Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Remembering NASA's (and Our) Worst Week in Spaceflight

I let the actual worst week get by, due to distractions from other things and forgetting the last date, but I think it's worth spending a few minutes once a year to pay respects to those NASA astronauts who died in flight and flight training.

It's a peculiar coincidence that every accident that took the lives of the crew and destroyed the vehicle took place in the space of one calendar week, even though those accidents are separated by decades.

January 27th, was the 51st anniversary of 1967's hellish demise of Apollo 1 and her crew, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, during a pad test, not a flight.  In that article, Ars Technica interviews key men associated with the mission and provides, for the first time I've seen, the audio of the test.  In the early days of the space program, one of the larger than life names we all came to recognize was Chris Kraft, who had become well known as the Flight Director who had directed all of the Mercury flights and many of the Gemini missions.  He was widely recognized for this masterful control.
Half a century later, the painful memories remain. “I was on console the day it burned,” he explained, sitting in his second-floor den, just a few miles from the control center that now bears his name at Johnson Space Center.

“I heard their screaming voices in the cockpit of the spacecraft,” Kraft recounted. “I heard them scream that they were on fire. I heard them scream get me out of here. And then there was dead silence on the pad. Within minutes we knew they were dead, and we were in deep, serious trouble. Nobody really said anything for 15 minutes, until they got the hatch open. We were sitting there, waiting for them to say what we knew they were going to say.”
There was plenty of blame to go around—for North American, for flight control in Houston, for technicians at Cape Canaveral, for Washington DC and its political pressure on the schedule and its increasingly bureaucratic approach to spaceflight. The reality is that the spacecraft was not flyable. It had too many faults. Had the Apollo 1 fire not occurred, it’s likely that additional problems would have delayed the launch.

“Unless the fire had happened, I think it’s very doubtful that we would have ever landed on the Moon,” Kraft said. “And I know damned well we wouldn’t have gotten there during the 1960s. There were just too many things wrong. Too many management problems, too many people problems, and too many hardware problems across the whole program.”
The ARS article is worth your time.

In 2018's biopic, "First Man", they depict the close friendship between Neil Armstrong and Ed White, and how losing Ed in that fire both shattered Ed White's family and deeply impacted Armstrong's.  It's a potent reminder of the day, and the human costs.

The next day, January 28, is the anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Shuttle Challenger was destroyed on January 28, 1986, a mere 73 seconds into mission 51-L.  A flaw in the starboard solid rocket booster allowed a torch-like secondary flame blasting out of the side of the booster to burn through supports and cause the external tank to explode.  It was the kind of cold day that we haven't had here in some years.  It has been reported that it was between 20 and 26 around the area on the morning of the launch and ice had been reported on the launch tower as well as the external tank.  O-rings that were used to seal the segments of the stackable solid rocket boosters were too cold to seal.  Launch wasn't until nearly noon and it had warmed somewhat, but the shuttle had never been launched at temperatures below 40 before that mission.  Richard Feynman famously demonstrated that cold was likely the cause during the televised Rogers Commission meetings, dropping a section of O ring compressed by a C-clamp into his iced water to demonstrate that it had lost its resilience at that temperature.


There's plenty of evidence that the crew of Challenger survived the explosion.  The crew cabin was specifically designed to be used as an escape pod, but after most of the design work, NASA decided to drop the other requirements to save weight.  The recovered cabin had clear evidence of activity: oxygen bottles being turned on, switches that require a few steps to activate being flipped.  It's doubtful they survived the impact with the ocean and some believe they passed out due to hypoxia before that. 

Finally, at the end of the worst week, Shuttle Columbia, the oldest surviving shuttle flying as mission STS-107, broke up on re-entry 16 years ago on February 1, 2003 scattering wreckage over the central southern tier of the country with most debris along the Texas/Louisiana line.  As details emerged about the flight, it turns out that Columbia and everyone on board had been sentenced to death at launch - they just didn't know it.  A chunk of foam had broken off the external tank during liftoff and hit the left wing's carbon composite leading edge, punching a hole in it.  There was no way a shuttle could reenter without exposing that wing to conditions that would destroy it.  They were either going to die on reentry or sit up there and run out of food, water and air.  During reentry, hot plasma worked its way into that hole, through the structure of the wing, burning through piece after piece, sensor after sensor, until the wing tore off the shuttle and tore the vehicle apart.  Local lore on this one is that the original foam recipe was changed due to environmental regulations, causing them to switch to a foam that didn't adhere to the tank or stand up to abuse as well. 

