This article is a transcript of Campfire Stories: Astonishing History podcast Episode 11. You can listen to it on Buzzsprout, or wherever you get your podcasts.
**This article includes sensitive content including graphic descriptions of deadly accidents. Reader discretion is advised.**
Welcome. Come gather around the campfire and let me tell you a story. Today we’re going to be talking about the Perilous Fate of the American Space Pioneers. Last episode covered the accidents and tragedies of the early Soviet space program, our rivals in the space race and partners in space exploration today. This episode is going to cover the disasters of the American Space program, including the deadly training fire of Apollo 1, the Challenger disaster that traumatized the nation, and the avoidable loss of Columbia. We’ll also talk about how Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin nearly got stranded on the moon forever and what President Nixon was prepared to do in the aftermath.
Space travel is dangerous. It always has been, and it’s likely to remain that way well into the future. But we just can’t stop going. There’s something in the human spirit that keeps us pushing to go further, faster, deeper, higher, than we ever have. It was only natural that as soon as our technology allowed, our eyes would be set on reaching the stars, despite the danger and the overwhelming sense of unknown.
America was shocked when the Soviet space program launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, into space on October 4th, 1957. Not willing to be outdone for long, President Einsenhower created NASA soon after. The new agency’s first major project was Project Mercury, with the goal of racing the Soviets to put a human being in space.
The first group of NASA astronauts, the “Mercury Seven”, was announced in 1959. But as discussed in more detail in Episode 10, the Soviets beat the United States to make Yuri Gagarin the first man in space in 1961. The U.S. needed to up their game to gain back any ground in the space race.
President Kennedy rose to the challenge, announcing just a month after Gagarin’s launch that the United States would put a man on the moon by 1970 with a new project called Apollo. Another project, Gemini, was announced in 1962. The next group of astronaut candidates, called “The Next Nine”, were announced that same year. By 1963, there was one more group selected, “ NASA Astronaut Group 3.” They really didn’t go for consistency in the naming pattern, I guess.
NASA Astronaut Group 3
Every member of Group 3 had to be U.S. citizens, under age 34, under 6 feet tall, be test pilots or have 1,000 hours of jet piloting experience, and have a degree in engineering or physical science. 720 applications were received, which seems low but this was well before the Internet. 490 applicants were determined to meet the full requirements. A NASA panel of mostly Mercury astronauts chose 139 men from that list and then narrowed it to 34. These top candidates were brought to an Air Force base and given extensive physical and mental tests.
Apparently they were less invasive than the tests given to the Mercury astronauts, as the candidates reported that they were luckily, “not subjected to the indignities endured by the original seven.” But don’t get me wrong, they were still intense. The applicants went through oxygen deprivation, were spun around in the dark, had ice water poured in their ears, and were hooked up to electrodes. One of the psychological tests was simply to give each man a blank sheet of paper and ask what it showed. Reportedly Michael Collins, who you might know as the getaway driver for the moon landing, told the psychologists that it was of polar bears mating, and he still made the cut, so I don’t know what the wrong answer was.
The remaining men were interviewed by the panel for a second time. Former astronaut Deke Slayton, clearly the overachiever of the panel and a recurring character in this episode, developed a point system to rank the applicants on academic achievements, pilot performance, and personal character.
The panel chose thirteen men and gave the names to the heads of the program. But the head of the engineering department didn’t like that number. Thirteen was unlucky. So Walter Cunningham was added, rounding out the group to what the press called, “The Fourteen.” For obvious reasons.
As for what happened to the rejected twenty men, four of them would actually become NASA astronauts later. Michael Adams, who I’ll mention later, was posthumously made an astronaut after a flight accident. Two others, Alexander Kratz Rupp and Darrell Cornell would sadly be killed in aircraft accidents. And perhaps the most shocking fate was that of John D. Yamnicky. He was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77 on September 11th, 2001 and was killed when the plane crashed into the Pentagon.
On October 18th, the fourteen new astronauts were announced to the public. Seven Air Force members: Buzz Aldrin, William Anders, Charles Bassett, Michael Collins, Donn Eisele, Theodore Freeman, and David Scott. Four Navy members: Richard Gordon, Alan Bean, Gene Cerman, and Roger Chaffee. One Marine: Clifton C. Williams. And two civilians, Walter Cunningham, from the Marine Corps Reserve, and Russel Schweickart, a Massachusetts Air National Guard captain.
This group was slightly younger, taller, heavier, better educated, and had less flying time than the previous groups. Williams became the first unmarried astronaut in the corps. All of them were white men, as you could probably guess. The Kennedy administration had pushed for the inclusion of the first African-American astronaut, and it seemed like that man was going to be Edward Dwight Jr., but racism eventually pushed him out of NASA altogether. After President Kennedy was assassinated, the presidential pressure for a Black astronaut faded out and wouldn’t be realized until Guion Bluford flew in 1983.
The men of Group 3 had plenty of tragedy and success between them. Ten would fly in space at least once. Seven would fly to the moon. Four would actually walk on it. And tragically, four members of Group 3 would die before they could make it to space.
They started training immediately. They went through 240 hours of classroom instruction, the bulk of which was in navigation, orbital mechanics, and computers, and geology. The geology class even had field trips across the U.S. which sounds fun.
The men had jungle, desert, and water survival training, which included being dropped off in the middle of Panama and later the Reno desert. Luckily almost every single person I’m going to mention was a Boy Scout. The men made robes out of their parachutes and killed lizards and snakes for food. Then they moved into training on equipment and simulators. And each member of the fourteen had a special area of expertise. For example, Buzz Aldrin’s was mission planning and Michael Collin’s was extravehicular activity.
