Friday, February 1, 2013

January 17, 1967 -- January 27, 1986 --- Feb 1, 2003

To those of us that worked in the arena they are the three dates that mark the three darkest days in NASA history and the worst part is none of the deaths should have happened. Seventeen lives were snuffed out because of arrogance, stupidity, career advancement, and poor management. It all started with the Apollo Pad 1 calamity.

Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died from carbon monoxide poisoning and would have survived the burns if they could have gotten out. NASA had demanded North American, The Command Module Primary Contractor, provide an inward opening egress hatch because of an issue with Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 Mercury Flight when explosive bolts malfunctioned and the capsule sank while Grissom escaped.

I could spend hours telling you what we did wrong.  The Command Module was a disaster at this time. Necessary design changes made it impossible for the Simulators to be kept up to date which meant the Astronauts were training in something they would not fly in. This is never a good thing. The real culprit in the end was the pure oxygen atmosphere in the Capsule at 16.7 PSI which is above earth standard, the location of the venting mechanism to enable the hatch to be opened, and flammable Velcro material that had been put back "into" the capsule after being ordered out.

The worst part is some of us unfortunately watched them die on television.  They tried to get out but not even King Kong could have opened the inner hatch and there was no means of emergency egress. Grissom was so worried about the Command Module, at this time, he called it a lemon and took a picture with the capsule and a lemon.

Above is a staged photo by Grissom when he told NASA he was going to ask for help from a higher power.

The irony is we were rushing because we thought the Russians would beat us to the moon. There Chief Engineer Sergei Korolev was responsible for the design of all there equipment and was a brilliant Engineer.  We did not know he had died on January 14, 1966 from a botched surgery and many of us consider him the true father of practical astronautics. With his death the Russian program was dead because political hacks took over. I guess political quackery is universal because we had our share.

There was plenty of blame to go around on this one

 Challenger was at the minimum manslaughter. 7 NASA Astronauts died on a cold Florida morning when the external fuel tank exploded because of an o-ring on a solid fuel booster that leaked. Morton Thiokol  was the contractor that provide the solid booster with its supposedly flawed o-rings. Morton Thiokol was bent over and required to take one for the program by accepting blame for the disaster when it was not their fault. There was not a single thing wrong with the o-ring design.  The true flaw was NASA and its arrogance and over aggressive launch schedule despite known restrictions in there own  flight manual.

Now for the truth.

On launch day for our "teacher in space" it dawned bitterly cold in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Temperatures were in the upper 20's and icicles were hanging off the shuttle, its external boosters, and external tank. NASA's flight manual required all launches with air temperatures below 48 F to be held until the temperature was reached or canceled otherwise. Challenger was launched at 42 F in direct violation of there own manual.

Kennedy is a warm weather launch site and this plays into how certain components are designed. Morton Thiokol designed the o-rings for the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) for a warm weather launch at the specified minimum temperature of 48 F and this plays directly into the disaster.

On the far right hand side of this photo one can see a puff of gray smoke just after the solids were lit and the Shuttle was lifting off for STS-51-L. That was the first sign hot gases were leaking, but not the first time there had been a leak. That is a well kept secret maintained closely by NASA. On multiple previous "cold" launches below 48 F there had been an issue with the o-ring leakage and NASA was well aware of this.

Thiokol Engineers were so worried about the cold weather launches they told NASA there would be a catastrophic o-ring failure and the Shuttle would blow up. Thiokol engineers led by Roger Boisjoly  and four colleagues fought to stop the launch from Utah with Thiokol Management supporting them. Armed with the knowledge that Astronauts could die they fought with NASA and got the following response.

"I am appalled," said NASA's George Hardy, according to Boisjoly and our other source in the room. "I am appalled by your recommendation."
Another shuttle program manager, Lawrence Mulloy, didn't hide his disdain. "My God, Thiokol," he said. "When do you want me to launch — next April?"
More information can be found here.

Eventually NASA forced Thiokol Management to buckle and rescind the recommendation the the launch be scrubbed. Now for the truth about the o-ring design.

The o-ring design worked as long as launch parameters were maintained. The o-ring compound was a type of elasticized rubber and the compound design had to account for a wide range of temperatures and the minimum launch temperature was 48 F. Any launch below that temperature could be troublesome because like all rubber compounds the o-ring compound expanded and contracted based on its starting temperature "after" the solids were like and the hot gases were present.  The o-ring was redesigned after the accident but the compound still required a launch at a specific temperature or above despite the new design.

Essentially the NASA launch director at Kennedy threw his own book out the window and knowingly launched in a high risk scenario which was something NASA should never do.  First rule of manned space flight is Astronaut safety first and that means no out of parameter launches. In my humble opinion the launch director was at the minimum guilty of manslaughter but the first thing you learn in NASA is the blame game and NASA will only accept it when it is forced to, so Thiokol bent over, pulled down its pants, and took one in the booty for the program.

