Space: Blind Spot

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"Get Them Out." When the cabin wall ruptured, escaping pressure sucked the flames across the astronauts—first Grissom, then White, finally Chaffee. Dense smoke and carbon monoxide rapidly filled the cabin. Though the astronauts suffered burns, it was asphyxiation that killed them. So intense were the heat and smoke billowing from the cabin into the "white room" near the craft that rescuers were repeatedly driven back and their gas masks, designed to protect against toxic fumes rather than smoke, were quickly exhausted.

Approximately five minutes after the first cry of "Fire in the cockpit!"—believed to have come from Chaffee—technicians finally got the escape hatch open. Space Center Fireman James A. Burch grabbed a flashlight and leaned into the charred cabin. "I shined the light completely around inside the capsule," he said, "and I couldn't see anything except burnt wires hanging down. I told the man on the headset, There's no one in there.' He said, 'There has to be. They are still in there. Get them out.'" Burch returned to the cabin, only then saw the three.

Blurted Theory. The blunt candor of the report surprised officials of both NASA and North American. Testifying before Texas Democrat Olin Teague's House Subcommittee on NASA Over sight, North American's top brass seemed defensive and often vague. "In spite of my feeling of deep responsibility for our organization," said Atwood, "I do feel that the responsibility must be widely shared." At one point, North American Vice President John McCarthy quarreled with the board's conclusion that faulty wiring probably caused the fire. Pressed for alternatives, he blurted: "It has been theorized that Grissom could have kicked the wire that would have been attached to the gas chronometer." That would have caused an abrasion in the insulation and made possible the arc that ignited the blaze. When New York Democrat William Fitts Ryan angrily disputed that suggestion, McCarthy retreated. "I only brought it up as a hypothesis," he said.

Insufficient Dedication. The hearings in both House and Senate made it plain that relationships between NASA and North American—and often between NASA headquarters in Washington and its own operational centers at Cape Kennedy and Houston—were seriously flawed.

Major General Samuel Phillips, program director for Apollo in Washington, testified that in late 1965 NASA was so unhappy with North American's performance that it considered for a time withdrawing part of the company's assignment. Phillips sent North American a detailed memorandum of NASA's com plaints (which the space agency has refused to release). Said NASA's deputy administrator, Dr. Robert Seamans: "There has not always been at North American sufficient dedication either to engineering design or workmanship." The company, he went on, "did not address itself properly to training its personnel, supervising their efforts, and inspecting work that was done."

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