Reflections on the Apollo I Disaster
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Forty years ago, on January 27, 1967, the U.S. Manned Space Flight Program experienced its first great disaster. The Apollo I capsule was at Cape Kennedy undergoing a test of the communications and other systems. Three astronauts were sealed inside the capsule, which had been pressurized to 16.7 pounds per square inch of pure oxygen. Then things went terribly wrong.
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Unidentified Man: Astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee were killed tonight in a flash fire during tests of the Apollo Center in 204 vehicle at Cape Kennedy Air Force Base.
ROBERTS: Chris Kraft, NASA's director of flight operations, was 900 miles away at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, listening into the communications link from Florida. He spoke to us earlier this week and told us what he heard.
Mr. CHRIS KRAFT (NASA): Well, in a prelude to the fire, they were having trouble with the communications between the blockhouse and Gus Grissom, and he was complaining about it. That was taking place and there was sort of brief discussions back and forth between they and Gus; that is, the people to Cape and us at the control center. I was suddenly interrupted by some very loud noises by what appeared to be an explosion, by people frankly screaming. I thought it was probably Gus saying that they were on fire and saying get us out of here. That's what I remember.
ROBERTS: And what was your first reaction?
Mr. KRAFT: I was - had a sudden very hurting feeling in the stomach. I had been in the flight test business for a long time. I had been the flight director on Mercury and Gemini. And when I heard those noises, I knew it was very, very bad, if not fatal at the moment. So frankly, I didn't say anything. I kept quiet because I knew there was nothing I could do but get in the way of the people that were trying to do something at the Cape, recognizing that they probably couldn't do much.
ROBERTS: In the wake of the disaster, there were editorials, there were speeches saying that perhaps the cost to race to the moon was not worth it. Did you ever wonder if it was worth it?
Mr. KRAFT: Oh no. I never felt like that would be a problem. Frankly, I never worried about that. Too many other things on my mind at the time, as to how we were going to rectify the problems that we were suddenly faced with.
ROBERTS: And amazingly, it was only, what, two and a half years later that Apollo 11 landed on the moon? But after this disaster when, you know, something has gone terribly wrong, you've lost men you know and admire, you'd be forgiven for maybe thinking we're never going to make it to the moon.
Mr. KRAFT: No, that thought never crossed any of our minds. I think we had 110 percent effort from everybody involved. And I never saw that kind of attitude. Those were tough times - don't misunderstand me - very tough times on a lot of very good people who suffered mental anguish both internally and externally. But I think that we just put our nose to the grindstone and said, my gosh, we've got to get this thing done. It's in the best interests of the country to get it done, to prove that the country can do what we set out to do. That attitude prevailed.
It was the most wonderful thing I've ever been involved in. That sounds terrible, doesn't it? But it was, from a technical and an engineering management point of view. I have to say, we learned as much if not much, much more from failure than we did from success, because it makes you review the problems at hand. And I don't mean killing people. But I'm talking about things that do fail cause you to rethink the problem, rethink how better to do it, and it gives you an opportunity then to do it better. And that is certainly what happened after the Apollo fire. I have said and say over again, I don't believe we would have gotten to the moon in 1969 had the fire not taken place.
ROBERTS: The last time man set foot on the moon was 1972, during Apollo 17. President Bush has called for a return to the moon, eventually a mission to Mars. Do you think that'll happen?
Mr. KRAFT: I think that the goal is the right one. I think going back to the moon with human beings, establishing a capability to do that on a regular basis, establishing bases on the moon, establishing numbers of very important scientific and engineering experiments on the moon which could have tremendous benefit to the Earth as time goes on.
The problem that the press has and the problem that the people in country have is that they say that sounds too much like you promised us from the space station that it was going to solve a lot of problems - both medical problems and other kinds of mental problems, etc., and you've never paid off for us in that regard. And that, I think that's a good question. And so I think NASA has to face up to what they can do from the space station and try very hard to explain to the country why they want to go back to the moon. I think that we have to do that and hopefully they will continue to try to do that in the immediate months ahead.
ROBERTS: Chris Kraft, thanks so much for joining us.
Mr. KRAFT: Thank you.
ROBERTS: Chris Kraft was NASA's first flight director. He spoke to us from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.