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Friday, January 27, 2017

January 27, 2017: NASAStudying: Apollo I

[January 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, one of many setbacks and challenges that didn’t deter from the US manned space program from making history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five moments or contexts for NASA’s early years. I’d love your responses and thoughts in comments, as always!]
On two kinds of lessons we can take away from a historic and tragic disaster.
On January 27th, 1967, during a launch rehearsal test ahead of a scheduled February 21st launch, the capsule for Apollo 1, the NASA Apollo Program’s first manned mission, experienced a tragic and deadly fire, killing all three astronauts on board (Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee). I’m not going to pretend to have anywhere near the expertise or knowledge to add much to the accounts and details provided by those hyperlinked sites and texts, or even by the (seemingly) very comprehensive and well-sourced Wikipedia page on the tragedy. While there are of course the uncertainties and varying theories that would accompany any such tragedy, the central facts of what happened and why seem relatively clear and accepted. NASA and the Apollo Program would suspend any further manned flights for 20 months while investigating and responding to the tragedy, but in October 1968 Apollo I’s backup crew (Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham) successfully completed the manned Apollo 7 launch and flight, and the program that culminated the following year in Apollo 11 and the moon landing was back on track.
While the Apollo I tragedy was thus part of the larger NASA story with which I’ve tried to engage this week, it was also singular and distinct from the rest of that story, and as a result offers a couple of specific AmericanStudies lessons well worth considering. For one thing, the extensive Congressional investigation into the tragedy, efforts spearheaded by a young Minnesota Senator named Walter Mondale (in only his third year in the Senate, after being appointed to fill Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s seat in 1964), revealed a significant example of governmental and corporate synergy and malpractice. Mondale learned of the existence of a report detailing extensive problems with North American Aviation, one of the contractors working most fully with the Apollo program; although Apollo Program Director Major General Samuel Phillips initially denied any knowledge of what came to be called the “Phillips Report,” details continued to emerge that reflected poorly on both NASA senior staff and North American Aviation. Whatever else we make of such details, they certainly illustrate the need for complete, public transparency and accountability from both government agencies and their corporate partners—a need that Mondale would pursue even more actively in his role chairing the 1970s Church Committee on intelligence agencies.
The lessons of the Apollo 1 tragedy aren’t all dark or cynical, however. As is often the case, it’s easy with a full perspective on history to assume that it naturally or inevitably would have unfolded the way it did—easy but almost always inaccurate, as any moment (and especially significant moments like Apollo I) could lead to a number of different potential outcomes and futures. After such a horrific disaster with what would have been the Apollo Program’s first manned launch, the program certainly could have been shut down, and the decade’s goal of a moon landing indefinitely postponed (if not abandoned entirely). There were of course various factors and influences that kept the program and goal going instead, but one central one was President Lyndon Johnson, a longtime NASA supporter and advocate who used his influence to counter Congressional critiques of the organization (Mondale, for example, wrote an addendum to the Congressional investigation report accusing NASA of “evasiveness” and a “lack of candor,” among other things). The continued efforts of NASA and the Apollo Program were what most directly made it possible for Apollo I not to be the end of the story—but the support and patience of a figure like Johnson helped create a space for those efforts to continue, and for history to unfold in the successful and inspiring way it did.
January Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other NASA takes you’d share?

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