There's film from inside Columbia until the moment the vehicle is ripped apart by the aerodynamic forces.  I suspect the forces ripped apart their bodies just as fast.  

January 27 to February 1 is 6 days.  Not quite a full week.

On a personal note, I remember them all.  I was a kid living in Miami when Apollo 1 burned.  I was living here and watched Challenger live on satellite TV at work.  Instead of going outside to watch it as I usually did, I watched it on NASA Select off the satellite.  Mrs. Graybeard was working on the unmanned side on the Cape, next door to the facility that refurbished the SRB's between flights, and was outside watching the launch.  It took quite a while for the shock to ease up.  I saw those spreading contrails everywhere for a long time.  Columbia happened 17 years later, when it was feeling routine again.  Mom had fallen and was in the hospital; we were preparing to go down to South Florida to visit and I was watching the TV waiting to hear the double sonic booms shake the house as they always did.

I found out this year via Reddit that there's a memorial on the moon to the astronauts and cosmonauts who died in the line of duty trying to make it to the moon.  No person has seen it since the Apollo 15 crew left it in 1971 when this picture was taken.  Has it survived?  Most likely.  There well may be micrometeoroid impacts, but probably nothing big.  The moon gets a meteor impact big enough to be seen from Earth on occasion; I'll bet that if they knew the Apollo 15 site had been hit, we'd have been told.  Whether it's legible or not is a different question.  

The failure reports and investigations of all three of these disasters center on the same things: the problems with NASA's way of doing things.  They tended to rely on "well, it worked last time" when dealing with dangerous situations, or leaned too much toward, "schedule is king"; all as a way of gambling that someone else would be the one blamed for delaying a mission.  Spaceflight is inherently very risky, so some risk taking is inevitable, but NASA had taken stupid risks too often.  People playing Russian Roulette can say, "well, it worked last time", but that doesn't mean "it worked" reduced their odds of losing.

Edit: 020619 1919EST:  Revised sentences mentioning Flight Director Chris Kraft in the third paragraph.  Thanks to commenter Backwoods Engineer for the feedback.


  1. My father, who was involved with Range Instrumentation and Tracking ships, knew the three Apollo 1 astronauts. Only time I've ever seen him almost thrash a man was when some chowderhead spouted off conspiracy theories regarding the fire and how the astronauts were still alive and hidden by the gubmint...

    I still don't understand Challenger. The shuttles were meant to launch from Vandenberg AFB, which gets below 40 degrees quite regularly.

    I know a NASA engineer who worked on the shuttle program. His hatred of Al Gore is directly linked to 'green materials' used in the exterior foam insulation of the big central tank that lead to many foam strikes on shuttles. Just Columbia was the worst hit. There were others. Pretty much every flight lost tiles due to insulation strikes. Before Freon-based insulation was banned, there were no insulation strikes. Hmmmmm…

    If I was the NASA head, I would just declare a 'Snow Day' and have everyone possible stay the heck home.

    1. The design requirement for the Shuttle SRBs was indeed to be able to launch in those weather conditions. A qual test was planned at the test bed in Utah, but Shuttle main engine problems drove that element's cost so high that the program had to find other means to stay alive. So the cold test was cancelled. At the prelaunch review, the NASA leader specifically noted the requirement and asked the contractor whether their product met that requirement. The contractor said it did, so the decision was made to go ahead with the launch. Please note that Challenger was lost back in 1986. NASA at that time was still on POTS telephones (probably even dial phones) and cell phones did not exist in wide use. The ?Thiokol? engineers who had been processing the boosters after their recovery were able to listen in to the meeting, but had no way of contacting their management to tell them of the previous problems with the o-ring seals.

  2. Apparently, Freon was banned in a scam on the part of the manufacturer, to replace it with it's new version which is deadly to breathe (kills the liver). At least freon had to be burned first to be poisonous. Patent fan out on Freon.

    1. That story is pretty widespread. I just don't know how you burn Freon. We used to have Freon vapor de-greasers where I worked and the vapor would extinguish a burning piece of paper or something. Meanwhile, computer rooms used to have a type of Freon as a fire extinguisher (Halon). Considering how inert Freon is, I always found it hard to imagine it could cause the so-called Ozone hole (and apparently those science deniers at Nature have some problems with the chemistry, too) but it was convenient to get the greenies all riled up about something.