Ted Freeman (1964)
In 1964, NASA suffered its first astronaut loss. Captain Theodore Freeman was an aeronautical engineer, Air Force office and test pilot, born in Haverford, Pennsylvania and raised in Delaware. His family of seven were all in blue collar work, but Freeman and his brother saved their pocket change to afford plane rides. He started working on planes and spent the money on flying lessons. By age 16, he earned his pilot’s license. He was an honor student, Boy Scout, and football player. His high school principal later said of him,
“Ted had all the qualities we would like to find in our boys- he was serious minded and dedicated. He read all the books about [aeronautics] he could get his hands on.”
When he graduated high school, he applied to the Navy, but was rejected because his teeth were crooked from a football injury. He fixed them up and was admitted the next year. He got his degree at the Naval Academy and later a Master of Science from the University of Michigan. He married a woman named Faith Clark and had a daughter, also named Faith. He became a test pilot with thousands of hours and of course was accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 3, with a specialization in boosters. He said of his job there,
“We don’t look on this as dangerous work. It’s about the most fascinating job I could imagine.”
Tragically, on the morning of Halloween, 1964, Freeman was flying a jet from one training facility to another. He was asked to loop around the runway again when trying to land to relieve air traffic. While doing this, a goose flew into the Plexiglass canopy of the plane during heavy fog. The canopy shattered and shards of glass were sucked into both engines, causing them to fail. Freeman could have attempted to land on the runway, but realized that he might crash into the military housing near the base, where several fellow astronauts lived, instead. He turned away and tried to eject, but he was too close to the ground for his parachute to deploy, and he was killed on impact. Deke Slayton, the former astronaut from the selection committee for Group 3, found his body at the scene.
Freeman’s wife Faith found out about his death when a reporter came to her house, which changed NASA protocol on how to inform families about accidents. His five astronaut teammates were his pallbearers and the eulogy was simply,
“No eulogy is necessary in this service. Ted Freeman’s life speaks for itself.”
He was buried with honors in Arlington Cemetery, remembered as a hero that sacrificed his own life to protect hundreds of innocent people below. Four islands off of Long Beach, called the “Astronaut Islands” were named for him and each of the Apollo 1 astronauts. As a recent newspaper summarized, “His funeral was the last time all NASA astronauts were all together in the same place at the time.”
Charles Bassett and Elliot See (1966)
Charles Arthur Bassett II was another Boy Scout, born in Dayton, Ohio in 1931. Like many of the astronauts and cosmonauts we’ve discussed, he loved model planes as a kid, and he saved up money from part-time jobs at the airport to earn his pilot’s license by age 17.
He went to college as an Air Force ROTC cadet, earned an electrical engineering degree, and joined the Airforce officially after graduation. He went to Korea but never flew in combat because it was late in the war, and became a test pilot when he returned. He married Jeannie Martin and had two children, Karen and Peter. Then, of course, became a member of NASA.
Elliot McKay See Jr. was born in Dallas Texas in 1927, and he was… say it with me… a Boy Scout! An Eagle Scout, in fact. He was also a varsity boxer and ROTC Rifle team member in high school. When World War II came, he tried to enroll as an aviation cadet but was rejected on a physical. So he went to college, got a pilot’s license, and trained as a military officer at the Merchant Marine Academy. After he graduated, he worked on aircraft for General Electric, flew a private plane with his friend in his spare time, and met a secretary named Marilyn Denahy, who he nearly killed in a plane crash, but later married. He also served in the Korean War and had three children, Sally, Carolyn, and David.
He was the oldest astronaut chosen for Group 3, at 35, and described his feelings on it,
“Overwhelmed isn’t the right word. I was amazed and certainly pleased. It’s a very great honor.”
He road tripped with Neil Armstong to the training center in Houston, and he and Armstrong would also be chosen together as the first civilians chosen for spaceflight when they were picked as backup pilots for the Gemini 5 mission. Bassett and See were chosen to be the pilots of a mission called Gemini 9, finally getting their shot at actually going to space
On February 28th, 1966, See and Bassett were flying in one jet from one training center to another, while the backup crew, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan flew with them in another jet. The weather was poor: foggy, rainy, and snowy. Both pilots were using their instruments to land instead of visuals.
They overshot the runway and looped around to try again with a different kind of approach. Stafford, piloting the second craft, lost sight of See and Bassett’s plane and went for an instrument landing again. Stafford was perplexed why See turned away to try a different kind of landing, possibly to beat the other plane to the ground, but it was odd. See had a reputation for being an almost too-careful pilot. Stafford said to Cenan,
“Goddammit, where’s he going?”
See tried to land again but hit the roof of the training building. The landing gear and the right wing were torn off and the plane crashed into the parking lot behind the building. A witness said he “heard a roar and saw a ball of fire.” Both men were killed instantly. The scene was chaos. All four of the astronauts’ IDs were with See and Bassett, so it was unclear who had been killed. Both bodies were thrown from the plane and Bassett was decapitated. Ironically and tragically, both of them died within five hundred feet of the spacecraft they were supposed to pilot, which was being built inside the hangar.
Stafford and Cernan had no idea what had happened to their close friends. Their fuel was running low and they were mad that air traffic control was not responding to them. Then the controller asked him,
“Who was in NASA 901?”
Stafford told him it had been See and Bassett. The head of the aircraft company met them on the runway and gave them the news. Stafford was reportedly distraught, but still managed the emergency scene on the ground until other teams arrived.
Luckily, the seventeen men in the building had only minor injuries. If the plane had crashed a little bit lower, it likely would have destroyed both the Gemini spacecraft inside and could have killed hundreds of aerospace workers. And the moon landing may have fallen behind enough that the Soviets would have beaten us there.
