On the evening of January 27, 1967 -- nineteen years to the week before the Challenger disaster, and thirty-six before today's Columbia disaster -- Apollo I astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were inside the command module doing a "plugs out" test, making sure the module could run on its own power. At 6:31 p.m., a spark from some frayed wiring near Grissom's feet jumped through the highly pressurized environment of pure oxygen to some nylon netting, and in seconds engulfed much of the cockpit in flames. The hull ruptured in about 15 seconds, and the crew died from asphyxiation.
What was the real cause of the accident? Was North American, the contractor, cutting corners? Was NASA imposing arbitrary timelines? NASA warned North American to limit the amount of flammable materials: they had ten times the amount of velcro allowed in the specifications. North American warned NASA that the tests -- which to achieve the same conditions in space, required 17 psi of oxygen at sea level where in space they would have 5 psi -- were too dangerous.
Or was it something else? In a Mercury accident previously, Gus Grissom's module sank after splashdown. The hatch burst open, and most blamed Grissom for exploding it prematurely. An engineer on the review board proved the hatch could explode on its own, and it was decided the Apollo hatches should have a different design. The engineer in the episode two of From the Earth to the Moon noted, "It's ironic: if I hadn't proven Gus was telling the truth, the hatch would have exploded open, and Gus and the other boys would be alive today. I'm not a big fan of irony."
In the government's hearings for the accident, Senator Walter Mondale -- who wanted to see money for NASA diverted to social programs -- grilled NASA, trying to find out what went wrong, trying to find flaws to exploit. Astronaut Frank Borman explained it simply: it was a failure of imagination. We are limited. We can't forsee all contingencies. We don't know what is around the bend. No one thought there would be a fatal fire on the ground, or that a non-explosive hatch might prevent the astronauts from escaping such a disaster. No one imagined it could happen. We are all to blame, he said, for failing to imagine what could happen.
Whatever the cause, whoever was to blame, didn't matter to Grissom and his crew. Shortly before his death, he said, "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."
I pray that we may we risk more life in this conquest, and that we may lose as little as possible.