- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

HAMPTON, Va. (AP) - It was supposed to be a routine rehearsal for a launch countdown and a run-through of emergency escape procedures for three crewmen sealed inside a space capsule at Cape Kennedy in Florida.

But little was going right.

There was an odd odor in the astronauts’ oxygen supply that Virgil “Gus” Grissom likened to “sour milk.” There was a persistent communications glitch between the astronauts in the command module and NASA specialists inside the nearby “block house.”

In tapes of that moment from Jan. 27, 1967, Grissom can be heard grumbling, “How are we gonna get to the moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?”

Then, barely a minute later, Grissom can be heard again: “We’ve got a fire in the capsule.”

“Out of nowhere,” space historian and author Andrew Chaikin recalled Tuesday in an interview at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton. “This was completely out of nowhere.

“Perhaps 15 seconds after that, they hear another voice, which was Roger Chaffee - he was the rookie on the crew - saying, ‘We’ve got a bad fire.’

“And then what followed was a kind of unintelligible call of distress. And then the radio went silent.”

Fifty years ago, Grissom, Chaffee and Edward H. White asphyxiated in a matter of seconds as a flash fire turned the Apollo 1 spacecraft into an inferno, a tragedy that nearly doomed the nascent U.S. space program.

“It was a tremendous shock,” said Chaikin. “It was a shock to the nation.”

But the country’s Cold War rivalry with the Soviets and loyalty to assassinated President John F. Kennedy’s ambition to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade managed to rescue the program.

“The amazing thing about NASA and about the contractors who worked with NASA is (that) the recovery is one of the most incredible episodes in the history of space exploration and in the history of human endeavor,” Chaikin said. “Because everybody came together. Not that everything suddenly became neat and tidy. It’s not like everybody was kumbaya from that point on. There was still plenty of disagreements - often very heated disagreements. There was a lot of messiness still, right down to the end of the program. There were still problems that needed to be solved. But everybody paid attention to the things they needed to pay attention to.”

Chaikin was in Hampton Roads Tuesday to talk about the lessons of that tragedy as part of NASA’s Sigma Series lecture program. He addressed NASA Langley employees in the afternoon, and the general public that evening in the Virginia Air & Space Center in downtown Hampton.

He’s the author of several articles and books, including “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.” Filmmaker James Cameron has called him “our best historian of the space age.”

For the last several years and at NASA’s request, Chaikin said he’s been writing and teaching about the human behavior side of space flight.

“What are the attitudes, behaviors and assumptions that either allow us to be successful, improve our chances for success or lead us down the slippery slope to failure,” he said.

The root causes of the Apollo fire went beyond what was painfully obvious in hindsight: A spark inside a sealed capsule packed with highly flammable, highly pressured, pure oxygen.

The module, Chaikin said, was basically a “bomb waiting to go off.”

But lessons also include an endemic “stovepipe” mindset at NASA in which some very smart people become cliquish and complacent, ignoring or dismissing dissenting voices from outside their own group.

“You’ve got to build a culture that tears down those stovepipes,” said Chaikin. “A flight director who worked on the space shuttle program once said, ‘You’ve got to remember you’re never as smart as you think you are.’ I’ve never heard any better words of wisdom about this business.”

Try, he said, to think like a high-wire walker.

“If you were physically on the high wire, you’d never lose your edge, because you know, ‘One false move and I’m dead,’” Chaikin said. “But when you’re sitting at a conference room at NASA, it’s easier to get kind of led off-track by our natural human behaviors. To treat things that are extraordinary - after a while, they become ordinary. And we have to have a balance between self-confidence and self-doubt.”

The stovepipe mindset was also a factor in the Columbia and Challenger space shuttle disasters, he said, in which dissenting voices about the risks of faulty o-rings and dislodged hunks of foam insulation went unheeded, dooming those crews.

The NASA mindset has changed since then, but he warned about complacency creeping back in.

“There’s no denying the fact that human awareness has a shelf life,” Chaikin said. “And if you look at the time between the accidents - 19 years almost to the day of Apollo 1 was the Challenger accident; 17 years almost to the day after Challenger was the Columbia accident. If nothing else, that should be enough of a warning sign to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to work extra hard to make sure we’re not taking anything for granted now.’ … And to listen to people who have dissenting opinions.”

After the Apollo 1 fire, a NASA review board headed by NASA Langley director Floyd L. Thompson directed that the remains of the module be stored at the Hampton center.

They’re still in storage there, said NASA Langley spokesman Rob Wyman, although some artifacts are now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to mark the 50th anniversary.

According to NASA, the exhibit “Ad Astra Per Aspera: A Rough Road Leads to the Stars” includes the scorched hatch.

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Information from: Daily Press, https://www.dailypress.com/


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