The other horrific part of the story they have been mum about was the death of the Astronauts. The Shuttle was built in 3 sections which included, Shuttle Engine plus Elevator and Rudder, Cargo Bay, and Crew Section. The explosion did not kill the Astronauts.  The Shock wave from the explosion separated the Crew Section from the Shuttle intact and most if not all the Astronauts died when the Crew Compartment slammed into the ocean.

The really sad part is NASA knew from day one what had happened but tried to place blame on both Thiokol and Martin Marietta who built the External tank. The Rogers Commission that investigated the disaster was as incompetent as NASA in its own way. Seven Astronauts died on that day 27 years ago and it should not have happened.

The Columbia disaster, in my humble opinion, is the most egregious of the 3. NASA knew they had damage to the Shuttle Wing and knows full well and structural flaw is exacerbated on reentry. The examined the Shuttle from afar yet never sent any of the qualified Astronauts on an EVA to examine possible wing damage. All NASA Shuttle flights carry the equipment and the qualified Astronauts for an EVA on every single flight.  It is a requirement for every mission.

Reentry is the most dangerous time for an mission into space. The vehicle slams into the upper atmosphere at 17,000 mph and the effect on what little atmosphere there is is spectacular. As the heat builds up the atmosphere liquefies into a molten plasma that literally flows off the surface of the vehicle not unlike molten lava flows. It is under immense pressure because of its size and surface area. The Shuttle reenters at well over 100 tons in mass at 17,000 mph and it is using the limited atmosphere to slow it down and it is very vulnerable. The ionization creates a radio blackout which makes everyone blind.

Plasma seeped into the wing and weakened the Shuttle structurally.  They were dead the minute they started reentry and never had a chance.  It was like playing Russian Roulette with a 38 and all 6 chambers loaded.

Rather than muck with the schedules of other Shuttle missions they decided to gamble and per usual the lives they lost were not their own but those willing to take the risk. One NASA official spokesman had the gall to say on both the NASA network and National TV that NASA did not worry about reentry and did not considered it dangerous. I really think that sums it all up but then I think about the wreckage.

There were people picking up pieces of the Columbia wreckage and it took NASA days to wake up to the simple fact a lot of it was extremely toxic because of the hypergolic fuels used for the RCS systems and starting the main Shuttle Engine plus other materials and liquids people should stay away from. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge nobody was harmed by any wreckage but they could have. There was a reason NASA people wore Hazmat suits around found wreckage.

I am a proponent and supporter of manned space flight but I an not sure I trust NASA to manage it. They have never seen a budget they could not bloat nor have they missed many chances to be stupid like deciding they would not repair Hubble just because they did not want to and suddenly it was a risk.  It was a money grab. I would rather let the geeks at JPL run things but then that is a geek believing in other geeks.

Today is a day to remember all the heroes who died in both ours and the Russian Space Program. May their souls be at peace and may they all be remembered for being the bravest of the brave and the best sons and daughters of our planet Earth.

God bless them and their families.


Black Swan said...

@Elizabeth, where you ever involved with Operation Paperclip?

Elizabeth said...

Way before my time. My parents met in WWII.

Black Swan said...

Operation Paperclip was still in going through the Cold War, off the books till the last of the Nazi scientists died. Not just the U-2 rocket scientist at NASA. My father worked with many of the German scientist that were doing human experiments in Texas at Anderson's AFB in the early sixties. I assume this because my father changed is story of what his MOS was in the service from supply to wilderness survival training and some other canard--he's way to smart for that kind of work. The kind of biologist he is I doubt that very much his story carried any weight. Most of it now is declassfied now. My father was a research biologist and nuclear chemist and my mother was a nurse. They both inlisted in the military, working for the Air Force. I know I was conceived right when they got out in 66.

You may have unknowing worked for some of them at NASA.

Black Swan said...

Sorry I meant V2.

Elizabeth said...

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) created the Operation Paperclip program and they recruited captured German Scientists and actually led raids to capture said scientists but all I ever knew was I met Von Braun and Rudolph at Huntsville during a test firing of the Saturn booster. Most of the activity was over shortly after the end of the war from what little I know.

I was only 21 when I met them and it was only for a moment and it was a short discussion about hypergolic rocket propellant. I did not know until much later they were both Nazi's and I mean members of the Nazi party but then if you were not who knows what they might have done to them.

Von Braun gets most of credit but Rudolph was brilliant. I never worked closely with them. I worked a lot with Grumman and North American among other duties and they knew everything about me. There were also more than a few gay men there and all that mattered was doing the work. Rudolph was eventually investigated for war crimes and renounced his US citizenship in the 80's and returned to Germany where they did nothing. Rudolph was the designer of the V-2.

A lot of the work I did was so top secret it is still classified which is rather weird but understandable in some ways.

The Physician that supervised the "aversion therapy", as in torture, I was subjected to in 1963 at 17 years of age was a German with a thick accent who was supposedly an expert in this type of shit and he was in his 60's so I always wondered about him. I can honestly say I would have killed that man if given the chance.

