- Associated Press - Saturday, January 28, 2017

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) - Gazing into an operations manual, its edges beginning to yellow with age, Vern Westgate remembered his astronaut friends Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Westgate, 82, was a technical writer for North American Aviation, the company contracted to write the manuals for NASA's first Apollo mission. He worked intimately with the astronauts and recalled fond memories as he thought back to their time together, before the men were killed during a test on Jan. 27, 1967.

“Their personalities were all markedly different,” Westgate said. “Gus’ was quiet; he was kind of like the Clint Eastwood … He was a neat guy. He was a quiet guy, but when he talked, everybody shut up and listened.”

Chaffee, he said, was one of the smartest people he’d ever met, reported The Coeur d’Alene Press (http://bit.ly/2k1pw9E).

“Roger Chaffee was eager,” Westgate said. “He was extraordinarily bright. He was brilliant. He had a master’s degree in math. He was a bright engineer. He understood everything.”

And Ed White, he said, would have been the John Wayne.

“Ed was a go-getter. Everybody loved him. You couldn’t help but like the guy. He was an athlete - he was like the high school quarterback except he wasn’t snotty,” Westgate said, his smile growing. “He was a natural athlete. He worked out hard. The guy probably had 2 percent body fat. He was phenomenally strong. He was the first American to walk in space, or as we used to say, ‘This is the first guy we can find dumb enough to get out of a perfectly good spacecraft.’”

When the world remembers these three men Friday on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 disaster, Westgate will not just recall the tragedy and the names of those lost. He’ll remember the confident men with good senses of humor, the family men with beautiful wives and children and the courageous men who were meant to be on top of the world.

“They are heroes. Wasted heroes,” Westgate said softly. “There was a phenomenal amount of skill in those guys. They all had good values.”

HELP WANTED

Westgate, of Coeur d’Alene, is a Korean War Air Force veteran who began working for Autonetics, a division of North American Aviation, in 1958. He worked his way up the pay scale and was soon offered the tech writing position. When the company won the Apollo contract, Westgate found himself volunteering to write the operations handbook, a daunting task.

“In a department of 250 writers, they had 12 working on this book,” he said. “One of the first 12 got too nervous. He said, ‘I can’t do this. I write about hardware.’ So one of the guys in the group said, ‘I know Vern. I’ve worked with him before. He’ll work on anything.’

“So I said, ‘Hey, I’ll do that,’” he continued. “I didn’t know any better. I was kind of new. I was the youngest one in the group. I grew up in South Central L.A.; I wasn’t afraid of anything.”

In the time that followed, he wrote the abbreviations checklist, systems data, controls and displays information, theories behind many pieces, functions and more. He revised all the time and was adamant everything be accurate because he knew lives were at stake.

“I had to know the whole spacecraft, one end to the other,” he said.

He worked with the crew of Apollo 1 up to five days a week as they polished protocols and information data.

“Whenever a question came up, I was the liaison between them and engineering,” he said. “That was my job, nitpicking and paying attention to everything, then going home and wondering if I’d gotten it all.”

During this time, Westgate was in a bad wreck that left him with a broken leg and a nasty infection. His leg was amputated at the knee in July 1966.

“It wasn’t too long after that that the guys got killed,” he said. “I was hit by one thing, hit by another… you have Korea, you have losing the guys and the leg. The guys meant more than the leg. I knew them all, knew their families.”

DAY OF DEATH

The way Grissom, White and Chaffee were killed was traumatizing to Westgate and to the nation. During a low Earth orbital test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34, an electrical spark caused a cabin fire that consumed everything and everyone inside.

The astronauts couldn’t get out in time.

“This is what killed the astronauts, this door,” Westgate said, pointing to a diagram in the original Apollo Operations Handbook.

“This three-part door, it has a lip around it,” he explained. “That lip is on the inside of the darn thing, you can see it right here. Then you have two-and-a-half PSI of pure oxygen on the inside. To equalize the pressure, there’s a dump tube. You activate the dump tube and now you got a 4-inch dump tube that’s letting out two-and-a-half PSI of oxygen. That’s a pretty good bit.”

He said because of the door, the fastest they could have escaped was 90 seconds. White would have had to reach over his head, unzip a bag, retrieve a wrench and loosen bolts until they dropped to allow the door to open. But the door couldn’t open because of the high pressure in the cabin.

