Safety, Integrity and Accountability in Human Spaceflight

Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. (Credit: NASA)

Part 1 of 2

Frank Borman only flew to space twice, but both flights were major milestones in the history of human spaceflight. In 1965, he and Jim Lovell flew for nearly 14 days aboard Gemini 7, proving that humans could function for long periods of time in the absence of gravity. Borman, Lovell and Bill Anders orbited the moon on Christmas Eve 1968 aboard Apollo 8 on the first human mission beyond low Earth orbit, an essential step toward the landing of Apollo 11 eight months later.

There was lesser known, but no less vital, mission that Borman undertook that was every bit as essential to the success of Project Apollo. The anniversary of a key event in that mission was earlier this month. Borman, who turned 94 last month, recounted the story in his autobiography, “Countdown.”

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On the last Friday in January 1967, Frank Borman took a break from a punishing schedule of traveling from Houston to Project Apollo contractors in Massachusetts and California to spend some quality time with his family. He took his wife, Susan, and their two sons to a cottage on a lake near Huntsville, Texas, owned by family friends. In the era cell phones, there were only landlines. Since the phone number at the cottage was unlisted, Borman was looking forward to two uninterrupted of relaxation.

The Bormans and their hosts had just set down to Friday dinner when they heard a knock on the door. A Texas Ranger had come with an urgent message to contact the NASA Manned Space Center in Houston. When Borman called, chief astronaut Deke Slayton informed him that Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had been killed when a fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a practice countdown.

It was a shock to everyone everyone at NASA. Borman and White had both graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and their two families had become close during their time at NASA.

Ed’s death hit me hard, too. We had lost many friends before, but never had we lost someone so close, nor anyone in the space program who had been killed in a spacecraft. He might as well have been the brother I never had, a man of gentle strength and quiet humor.

Apollo 1 command module after the fire. (Credit: NASA)

Everyone had expected a fatal accident to occur, eventually. But, they figured it would happen in flight. But, here the three men had died during a routine test on the ground, of all places, trapped in a capsule whose dangers — a high-pressure, pure oxygen environment where a single spark could cause an inferno — seemed so obvious in retrospect, but were missed in the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon. It was unbelievable, and most felt, inexcusable.

Borman was appointed to represent the astronaut corps on the Apollo 204 Review Board that NASA established following the fire. He would spend hours in the charred cabin, cataloguing the positions of the switches and searching for the cause of the fire. It was an excruciating painful and maddening experience.

“I began to get progressively angrier at what we gradually unearthed — sloppy planning and supervision on NASA’s part and some shamefully inadequate design and test work by North American,” Borman wrote about the unfolding investigation.

Up on the Hill

Borman was one of a number of officials from NASA and prime contractor North American on the hot seat when Congress began to hold hearings months after the accident. The first one was held by a House committee on April 17, 1967.

I looked forward to testifying on Capitol Hill with all the eager anticipation of a man going to a dentist and facing certain tooth extraction. The House appearance was first, and I met privately with Jim Webb in his office before going to the Hill. Once again, he gave me evidence of his inherent integrity.

“Frank,” he said,” the American people need to understand what happened just as we now understand. You are not to try in any way to hold back facts or color your testimony in NASA’s favor. Just them exactly what happened, what your investigation group found, no holds barred, even if it makes NASA look bad.”

He had given me a remarkable and courageous set of instructions. The House hearing was scheduled for that evening, and Webb rode with me, accompanied by [Alan] Shepard, [Jim] McDivitt, [Wally] Schirra and Slayton. We were about to walk into the committee room when he took my arm.

“Remember, tell the whole truth,” he said quietly.

I did exactly that.

It was a remarkable charge in a world where finger pointing and obfuscation frequently win out over candor. With Apollo 1, NASA investigated itself — something the space agency was not allowed to do later after the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle accidents. It would have been very tempting to downplay NASA’s role in the fire and to put most of the blame on North American.

James Webb (Credit: NASA)

Scapegoating North American would have been dishonest, unfair and ultimately counter productive. By the time of the Congressional hearings, NASA and North American had largely moved past the mutual recriminations that flew immediately after the accident. In his memoir, “Carrying the Fire,” Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins wrote

In my judgment, NASA and North American each dug into the problem with a great deal of professionalism. Initially, there was some caterwauling and finger pointing, but soon each side realized that the main point was not to assign blame but to take concerted action to get the program moving again–and safely this time.

Webb was an experienced Washington insider who could read the room as well as anyone. Congressional committees didn’t want excuses. Or finger pointing by NASA and North American. They wanted answers. They wanted accountability. Apollo was a national program. NASA was accountable to Congress and, ultimately, the American people. And, most importantly, Congress would decide whether the moon program continued.

As for protecting NASA’s reputation, the space agency had just lost three astronauts in an avoidable accident that most people involved in the program saw as inexcusable. NASA already looked bad. The space agency would only look worse if it withheld information that was likely to later leak to the press.

Webb knew that to restore confidence, NASA and North American had to demonstrate to Congress and the American people that they understood what had gone wrong, had a plan to address the problems, and were capable of executing on it. That meant taking ownership of their failures, and accepting the harsh public criticism that came with it.

Project Apollo wasn’t going to succeed otherwise. Landing men on the moon was the most ambitious and hazardous space program ever attempted. Anything short of an honest assessment of the failings followed by a complete overhaul of the program would end in abject failure, more dead astronauts and national humiliation. Grissom, White and Chaffee would have died for nothing.

The testimony of Borman, Webb and other NASA officials was effective. Congress continued to fund the program, allowing the space agency to complete the goal of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade.

NASA came under considerable criticism for investigating itself. However, the final report largely silenced critics with its thoroughness and unsparing criticism of both the space agency and North American.

“Our report was an impartial analysis of the fire and we listed a number of recommended changes in the design of Apollo’s spacecraft,” Borman wrote. “We didn’t sweep a single mistake under the rug, and to this day I’m proud of the committee’s honesty and integrity.”

Apollo 8 crew members William Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell on the carrier after their mission. (Credit: NASA)

After finishing with the investigation, Borman would go on to head up a NASA spacecraft redefinition team based at the North American facility in California that would oversee changes in the Apollo command module.

The first manned flight, Apollo 7, was nearly flawless from beginning to end during an 11-day mission in October 1969. Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders would fly to the moon at Christmas time on Apollo 8. Seven months later, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon while Collins orbited overhead. Ten other astronauts would walk on the moon in the three years that followed.

The upgraded command service module (CSM) would fly 15 missions that included six manned lunar landings, three long-duration stays aboard the Skylab space station, and a docking with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft that helped to pave the way for later cooperation in building the International Space Station. The Apollo 13 astronauts were able to power their Odyssey command module back up after it had been exposed to near freezing temperatures for three days.

The response to the fire was the key to the success of Project Apollo. It hold timeless lessons for us today about safety, flying when you’re ready, and the risks associated with human spaceflight. Things can go very wrong very quickly. Eternal vigilance is the price to be paid for a successful program. To move forward meant candidly confronting the past.

Not everyone has been so candid after a fatal accident. We’ll look at a case where protection of one’s reputation won out over an honest assessment of failure in Part 2.