Monday, January 23, 2017

Ffity Years Ago: A Rough Road Leads to the Stars

 I guess when a fellow climbs into a spacecraft, straps himself in, and starts waiting for the countdown, he could give what’s coming some really serious consideration, but I’m not afraid.

Lt. Roger Chaffee, USN, 1964

This illustration depicts a fully fueled Saturn 1B about to take flight, containing over a million pounds of kerosene, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, yet the fire that took the lives of the Apollo I crew 50 years ago this week occurred during a test conducted upon a seemingly less-dangerous defueled rocket.  (The Saturn V Collection, M.Louis Salmon Library, University of Alabama, Huntsville, via heroicrelics)

If we die, we want people to accept it.
We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program.
The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.
Lt. Col. Virgil "Gus" Grissom, USAF, 1966

Recently the world said goodbye to the last man to walk on the moon, retired Navy Captain Eugene Cernan, whose mission during Apollo 17 became a swan song of sorts for the American manned moon exploration program that remains unequaled by any other nation. Fifty years ago this week, America lost one of Cernan’s best friends in the astronaut program, Lieutenant Commander Roger Chaffee, along with two other men who were on track to be the first to reach the Moon.

The tragic accident that claimed their lives and stunned the nation did not occur on the way to the moon, nor even in the sky.  It occurred only 218 feet above the ground, within a command module situated atop a Saturn 1B rocket at Launch Complex 34, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Although known today as Apollo I, the orbital mission was officially designated Apollo 204, and the command module itself was known simply as Spacecraft 012.
During a NASA press conference on March 21, 1966, announcing their selection as the crew of Apollo I, Lieutenant (later Lieutenant Commander) Roger Chaffee, pilot for Apollo I, appears with senior pilot Edward White II and mission commander Virgil "Gus" Grissom. Both Chafee and Grissom were Air Force lieutenant colonels. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration via Wikimedia Commons) 
The effort to become the first nation to reach the moon did not come without sacrifice. From engineers and physicists to the mathematical specialists known as “computers,” people from all walks of life, quite a few of them working in Hampton Roads, made the sacrifices necessary to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s May 1961 pledge to send a man to the Moon and ensure his safe return before 1970. Arguably the most elite members of that effort were the astronauts themselves.  They endured the greatest scrutiny and undertook the greatest risks. Of the three of them who paid the ultimate price on January 27, 1967, Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chaffee was the least-senior. In fact, he was one of the youngest applicants ever accepted into the program. 
USS Wisconsin (BB-64) in 1955. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

Born on February 15, 1935, a flight his father sent him on in 1942 changed the course of Chaffee’s life. From then on he became intensely focused on aviation. Although he declined an appointment at Annapolis after graduating high school, the young Eagle Scout found his way into the Navy as a member of the NROTC at Purdue University, where future NASA Navy alum Gene Cernan had enrolled the year before. Before beginning his studies at Purdue in 1954, Chaffee completed an eight-week training cruise aboard USS Wisconsin (BB-64) during which he made port calls in England, Scotland, France, and Cuba. The following summer he visited Sweden and Denmark aboard the destroyer Perry (DD-844).

Before graduating from Purdue in 1957, Chaffee managed to earn his private license in less than two months. Commissioned an ensign on August 22, 1957, Chaffee began his active duty Navy career temporarily assigned to Naval Station Norfolk before reporting for Navy flight training in Pensacola, Florida, that November.

Considered by many as an excellent photographic mapping aircraft but not the necessarily the safest platform for collecting tactical air reconnaissance, the Douglas RA-3 Skywarrior, known as the "whale" to many plane captains around the fleet, was one of the largest aircraft ever to be used routinely aboard aircraft carriers.  (Department of Defense via cybermodeler)
After earning his aviator’s wings in early 1959, Chaffee completed a number of challenging assignments. Perhaps his most challenging was as a RA-3B Skywarrior pilot attached to Heavy Photographic Squadron 62 (VAP-62), based at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. Although assigned as the squadron's safety and QC officer, Chaffee’s performance proved so impressive that he became one of the youngest naval aviators to fly the lumbering plane many called the "whale." Originally designed as a carrier-based strategic bomber, the Skywarrior was derisively known as the ‘flying coffin” around the Navy’s photo reconnaissance community, yet Chaffee fearlessly flew over Cuba on mission after mission in 1961 during the early stages of the Cuban Missile Crisis, earning an Air Medal.

In October 1962, Chaffee became one of only 14 pilots selected for the astronaut program from 1,800 applicants. Assigned to the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, he moved in next door to Cernan, another of the picks for the latest astronaut cohort, after moving to Houston.  Although they had not gotten to know each other while at Purdue, they became fast friends.

