The middle of winter is a bleak time of year for the space community. The three worst tragedies of NASA’s manned space program fall on the calendar in just six days, from January 27 to February 1: Apollo 1, less than three years before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon; ChallengerWatched live by millions around the world; Colombia-Like it Challenger before it, a preventable accident rooted in NASA’s internal culture.
Apollo 1: January 27, 1967
The loss of the Apollo 1 crew (along with the spacecraft) just weeks before the planned launch date was a serious setback to America’s lunar ambition. Apollo 1 would put Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee into low Earth orbit on February 21, 1967, the first launch in a series that would culminate in a pair of American astronauts walking on the surface of the moon in July 1969 . , all three suffocated when a fire broke out in the Command Module during what was considered a low-risk test.
Both Grissom and White had been in space before; Grissom was one of the original Mercury Seven, White was one of NASA’s second wave of astronauts — recruited to Gemini — making him the first American to walk in space. Chaffee was part of NASA’s third astronaut shot, and Apollo 1 would be its first mission.
The accident occurred on Jan. 27 during a test where the Apollo spacecraft was running on internal power. Grissom, White and Chaffee were tied up and sealed in the command module. It is thought that there was a spark from one of the countless exposed wires that quickly turned into a fire, unaided by the oxygen-enriched environment. The pressurized atmosphere (16.7 psi, 2 psi above ambient) inside the spacecraft held the inward opening hatch in place and it was not designed to be removed quickly. The fire prevented the astronauts from attempting to vent the capsule’s atmosphere. Even if they did, the system would not be able to withstand a pressure that quickly reached 29 psi.
The ensuing investigation found much that needed to be rectified before attempting any more manned Apollo combat. NASA would no longer send astronauts into space in pure oxygen environments, and many combustible materials were replaced with more suitable substitutes. New “Block II” Apollo command modules would have hatches that could be blown open in seconds, along with design changes that covered exposed wiring and corrected many wiring errors. Six consecutive Apollo missions landed safely on the moon and returned to Earth.
Challenger: January 28, 1986
With Kennedy’s moonshot done and dusted, public enthusiasm for space exploration waned. In the mid-1980s, the Space Shuttle launches began to make spaceflight routine. So routine, in fact, that STS-51-L would carry a school teacher named Christa McAuliffe into space, attempting to rekindle STEM enthusiasm among America’s youth.
Over the years, NASA’s safety-first culture—which followed the Apollo 1 fire—had also waned. Engineers were aware of design flaws, such as the O-ring gaskets used in the Solid Rocket Boosters that became dangerously brittle below 40 degrees Fahrenheit/4 degrees Celsius. But the management culture was not open to such warnings, nor to pleas that would delay launches. McAuliffe’s presence on Challenger meant this launch had a higher profile than usual, with thousands of schools across America watching the live broadcast on NASA TV.
Despite unusually cold temperatures that morning, the launch went ahead. 73 seconds later, Challenger erupted high above the Atlantic Ocean. As predicted, a cold and brittle O-ring seal had failed in one of the two SRBs. A jet of superheated rocket exhaust erupted from the side of the rocket, which in turn caused a failure in the attachment point between the rocket and the shuttle’s external fuel tank. Aerodynamic forces acting at supersonic speeds did the rest.
The investigation that followed the loss of Challenger and her crew found a lot wrong with NASA’s internal culture. The Shuttle fleet remained grounded for nearly three years before returning to orbit in September 1988.