Editor’s note: Today marks the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a routine test on the launchpad. The test was a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 1 crew — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The goal was to check out the command module, NASA’s first spacecraft that would take astronauts to the Moon.
Following is an excerpt about the fire from the book “Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions” by Nancy Atkinson. The book tells the unique personal stories of over 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make the Apollo program possible, and is filled with stories of the dedication and perseverance it took to overcome the challenges, hurdles and conflicts of doing things that had never been done before. It provides a glimpse into the lives of some of the hundreds of thousands of people who made it possible to land humans on the Moon. While many of the stories in the book are fun and heart-warming, this excerpt shares the incredibly heart-breaking event that shocked the country and halted the Apollo program as NASA scrambled to figure out what went wrong.
It’s July 16th, 1969. The Apollo 11 crew have completed their training, and they’re in the Columbia Command Module atop a Saturn V rocket, to this day the most powerful rocket ever built. At 9:32 EDT the rocket lifts off, delivering the crew into Earth orbit 12 minutes after launch.
The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 was a huge celebration, and Apollo 13 may be an equally big commotion. Apollo 12 is tough sell in the middle. Even the Virginia Air & Space Center, which houses the Apollo 12 capsule, uses photographs of Apollo 11 to advertise. Ouch.
This unique mission and its important contribution to science was no less an accomplishment than its famous predecessor or tragic follower, and it pains many to see them become the “lost” journey between two better-known missions, with no movie to dramatize the details of their voyage.
During the development of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) by the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (see Part 1 and Part 2 for the complete backstory), an inauspicious event occurred sometime during 1965-1966, while the Gemini missions were going on.
The Gemini program helped NASA get ready for the Apollo Moon landings missions by testing out rendezvous and other critical techniques and technologies. Ten crews flew missions in Earth orbit on the two-person Gemini spacecraft.
In the late 1950’s, before NASA had any intentions of going to the Moon – or needing a computer to get there — the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory had designed and built a small prototype probe they hoped would one day fly to Mars (read the background in part 1 of this story here). This little probe used a small, rudimentary general-purpose computer for navigation, based on the inertial systems for ballistic missiles, submarines, and aircraft the Lab had designed and built for the military since World War II.
Dick Battin stood on his driveway
in the New England frosty pre-dawn back in October 1957, straining his eyes to
see Sputnik fly overhead. It was amazing. Watching that little point of light
scoot silently across the sky made Battin’s heart pound. A human-made hunk of
metal was actually orbiting Earth!
Walking back to his house, Battin’s mind raced. Oh, how he wished he’d never left the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory a year and a half ago. He’d regretted it since the day he decided to move on to what he thought were greener pastures. But now, his regret became a steadfast resolve to somehow get back to the Lab again, because he knew – he was absolutely certain without a doubt – that Doc Draper would be getting his hand in this new venture of space exploration. And Battin wanted in, too.
On July 20th, 2019, exactly 50 years will have passed since human beings first set foot on the Moon. To mark this anniversary, NASA will be hosting a number of events and exhibits and people from all around the world will be united in celebration and remembrance. Given that crewed lunar missions are scheduled to take place again soon, this anniversary also serves as a time to reflect on the lessons learned from the last “Moonshot”.
For one, the Moon Landing was the result of years of government-directed research and development that led to what is arguably the greatest achievement in human history. This achievement and the lessons it taught were underscored in a recent essay by two Harvard astrophysicists. In it, they recommend that the federal government continue to provide active leadership in the field of space research and exploration.
Editor’s note: “Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions” is a new book, just out today, written by Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson, with a foreword by Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. The book tells the unique personal stories of over 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make the Apollo program possible, and is filled with stories of the dedication and perseverance it took to overcome the challenges, hurdles and conflicts of doing things that had never been done before. The stories are fun, heart-warming and heart-breaking and they provide a glimpse into the lives of some of the hundreds of thousands of people who made it possible to land humans on the Moon.Read an excerpt of Chapter 1 here on Universe Today:
Like millions of other people around the world, on July 20, 1969, Rick and Mark Armstrong watched Apollo 11’s moon landing on the television set in their living room. But for those two boys – aged 12 and 6 at the time – it was their Dad who was taking humanity’s first steps on another world 49 years ago.
The announcement to forgo adding crew to the flight dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) was made by NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during a briefing with reporters on May 13.
“We appreciate the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of this crewed flight,” said NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot during the briefing.
“The bi-partisan support of Congress and the President for our efforts to send astronauts deeper into the solar system than we have ever gone before is valued and does not go unnoticed. Presidential support for space has been strong.”
Although the outcome of the study determined that NASA could be “technically capable of launching crew on EM-1,” top agency leaders decided that there was too much additional cost and technical risk to accommodate and retire in the limited time span allowed.
Lightfoot said it would cost in the range of $600 to $900 million to add the life support systems, display panels and other gear required to Orion and SLS in order to enable adding astronauts to EM-1.
“It would be difficult to accommodate changes needed to add crew at this point in mission planning.”
Thus NASA will continue implementing the current baseline plan for EM-1 that will eventually lead to deep space human exploration missions starting with the follow on EM-2 mission which will be crewed.
Had the crewed lunar SLS/Orion flight been approved it would have roughly coincided with the 50th anniversary the first human lunar landing by NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969.
Instead NASA will keep to the agencies current flight plan.
The first SLS/Orion crewed flight is slated for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) launching no earlier than 2021.
If crew had been added to EM-1 it would have essentially adopted the mission profile currently planned for Orion EM-2.
“If the agency decides to put crew on the first flight, the mission profile for Exploration Mission-2 would likely replace it, which is an approximately eight-day mission with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory,” said NASA earlier. It would be similar to Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.
Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.
NASA is developing SLS and Orion for sending humans initially to cislunar space and eventually on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.
They are but the first hardware elements required to carry out such an ambitious initiative.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.