Friday, January 27, 2017

We Begin NASA's Worst Week

It's a peculiar coincidence that all NASA missions that ended in the crew being killed and vehicle destroyed occurred in the same calendar week, although separated by decades.

Today, January 27th, is the 50th 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 came to all recognize was Chris Kraft, who had directed all of the Mercury flights and many of the Gemini missions and 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 to read. 

Tomorrow, 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, as a flaw in the starboard solid rocket booster allowed a secondary flame 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 the O-rings 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 this.  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 and noting 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 this worst week, Shuttle Columbia, the oldest surviving shuttle flying as mission STS-107, broke up on re-entry 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 always did, I watched it on NASA Select.  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 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.  

When this blog started, one of my regular reads was Dr. Sanity, a flight surgeon for NASA and board-certified psychiatrist.  She was Crew Surgeon for Challenger and has left posted a haunting recollection of the mission although her blog hasn't been updated in over four years.  I conclude with a quote from that post:
I remember the Challenger and her crew frequently and with love. They are a part of me now. All of them represent the best within the American spirit, and always will. Since that day in 1986, I have come to see NASA as one of the greatest impediments to the Dream of space exploration; but I have never given up the Dream itself. Nor have I forgotten any of the pioneers who have died in the service of that Dream. Some day we humans will leave this small planet and joyfully play in all the corners of the cosmos.

I eagerly look forward to it.
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.  Tending to rely on "well, it worked last time" when dealing with dangerous situations, or leaning too much toward, "schedule is king"; 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 playing has reduced their odds of losing. 

"I have come to see NASA as one of the greatest impediments to the Dream of space exploration; but I have never given up the Dream itself."  We're in complete agreement. 


  1. VIDEO - March for Life (Full Coverage) | The New York Times

    ps. Would you consider adding CC to your blogroll?

  2. My dad knew all three Apollo 1 astronauts. He thought Grissom was an outstanding leader and a great engineer. He hated "The Right Stuff" for its portrayal of that great man. And woe to the person stupid enough to spout any "Apollo 1 Conspiracies" around him.

    My wife and I were watching the NASA channel and just sat there for what seemed hours as stuff fell and splashed on-screen (damned good telephoto lenses on their cameras.) And the emotionless comments of the flight control commenters, which really meant that they were doing their best to hold it together (and you know that when they got someplace private, they lost it.)

    Dad hated the shuttle. He helped do some of the work on the next-gen Apollo systems that were all cancelled for the shuttle.

    Friend of mine worked for the shuttle program for a while. That thing was basically rebuilt every time it was used. So much for re-useable. (Next gens of Apollo was aiming at about 60% reuseability of capsule components.)

    Let us hope we do better in the future.

  3. If you are old enough you might remember being able to look in the sky at night/evening and watch the first Russian Sputnik go by, 1959 I think. Someone I know who had joined the military and became a Russian translator much later told me that some of the early Russian satellites had men on board while the Russians denied it and in some cases claimed that they were monkeys. This person listened to the dying words of these early cosmonauts.

  4. God I hope you're right about them dying from the G-shock at break up. That's a movie I never want to watch, and like Apollo 1, an audio I never want to hear.---Ray