The dark side of NASA under James Webb

Though it happened 55 years ago — Jan. 27, 1967 — I recall hearing the first report of the Apollo 1 disaster on the radio during dinner at the home of friends as though it was yesterday. A fire in the spaceship cabin killed command pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, senior pilot Edward H. White II, and pilot Roger B. Chaffee during a ground rehearsal for their planned flight to the moon that had been scheduled for Feb. 21.

My host and I blurted out in unison, “The lowest bidder!” — a phrase that had lingered in our memories as a woeful portent of almost inevitable calamity.

On Oct. 3, 1962, astronaut Walter M. Schirra had flown the nine-hour Sigma 7 mission that orbited the earth six times. Shortly after that feat, Dr. Edward R. Annis, president of the American Medical Association, asked Schirra what was on his mind at the moment he blasted off. Schirra answered, “I was looking down at all that machinery and equipment and rockets and things under me, and I thought, ‘Just think — all that power was assembled by the lowest bidder’.”

My friend and I both had the same idea — that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, headed by James E. Webb, had probably skimped on safety in its race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Ever since the U.S.S.R. surprised the world by launching Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, America had struggled to catch up.

A NASA booklet, “Manned Space Flight 1963,” pledged to build “space vehicles that are safe, economical, and unsurpassed in operational proficiency.” But in 1965 NASA investigated the “continual failure of NAA (North American Aviation Corp., the principal contractor) to achieve the progress required to support the objective of the Apollo Program.”

The Dec. 19, 1965, report by Apollo program director Major General Samuel C. Phillips declared that “NAA quality is not up to NASA required standards.” Phillips’ report was not shared with Congress or made public until after the Apollo 1 fire, but NASA’s subsequent report essentially verified it:

“Contributing to the disaster were an appalling number of factors that could only be called oversights, to put the best possible face on it. ... Neither the board’s report nor the congressional hearings that followed could explain why so many technical experts had failed to notice that spacecraft 012, as it sat on the launch pad on January 27, was simply a bomb that needed only a trigger to set it off. ... Both NASA and contractor engineers had grossly underestimated the consequences of a flaw in their hardware or procedures ...

“In the months following NASA’s investigation, responsibility for these conditions was liberally distributed among contractors and NASA managers alike. Charges of sloppy workmanship and poor quality control by the spacecraft contractor — which NASA should have corrected — seemed justified.”

NASA administrator Webb, for whom the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope is named, reprimanded his deputy, Robert Seamans, for volunteering information about the Phillips report to the U.S. Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences during its investigation of the tragedy.

Senator Walter Mondale, whose questions had brought it to light, complained about NASA’s “evasiveness (and) lack of candor.” Evidently today’s space scientists have forgiven Webb for that lapse, or maybe they are too young to remember it; he resigned from NASA in October 1968.

Considering the magnitude of the Apollo 1 disaster, NASA recovered quickly. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin landed safely on the moon, and safely returned on July 24, to nearly universal acclaim. But let us not forget the men whose ultimate sacrifice should not have been needed in the contest to get there.

Ken Lawrence is a Spring Mills resident who founded the Deep South People’s History Project in 1973. He studies, collects, and writes about aviation history, air transport, and air mail.