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by
Rick Moran

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January 26, 2014 - 1:36 pm
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Forty-Seven years ago, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee shoehorned themselves into the Apollo capsule for a full-on test of their brand new vehicle — a “plugs-out” exercise to see what the vehicle could do when not attached to an external power source.

For months, the 3 men had been trying to work out the kinks in the spacecraft. On January 27, 1967, the astronauts were dealing with design problems, balky systems, and a communications nightmare that led Grissom to exclaim at one point, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?” Grissom was disgusted with more than the communications system. He thought the entire spacecraft needed to be redesigned:

On his last visit home in Texas, Jan. 22, 1967, Grissom grabbed a lemon off a citrus tree in the backyard. His wife, Betty, asked what he was going to do with it. “I’m going to hang it on that spacecraft,” he answered as he kissed her goodbye. He did so once he arrived at the Cape.

Grissom’s cynicism proved justified.

NBC’s veteran space anchor Jay Barbree picks up the story of what happened that late afternoon at Launch Complex 34:

Somewhere beneath the seat of Apollo 1 Commander Gus Grissom, an open wire chafed. Insulation was worn and torn. The wire, alive with electrical power, lay bare in a thick soup of 100 percent oxygen — one of the most dangerous and corrosive gases known. Exposed to an ignition source, it is extremely flammable.

It had been used in the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft without trouble. But this much pure oxygen inside a ship as large as Apollo was another story.

Grissom and his Apollo 1 crewmates, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were on the launch pad undergoing a full dress rehearsal countdown when Gus shifted his body for comfort.

His seat moved the bare wire.

It sparked.

Instant fire!

The launch team froze before its television monitors. Muscles stiffened, voices ceased in mid-sentence. They didn’t know what they were witnessing. It was something horrifying and unbelievable. Flames rampaging inside Apollo 1 — a whirlwind of fire burning everything it touched.

The medical readings showed Ed White’s pulse rate jumped off the charts — showed the three astronauts burst into instant movement.

The first call from Apollo 1 smashed into the launch team’s headsets.

“Fire!”

One word from Ed White.

Then, the unmistakable deep voice of Gus Grissom.

“I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”

Instantly afterward, Roger Chaffee’s voice.

“Fire!”

Then a garbled transmission and then the final plea:

“Get us out!”

Then words known only to God, followed by a scream …

Silence.

In the blockhouse, the chief of astronauts, Deke Slayton, jumped from his chair, shouting, “What the hell’s happening?”

Eyes stared in horror at the monitors. Flames expanded swiftly, built to a white glare before subsiding, and Deke thought he saw a shadow moving inside. He couldn’t be sure, and then he saw bright orange flames flickering about Apollo 1′s hatch.

Hellish flames followed by thick smoke.

An icy chill moved over his skin. Those calls of fire, that final garbled scream — they had come from inside Apollo 1.

Pad crews were rushing to the scene, trying to get to Gus, Ed and Roger. Astronaut Stuart Roosa, on console in the blockhouse, was trying frantically to talk with them. Again and again he called, desperate, his face chalk white.

No response.

Top Rated Comments   
This is a typical sort of failure when you are talking about any government activity. Politicians promise to "fix problem X." They then implement a solution fixing problem X, normally using the shortest straight line between our current predicament, and the solution, which "everybody knows is the right thing to do." See, e.g. mandatory Pre-K, War on Drugs, War on Terror, Great Society, Food Stamps, or in this case, shooting men into space.

Nobody ever thinks about about the second and third order consequences, or asks the most basic question, "what if this doesn't work right?" In the end, you're often left with failures, and those who try to fix the failures or oppose the (normal government solution of) doubling down on the failure, are painted as enemies of "everybody who wants this solved," or worse yet, as a friend of the problem ("you must be in favor of illiterate kids." "Clearly, you like the idea of heroin addicts crawling around your neighborhood." "You hate black people and are just fine with millions living in abject poverty.")

The Apollo 1 failure is not a failure of government; it's the normal state, how big government actually works and delivers on its promises. The successful moon landing and the other successes of the space program were exceptions. What we're seeing now with NASA is a regression to the norm.

