I have no idea what the significance is, if any, of the fact that all three of NASA's tragedies, which took the lives of 17 astronauts, occurred on the calendar within six dates of each other. This year they all fall in the same week. I thought I'd take a moment this morning to reflect on each one, memorialize the crew, their mission, and the lessons learned.
January 27, 1967 - Apollo-Saturn 204, unofficially designated Apollo 1, sits on the pad at Launch Complex 34 for a "plugs-out test," a countdown rehearsal with all spacecraft systems running independently of the ground. Astronauts Virgil I. ("Gus") Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee are in the capsule, in a pressurized, pure oxygen atmosphere, working through the countdown routine when a flash fire breaks out. White and Grissom are unable to open the hatch due to the rapidly building pressure, and rescue teams cannot reach the capsule due to the heat. In less than half a minute the cockpit is incinerated, and Grissom, White and Chaffee are all dead of asphyxiation.
Gus Grissom was one of the original "Mercury 7" astronauts, who flew the second suborbital mission (Liberty Bell 7) between Alan Shepard's first flight and John Glenn's first orbital flight, and was also the commander of Gemini III. Ed White was part of the second group of men to join the astronaut corps; he performed the first EVA ("spacewalk") by a U.S. astronaut, on Gemini IV. Roger Chaffee was a rookie who had yet to fly in space; as a Navy pilot, he had flown reconnaissance missions over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Apollo 1 happened before I was born, so I don't actually remember it. I first learned about it when a guest speaker came to my school to talk about the space program around 1981 or so. As everyone knows, America was in a race in the 1960s to put a man on the moon, not only before the Soviets did but before the turn of the decade, thus to fulfill the vow of a martyred president. When a political and emotional race turns into a technological race, however, that can be a recipe for disaster. Actually designing and building a vehicle that could accomplish such a monumental task, one that had never been attempted or even contemplated before, would have been difficult enough without those pressures.
The Apollo spacecraft was a far cry from the basic, relatively primitive Mercury and Gemini capsules (the latter having been essentially just a two-man version of the former), as so much more would be demanded of it. The capsule, or Command Module, would be built, tested and flown first, with the lander, or Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) to follow. Apollo was the most complex piece of machinery anyone had attempted to build up to that time, and almost from the beginning, the capsule was fraught with problems. Grissom himself famously once placed a lemon on top of one to express his frustration. Suffice it to say things were not going well by January 1967, and the plugs-out test on January 27 wasn't much better. Problems with the oxygen and communication systems plagued the astronauts and ground crew as the countdown was delayed several times. Grissom, White and Chaffee had been in the cockpit for five and a half hours when the fire broke out.
One terrible irony of Apollo 1 was the fact that the capsule's ingress/egress hatch was designed to open inward then outward, rather than simply open outward, and without explosive bolts to blow the hatch in case of an emergency. This was because NASA did not want to risk a repeat of Grissom's Liberty Bell 7, on which the Mercury capsule's hatch blew accidentally after splashdown and the spacecraft sank to the bottom of the ocean. On Apollo 1, due to the complexity of the hatch mechanism and the pressure inside the cabin, there was no way that White, even with Grissom's help, could get it open before the men succumbed to the fire. After Apollo 1, a redesigned hatch was one of the many changes incorporated into the spacecraft design and construction.
The exact cause and source of the Apollo 1 fire was never determined. As mentioned above, the astronauts did not burn to death; they asphyxiated as the fire consumed all of the oxygen in the cabin. The highly-pressurized pure oxygen atmosphere, flammable materials in the cockpit and the astronauts' flight suits, and numerous plumbing and wiring flaws, were all identified as contributing factors.