NASA set up a panel to investigate the crash and determined that pilot error was to blame. Deke Slayton called See’s piloting “old-womanish”, which Neil Armstong and other colleagues pushed back against.
Slayton later said he had been iffy about choosing See for Gemini at all, but had gotten “sentimental” and made “a bad call”, hoping Bassett was good enough to carry the mission. Armstrong said about the ruling,
“I would not begin to say that his death proves the first thing about his qualifications as an astronaut.”
In the wake of the incident, Buzz Aldrin was pushed forward to fly Gemini 12, which helped him be chosen for Apollo 11, which would have been a major change in space history. The spacecraft was undamaged, so Stafford and Cernan made it to space just a week after the devastating crash. Both See and Bassett’s names are on the Space Mirror Memorial in Florida and the Fallen Astronaut plaque on the moon.
Now comes 1967, possibly the worst year in space history, if you’re counting the number of deadly incidents. In addition to the death of Vladimir Komarov in the Soviet Union, the American space program lost six men in four different disasters. The most deadly and famous of which was Apollo 1.
Apollo 1 ( Jan 1967)
The crew of Apollo 1 was Gus Grissom, who had been to space twice before, Edward White, who had been once, and Roger Chaffee, who had never gone before. Donn Eisele was actually supposed to be the third pilot but he dislocated his shoulder and needed surgery, so he was replaced by Chaffee.
Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom was a small-town Indiana Boy Scout and model plane enthusiast, the classic pre-astronaut combo. He married his high school sweetheart, Betty Moore, and they had two sons. He joined the Air Force at the end of World War II when he graduated high school and re-enlisted to fly 100 missions in Korea. He was nearly disqualified from NASA for having allergies, but he talked them into moving past that, because there was no pollen in space, which sounds fair to me. He had a scary space flight on a ship called the Liberty Bell 7, when the hatch blew open during the water landing and he almost drowned waiting to be rescued. He flew one more time with Gemini before the Apollo 1 accident.
Edward Higgins White II was a West Point grad, actually a classmate of Buzz Aldrin, and Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. Oh did I mention he was a Boy Scout? He met his wife Patricia at a West Point game and they had two children. In 1965, he became the first American to walk in space, and when he had to come back inside he said,
“I’m coming back in… and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”
Roger B. Chaffee was the son of a former stunt pilot who fell in love with aviation after his first flight at age 7. I’m not even going to mention what youth organization he was part of but it rhymes with “Scoy Bouts”. He was a talented engineering student and Navy pilot. He met his wife Martha on a blind date and they had two children. Apollo 1 was supposed to be his first mission to space. He was a communications specialist.
The Apollo 1 flight, also known as AS-204, was intended to last as long as two weeks in space and would also have a tv camera inside the command module to watch the crew the whole time. The command module itself was the subject of some controversy among the NASA staff. It was the largest and most complex module they had built and had a large amount of flammable material inside, including netting and Velcro to hold tools. The design was approved by Joseph Shea, the Apollo Spacecraft Program Officer, but the crew disagreed. Unlike the men in the Soviet space program that we’ve discussed, these guys were able to express their concerns without the fear of disappearing to Siberia and being edited out of photos.
Grissom, White, and Chaffee took a photo jokingly bowing their heads in prayer and gave it to Shea with the message,
“It isn’t that we don’t trust you, Joe, but this time we’ve decided to over your head.”
I can’t tell you if the good lord spoke to Shea directly, but he allowed the netting and Velcro to be removed. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be enough to protect them.
The ship went through over 700 changes, frustrating the astronauts who were training with it. Gus Grissom even reportedly stuck a lemon on the ship, which for anyone who doesn’t know is slang for something useless, usually a car.
Grissom said in a 1963 interview that,
“Well, in space flight we recognize that there is a great deal of risk. It is always going to be with us… We don’t feel that this is really different from other kinds of flying… The reason we believe we can accept this risk… is that we have tried to plan as carefully as possible for any eventuality….”
“I suppose that someday we are going to have a failure. In every business there are failures and they are bound to happen sooner or later.”
In 1966 he also said,
“You sort of have to put that out of your mind…. So you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly.”
Unfortunately, January 27th, 1967 was that sooner or later.
The launch was planned for February 21st, so this was the homestretch. This test was what was called a “plugs-out” test, and was intended to see if the ship would work normally if it was no longer attached to power cables. The test was not considered to be especially dangerous, as any explosive pieces were disabled and there was no fuel inside. It was basically a dress rehearsal for the actual flight, with a countdown to launch and everything.
The test started at 11:00pm. The three men were sent into the capsule in pressure suits and hooked up to oxygen tubes. There were a few mechanical issues as they were starting the countdown, as well as an odd smell, which Grissom described as “sour buttermilk.” An air sample was taken but no cause was found and the source of this was actually never solved.
The hatch was sealed and the oxygen level was increased to 100%, which would be a major factor in this case, similar to Valentin Bondarenko’s accident in last episode. The communication systems were not working well and Grissom said,
“How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”
They paused the tests again to try and fix this problem and the astronauts started running through their checklist again while they waited.
Then there was a power surge and a fire broke out in the capsule. Grissom yelled out “Hey! Fire!” and Chaffe said “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” Seven seconds passed and then someone yelled out a hard to make out phrase that was something along the lines of, “We’ve got a bad fire- Let’s get out- Open it up!” Someone cried out and that was the last transmission.
The flames and smoke burst out of the capsule which made it hard to rescue the men. The crew was also concerned the fire would blow up the nearby rocket fuel, killing everyone. A witness reported hearing the transmission and
“Then you hear the pad people try to rescue the crew. Then it starts to sink in, this is really bad and we didn’t know how bad until we heard on the communications loop: ‘We’ve lost them’.”
