If we were having coffee today I’d tell you I was still thinking about yesterday’s fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo One fire.
Fifty years. I have a FaceBook friend who had her fiftieth birthday yesterday too. I told her something I can’t tell many people. I vividly remember that event happening on the day she was born.
I was a child of the space age. I was only eight years old when Alan Shepard blasted into space. It was like I had crossed over a bridge from my innocent young kid life into a bigger world. Sure, I grew up in Houston and it was all gung-ho space city, home of the space center and all the astronauts lived there and all. My fourth-grade teacher dated some guy from NASA and he came and talked to our class. We watched the entire John Glenn flight at school, the whole thing from launch to splashdown. I read every news story about the space program. I followed all six Mercury flights and all ten Gemini Flights.
I had the flu for Gemini 8, really, I did, but watched all day. I was not surprised at all that Neil Armstrong was picked to command Apollo 11 … because he had kept his head, thought on his feet, and totally saved the day when Gemini 8 almost became our first space disaster.
I was looking forward to the first Apollo flight. We had a long string of space successes and it looked like we were on a roll. Then I remember the first news flash about a fire during a ground test for that first flight. I remember being cautiously optimistic that maybe the heat shield would protect them, or maybe the escape tower activated and flew them to safety. Then came the report that the fire was IN the capsule. I knew they were dead. Sure thing. I was fifteen years old, a mediocre student, lousy in math and science, but I knew about pure oxygen environments inside the spacecrafts of the time. I knew immediately they were goners, probably the same way everybody in the control room knew it.
I had the same feeling in 2003 when my son called me and told me to turn on the tv because there was something going on with the Columbia space shuttle. The TV flicked on and I saw the multiple streaks in the sky and blurted out “that’s it, they’re dead.” My daughter turned to me concerned, “how can you know that?”
“That would be one streak if it was an intact vehicle, if it is in pieces, there’s nothing left.” That’s all it took for me, one look long enough to focus on the screen. It was tough for me because I had managed to witness the first launch of Columbia in 1981. And earlier that week, in 2003, I managed to catch sight of the orbiter’s Venus-bright track across an early morning sky. All of this ran through my mind when I saw those multiple streaks. It’s exactly how I felt when I heard the words “inside the cockpit” in 1967.
Ironically, that tragedy caused a total revamp of the moon project. A failure in space would have doomed it, but happening on the ground, before the flight, gave them the chance to figure out what was wrong. What would have been guesswork with a space failure became a solid investigation with all the evidence right there. We were on a roll. We still had that goal. We made that goal.
I know a lot of people think it is all a waste of money, but really, we, humanity, have reaped tremendous benefits from space research. That computer or tablet or phone you’re reading this with, the internet, wireless networking, cell communication, all the fancy gadgets we use every day owe a great debt to things that were started back then. Sure, eventually we would have maybe progressed this far, but it would have taken a much longer time. The space race jump-started a new industrial revolution. It did. It got research moving, and that in turn funded more research that made things happen. In the early 1960s computers were still huge things. That phone in your pocket has more power than all of the computers NASA used in the Mercury program. ALL OF THEM. The beginnings of the technology existed at the time, but the motivation to advance the technology did not exist until we made the push.
And guys like Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were sitting there inside a pressure cooker built by the low bidder on a government contract trying to make it happen. Is it good they died? No, it was and will always be a horrible tragedy. But they knew the risks and they knew the score. What came out of that was a better system and understand this … we figured out ways to use the newer, more powerful computers to help design the next generation of systems … and on and on after that. They needed the micronization to fit inside the vehicles but once they started to hit that stride, they created systems to design new systems … THAT is when the exponential growth in technology began. Slow at first but gaining momentum every day. THIS is what we owe to those guys, those early pioneers and to their loss. That was the motivation so many people forget. Not landing on the moon. We owed it to those three guys to do our best to minimize such losses.
Sure, we’ve had two more equally tragic space losses, and there will be more. Consider this: we lose people to plane crashes, train crashes, even car accidents, yet we still travel. We just strive to make it safer. But in the case of the space program, everybody gained from this one tragic loss. Before you hit reply to tell me I’ve got it wrong remember what you’re using … the g-g-g-g-g-g-grandchild of that room sized UNIVAC that calculated orbital trajectories.
Thomas Fenske is a writer living in NC. You can find out about his books at http://thefensk.com