Tuesday, January 26, 2021

NASA's (and Our) Worst Week in Spaceflight

January 27th marks the start of the worst week of NASA history.  It's a peculiar fact 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.
January 27th, was the 54th 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. 

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 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 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 15 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, 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 stayed in the engineering lab and 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 in 2019 from Reddit (via Pinterest) 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 the list is 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.
In the story the other day about the FDA not approving another Covid vaccine, we talked about bureaucracies and how people get in trouble for doing the wrong thing, not for failing to do the right thing.  NASA has become an arthritic bureaucracy barely able to move.  I've worked on a satellite for the JPL and have been in tangent circles to NASA several times.  Insiders always thought the most amazing thing about NASA was that the engineers and technicians occasionally accomplished things despite the leadership.


  1. I'm too young to remember the Apollo 1 tragedy, but I remember both Space Shuttle accidents well. Space is so very, very hard.

    But it's worth it.

  2. I remember my dad's reaction to Apollo 1. He worked the Air Force tracking side (specifically the Range Tracking and Instrumentation Ships) and knew the three. Closest I ever saw him get to attacking a man was listening to some dumb-arse Apollo 1 conspiracy garbage. A normally quiet man... And, sadly, Grissom, being the engineer that he was, knew the ship was a lemon.

    Was watching the NASA feed on Challenger, and it was amazing in a sick way to see how long stuff took to fall. Thinking back, we saw the cabin splash down. And they kept switching from the long-range cameras to the launch control room. It was a mercy to all when they finally cut the feed.

    Really sad thing about Challenger? The shuttles were supposed to be launchable from Vandenberg AFB, which does often reach temperatures below 40 degrees.

    Columbia was totally preventable. We knew from Day 1 of the Shuttle program that chunks falling off the main tank had the possibility of damaging the Shuttle. And reported strikes after they got rid of the 'environmentally dangerous' insulation on the main tanks increased in both number and severity. People knew there was a huge chance of severe damage.

    Capsules are so much safer and simpler. Sigh.

  3. I know that we have a pathway forward from where we are now, with a vision that seems realistic. But will it survive politics?

    1. The big question. My guess is that the Artemis program and return to the moon by 2024 will be scuttled because Orange Man started that and nothing shall survive to show he did good.

      There are two things that may keep it going, though. First, Artemis has the goal of putting "the first woman and the next man" on the moon: Identity Politics: core to this administration. Second, the SLS is nothing if not a swamp project full of cronyism at its finest. This is nothing if not a return to a full swamp administration.

      If I were Elon Musk, I'd be looking to see if I needed to move SpaceX someplace more friendly. Just preliminary exploration to have a place if he needs to bail.

    2. More progressive still would be to have each member of the crew transition to the opposite gender for the event. So ...technically... if one looks at DNA, a man would still be stepping onto the moon again. But we don't look at DNA. It's all gender identity.

    3. And... Elon can do the Moon by himself without NASA, if necessary.

      One thing that may save Artemis is the goal by NASA to have a guuuuurl be the next first steps on the moon, if the ChiComs don't get there first and declare it for the PRC (and surprisingly show everyone they have the ability to defend it.)

      Musk may be our last best hope for peace in space.

  4. A manager I worked for in my career had been "on console" on a tracking ship when the Apollo Test Fire happened. He got got pale talking about it.

    I was working for Hughes when the Challenger accident happened. Since a Hughes Guy was aboard, it was being played over the P.A. system. It seemed like the entire world stopped when FIDO announced "The vehicle has exploded".

    I was working midnights at DirecTV when we lost the Challenger, so I watched that one at home.

    NASA is a funny culture. On one-hand they're a hide-bound bureaucracy, but they're also highly bendable to political pressure, sometimes to the point of vehicle/crew loss. The rank-and-file people like us that do all the work are great people, but too many times they get their hands tied-up and can't do their best work.

    1. Ooops...meant I was home for the Columbia accident....

  5. Beg to differ, just a bit. Challenger was an entirely political creation. The solid rocket boosters were designed to be, you know, solid. But IIRC, since they were too big to be transported from Louisiana to Texas whole, and the effing senator from that state (may he burn in hell) insisted they be made in his state, they were redesigned to be made in sections, complete with O-rings. Thus ended Challenger.

  6. Transported to Florida, not Texas.

  7. As a young boy in Alabama, Gus Grissom was my hero. I had a scrap book of articles from newspapers and magazines about him. A mighty man... Tex.