Eventually the cabin broke open and the pressure was released, giving the flames even more oxygen. Carbon monoxide, smoke, and soot filled the cabin and the room. It took five minutes to open the hatch, which was made out of three layers.
When the smoke cleared, it was determined that the three men had followed the proper safety protocol but were all dead. Grissom and White had unstrapped themselves and tried to open the hatch, but the pressure was too great. Chaffee had stayed in his seat trying to use the communication equipment as he was supposed to. Their spacesuits had melted, which meant that it took close over an hour to remove the bodies. Twenty-seven rescue crew members were treated for smoke inhalation and two were hospitalized.
Deke Slayton examined the scene and an investigation was launched immediately to determine the cause of the accident. The final report came out three months later. The astronauts all had third-degree burns, but it was determined that their cause of death was from carbon monoxide, when fire melted through their oxygen tubes. They likely died within seconds of that final transmission.
The accident was blamed on a combination of the high oxygen and high pressure environment, the sealed hatch cover, an unidentified ignition source that was related to the wiring and coolant system, combustible materials inside the cabin, and a failure of emergency preparedness. When the door needed to be opened, Grissom was supposed to release pressure through a valve, while White opened the cover, but the vent was blocked by the fire. This design was changed on later spacecraft.
Unfortunately some of the Velcro that had been removed had been reinstalled. And, as I talked about in Bondarenko’s accident last episode, pure oxygen environments make everything more flammable. As I mentioned in Episode 10, it’s widely believed that American scientists were aware of the danger of pure oxygen related to fire, but believed it was the best choice anyways.
Other astronauts and engineers have said that NASA didn’t truly know the connection, so this is unclear. In general though, it’s usually thought that knowledge of Bondarenko’s death probably wouldn’t have changed the fate of Apollo 1, although of course there’s no way to really know.
The accident report took months to produce, not quick enough to save two Air Force men, William Bartley Jr. and Richard Harmon. Four days after the Apollo 1 accident, the two of them were killed in a pure oxygen environment in a space simulator after a spark started a fire. The widows of the Apollo 1 astronauts sent Bartley and Harmon’s families letters of support.
The NASA standards were overhauled. No more pure oxygen environments. Nylon suits were replaced with a new melt-resistant and fire-resistance material called Beta cloth, made of fiberglass and Teflon. Self-extinguishing systems were added, as well as extra insulation to electrical wiring. The hatch was changed to open outwards and be removable within five seconds.
Joseph Shea, the man who had approved the module design, went into an alcohol and drug-fueled depression, resigned after refusing to take a leave of absence. NASA’s Chief Flight Director Gene Kranz gave a speech to Mission Control three days after the accident that became a famous part of the NASA mission statement. He said in part,
“From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities … Competent means we will never take anything for granted … Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffon later said of the tragedy:
“Apollo 1 was a tragic event and we lost three really good friends, but it may have saved the programme. If we’d had something like that happen on the way to the Moon, it probably would have ended.”
Grissom, White, and Chaffee’s widows asked that they keep the name Apollo 1, even though they never went to space, and this was respected.
The Apollo 1 mission patch was also left on the moon as a tribute and their names are on the Fallen Astronaut memorial as well. All three were posthumously given the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
The building was destroyed and a memorial service is held every year with their families. The hatch from the spacecraft was put on display for the first time in 2017, with support from the astronaut’s families.
Clifton Williams (Oct 1967)
The next NASA tragedy came only nine months later, when Apollo program astronaut Clifton C. Williams was killed in October of 1967.
Clifton C. Williams from Mobile, Alabama was another former Boy Scout and mechanical engineer who joined the Marines in 1954. He became a Naval test pilot and then chosen for Group 3.
He entered the crew as the first bachelor astronaut, which seems like a great sitcom premise if anyone wants to take that up. But he found love with former waterski theme park performer Jane Elizabeth Lansche and had two children, Catherine and Jane, who would be born eight months after Williams died.
He was once asked what mission he would like to fly and responded,
“I’d like to go on every flight.”
On October 5th, 1967, Williams was flying to visit his sick father, when there was a mechanical failure. The controls jammed and the jet went into a spin and almost vertical dive between pine trees. Williams tried to eject but was too low and was killed almost immediately.
His astronaut pin and naval wings were placed on the moon in 1969 by his colleague and friend Alan Bean, who also suggested a star being added to the Apollo 12 mission patch in William’s honor, which was done.
Michael Adams (Nov 1967)
Michael Adams from Sacramento, California was the next NASA fatality, just a month after Williams’s death. He joined the Air Force in 1950 and flew 49 combat missions in the Korean War as a bomber and then 36 more months of service. He earned an aeronautical engineering degree, studied at MIT, and became a top test pilot. He worked on a practice moon landing program and then was chosen to be an astronaut in 1965.
On November 15th, 1967 he was flying an X-15 jet at 266,000 feet when he entered a severe spin and dive, although the mission control sensors didn’t detect this. They didn’t understand what was happening until Adams radioed mission control and said, “I’m in a spin, Pete.” Another test pilot reportedly said, “That boy’s in trouble.” “Say again,” Mission Control radioed. “I’m in a spin,” Adams repeated.
His wife and mother were escorted out of the control room viewing area, where they had been watching. The pressure became severe, over 15 g, and the plane broke up in the atmosphere. His body was recovered with the wreckage of the plane soon after. Adams was granted his astronaut wings after his death for passing the height of 50 miles.