      What a coincidence: create both the problem and the solution!

    2. The actual issue is "thermal decomposition":

    3. I saw a video made by George H. Goble, the Purdue faculty who lit BBQs with liquid oxygen. He also tinkered with refrigerants. The video showed a two foot flamethrower effect from a simulated opened car air conditioner pipe. The lubricating oil mist burned. I expect this flame turned the freon into nasty toxics. Goble believed the phase-out of R-12 was not due to ozone layer damage, whose cause-effect was never proven, but instead because the DuPont patent ran out and DuPont wanted something new to charge monopoly patent royalties on.


      Government sells itself as having the superior judgment, which means blame for granting the patent falls on government and its accessories who fund and obey it.


  3. What pisses me off is that the Apollo 1 hatch had to be bolted on. That just smacks of bureaucratic idiocy and engineering laziness. Whoever was involved in that major stupidity should have had a firing squad armed with Molotov Coctails. I'll bet if the people involved had a threat like that, they would have found the time and money to do their job right.

    1. The inability to open the hatch was NOT due to its being "bolted on". Instead, the hatch was designed to open INWARD to reduce risk of it failing in a vacuum environment. Cabin pressure would force the hatch to remain closed until the interior pressure was equal to the exterior pressure. The heat from the fire quickly raised the interior pressure of the cabin beyond what could be overcome by the crew and the team members outside the cabin. I would propose your same solution for those who spread lies about how things happen. Would you agree?

    2. Airliner hatches do the same thing, open from the inside, using the internal cabin pressure to assure a positive lock. It is an elegant and simple solution to a problem.

      What was missing was some sort of emergency egress method. That and the 100% oxygen environment, using wires with a suspected insulation issue and, yes, all the garbage left in the capsule (as pointed out below) were a combination of errors just waiting to turn deadly. If it hadn't happened on the launch pad, it might have happened around the Moon.

      In some ways, Apollo 1 saved the space program from itself. Just like the failures that led to the Challenger disaster saved the Shuttle program, for a while.

      What cheeses me off about the Shuttle is that NASA never deployed the tile repair system they developed. Nor the backup emergency mini-shuttle that was supposed to be attached to the ISS, with a backup on constant standby on ground (ready to launch in 3 or so hours) as a constant safety factor. Nor the powered maneuvering suit that would have allowed a fly-by of the shuttle in orbit to check out the 'thunk' or the backup Shuttle ready to fly rescue or, or, or, or, or...

      The shuttle program was vastly flawed, from onset. Too many 'never will happen' moments actually happened. Like the supposedly reusable feature, which required each shuttle to be rebuilt by about 50-75% each time it flew. Almost would have been cheaper and simpler just to build a new one each time.

      By the way, towards the end of the Apollo program, NA/Rockwell came up with the ability to reuse up to 80% of each capsule, plans were in place to recover lower stage engines, etc... What a different world it would have been if we kept advancing with the Saturn/Apollo systems... An Apollo capsule, more reusable than the Shuttle turned out to be.

    3. Every description I have read over the years (I was a teen when this happened) refers to the hatch being bolted on. Inside or outside mount means nothing if it still takes a tech on the outside (or even an astronaut inside) with a wrench to remove it. It was supposed to be pumped down to ~5 psi for the 100% oxy atmosphere. You are claiming the pressure more than doubled in mere seconds, as the flight director claims they died within 17 seconds. I stand by my statement that it was criminal negligence to design it that way. That is a major problem in this nation, no one is held accountable for bad workmanship.

    4. Oh, lots of people and companies were held responsible. Firings, fines, serious loss of government contracts, just about everything possible except criminal charges, and those were contemplated. (Why no crim charges? The contractors provided exactly what NASA contracted for.)

    5. You might want to actually read some accurate sources. They did NOT need a wrench. But then that doesn't bother you at all, does it?

      They don't mention wrenches:

    6. Mark, thank you for pointing out that my info about the hatch being bolted was incorrect. That was what the Legacy Media had reported after the incident. In retrospect, I'm not surprised that Walter Cronkite and his ilk were inaccurate. They were the gatekeepers for public knowledge, and have since been shown to have played fast and lose with it in many aspects.
      I was also wrong about the capsule being pumped down on the pad. Pressure was only reduced after launch.

