Space: Blind Spot

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The 14-volume report on last January's Apollo disaster and full-dress hearings in both houses of Congress last week underscored a tragic irony.

Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died by fire on Cape Kennedy's Pad 34 because some of the best engineering talent in the U.S., hypersensitive to the perils of space, failed to recognize the grave dangers of a simulated flight only a couple of hun dred feet above the ground.

"It was our blind spot," confessed a top National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer. North American Aviation's highest officials shared the blind spot. Said President J. Leland Atwood: "The pad testing seemed to be almost mundane and routine. If I thought of the pad testing, without any fuel aboard and without preparing to launch, as anything potentially dangerous, it would have been a little bit beyond my comprehension." Said Astronaut Frank Borman, a member of the review board who might fly an Apollo himself some day: "We overlooked the possibility of a spacecraft fire."

2,000 Squawks. That oversight was only one of the charges made by the review board in a searing report that runs some 3,300 pages and weighs 19 Ibs. Although six of the eight board members work for NASA, they lodged a broad indictment against the conduct of the entire $23 billion Apollo program by the space agency and North American, the prime contractor. There were, said the report, "many deficiencies in design and engineering, manufacture and quality control."

The investigators worked for ten weeks. With 1,500 technicians assisting them, they painstakingly traced possible sources of trouble along 20 miles of electrical wiring, re-enacted the blaze in a mock-up spacecraft, exhaustively analyzed the innards of the burned Apollo spacecraft. NASA also stripped down two intact production models. In one, inspectors discovered more than 2,000 "squawks," or lapses in quality control. Hundreds of the complaints were of the paint-fleck variety, but there were also such serious flaws as improperly fitted electrical connections and exposed conductors.

Faulty Conductor. Some of these flaws were disturbingly similar to those found in the burned craft, where the wiring revealed "poor installation, design and workmanship." Though the investigators acknowledged that the precise cause of the fire "most likely will never be positively identified," they said it was "most probably" caused by a faulty conductor in an equipment bay under Grissom's couch. Apparently, current from the conductor "arced"-or spurted—to another object, and the blaze began. Almost immediately, it raged out of control in the cabin's 100% oxygen atmosphere, which was capable of turning any spark into a conflagration. Some 70 Ibs. of inflammable materials such as nylon netting and chemical coolant fed the flames.

Within the cabin, pressure soared from 16.7 lbs. per sq. in. to 29 Ibs. per sq. in., rupturing the cabin wall. Robert Van Dolah, a Bureau of Mines explosives expert and a member of the investigatory panel, testified that an escape hatch capable of being opened in two or three seconds could have saved the crew. Such a hatch is now being manufactured, but the one used in Apollo took 90 seconds to open, even in normal circumstances.

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