Robert Lawrence (Dec 1967)
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the first African-American man chosen to be an astronaut, but unfortunately would never make it to space. He graduated at the top of his high school class in Chicago and then got a degree in chemistry from Bradley University. He joined the Air Force ROTC and then became an Air Force pilot by 21. A classmate described him,
“He was gifted in every area. He was smarter and more efficient than the rest of us. He could dust me off on the basketball court. … And, oh yes, he could fly a jet fighter!”
The next year he married Barbara Cress, and by age 25 he was a pilot instructor and later earned a doctoral degree. He joined NASA and helped collect data in high-flying jets for the development of spacecraft. In 1967, he became the first black astronaut in the corps. A reporter at the announcement asked if Lawrence would have to sit in the back of the back of the spacecraft, which he and the other astronauts laughed at. He told another reporter that he didn’t believe his position was historic. He said,
“It’s another one of those things that we look forward to in civil rights- normal progression.”
On December 8th, 1967, when Lawrence was 31, he was flying as an instructor with a trainee, Major Harvey Royer. Royer made a mistake while trying a steep-descent technique and the plane hit the ground. It caught fire and skidded 2,000 feet. Major Royer, in the front seat, ejected successfully and was severely injured, but survived. The second seat’s ejection is slightly delayed so the two seats don’t crash into each other, but in this case it made Lawrence eject sideways. He was killed instantly.
His name was left off of the memorial plaque on the moon, as well as the Space Mirror memorial in Florida. It was said this was because he was not an official astronaut by the Pentagon’s standard and was technically employed by the Air Force, although several other men were included with equally unclear status.
Many people believe that his exclusion was purely racial. It wasn’t until 1997 when he was finally added to the Space Mirror, but like Valentin Bondarenko from the last episode, the moon plaque is missing his name. It’s not quite as easy to change.
Apollo 11 (1969)
When you think of Apollo 11, you don’t think of failure. It was one of our country’s greatest successes. But when the launch to the moon was planned, President Nixon had a speech on stand-by in case Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins met an untimely fate after their lift-off or worse- were stuck on the untouched moon with no chance of rescue.
There’s a lot to talk about with the moon landing, and I can’t get to all of it today, but let me know if you want to hear a full episode on it in the future. Also, as a fun fact, Buzz Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name… was Moon! Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, who had worked with the White House before, called Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire and warned him. He better have a back-up speech ready if things went awry with the mission.
The White House wasn’t very worried about Michael Collins, who would stay in the spacecraft for the entire mission. But there was a real possibility that Aldrin and Armstrong could be stuck on the moon. Forever. If that happened, Mission Control would announce that they had to “close down communication” with the men, which is a pretty chill way to say abandon your friends on an unknown celestial body where you’ll slowly starve to death and your remains may stay in the moon dust for all of human history.
When asked about the possibility of failure right before he left, Armstrong said,
“That’s an unpleasant thing to think about. We’ve chosen not to think about that at the present time. We don’t think that’s a likely situation. It’s simply a possible one. At present time, we’re left with no recourse should that occur.”
Michael Collins later said of his mission,
“I have been flying for 17 years, by myself and with others. But I have never sweated out a flight like I am sweating out LEM now. My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone; now I am within minutes of finding out the truth of the matter. If they fail to rise from the surface, or if they crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life, and I know it. Almost better not to have the option I enjoy.”
Safire, the speechwriter, explained that,
“If they couldn’t [successfully liftoff], they’d have to be abandoned on the moon, left to die there. The men would either have to starve to death or commit suicide.”
Then NASA would shutdown communications. Nixon would call Aldrin and Armstrong’s wives, and then give his planned speech. The men would be given a symbolic burial at sea, obviously without their bodies, and their “souls” would be sent to “the deepest depths.” Which is ironic, considering they’d actually be stuck at the highest heights we’ve ever been to.
Safire prepared a statement that read as follows:
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
When John F Kennedy gave his famous moon speech, he not only said we would be “landing a man on the moon” by 1970, but also be “returning him safely to the Earth.” As space historian Robert Pearlman said, “For some people, that is a throwaway, but it wouldn’t be a success if [they] didn’t return home safely.”
There were a few close calls with the mission. They overshot their landing spot and landed with only 45 seconds left of fuel. A major circuit breaker broke and they had to repair it on the moon’s surface, nearly stranding them. Collins later described the incident,
“If they couldn’t get off, they were dead men, and I was getting home by myself.”
After Aldrin and Armstrong went back inside the spacecraft after two and half hours of being the first human beings to walk on the moon, they noticed something chillingly wrong. An inch-long circuit breaker switch was lying on the floor, snapped off from the panel.
Aldrin would later explain that he “gulped hard” and said,
“I looked closer and jolted a bit. There on the dust on the floor on the right side of the cabin, lay a circuit breaker switch that had broken off…. Snapped off from the engine-arm circuit breaker, the one vital breaker needed to send electrical power to the ascent engine that would lift Neil and me off the moon.”
They realized that one of them must have snapped it off with their backpacks. They radioed to Mission Control in Houston, who tried to figure it out for several hours, but came up with nothing, which is definitely not the message the moon men wanted to receive.
“After examining it more closely, I thought that if I could find something in the LM [lunar module] to push in the circuit, it might hold. But since it was electrical, I decided not to put my finger in, or use anything that had metal on the end. I had a felt-tipped pen in the shoulder pocket of my suit that might do the job…. Sure enough, the circuit breaker held. We were going to get off the moon, after all. To this day I still have the broken circuit breaker switch and the felt-tipped pen I used to ignite our engines.”
On later missions, a guard was installed over these switches to prevent it from happening again. Luckily, all three returned home safely as heroes. The speech stayed safely unused.
NASA had almost two decades without another fatality. Then came the space accident that traumatized an entire nation. Challenger.
