Friday, January 31, 2020

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

We're almost at the end of the worst week of NASA history.  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, although those accidents are separated by decades.

Monday, January 27th, was the 53rd 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.  [Note: North American refers to North American Rockwell, the prime contractor for the Apollo capsule. - SiG]

“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. 

The next day, January 28, is the anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Shuttle Challenger was destroyed 34 years ago in 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 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 anyone 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 17 years ago tomorrow, 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 (a detailed account of the break up), 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.  

I found out last 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 having worked doesn't change the odds of losing.


  1. Sobering post, SiG.

    I remember all of them, too.

    Spaceflight is not, and may never be, a "routine" thing.

    "Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of carelessness, incapacity, or neglect."

    Spaceflight even more so.

    1. Very well said.

      I've read the newspaper summary of the last minutes of Columbia several times, but I read it again tonight and it was just as tough to read as the first time.

  2. Apollo 1. My dad knew those astronauts. Conspiracy theories regarding them surviving or aliens or whatever really peeved him. Reeeeeelly peeved him.

    Challenger. Saw that on NASA feed on our satellite (old school 4 meter dish.) Watching long-range video of stuff falling into the ocean, back to Mission Control, back to stuff falling, back to MC. It was a mercy when they cut off the feed from Mission Control. Those guys were haunted looking.

    Columbia. Since the first Shuttle, there had been issues with tiles getting dinged on launch. Then, according to friend who worked on the Shuttle system, the ban on Freon changed the insulation on the main tank (and also increased the weight of the insulation significantly,) and strikes from ice and insulation increased. No launch occurred without some damage. Damage which was much worse after the insulation formulation change. Damage which was whispered about but never brought up, until Columbia. Then there's the unspoken truth about the shuttles, that basically they were rebuilt after every flight, including replacing... many of the tiles, damaged at launch and then toasted in landing. The shuttle was a mere frame that new stuff was hung on all the time, not reusable 'as is' as was advertised and promised.

    Sad. Sad that all three deadly accidents were due to cutting costs, cutting time and ignoring either common sense or open dissent about issues.

    Grissom had stated that Apollo wasn't up to snuff. Being an engineer, a real engineer, he knew his stuff. Thus the famous 'Lemon' incident.

    As to Challenger, how did they ever design a system meant to launch from Vandenberg AFB, which regularly got below 40 degrees, especially right next to the coast, that wasn't able to handle below 40 degree temperatures? Again, many dissenting voices unheard both from within Thiokol and NASA but ignored...

    As to Columbia, again, strikes on the tiles was a known issue, from before the insulation formulation change. Changing the insulation exasperated the issue. But what was done about it? Nothing. Just... ignored. No emergency repair kit available on the Shuttle, though several were created for use. No emergency escape vehicle available, though several were designed (including a rather innovative inflatable (yes, inflatable) single or double person heat shield that the riders would strap themselves into, cover up with heat blankets, and take a wild ride. Safe? Not so sure, but safer than death in orbit or in a dead vehicle.)

    Sad. All three deadly incidents are related to cover-ups of shoddy procedures and materials and construction. Every death is on the feet of some cost-cutting admin who only ever flew on, at most, an airliner.

    Which is why SpaceX's open and public condemnation of their own stupidity, and their open and public announcements of issues and of how issues are resolved, is refreshing.

    If only NASA was so open and forward.

    Godspeed, Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia. May your loss be finally burned into the hearts and minds of those who work in the space industry and your senseless loss be a lesson to all who follow, as how not to do things.

    Unstoppable things, like getting whacked by space debris, or a bird strike or random act of nature, that's understandable. But 3 killer incidents related to dumbassery? Three is three too many.

    1. Excellent comment, Beans. I moved here at the start of the Shuttle program, after the first couple of launches. As you say, the shuttle was horribly oversold and never met its design objectives. It was essentially rebuilt after every launch. They reused parts of it, but that's all. They never met the launch frequency that was sold.

      When I first started this blog, one of my regular reads was Dr. Sanity, a flight surgeon for NASA and board-certified psychiatrist. She was Crew Surgeon for Challenger and was here for the launch. The blog ( is long gone silent, but she left it up so people can find her posts. In a post about Challenger, she said,

      “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. ”

    2. My father was on some of the planning for the next-gen Apollo. They were working on a reusable - 70% in first phase, up to 90% in follow up flights - Apollo capsule. Pop the heat shield off, clean up the interior and exterior, and 'Poof' a new capsule.

      Plans were floated for a Big Gemini, with the pilot cabin being a reworked Gemini capsule, and the rest of the giant Gemini capsule (designed to fit the Saturn 2nd stage) holding up to 10 passengers.