"Roger and I bonded," Cernan recalled over three decades later. "We shared a dream. We were, in a special way, brothers... from the day we reported to NASA, our space careers grew in parallel paths."

At his station in mission control in Houston, Texas, Roger Chaffee monitors communications with Gemini 3 in March 1965. (NASA via Wikimedia Commons) 
The next couple of years for Chaffee would be a blur of almost ceaseless training, from mastering survival techniques in the scorching Nevada desert to the sweltering Panamanian jungle.  He would also study every aspect of the Apollo spacecraft, even going to the production facilities to carefully watch the spacecraft components being assembled, and building an intimate knowledge of these unprecedented vehicles. Rounding out his experience as a junior astronaut, Chaffee would function as CapCom, or capsule communicator, for two Gemini flights under Lt. Cmdr. Cernan and the chief CapCom, Air Force Lt. Col. Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury program astronauts. Grissom would also be chosen as mission commander for Apollo I, an orbital flight designed to demonstrate the spaceworthiness of the command and service module designs for a future mission to the moon. As Pilot for Apollo I, one of Chaffee's key tasks would be to maintain communications between the command module and mission control.

At 7:55 am on January 27, 1967, a plugs out test began, which meant that Spacecraft 012 was disconnected from its launch gantry umbilicals which typically provide power and communications before a launch.  It would be functioning in a simulation of its own onboard fuel cell power system, which it would rely upon from the final launch countdown until splashdown.  The rocket itself had no fuel aboard. The astronauts entered the capsule at 1:00 pm. By 6:20, a series of lingering communications system problems were ironed out and the spacecraft was transferred to simulated fuel cell systems for the test.

The fire began approximately 6:31 pm, and it was noticed less than ten seconds later. After the fire began, the design of the command module made opening the hatch extremely difficult. In launch configuration, there were actually three separate hatches, one atop another, to protect the spacecraft during the ascent and shield the astronauts from the vacuum of space. They now served to hold the astronauts in what quickly turned into a lethal pressure cooker. Despite the fact that technicians were just outside the command module in the adjoining White Room, which was connected to the gantry, even the 90 seconds it would supposedly take to open the hatches in an emergency were not near enough to save their lives.
In less than a minute, the oxygen-saturated interior of the Apollo I command module (Spacecraft 012) became an inferno. (NASA)
Their spacesuits afforded some protection from the conflagration, but as the interior cabin pressure shot up to 35 psi from the 16.5 maintained within the vehicle (from the average 14.7 at sea level) and 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, even the coolant coursing through the bursting aluminum piping within the spacecraft fed the flames. It only took about 15 seconds for the fire to raise and burst the pressure vessel, causing the fire to spread even to the adjoining White Room and drive back the rescuers. All the while Chafee remained at his post, still attempting to keep the communication lines with ground controllers open.  That is how he was found when technicians finally gained access to the command module at 6:37, only five and a half minutes since Chaffee had first reported the fire.

The root cause of the fire was never precisely determined, yet the spark of ignition has long been assumed to have been between two electrical cables near the environmental control unit of the Command Module, and the nearly 5,000 square inches of Velcro within the cabin provided ready kindling. Changes implemented in the wake of the accident included the incorporation of more flame-resistant materials within the crew cabin as well as the spacesuits. The hatch was redesigned to open during an emergency in 30 seconds. A mixed nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere would be used in the ground phase of future Apollo flights as well.    

Although a similar type of electrical/oxygen fire occurred in 1970 within the service module of Apollo 13, this time 200,000 miles out in space, which almost cost the lives of three more astronauts, no other Apollo program astronauts were lost on a mission.  The program ended on a high note when the hand of friendship was extended in April 1975 through a docking adapter between an Apollo and a Soyuz spacecraft, which remains the mainstay of the Russian program today.  Nevertheless, both programs were born in tragedy. Less than three months after the Apollo I accident in 1967, Soyuz I successfully made it into space, but every flight and recovery system, including the main and backup parachutes, failed aboard the spacecraft, sending veteran cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov into the southern Ural mountains at nearly 400 miles an hour. 

Dr. Werner Von Braun, one of the chief architects of the American space program, dourly mused after being told of the Apollo I accident, “Their deaths brought to mind the Roman saying ‘per aspera ad astra’ ­– a rough road leads to the stars.”

Spacecraft 012 remains in storage at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Its hatches, however, are to be put on display at Kennedy Space Center within the coming week.   

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