The mission had eight astronauts: Francis “Dick” Scobee, the commander, was a Vietnam aviator and aerospace engineer from Washington State. Michael Smith, the pilot, was Navy pilot, Vietnam veteran, and Marshall scholar from North Carolina. Ellison Onizuka was a Air Force test pilot and former Eagle Scout (take a shot) from Hawaii and had gone to space once previously on the Discovery mission. Judith Resnik was a genius with a perfect SAT score and one of only three female electrical engineers in her class at Carnegie Mellon. She was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman in space. Resnik also flew on Discovery. Ronald McNair was the second African-American in space, having flown on a different challenger mission, and a nationally renowned laser physicist from MIT. He famously refused to leave the segregated library South Carolina when he was a child and authorities relented. That library is now named after him. Gregory Jarvis was an electrical engineer and Air Force captain from New York state.
And then there was Christa McAuliffe, who is by far the most famous member of the group because she was part of the Teacher in Space Project. McAuliffe was a teacher from Boston who taught at Concord High School with “infectious enthusiasm” and a love of space from an early age.
President Ronald Reagan intended for teachers to be sent to space as Payload specialists, who were civilians, not trained astronauts. They could then come back home and meet with students to help inspire interest in science and space. McAulliffe was also supposed to broadcast two short classes from space to the millions of children watching. The project was cancelled after this accident.
The Challenger spacecraft had actually flown several missions before. This launch was delayed several times because of weather and issues with the hatch. On the day of the launch, January 28th, 1986, it was further delayed two hours because there was ice that needed to be melted. The launch went forward at exactly 11:38 am.
The major issue with the ship was the two O-rings. These were rubber seals that were part of the rocket boosters, which had to deal with hot pressurized gas from the fuel. During the safety review of the ship in 1971, engineers identified a potential danger if the O-rings failed and the gasses burnt through the casings of the rocket.
If it happened they warned that “time sending may not be feasible and abort not possible.” Morton-Thiokol was a contractor with NASA who made the rocket boosters and the O-rings. The O-rings were considered “Criticality 1” which meant if they failed, the entire ship would fail, but still the problem was not addressed. Eventually by 1985, they started a process to reinforce the O-rings with steel, but it was not completed in time for the Challenger launch.
In October of 1985, an engineer named Bob Ebeling wrote a memo titled “Help!” that warned about the possible danger of O-rings and cold. The day of the launch was supposed to be very cold, about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, -1 Celsius. The spacecraft nor the O-rings were intended to work at this temperature. NASA and Thiokol had a conference call right about it where Ebeling confirmed that the ship was only approved to work in 40 degrees Fahrenheit and warned anything colder than that was “no-man’s land.”
On a call the night before launch, engineers reiterated that the O-rings may not seal properly in the cold. Thiokol recommended the launch be postponed, but NASA disagreed. They believed that the secondary O-rings would be fine if the first failed, although this was against protocol. They had a second call without the engineers, just the NASA and Thiokol management where they decided the launch would proceed. That night, Ebeling told his wife that the Challenger would explode the next day.
And he was right. On launch day, the temperature was at about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, -2 Celsius. Ice had been continuously removed through the night, but the engineers were disturbed to see a ton of ice still left. The launch was postponed an hour for ice to melt, and then it went forward.
The nation, including millions of schoolchildren, watched the Challenger launch live on television. Although they couldn’t tell yet, both O-rings disintegrated. The back-ups had bent out of place, and also failed. Hot gas leaked out of the ship. Metallic residue called slag, had held back the gas for a little extra time, but wind shear eventually destroyed it. If it had held for just a minute longer, the disaster likely would have been averted. Mission control told the crew they were “go at throttle up” and Scobee responded, “Roger, go at throttle up.” The audio recorded Smith saying, “Oh no,” as they lost control of the ship. It was the last message Earth recieved from the crew.
About a minute after the launch, the world watched Challenger explode. Then the hydrogen and oxygen tanks on the ship broke and mixed, damaging the interior of the wing. The Challenger ship broke up at 48,000 feet. The Thiokol engineers who were watching had initially been relieved, as they assumed the failure would happen right at liftoff, so once that was over, they thought they had made it past the danger. When the explosion happened, they knew what had happened. Mission control locked down and shut off phone communication to preserve the accident data.
The part of the ship that held the crew itself broke off from the ship in one piece and fell at an extreme speed and pressure. At least some of the crew members had survived the initial explosion and four of their emergency Personal Egress Air Packs, a supply of emergency oxygen, had been activated. Scobee and Smith’s were two of the activated packs, although Resnik or Onizuka had to have activated Smith’s because it was behind him, a detail which would later stick out as a character detail to other astronauts. Astronaut Mike Mullane later said,
“Mike Smith’s PEAP had been turned on by Judy or El, I wondered if I would have had the presence of mind to do the same thing had I been in Challenger’s cockpit. Or would I have been locked in a catatonic paralysis of fear? There had been nothing in our training concerning the activation of a PEAP in the event of an in-flight emergency. The fact that Judy or El had done so for Mike Smith made them heroic in my mind. They had been able to block out the terrifying sights and sounds and motions of Challenger’s destruction and had reached for that switch. It was the type of thing a true astronaut would do — maintain their cool in the direst of circumstances.”
Smith had also adjusted switches next to him before the cabin fully detached. It’s unknown if the cabin depressurized during the fall, which would have sent all the crew members unconscious, but the cabin hit the ocean at 207 miles per hour, killing anyone who had survived the fall.
In the aftermath of the crash, President Reagan postponed the State of the Union and gave a speech, written by Peggy Noonan, that is considered one of the greatest speeches of all time. It read in part as follows:
“Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them… We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.