It's been said that we might never have made it to the moon had it not been for Apollo 1, and the lessons learned -- technological and otherwise -- from the disaster. Thanks to the efforts of NASA, its contractors, astronauts, engineers, scientists, etc., we did make it to the moon before 1970, and five more times after that. One mission, Apollo 13, didn't make it to the moon but got the astronauts back to earth safely. In his review of the movie dramatizing that mission, film critic Roger Ebert wrote something that has always stuck with me: "[T]hey used to predict that by the year 2000, you'd be able to go to the moon. Nobody ever thought to predict that you'd be able to, but nobody would bother."
January 28, 1986 - Space Shuttle Challenger is launched on mission 51-L, the 25th shuttle flight and the 10th for the fleet's "workhorse" orbiter. On board are commander Francis R. ("Dick") Scobee, pilot Michael J. Smith, mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Judith A. Resnik and Ellison S. Onizuka, payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis, and Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire who was selected as NASA's first "teacher in space." 73 seconds after launch, a breach caused by a faulty O-ring in one of the solid rocket boosters causes a catastrophic failure of the external fuel tank; the tank explodes, and the orbiter disintegrates. All seven astronauts perish.
Dick Scobee was a former Air Force mechanic and pilot, who had flown in space aboard Challenger on mission 41-C. Mike Smith was a Naval aviator making his first space flight. Ron McNair, a physicist, became the second African-American astronaut when he flew on mission 41-B, also aboard Challenger, in 1984. Ellison Onizuka, aerospace engineer and native of Hawaii, became the first Asian-American to fly in space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, on a Department of Defense mission (51-C) flown a year before the Challenger accident. Judy Resnik, America's second female and first Jewish astronaut, had flown on the maiden flight of Discovery in 1984; she was a biomedical and electrical systems engineer. Greg Jarvis, a civilian satellite engineer, was making his first space flight as a payload specialist.
Most of the attention on Challenger 51-L, both before and after the accident, was focused on Christa McAuliffe. Mrs. McAuliffe (née Sharon Christa Corrigan) was a Social Studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire, and beat out more than 11,000 applicants to become the first participant in NASA's Teacher In Space Project. President Reagan had announced the project in 1984, the intention of which was that the first "ordinary citizen" to fly in space should be a teacher, who could communicate with students from orbit and actually teach lessons from space.
The inclusion of McAuliffe on this flight was supposed to show that the Space Shuttle could fulfill its promise of providing easy, routine, efficient, low-cost, low-risk access to space and do so for just about anyone, not just career astronauts. It ended up showing the exact opposite. From the beginning, the Space Shuttle proved to be far more complex, problematic, expensive and dangerous than anyone anticipated when the program was first conceived in the early 1970s.
The shuttle was originally meant to be part of a far more complex and ambitious low-earth-orbit program to follow the success of the Apollo moon landings. The idea was to design a spacecraft that could launch like a rocket, land like a plane, and unlike all previous manned spacecraft, be re-used and launched again and again, thus (theoretically) saving money. The idea was to shuttle astronauts and equipment back and forth from low earth orbit, regularly, efficiently and cost-effectively. (Hence the word "shuttle;" the vehicle itself is more properly referred to as an orbiter, as "shuttle" refers to its intended function.) NASA hoped to have the first orbital vehicle, Columbia, off the ground by 1979, then have Columbia and Enterprise flying regularly by the early 1980s while the second block of orbiters was built.
Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. Columbia did not reach orbit until 1981. Enterprise, built as an atmospheric test vehicle, could not be modified for orbital flight without extensive reconstruction, so Challenger was built instead from an existing structural test article. Discovery and Atlantis were completed in 1984 and 1985, respectively, by which time it was clear that it took several months, not a few weeks as originally expected, to prepare a flown orbiter for its next flight. The idea of a re-usable spacecraft being cheaper and easier to fly than the old single-use rockets and capsules was, clearly by now, a fallacy.
Yet that didn't stop NASA from trying to make shuttle flights seem efficient and routine. The program flew 10 missions in 1985 and had an even more ambitious schedule set for 1986. NASA was planning to transfer Discovery to a new Shuttle Launch Complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, to fly Defense Department missions in polar orbit. When Challenger launched on January 28, it was already the second mission of 1986; Columbia had flown mission 61-C and landed at Edwards AFB just ten days earlier.
