Saturday, January 29, 2022

NASA's (and Our) Worst Week in Spaceflight

We are two days into the annual reminder of the worst week in the history of American spaceflight.   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 span 36 years.

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.  The vehicle would have been colder than that iced water.  

As important and memorable as that moment was, engineers such as Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, the makers of the boosters, fought managers for at least the full day before the launch, with managers eventually overruling the engineers.  Feynman had been told about the cold temperature issues with the O-rings by several people, and local rumors were that he would go to some of the bars just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center and talk with workers about what they saw.  The simple example with the O-ring and glass of iced water was vivid and brought the issue home to millions. 

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 midway through 7th grade 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 a NASA feed.  Mrs. Graybeard had just begun 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.  Probably not.

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. So do I. I was still working in television when the Challenger disaster occurred. I was standing in the engineering shop talking to one of the engineers while monitoring the on air feed when it happened. We both went silent for a moment not believing what we had just witnessed. I had to immediately head to the control room as I was the person running the controls if they were to cut out and throw a local break or give programming back to the local stations for some reason. I didn't think that likely, but with NBC you never knew.

  2. All those bureaucrats and apparatchiks were happy to have a big name like Feynman on the committee. Till he learned the truth about the O Rings and refused to just shut up and go away. If he hadn't been doggedly determined for the truth to come out there's a good chance we would never have known the truth about why this happened.

    1. Richard Feynman was at the top for both doing science and of practicing integrity in science. I would very much like to see him dig into the current covid response.

      If you haven't read them, his autobiographies (note plural; one wasn't enough for this larger than life character) are both an education and fast, fun reads. His essay on what he termed cargo cult science should be required reading in high schools and colleges, especially for non-science majors.

    2. I've read several books by and about Richard Feynman. I think the only thing you need to know to figure out what his response would be to this "Follow Me! I am the science!!" bullsheet is his 1966 quote that "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

    3. I've read most of Feynman's books, and they're fabulous. I saw him speak once at a seminar the Fermilab had sponsored, but didn't get to meet him.

  3. My dad knew the three Apollo 1 astronauts, and any conspiracy nut who spoke out about them surviving and being held in some secret location was sure to cause my dad to want to hit them.

    The Challenger? With O-Rings that didn't function below 40 degrees? Brilliant design, especially since shuttles were supposed to launch from Vandenberg AFB and that place gets colder than 40 more often than at the Cape.

    Columbia? Damage that was known to have occurred in previous flights and it was just luck that major damage from ice strikes, bird strikes and other objects hadn't taken down one of the previous flights.

    The Shuttles were a great idea, but too early, too cutting edge and too many times the safety legs were cut out from underneath the implimenters.

    Such a sad week. Considering how few (relatively) manned flights have happened, it's not a good record. Unless you compare it to the safety record of post-WWII test pilots and the new jet aircraft.

    Sad week. One that has too many lessons that seem to not have been learned or remembered by those in the industry or those who legislate for the industry.

    1. Look at WWI and prior aviation for a dangerous job!

  4. They live with me as well.

    "Go Fever" is a real thing.
    It wouldn't be so bad, (or at least not a total waste of life and effort) if only NASA would learn from the mistakes, but every single time, they keep repeating the same asinine pig-headed syndrome in every single one of those catastrophes, proving beyond any doubt that space flight is too important to leave up to NASA.

    Given enough opportunity, they'll kill everyone, and never learn any lasting lessons from their idiocy.

    Risk in such endeavors is inherent, but jackassical foolishness is not a requirement to pursue it, yet the whole organization is replete with the exact jackassical fools necessary to kill the people they're supposed to be launching.

    If we'd only take the responsible parties out, and line them up against a wall each time and shoot them there was a disaster, and they knew that was the result, it would probably only take once to continue the missions without the foolishness.

    Alternatively, the top 20 executives of the organization should be in a random pool, and just before launch, one of their names pulled from a hat by the vehicle commander, and they would be suited up and strapped into the launch vehicle to join the flight at that moment. If they balked, the launch would be scrubbed for a top-to-bottom forensic audit.

    Things are different when you have literal skin in the game.

    1. Alternatively, the top 20 executives of the organization should be in a random pool, and just before launch, one of their names pulled from a hat by the vehicle commander, and they would be suited up and strapped into the launch vehicle to join the flight at that moment.

      I first read that as "strapped onto the launch vehicle." Not that there's anything wrong with that.

      NASA's view of risk management has made me think they'd play Russian Roulette with a 1911.

    2. They do that now, but they hold the 1911, and it's pointed at the mission crews.

      I just want them to stand in front of the muzzle first before they pull the trigger. I think that would either improve safety, or at least cull the idiots in short order.

      Imagine if the NASA guys who greenlighted Challenger over Thiokol's recommendations had been strapped into the lower deck crew rest compartments. Problem detected and solved at Throttle Up.

      We're even on first reads, btw: I had to look at the book cover on the right --> on "How To Make A Telescope", because at current resolution, I thought it was Larry, Curly, and Moe.
      That would be a much funnier book.

    3. They're bureaucrats... They follow the rules and don't change until the rules do.
      Learn? Only when it affects their income! (And I should know, I am one!)