We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue… There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete. The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
As you probably noticed, Reagan includes a little bit of a dig at the Soviet space program in there with the whole cover up thing, which is a classic Reagan move right there. There was a memorial three days after the crash with 6,000 NASA staff members and 4,000 guests in attendance.
The Coast Guard and the Department of Defense did their largest surface search and rescue mission they had ever done to recover the seven crew member’s remains and much of the ship. Debris continued to wash up for a decade after the crash.
Ellison Onizuka’s soccer ball was also found and later brought to the International Space Station and then given to Onizuka’s children’s high school. The body of Gregory Jarvis actually became lost at one point and astronaut and naval officer Robert Crippen rented a fishing boat out of his own pocket and searched for it until it was found.
NASA administrators doged the press after the disaster, opening up the public to wild speculation. Conspiracy theories popped up that NASA had pushed for the launch date because Reagan wanted to mention the launch in the State of the Union, although there’s no evidence that was the case. A Presidential Commission was formed to investigate, including Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. They confirmed the O-rings had failed and NASA and Thiokol had known of the danger. Committee member Richard Feynmann made a televised demonstration of O-ring material in ice water and said,
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
NASA redesigned the solid rocket boosters and created a new quality assurance and safety office. Morton-Thiokol lost $10 million. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to stop the next NASA disaster in 2003.
Studies have also been done on the impact of the trauma on schoolchildren. There had been plans to send many different civilians into space similarly to Christa McAuliffe, including journalists and artists. but this was stopped after the disaster. Christa McAuliffe’s back-up through the Teacher in Space Program actually became a regular NASA astronaut and flew to space in 2007. There had even been a plan to send Big Bird to space, but the suit didn’t fit.
A report found that news of only two events had spread to the public faster than Challenger, the assassination of JFK and the death of FDR. The Challenger remains a major case study on whistle-blowing, safety procedure, a group responsibility. It’s also been said the engineers inability to present their concerns clearly to NASA leadership on the conference calls was a major factor worth examining in engineering classes.
Bob Ebeling, the engineer who had written the “Help!” memo, never got over his guilt. He told a newspaper in 2016 soon before his death,
“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’”
But the Challenger catastrophe can never be placed on one person’s shoulders. It was a group effort, and ultimately a group failure, and a bitter lesson that ultimately made space travel safer and more cautious in the future.
All the Challenger crew members received a posthumous Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004. Beyoncé also sparked controversy in 2013 when she sampled a press conference about the disaster, which NASA did not approve of and she was forced to apologize.
I also want to mention that I got to do a mock space mission at the Christa McAuliffe Center in Framingham, Massachusetts when I was a kid, and I’ll definitely give them some of the credit for inspiring this episode by making me interested in space.
The American space program got a 17-year break from astronaut deaths until the Columbia disaster in 2003. The Columbia spacecraft had also flown successfully plenty of times before. But this time was different.
The commander of the mission was Rick Husband from Texas, Air Force colonel fighter pilot and mechanical engineer who had been a pilot on one space flight before. The pilot was Navy commander from California, William McCool, who was the youngest man on the crew, and had also flown one mission in space. The payload commander was Michael Anderson, a Air Force lieutenant colonel and physicist from Washington state who was managing the mission’s science experiments. He had also flown once before in space on the Endeavour.
The payload specialist was the first Israeli astronaut, Air Force colonel Ilan Ramon, the son of a Holocaust survivor. And then there were three mission specialists. Kalpana Chawla was an aerospace engineer who had flown one previous mission. She was the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. David Brown was a Navy Captain and flight surgeon from Virginia who was also conducting experiments (and a Boy Scout). And finally there was Laurel Blair Salton Clark, another Navy captain and flight surgeon from Wisconsin, working on experiments as well. Her husband Jonathan, was also a NASA flight surgeon and worked on the panel that reported on the cause of the disaster.
The launch took place on January 16th, 2003. The main fuel tank of the ship was covered in a layer of sprayed-on polyurethane insulation foam that would stop ice from forming on the cold tanks. 81 seconds after launch, things went wrong. A chunk of insulation about the size of a suitcase broke off from the fuel tank and hit the wing. This caused a hole about six to ten inches wide, 15–25 centimeters. Similarly to the Challenger, the foam breaking off was a regular problem that NASA knew about but didn’t address it seriously enough to prevent an accident. This issue, as well as the O-ring issue, was referred to later as “normalization of deviance.”
NASA noticed the foam had broken off, but was under the belief that even if there was a situation like what happened, it couldn’t be fixed in space, so telling the astronauts if it happened was useless. NASA official Wayne Hale later said that the Director of Mission Operations Jon Harpold had told him,
“You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the [thermal protection system]. If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”
Which… oh my God, is for sure not the attitude you want from your safety team.
Some staff also weren’t as concerned about the wing being damaged on a mission before the Columbia incident they believed it was thicker than it really was. Former NASA astronaut and administrator Charles Bolden said,
“I spent fourteen years in the space program flying, thinking that I had this huge mass that was about five or six inches thick on the leading edge of the wing. And, to find after Columbia that it was fractions of an inch thick, and that it wasn’t as strong as the Fiberglas on your Corvette, that was an eye-opener, and I think for all of us … the best minds that I know of, in and outside of NASA, never envisioned that as a failure mode.”
Some members of Mission Control asked for more specific imaging of the damage when it happened, but the management denied the request, as they didn’t believe it was serious. They sent Husband and McCool an email telling them that the foam strike had happened, but saying that it wasn’t a problem, writing,
“We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for entry.”
Which they did believe at the time. But turned out to be terribly wrong.
