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January: The Dark Month

by George Arrington

The world tilts away from the sun's light during the month of January and in so doing shortens the days and lengthens the night in the northern lattitudes. For the United States space program, January has also been a very dark month.

As a boy growing up in Richmond, VA, I was fascinated with the space program and studied everything I could about the rockets, the spacecraft and, of course, the astronauts. I knew all of their names and followed each mission with enthusiastic interest. Each time we sent men into space I watched every TV program and read every magazine article I could about the mission. In the early days, it always took about a week before you could see any of the photos from the mission. In late 1966, the U.S. had just completed the two-man Gemini program with its spectacular spacewalks and rendezvous and the space program was gearing up for project Apollo and the try for the summit, the Moon. The first mission of this three-man craft would take place in just a few months.

On a Friday evening in late January, 1967, I was in my room watching "The Wild, Wild West" on my little black and white television set. The program was interrupted and a special bulletin came on the screen. During the 1960's such special bulletins were often the portends of bad news. Just as in that awful day in Dallas a few years earlier, this special bulletin announced that the first crew of the new Apollo moon ship had perished in a fire on launch pad 34 at Cape Canaveral. The astronauts, Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee had been performing a "plugs-out" test of the Block I Apollo Command Module in which the craft was pressurized with pure oxygen at over 16 p.s.i. and disconnected from ground power. At 6:31 PM, an electrical arc was created by some frayed wiring and a flame jumped out to some of the nylon netting in the lower equipment bay. Grissom probably was the first to see the fire and reported it over the static-filled intercom. Despite the quick efforts the Ed White, the best athlete in the astronaut corps, the inward opening hatch with its many bolts could not be opened against the increasing pressure. In about 15 seconds after the first report of the fire, the pressure had build up so much that the Command Module burst a seam, creating a blow torch effect in the white room. By that time, the astronaut's suits and air hoses had burned through enough to allow the toxic fumes to asphyxiate them. The intense heat of the fire remained for many minutes thereafter and, along with dense smoke, prevented rescuers from reaching the men. Only after five long minutes, were the pad personnel able to remove the hatches. By that time, there was no hope for the crew.

A few days later, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee were buried at Arlington National Cemetary, while Ed White was interred at his alma mater, West Point. The nation mourned for their fallen heros and a somber mood fell over all of those involved in the space program. An investigation into the accident, along with subsequent congressional hearings, revealed deficiencies in both construction and design of the Block I Command Module as well as the danger associated with operating in a pressurized pure oxygen environment. Necessary changes were made to the Apollo craft, as well as the procedures, and the program resumed in October of 1968.  The terrible tragedy of Apollo I woke up the space program and forced it to make the changes necessary to land on the moon two years later, but the tragedy did not end there. Several years later, Ed White's widow, Pat committed suicide. The Grissom and Chaffee families fought with NASA over compensation as well as recognition of Roger Chaffee as an "astronaut".

Many years had passed since that dark day in January. Apollo had gone to the moon. Skylab had given America its first, albeit temporary space station. The space shuttle had flown 24 times and for me, it was getting tough to memorize all of the crew names up to this point. By now, I had gone from junior high school student to high school math and physics teacher. As some of my teachers had done in the past, I would lug my heavy color TV into class and let my classes witness the shuttle launches and hopefully pass on my passion for spaceflight. On another January day in 1986, a bright white blanket of snow had covered the ground and school had been canceled. That morning was to be the launch of the 25th shuttle mission, one in which I had a particular interest. Many months earlier, I had been one of the thousands of applicants to be selected as a civilian teacher to fly aboard the space shuttle. I had filled out the lengthy application, written essays and proposed experiment to perform on board the flight. Naturally, I had been disappointed when I learned that I had not been selected in the group of finalists, but I was still enthusiastic about the flight.

As I waited for the launch, I recalled many other shuttle flights and how spectacular they were with their solid propellant rockets. These were similar to the engines used in model rockets I had flown many years earlier. I also remembered that 19 years plus one day earlier had been the Apollo fire, but his was another day. I intently watched the screen as the STS-51L rose off of the pad into a clear, cold Florida sky. The news media which sometimes did not carry the launches on live broadcast, covered this one due to the high-profile passenger, the teacher-in-space, Christa McAuliffe. As the shuttle rose through the max-q point, the engines had been throttled down to reduce the stress on the vehicle. After that point of maximum dynamic pressure, the space shuttle main engines were throttled back up to 104% of their rated thrust. This was reported by the following ground-to-air transmission:

HOUSTON (Richard Covey): Challenger, go at throttle up.

CDR (Richard Scobee): Roger, go at throttle up.

A few moments later, there was a image on the TV that was foriegn to my experienced eyes. Rather than the normally diminishing view of the shuttle into the upper atmosphere, there was a large flash as the tracking camera followed the craft. An instant later, the scene changed to a wide shot of a large orange and white cloud with two antler-like smoke trails above it. The NASA announcer, who was obviously not watching a monitor, continued to give the extrapolated speed and altitude. There was a pause in his commentary, followed by words that indicated that the flight controllers were looking carefully at the situation. He continued with the now oft repeated, "obviously a major malfunction" and finally confirmed that, "the vehicle had exploded."

The sudden death of a loved one is an experience which literally rocks one's world. Plans are changed or cancelled. Funerals are arranged. Questions of "Why?" are asked. The days are dark.

As with Apollo I, there were funerals at Arlington and elsewhere for the crew of Challenger. There was a very public investigation which blamed both faulty hardware design and faulty management. Re-designs were implemented, a re-committment to safety was pledged and the program was put back on track more than two years later with STS-26.

Today in 1999, 27 years after Apollo I and 13 years after Challenger, the U.S. space program is moving ahead with the building of the first International Space Station (ISS). This is being done in cooperation with Russia, Japan and other countries to have a permanent presence in space and hopefully continue to explore outward to the Moon again, to Mars and beyond. There have not been any more fatalities, but there were some very close calls while American astronauts were on-board the Russian space station, Mir. These included a bad fire in an oxygen generation system, a collision with a supply ship which caused an emergency decompression of the station, a number of electrical power failures, coolant leaks and other potentially fatal problems. As the ISS is constructed over the next few years, I continue to remember the Januarys of the past. I am reminded of how dangerous spaceflight can be and that a momentary lapse of vigilance can result in disaster and another dark month.

Copyright © 1999, George E. Arrington III. All rights reserved.