I was in high school at the time, so I remember watching the launch on CNN -- the only network showing it live -- and then seeing it replayed over and over on every channel as more and more people became aware of what had happened. I was devastated. I had been a huge fan of NASA and the Space Shuttle since watching the first launch and landing of Columbia in my fifth-grade science class, as well as the flybys of Jupiter and Saturn by the twin Voyager probes around the same time. The first few shuttle launches and landings got wall-to-wall coverage on all three major networks, but by 1986 you had to go out of your way to find out when the shuttles were flying and could rarely if ever see a launch or landing on live TV. 51-L was the first one I'd watched in I don't know how long. It was also the first space disaster to unfold on live television, although very few people saw it.
From a technical standpoint, the disaster was blamed on a rubber O-ring that, due to unusually-cold temperatures at Cape Canaveral, failed to properly seal one of the joints in the right-hand SRB on ignition, causing a leak through which the rocket's hot gases burned through to the external fuel tank; the rocket separated from the tank and crashed into it, causing it to explode, and the orbiter was torn apart not so much by the force of the explosion but by aerodynamic forces far exceeding its design limits. More broadly, the blame fell on NASA's "culture," which had become simultaneously too ambitious and too complacent, putting the commercial and political needs of the program ahead of astronaut safety. It was more than two and a half years before the Space Shuttle would fly again.
February 1, 2003 - After 16 days in space, Space Shuttle Columbia de-orbits and prepares to land at the Kennedy Space Center to conclude mission STS-107. The crew, commander Richard D. Husband, pilot William C. McCool, astronauts Michael P. Anderson, Dr. David M. Brown, Dr. Laurel B. Clark, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and the first Israeli astronaut IAF Col. Ilan Ramon, is aware that the orbiter's left wing was struck during launch by a chunk of foam falling off the external fuel tank -- a fairly routine occurrence in shuttle launches -- but unaware that this particular foam strike critically damaged one of the RCC panels on the wing's leading edge. During re-entry, hot gases penetrate the wing causing structural failure; the orbiter spins out of control and breaks apart over central Texas. All seven astronauts lose their lives.
Air Force Colonel Rick Husband, a former test pilot, had flown on STS-96 aboard the shuttle Discovery; this was his first mission as commander. Willie McCool was an experienced Naval aviator making his first space flight. Mike Anderson, a physicist and former USAF communication electronics officer, had flown aboard the shuttle Endeavour on STS-89, a mission to the Russian Mir space station. Dave Brown was a Naval flight surgeon and aviator. Laurel Clark was also an M.D. and a Naval officer. Kalpana Chawla was an aerospace engineer, the first Indian-American astronaut and the first Indian woman in space; she had previously flown STS-87 aboard Columbia. Ilan Ramon, in addition to being the first Israeli astronaut, was the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors; he served as a fighter pilot and Deputy Squadron Commander in the Israeli Air Force in the 1970s and '80s.
I was at a baseball coaches' seminar up in the Bronx when Columbia was lost; I heard the news on the car radio on the way home. I remember gasping out loud and saying over and over to no one, "Oh, no! No! Not again!" When I got home I saw the pictures on TV of those bright streaks across the Texas sky. All the memories of Challenger came back in a flourish. It's a cliché, I know, but I could not believe this had happened again.
STS-107 was the first U.S. space flight to complete its mission but not return safely to Earth. The crew spent over 2 weeks in space, mostly conducting scientific experiments in the SPACEHAB double module nestled in Columbia's payload bay. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA was aware of the foam strike but had determined that it was not cause for concern, leastways not to the point of attempting to do anything about it. Foam strikes had occurred before and had even caused minor damage to the orbiter's Thermal Protection System (TPS) tiles, without endangering the vehicle or the crew.