      Still seeing discrepancies in data between various websites. Three layers of hatches seems correct, although I have seen two reported, for instance. 90 seconds to open the hatch on a good day, although that is sometimes reported as 90 seconds for egress as the target, not often met.
      Although I'm aware of how dangerous pure oxy can be (dad always had an O/A torch in his shop), I was unaware of how an oxy fire could cause such rapid pressure rise as was seen in the capsule.

      5 minutes to get to the astronauts, and even that wouldn't have happened if the capsule hadn't ruptured from the overpressure created, allowing the hatch to be moved. Turns out NASA was the only entity that was happy with the hatch design. They never were good at listening to those outside their bureaucracy.

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  4. I recall them all.

    My father and grandfather worked for North American Aviation, which became North American Rockwell and then Rockwell International. So as a young boy, living in Southern California, I felt intimately attached to what went on with the race to the Moon, and later the Shuttle.

    My father knew Frank Borman and there's a picture somewhere of Dad, Col. Borman and me. It's framed, but it's in a box with storage stuff that I eventually need to unpack. I remember when Apollo 1 burned on the pad, when Apollo 13 almost didn't make it back and then there are the shuttle disasters.

    There is a price to achievement, and when it came/comes to manned space flight, the price is often high. I hope that it's not fear that has kept us grounded for so long, but I believe that it is. Fear of failure. And that's never a good thing.

    1. Col. Borman, Dad and I used to go fishing in our boat. As I wrote, the disasters always felt personal to me.

    2. Cool. Totally. Those early guys all are rockstars in my book. It was great watching Buzz Aldrin get a shout-out during the SOTU on Tuesday.

      Man, to actually meet and hang with a real astronaut. Wow.

  5. I remember them all too well.

    The 40-hour soldering classes I had to take at Hughes and Boeing to become certified to solder on Spaceflight Hardware were products of the "Hi-Rel Soldering" programs that came from the Apollo fire.

    My instructor at Boeing was a McDonnell-Douglas "legacy employee" who had worked on Gemini and Apollo. We saw pictures of all the trash that came out of a "production" Apollo Command Module after they put it on a shake table and shook the snot out of it in all three axis.

    POUNDS of solder balls, wire clippings, and other junk came out of it, and they realized they needed to revise the entire manufacturing process to eliminate the contamination.

    My Plant Manager at McGraw-Edison had been a young, just out of the Navy radio guy working for NASA on a Tracking Ship, and they heard the whole incident go down.

    He told me he'd never seen that many grown men cry.....

    1. Watching the live NASA feed from the Challenger mission, watching the control room video, yeah, when the head dude called it, that was devastating to watch.

  6. "Chris Kraft, the Capsule Communicator or CapCom"

    Kraft was a Flight Director (code name "Flight"), not a CapCom.

    1. Thank you! I thought I had lifted that from ARS Technica but it's fully my mistake.

  7. My sister lives in the southern part of Florida on the Gulf side. One of her quiet neighbor who likes to keep to himself is astronaut Michael Collins who flew with the first two men who walked on the moon Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.

    When I get the opportunity to visit my sister down in Florida she gives me her beautiful 2nd floor bedroom with a balcony that overlooks the water surrounding the island.

    Every visit to her house, I make it a point to get up early in the morning right before sunrise because it is too beautiful to miss. That is also the time when I would see Michael Collins, a skinny man, putzing along the water in his small, flat, man made raft go fishing.

    Dangerous I would say to myself every time I would see him go fishing with no life jacket on his man made raft. What would happen if he caught a huge fish that pulled him into the water. His fishing raft is a little longer than his body if he were laying down. He sits on a box on top of his raft with a little motor behind it. No side rails just a small flat raft.

    Well, last year while talking on the phone outside, my sister had noticed he had fallen into the water and was struggling. Immediately she got her husband and a neighbor friend to take out their boat to save him before it was too late. All turned out well, he and his raft were brought back to the shore dock.
    He still goes out to fish occasionally wearing a life jacket.

    Excellent article
    How Michael Collins became the forgotten astronaut of Apollo 11

    1. Thanks for the post. Buzz Aldrin lives around town, but I've never seen him in a store or anyplace.

      I suppose that "dangerous" might mean something different to someone who strapped themselves to a Saturn V and went to the moon, but it's nice to hear he's wearing the life jacket.

      Back last July, I posted a picture I had come across that's the LEM with Aldrin and Neil Armstrong inside and the Earthrise in the background. The caption (loosely) is "every person alive or dead in the world is in this picture except Michael Collins". When you think about it, it's every person alive or dead in history.

      And that's a pretty mind-blowing thought.