The crew spent a successful two weeks in space, conducting over 80 scientific experiments. The re-entry began on February 1st, 2003 at 2:30. It was supposed to land safely by 9:16. Husband and McCool guided the ship out of orbit at 8:15. The ship re-entered the atmosphere at 400,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. The ship heated up as normal but then started to show more stress than expected, but this data couldn’t be seen until after the crash, similar to a black box on an airplane. Around 8:53, witnesses on the ground saw debris fall from the ship and a bright streak of light around the ship. At 8:54, Mission control first started to notice abnormalities in the temperature data they were receiving from the ship. At the same time, there was a bright flash.
Around 8:58, a tile from the outside of the ship fell off and Mission Control realized that pressure sensors failed. Rick Husband sent the last transmission heard from the ship that said, “Roger, uh, bu-” and then was cut off. By 8:59, the ship lost all its hydraulic pressure, which caused the ship to start rolling and the crew to lose control of the ship. The crew tried to regain control but had only 41 seconds before the ship broke apart in the air.
Witnesses could see debris trails above them. The crew cabin depressurized within a minute and the crew lost consciousness. All of them were killed when the cabin broke apart after this. A huge boom was heard by ground witnesses at 9:05, and the debris showered over Texas. Search and Rescue teams were called and then Mission Control locked down like in the case of the Challenger.
Some people in the public feared that the Columbia had somehow been hijacked or damaged by terrorists, especially because it involved the first Israeli astronaut, but this was quickly disproved. A review of the incident found the crew had followed all the proper procedures for emergencies. Some of them weren’t properly restrained or wearing all their equipment at the time of the accident, but the reports said this would have only bought them another 30 seconds of survival.
President Bush addressed the country at 2:00pm and called in federal authorities to help with the recovery. He stated,
“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news, and great sadness to our country. At 9 o’clock this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our Space Shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors…. The cause in which they died will continue… Our journey into space will go on.”
The debris from the ship and human body parts were scattered across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, much of which was heavy forests. It took ten days to find all seven bodies. The largest ground search in U.S. history with thousands of volunteers was organized to gather parts of the ship. Ameteaur radio enthusiasts also helped coordinate. Some volunteers had to be disinfected from chemicals and radiation from the ship. Tragically, two search and rescue pilots were killed in a helicopter crash during the search, and three were injured.
The only survivors of the Columbia crew was a little group of nematode worms that had been part of the science experiments. A 13-minute video recording that the crew had made during the re-entry also survived. It was normal, with the crew calm and joking around. Mission Control was heard on the tape asking Clark for something and she asked for an extra minute, to which they responded, chillingly,
“Don’t worry about it. You have all the time in the world.”
The video was intended to last until touchdown, but ended four minutes before the ship broke up. Ramon’s diary was also partially recovered and returned to his family.
The accident report criticized NASA’s risk-assessment and decision making, specifically the “normalization of deviance.” Changes were also made to safety harnesses, the time to prepare for re-entry, and to ensure that survival systems in the case of an emergency were fully automatic.
The question was also raised of whether NASA could have prevented the accident if they realized the hole before the descent, sometime during the two week mission. They report determined that the spaceship could have stayed in space until February 15th, and the ship Atlantis could have launched by February 10th to help rescue the crew. It could also be possible for the crew of Columbia to exit the ship and try to repair the wing themselves, although this would have been risky. But they didn’t. All that could be done now was to try and prevent future accidents.
President Bush and Laura Bush held a memorial on February 4th. He also granted each astronaut a posthumous Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Brazil also held several large Catholic masses and concerts in tribute that were internationally televised. A memorial was built for both the Columbia and Challenger crews at Arlington National Ceremony. On Opening Day of the 2003 baseball season, seven friends and family members of the crew threw seven simultaneous opening pitches. The Indian space program dedicated a satellite to Kalpana, who had been born there, and the Columbia Memorial Space Science Learning Center was opened on the site of the manufacturing of Columbia and Challenger.
In 2005, after another piece of foam had fallen off of the Discovery spaceship, x-rays revealed that the foam had broken up because thermal expansion had caused the issues. NASA formally apologized to the workers at their Michoud Assembly Facility, who they had blamed for the foam issues up until that point.
The most recent death was that of American test pilot Michael Alsbury, who was killed in a 2014. Like many of the people we’ve discussed, he always loved flying and was an aeronautical engineer and pilot who had been working for the aerospace company Scaled Composites since 2001. He was married to a woman named Michelle Saling and they had two children. The year before his death, he had participated in the first powered test flight of the VSS Enterprise spaceship through the private space tourism company Virgin Galactic.
On Halloween, 2014, fifty years to the day of the first space-flight related death we discussed, Ted Freeman, Alsbury was killed when the VSS Enterprise broke up during the flight and crashed in the Mojave Desert. His co-pilot, Peter Siebold, survived the crash. Alsbury’s name was added to the Space Mirror Memorial last year. This was the first private space compnay death, although unfortunately, likely not the last.
The future of space travel is one that we can only foresee with our imaginations. It’s inevitable that there will be more accidents and more lives lost, just like there were exploring every other frontier, whether it be the arctic, the ocean, or the sky.
As writer Stuart Atkinson said in the wake of the Columbia disaster,
“Some say that we should stop exploring space, that the cost in human lives is too great. But Columbia’s crew would not have wanted that. We are a curious species, always wanting to know what is over the next hill, around the next corner, on the next island. And we have been that way for thousands of years.”
Ellison Onizuka from the Challenger crew also said,
“Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds…. To look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”
I don’t know what our next plateau will be, or what we’re going to see. All I know is, if I know anything about human beings, we’re going to keep climbing.
Columbia Disaster: What Happened, What NASA Learned
On Feb. 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board. NASA…