Explosive bolts, Westgate said, could have saved their lives.

“They go bang and whatever you’re hanging onto blows off,” he said. “I remember being in meetings where there were arguments about that, and I always came down on the side of explosive bolts. What the hell is the sense? You got that door, ‘Well, we got to make sure it doesn’t pop open.’ Well, look, you can’t trust explosive bolts? Everything on the Apollo 1 was redundant. The explosive bolts would have been redundant, but it wouldn’t have made a difference.”

THE OXYGEN FACTOR

The pure oxygen in the cabin also wasn’t necessary, he said.

“They sure didn’t need to have pure oxygen when they sent them,” he said. “We could have gotten by with one pound of just air. We could have just pumped it with an air compressor. There was nothing in there that made any difference. And if that would have happened, the fire wouldn’t have gone anywhere; the spark wouldn’t have turned into a fire. Pure oxygen doesn’t burn; what it does is it’s like putting a blower on a fire that’s already going. As soon as you get a spark, anything around that’s ignitable in a pure oxygen atmosphere will burn. Some of the insulation started burning. Then everything that could burn burned.”

Westgate was at North American Aviation in Downey, Calif. when he received news of the disaster. He said on his way out of work, he was handed an employee form to be quiet about what happened that day.

“They had weasel wording. They had some genius word that stuff,” he said. “They passed those out that day. I went out and told my wife I was going to quit. We lost the guys… I went to work the next day and went, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I quit the next Monday. I looked in the paper to see if anything was available. I just didn’t want to be part of that anymore if they were going to make bad decisions, and one of the bad decisions is that gap on the door.”

THE AFTERMATH

The Apollo 1 disaster was followed by House and Senate investigations. NASA convened the Apollo 204 Accident Review Board and found the cause of the fire to be electrical, the rapid spread due to combustible nylon and the astronauts’ escape prevented by the plug door hatch.

Westgate’s friend Alan Golub, whose father Seymour was an engineer and a consultant who worked on the investigation, said after Apollo 1, anything that could burn was taken out of flight capsules.

“Because of that tragedy, the one blessing that came out of it, when they had the Apollo 13 mission, there was nothing in that capsule to burn,” Golum said. “The sacrifice of the three heroes saved the lives of the Apollo 13 mission.”

He said another cause of the tragedy was hurried work. The Apollo 1 was scheduled to launch into space to go to the moon Feb. 21.

“You had engineers who had great ideas on how to do things well, but there were bureaucrats that wanted to get the mission to fly quickly,” he said. “The bureaucrats overrode the men and women who knew what worked and what didn’t work. The lesson to me is how important it is to listen to the people who are actually the ones who create things vs. bureaucrats that just wanted to get something done quickly. That’s also a lesson for today.”

Westgate will always remember his astronaut friends and colleagues, especially when the anniversary of their death comes back around.

“Anniversaries have a way of making you think, ‘Gee, I wish I would have,’” he said. “The, ‘Gee, I wish I would have’ is I wish I would have stayed on the program. It impacted me pretty hard at the time. I probably knew things that would have been useful to somebody. I just had the experience. I wish I would have stuck with it.”

Alan Golub has a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for America’s heroes.

He recently created a commemorative poster honoring the three astronauts whose lives were lost 50 years ago in the Apollo 1 disaster.

“We learned from that tragedy,” Golub said. “The sacrifice of the three heroes saved the lives of the Apollo 13 mission.”

This week, he’ll be traveling to New York City to present the 105th precinct of the New York Police Department with a special poster he created in memory of Coeur d’Alene Police Sgt. Greg Moore and NYPD Det. Brian Moore.

In a sad coincidence, the Moores were shot and killed in the line of duty one day apart in May 2015. Although they were of no relation, Golub feels the connection between the policemen is strong.

“I want to give that poster to the 105th precinct where Det. Brian Moore was truly an American hero,” he said. “It affected me a lot to lose two fine people named Moore a day apart. Brian was shot in the face May 4 and then we lost Sgt. Greg Moore.

“We had such an outpouring of love for Sgt. Moore,” he continued. “This is my way of saying that here in Idaho, we love our police and we have the same caring for the people in New York as we do in Coeur d’Alene. Both communities had to suffer.

“These men and women are true heroes. I know American citizens really have a heart and care about their law enforcement. I just want them to know that in Idaho, we have their back.”

___

Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, http://www.cdapress.com

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