I know little to nothing about Human Experiments by these Nazi found in Operation Paperclip other than rumor.

Anonymous said...

Sheesh! Another f**king BS de-rail.

Will it never end?

Elizabeth said...


Actually this was not a derail by BS. It is quite relevant to the early days of NASA and Apollo.

Just Jennifer said...

I lived in Florida from 1984 until 1988. For a while I worked for a company that sold computers. On a very cold January morning,January 27, 1986, I had traveled from Okeechobee to Vero Beach to work on a computer. I was riding in a van driven by one of the technicians. I happened to look out the window and saw the space shuttle going up. When I pointed it out, the driver pulled over to watch. This was not the first shuttle launch I had seen, but it was always interesting to view one. There was a brief flash, and my first thought, having watched many old films of rocket launches was. "Well, there goes the first stage..." This was followed immediately by the realization, "There are no stages on the shuttle." Of course, the trails from the two boosters made it clear that something was very wrong...

I turned on the radio, and found the station that was covering the launch. The announcer was saying that "something had happened...what was not clear." For a moment, I held out some hope that they could return to the landing strip, but it quickly became obvious that was not the case.

One thing I remember very clearly from that morning was a report that paramedics had been dropped into the water. Of course that was quickly buried. it was only much later that the truth about the crew's surviving the blast would come out.

I grew up with the space program. I was a geek girl from early on. I remember the night the news broke that the three Apollo I astronauts had died. And I remember sitting watching as the news covered the Columbia disaster. I grew up in Alabama, and I have been to Huntsville and the Cape many times. I was an early visitor to the Space and Rocket Center and was luck enough to see Miss Baker there. And one of my fondest memories is the day I got to meet Alan Shepard. He was signing his book, and I was towards the end of the line. We had been told that we were to not try to speak to him, or touch him. Just hand him the book and move on. Well, I came up, grinning from ear to ear. To actually be that close to one of the Mercury Seven was a great treat. He looked at me and I guess he realized I was the right age to have been in elementary school back then. He smiled, and said. "How's it going?" I was stunned that he actually spoke to me. I managed to get out "Great!" and moved on, filling like I was floating.

Anonymous said...

A sad face of life, like freedom technological advancement occasionally requires the blood of those good patriots.

If we want to be reverent in the world as a leader in space technology we must continue to move forward.
It's sad to see that we would rather spend our money killing people in far off lands instead of doing something to improve the quality of life for us all.

Those who gave their lives in our space program had that view in mind instead of being the world's number 1 killer of man women and children.


Elizabeth said...


This is not a political blog and you just tried to do what BS does all the time which is change the post intention with your politics.

I am to be honest offended by those comments because it implies our kids protecting us are doing something immoral and they are not. If you actually are delusional enough to believe that the world would be better off if the US was an isolationist nation and did not involve itself in world politics then I feel sorry for you.

Our problem is we seem to let certain events pass without doing anything and allowing genocide. I guess in your mind it is okay to indiscriminately kill with suicide bombs but not okay to kill the suicide bombers before they kill others.

You seemed to miss the entire point of the post which was simple. They need not have died if people had done their jobs which is not unlike we would not need to interfere of people stood up to bullies and terrorists but then they are like you and would prefer to bury their collective heads in the sand until somebody else saves their collective asses.

Under normal circumstances I respect you comments and your thoughts and beliefs but you are wrong here.

Anonymous said...

It may be true that they need have died. The fact is they did and in the case of Apollo 1 Long standing practice overrode common sense.

As for our boys doing something immoral, since you bright it up. Anybody can be conned into doing an immoral act if the information they are given is wrong. It takes an extraordinary mind to see through the bullshit and propaganda.

With that I am done with this thread. I'll be waiting for the next one.

It's your blog I will comply with your wishes.

Black Swan said...


It clear to me from your post that the US had a laxed view of safety juxapposed to the need to be ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Some of the experiments I suspect my father worked on had to do with human tolerance to physical stress and radiation. It made clear sense at the time that the US technology agenda, to me disregarded human life, placed a low value on its human subjects and if your doing something that could be viewed by the public as immoral its best to keep it a secret and make it illegal to prying eyes.

Robyn Messy Elliot said...

@ Black Swan:

I don't think it is accurate to say the US via its agencies had a low value of human life. Contracting is done by the lowest bidder as budgets were never infinite. Each mission disaster was not only a loss of highly trained people but massive investments of resources and incalcuable demoralization. The Cold War seems as unreal to me as WW2, but I realize that for people who lived during it the stakes were higher than any point in US history. The sheer symbolism of getting to the moon and having reusable shuttles first lent validity to the Free World system in the eyes of the citizens and the world. There is nothing comparable today.

My Dad was a corporate pirate of the cocaine and greed-is-good 80's. I have no cool legacy to share.

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