Ask yourself whether you buy my line of reasoning, then think a bit about Obamacare.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
My dreams are big. It's the Presidents who got small.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
OXYGEN IS NOT A FUEL! Oxygen itself is not combustible! It still needs fuel. Sure, pure oxygen is a strong oxidizer, but if oxygen itself was flammable, you wouldn't need acetylene to mix with it to create a torch.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (37)
All Comments   (37)
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It is oddly appropriate that SpaceX, the most promising commercial space company, should be the creation of a man whose fortune was originally made in the computer industry. As Moore's Law marches on, we will soon reach the point where memory and personality can be rendered in digital form. I think the most wonderful thing we could do for the Apollo 1 astronauts would be to digitize their memories and knit them back together, so these brave pioneers can become the first post-biological human beings, the vanguard of the realization of the dreams of a thousand transhumanist novels, manga, and anime. Roger Chaffee in particular has often been given the short end of the stick, treated as less than truly an astronaut on the grounds that he never flew in space -- I think it would be a perfect vindication for us to give him the opportunity to fly at last, the perfect union of man and machine.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
NASA did *not* send men into space nor to the moon nor did NASA rescue 13. TRW, Gruman, RCA, Pan-Am, IBM, Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas, etc., did all that.

These, too, marked the employment pools from which were drawn many at Mission Control, Gene Krantz (McDonnell-Douglas) among the most prominent. Other sources were engineering schools, such as that at Virginia Tech, from which came Chris Kraft, acquiring his aeronautical engineering degree in half the usual time (2 instead of 4 years).

NASA, the _real_ NASA, is in the main an assortment of petty, petulant, pencil pushing bureaucrats, the only thing about which they know how to fly being a desk.

Signed,
Son of a Space Pioneer, 1958-1972
Space Coast, FL
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
So, Grissom would have lived if the capsule had explosive bolts?
There is room for one more corollary to Murphy's Law.
And Murphy worked on the Apollo project.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
And yet, for all that supposed learning, exactly the same NASA organizational deficiencies as appeared in the Apollo 1 fire, reappeared in the near loss of Apollo 13, and the destruction due to different causes of shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Why were their dreams so big and ours so small?"

Well, there are plenty who have not given up the big dreams, even if most Americans have. The private space industry is booming thanks to the government's benign neglect -- perhaps the one policy that Obama has gotten right.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is a typical sort of failure when you are talking about any government activity. Politicians promise to "fix problem X." They then implement a solution fixing problem X, normally using the shortest straight line between our current predicament, and the solution, which "everybody knows is the right thing to do." See, e.g. mandatory Pre-K, War on Drugs, War on Terror, Great Society, Food Stamps, or in this case, shooting men into space.

Nobody ever thinks about about the second and third order consequences, or asks the most basic question, "what if this doesn't work right?" In the end, you're often left with failures, and those who try to fix the failures or oppose the (normal government solution of) doubling down on the failure, are painted as enemies of "everybody who wants this solved," or worse yet, as a friend of the problem ("you must be in favor of illiterate kids." "Clearly, you like the idea of heroin addicts crawling around your neighborhood." "You hate black people and are just fine with millions living in abject poverty.")

The Apollo 1 failure is not a failure of government; it's the normal state, how big government actually works and delivers on its promises. The successful moon landing and the other successes of the space program were exceptions. What we're seeing now with NASA is a regression to the norm.

Ask yourself whether you buy my line of reasoning, then think a bit about Obamacare.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
While I agree Obamacare is a disaster, I dislike intensely comparisons between technical challenges and sociological challenges. They usually start out with "If we can put a man on the moon why can't we [fill in the blank]". Physical systems operate in a predictable repeatable fashion according to the immutable laws of physics. Sociological systems, involving the chaotic behavior of people, do not.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment

Americans dream big. The new space industry is lead by guys who grew up dreaming of real space travel, and they're going to do it. It was always crazy to expect government to take us there.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is a better song [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGi2Nt-GTF4] than the one Glenn linked to.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
NASA has fallen on hard times.

It has not fallen as far as Challenger or Columbia; NASA Delenda Est !
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
The real problem is we stayed static. We built Apollo and Saturn V and stopped, making lawn ornaments of flight rated vehicles. We built Shuttle and flew it for 30 years and made virtually no improvements to the design. My buddy sent me a inside photo of Altantis's cockpit, it looks like a worn out old airliner, the same machine that arrived at KSC in my 20's. They did upgrade the avionics, but who cares? That was easy, the propulsion and other major systems are the same.

The truth is, any system that worked as a starting point that was continually improved would have got us there, but we did not improve anything.

Space X is successful (and may very well get us there) because they took up where NASA left off 40 odd years ago, not flashy, but effective. The same is true for some other start ups.

I left in 89 3 years after 51L because it was obvious it was no longer a technical problem, the creeping crud of the government had got us.

Now 25 years later, we may just be back on the road. Ad Astra.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
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