      And it was apparent during Apollo that 1 launch for Crew, 1 launch for Components was a much safer and cost effective system than the Shuttle.

      Heck, the Air Force wanted a small-scale winged reentry vehicle along the style of the DynaSoar or such, basically a manned X-37B, way back before Apollo, and kept up the research until told to knock it off by Carter.

      Sigh. What could have been, and wasn't.

      Dr. Sanity would have been very happy with SpaceX, wouldn't she?

    3. NASA was planning on something like two shuttle flights per month in the beginning, IIRC.

      Considering the shuttle used 1960's technology, I think it did "OK" in service (yes, we lost two vehicles and crews; I'm not discounting that), but from the start, I didn't see how they were ever going to get the launch rate up to what they were boasting.

      And the idea of carrying a fully-fueled satellite, with it's own GTO insertion booster, struck me as a dangerous and frivolous use of the vehicle.

      And this was well before I was in Aerospace, and didn't know the things I know now.

      I forget who said it, but after the Challenger loss, one of the higher-ups at NASA made a statement to the effect that we shouldn't consider the shuttle to be fully operational, but that it should be considered to be in permanent "Flight Test" status.

    4. The Shuttle program never left the Flight Test stage. Every rebuild made each shuttle a different bird, with slightly different flight characteristics.

      Cute idea. Gigantic waste of space, time and money. Lob people and payload separately, and do orbital rendezvous, something we had a solid lock on by the end of Apollo.

    5. Oh, I agree 100%, Beans. I think the NASA spokesperson was trying to get the public to wrap their heads around the idea that maybe this isn't like getting on an airliner, and never will be.

      I hesitate to criticize it as a boondoggle as I have too many friends that are good people that worked on it.

      Same with the ISS, which at least has the benefit of being more modern technology.

    6. As a test program, it was very successful. We learned new things every flight. We innovated stuff, we created stuff, we flew stuff so long that it had a chance to break.

      But... with all that knowledge, all that information, we realistically did pert near nothing with it. Lessons learned weren't applied to new equipment. There was no successor using anything from the shuttle, except maybe the SSMEs, which were just reworked J-2's from Saturn upper stages.

      All the chance to rebuild and rework the SRBs... lost, not followed, nothing done except fix the gasket situation.

      Nothing done with the Booster tank, even though plans were made to extend the tank and add a secondary payload section or even lob them into orbit for reuse, or as a base of a 'shuttle HLV' vehicle.

      Nothing. Nothing done. It would be like building the Wright Flyer, and 3 other flyers, then deciding to ignore anything learned and focus on lighter-than-air.

      The Rescue Shuttle, a smaller, person-only winged reentry vehicle, designed along with the Shuttle and meant to be kept pad ready whenever a shuttle was flying, later redesigned as the ISS emergency vehicle, money spent, could have had, but never done.

      Heck, most of what we learned from building and flying the Shuttle was put into the ISS modules made or funded by us. But what have we done since?


      Meanwhile, all those men and women with all that institutional knowledge, retired, RIF'd, or left in disgust.

      A national shame. A national disgrace.

      And we have president who could have fixed it, but he's spent 3 years fighting ever-increasingly moon-bat crazy stupidity that's left him working only half as effective as he and his administration could be if only he and his administration could spend 100% of their time doing their darned jobs rather than fighting an impeachment attempt started before he ever was sworn in.


    7. I always got the distinct impression that much of the time, big chunks of the NASA bureaucracy would've been happier with trained chimps that would stay on script and not complain about serious issues.

  3. What a good post. That goes for the comments as well.

  4. I see parallels in Boeing's current issues with the 737max and rumors of similar corporate culture issues affecting the new 777.

    I work for one of the largest US railroads and see the same kind of thing happening here.

  5. I flew on the Challenger disaster looking for pieces/parts. My crew was the ready 1 that day out of NAS JAX. My family is still finding pieces of Columbia on our family farm in Louisiana... Never will forget them.

  6. I was in 9th grade when Apollo 1 burned. I don't remember it well now days. The two Shuttle accidents are etched in my mind. However, when I remember any, there is a sadness that overcomes me for those that lost their lives.

    The Columbia accident is most present to me. I worked for the company that made the carbon-carbon leading edges and the nose cone until 2002. I was worried that there was some defect in the manufacture of those parts that contributed to the accident. Not to say about whether the design of the parts was good or just marginal; it was probably the best at the time. What I feared is that some good people might get "eaten up" by the investigation and some people that needed to be gone wouldn't be if there was an issue.

    The other about Columbia was that my wife and I heard about it on the way to our daughters pre-wedding photo shoot. We had been working around the ranch that Saturday morning and had neither the t.v. nor radio on. I just couldn't believe it.