooled to a chilly 43 percent approval rating, but the project kept moving forward.  Popular culture even jumped in to help keep the dream alive.  In an episode of Star Trek, Captain Kirk convinces Dr. McCoy to undertake a dangerous experiment by harkening back to 20th Century history.  Kirk asks McCoy, “Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the Moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars and then to the nearest star?  That’s like saying you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great grandfather used to . . .Risk.  Risk is our business.  That’s what the starship is all about,  That’s why we’re aboard her.”  Indeed, NASA was now about to stake the entire future of the space program with another risky maneuver;  one that had never been attempted before.

     After the Apollo 1 fire, a year had passed since the last Gemini test flight had been launched.  Ordinarily, each component of a multi-stage rocket would be tested before they were stacked and launched as a fully integrated system.  Von Braun’s team had been working on the massive Saturn V rocket since Kennedy first challenged the nation to shoot for the Moon.  George Mueller, the head of the Manned Space Program, approached von Braun after the Apollo 1 disaster and suggested something radical.  When the new spacecraft was ready, Mueller wanted to test it by launching the unmanned capsule on a fully stacked Saturn V.  Something like this had never been attempted during the development of rockets capable of reaching orbit.  It would be a great time saver, but it was also a big risk.  Failure would certainly doom Kennedy’s timeline, if not the whole program.  At 7:00 a.m. on November 9, 1967, Mueller got his wish and the American public tuned in to watch the unmanned Apollo 4 launch.  The five F-1 engines on board the first stage sprang to life.  The 363 foot rocket stack slowly climbed upward as the engines consumed fifteen tons of liquid oxygen and kerosene per second to produce enough thrust.

     Again, Andres and Stone take up the tale:  “Sitting in the press site, some of the journalists (who were stationed three miles from the launch pad) noticed that the corrugated-metal roofing covering the outdoor bleachers was beginning to vibrate, and reporters could feel the force of the concussive shock wave beating against their faces.  While describing the launch on CBS, Walter Cronkite and a producer noticed the large window in their broadcast booth was starting to vibrate, and both attempted to keep it from dislodging.  With the roar of the Saturn’s engines crackling in the background,  Cronkite yelled, ‘This big glass window is shaking!  We’re holding it with our hands!  Look at that rocket go!’  In the Launch Control Center, NASA engineers seated at their consoles watched as plaster dust from the ceiling fell on their workstations..”  Mueller had gambled and won.  Von Braun’s rocket performed flawlessly.

     Once the first two stages were expended, the third stage was shut down and then relit in orbit, just as it would be if it were to continue to the Moon.  The capsule was released and in the last critical phase, it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at thirty-six thousand feet per second, again, replicating the same conditions it would face if returning from the Moon.  The Apollo program was back on track.  

     The first Russian launch to test their newest spacecraft, Soyuz, ended poorly.  Cosmonaut Valdimir Komarov had endured a flawed mission that returned to Earth less than 24-hours after launch.  The capsule’s parachutes never fully deployed and Komarov became the first to die while participating in active space flight.  After a second failure of the Russian’s giant N-1 rocket, reported to be the vehicle they would use for their own manned lunar mission, the Soviets announced they would be pursuing robotic exploration of the Moon.  Their announcement mentioned the folly of risking human lives to do the same work that robotic craft could do.

     Frank Borman was soon summoned back to Houston.  He was assigned one of the early Apollo flights that would test the craft’s systems in Earth orbit.  His crew on this flight would be fellow Gemini astronauts Bill Anders and Jim Lovell.  When the CIA provided NASA with satellite photos of the massive N-1 rocket on a launch pad in Russia (before it exploded on the pad), Borman was offered another challenge.  Instead of testing their spacecraft in Earth orbit, why not send Apollo 8 to circle the Moon?  It was, after all, a craft designed to go to the Moon.  It was a bold decision and the change of plans would insure the first humans to circle the Moon would not be wearing space helmets with CCCP emblazoned across their brow.  The famous Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 as it orbited the Moon (where they read passages from Genesis as images of the Moon’s surface played across TVs around the world) and the famous ‘Earth-rise’ photo taken on that mission are still mentioned as highlights of the flight.  

     Frank Borman retired from the astronaut corps on July 1, 1970 having spent 19 days, 21 hours and 35 minutes in space.  He had a remarkable career but his role in turning the tragedy of Apollo 1 into the triumph of the entire Apollo Moon Landing program can never be forgotten.

Top Piece Video:  For me, the worst part if the Apollo 1 fire was waiting for the program to restart . . . hence . . .