[Since writing this diary I discovered something I'd forgotten: The Columbia crew were informed of the foam strike, via email on January 23, five days into the mission. NASA even provided the crew with a video of the foam strike via uplink two days later. The email told Husband and McCool that experts had reviewed the high-speed video and there was no cause for concern. Husband responded to each, thanking the ground crew for their efforts. Although the casualness of the conversation is disturbing in retrospect, and it remains true that the crew was not told that there were engineers at NASA who were significantly more concerned, the fact remains that the astronauts did know about the foam strike, got a look at it themselves, and agreed that it posed no danger.]
I've had heated debates with people in recent years over whether anything could have been done to save the Columbia astronauts if anyone had known or thought that the damage to the wing might prevent the orbiter from re-entering the atmosphere safely. Everyone always brings up Apollo 13, as evidence that if they put their minds to it smart, dedicated people can always find a solution to any problem. The astronauts and ground crew on Apollo 13 practically did the impossible; why couldn't they do the same on STS-107?
Apollo 13 is a great and inspiring story, but it's important to remember that for all the ingenuity and courage that went into saving the lives of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert in April 1970, there were two things that they could not do, and that everyone knew at the time they could not do: (1) Launch another spacecraft to rescue the crew; or (2) physically inspect and repair the heat shield. Columbia's crew could not have been saved without doing one of these, and (2) would have been impossible. The RCC panel was not visible from the cockpit, the shuttle was not carrying the CanadArm, and NASA had never conducted an EVA, let alone an untethered EVA, out of view of the cockpit and where there were no hand-grips for the astronauts to guide themselves. Even if they could conduct such a risky EVA, there was no equipment or material on board that they could have used to fix the RCC panel. Columbia could not reach the International Space Station from its orbit on STS-107; even if it could, it was not carrying the ISS docking module, and Columbia was too heavy to dock with the ISS in the first instance. So the ISS would not have been an option as a "safe harbor" for the crew.
There's been speculation that NASA could have, at enormous risk, rushed Atlantis to the launch pad, launched it with a two-man crew and attempted a rescue mission, if it had recognized the danger within a few days of Columbia's launch and had its crew subsist on minimal resources so as to remain in orbit for an extra week. The crew would then somehow transfer over to Atlantis, Atlantis would re-enter and land, and Columbia, which could be de-orbited but not piloted remotely, would be dumped into the Pacific Ocean. NASA had never planned, designed or trained its astronauts for any on-orbit rescue mission of this type; never in spaceflight has there been an EVA where astronauts transferred from one spacecraft to another. The risks of improvising a mission like that in such a short period, not to mention rushing another orbiter to launch when there's already one up there that might be critically damaged, without fully understanding how it happened -- or how to prevent a recurrence, thus risking the same or worse -- would have been, no pun intended, astronomical.
It's tempting to think that the Columbia crew could have been saved, and in a way, I kind of would have liked to see them try. Astronauts and the people who support them on the ground are brave and resourceful people, as we saw on Apollo 13. Whether the Columbia crew knew that their spacecraft was critically damaged or not, they knew the risks of spaceflight and took them willingly, and I have no doubt that if they had known before re-entry that they might not survive it, they would have fired those OMS engines anyway, and done everything they could to beat the odds and get that spacecraft safely down to the runway.
The future of space flight, now that the Space Shuttle program is over, is an whole other topic of discussion that I don't want to contemplate here. There are surely some great adventures ahead, and as with everything else, some tragedies as well.
So, let this be a week of reflection in memory of these 17 brave men and women. Their lives and legacy show us that ambition and achievement require risk, courage and perseverance.
Grissom - White - Chaffee
Scobee - Smith - McNair - Onizuka - Resnik - Jarvis - McAuliffe
Husband - McCool - Brown - Anderson - Clark - Chawla - Ramon
Mon Jan 28, 2013 at 5:43 AM PT: Thanks for the Rescue, and Recs. Ex Astra, Scientia.