Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lest We Forget...

Before we know it, we'll be upon the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned lunar landing. Funny, it seems like just yesterday that I commemorated in this space, the fortieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's four hour stroll on the surface of the moon. No doubt there will be worldwide observances of that momentous event on the 20th of July next year.

There was an equally momentous event in the history of the race to the moon, whose half century anniversary went all but unnoticed last year. Small wonder, it was not the glorious culmination of President Kennedy's daring pledge in 1961 to land a man on the moon within the decade, not to mention thousands of years' worth of human dreams.  The event was in fact, not a triumph at all, but an unmitigated failure which ended in tragedy, the loss of three astronauts whose ill fated mission, Apollo I, never even got off the ground.

Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee pose in front of the launchpad which surrounded the spacecraft
in which they perished on January 27, 1967. 
But most space historians agree that the lessons learned from the catastrophic accident that took place on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy on January 27, 1967 and took the lives of Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger Chaffee, (names that are forever etched in my memory), were essential building blocks that paved the way for the moon landing that took place just two and one half years later.

Long after his crowning achievement, Neil Armstrong would reflect upon what it took to reach the Moon:
The rate of progress is proportional to the risk encountered, ...the public at large may well be more risk averse than the individuals in our business, but to limit the progress in the name of eliminating risk is no virtue.
There is perhaps no better account of the early days of the U.S. space program than Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff, which was followed in 1983 by an equally inspiring Phillip Kaufman film by the same name. Both open with the story of the engineers, technicians and most importantly the pilots chasing a "demon" known as the sound barrier. Before it was done successfully, no one knew if it was even possible to fly an aircraft faster than 750 mph, the speed of sound. That demon lived somewhere above that speed, "when air could no longer move out of the way" making flight impossible, or so it was thought.

The names of those folks who sacrificed everything to chase that demon, military test pilots who during their typically short careers, (about one in four did not to live to see retirement), were unknown to the general public as their missions were classified and their exploits kept top secret. To a man, those who risked their lives on a daily basis had what Wolfe described as, you guessed it, "the right stuff." He wrote:
It was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life, any fool could do that. No, the idea seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment - and then go up again the next day ...
The man who piloted the first plane to break the sound barrier was USAF test pilot, Captain Chuck Yeager who accomplished the feat it in an X-1 rocket plane on October 14, 1947, taking off from what would become Edwards Air Force Base in California. The legendary Yeager as Wolfe's ultimate possessor of the right stuff, plays a huge role in both the book and in the film where he makes an uncredited cameo appearance beside the actor who plays him in the movie, the late Sam Shepard. You can see the real Yeager (who is still with us at this writing) working behind the bar in this scene from the movie.

Another prominent figure in the movie is Gus Grissom, who along with fellow Edwards newbie, test pilot Gordon Cooper, serves as a comic foil to the somewhat aloof Yeager, of whom the two men grudgingly stood in awe. When Grissom amd Cooper arrive for the first time at the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the watering hole that served as the focus of social life at the base, the clown-like Cooper, played by Dennis Quaid, brags that one day his likeness will join all the other portraits of pilots that adorned the bar. Cooper is brought down to earth (so to speak) by the formidable proprietor of the bar, Pancho Barnes, herself a notable aviator, who informed the cocky young pilot that those portraits were all of pilots killed on the job.

Once word got out that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the first object into space in 1957, a satellite called Sputnik, the U.S. Government scrambled desperately to make up for lost time, and the space race was on. While today it seems obvious that our first astronauts would be chosen from the ranks of military test pilots, that was not always the case. Unlike aircraft that were under total control of their pilots, the new spacecraft could be controlled exclusively from the ground. The real men behind the machines and their success, at least in their own eyes, were the jet propulsion guys, rocket scientists if you prefer, who bristled at the idea that pilots would make good, and by that I mean, obedient passengers aboard their spaceships. For their part, the headstrong test pilots bristled at the idea of not having full control over what they insisted on calling, their spacecraft. Despite objections from the rocket scientists, at least according to the film, it was President Eisenhower who insisted that military test pilots become the first astronauts.

The much decorated Yeager would have been a natural choice, but his lack of a college degree made him ineligible as far as the space program's PR people went. Ever conscious of image, they wanted only America's best and brightest to ride our rocket ships into destiny, and while Yeager may have been one of not the best we had to offer, he wasn't one of the brightest, at least not on paper.

From the Edwards Air Force test pilot group, Grissom and Cooper were selected along with Deke Slayton. From the Navy, aviators Walter Schirra and Alan Shepherd were chosen. Rounding out the group of seven men selected for project Mercury to be America's first astronauts, were U.S. Marine Corps pilots Scott Carpenter and John Glenn.

If I have one criticism of The Right Stuff, the film, it is the extreme lengths it went to contrast the exemplary, goody goody public image of the astronauts that NASA tried to paint, with the real men. This is especially true for its depiction of Gus Grissom as played by Fred Ward. While every description I've read describes Grissom as an exceptionally capable, hard worker as well as an equally hard partier, the movie emphasizes the latter but barely touches on the former. The truth is that Grissom, whom many considered to be the finest pilot of the seven Mercury astronauts, would not have been in the running for America's first man in space, (he ended up being the second), had it not been for his exceptional skill and dedication. Grissom was also selected commander of the first Gemini mission, as well as the ill-fated first Apollo mission. I read somewhere that were it not for his tragic death, Grissom may very well have been selected to be the first man to walk on the moon, instead of Neil Armstrong.

Grissom's career was the most star-crossed of all his peers. His first trip into space on July 21, 1961, the second Mercury sub-orbital mission, went off without a hitch until splashdown. The plan had it for Grissom to remain put inside his capsule until a rescue helicopter arrived on the scene to help stabilize the craft. But before the chopper arrived, an explosive charge that enabled the hatch to open went off, causing sea water to rush into the capsule. Grissom exited the sinking capsule to escape the possibility of a watery grave. The first helicopter crew to arrive on he scene made a valiant effort to save the capsule but it was for naught, the water logged capsule sank along with its valuable contents. Grissom himself barely escaped death as he had to fend for himself in the choppy water as the chopper crew worked on saving the capsule. Grissom claimed that the hatch blew on its own, an idea that was disputed by the rocket scientists who suggested that Grissom triggered the hatch himself as he panicked while bobbing around inside the capsule as he awaited the rescue helicopter.

That incident prompted the following exchange in the movie where Edwards test pilots not selected for the astronaut program scoffed at Grissom and his fellow astronauts:
Jack Ridley: Pull that stuff on flight test, it's all over for him. I say he screwed the pooch, pardner. Plain and simple.
Chuck Yeager: Yeah, well, sometimes you get a pooch that can't be screwed, ya know?
Liaison Man: [chuckling] Exactly! Right now the President's got his own problems with the Bay of Pigs, he doesn't want the astronauts' image tarnished. Nothing these guys do is gonna be called a failure... But you'd think the public'd know that they're just doing what monkeys have done...
(American's first living space traveler was indeed a chimpanzee by the name of Ham).
Chuck Yeager: Monkeys? Think a monkey knows he's sitting on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys, they know that, see? Well, I'll tell you somethin' - it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV. Ol' Gus, he did alright.
Perhaps it was sour grapes but Yeager and the liaison man in that exchange had a point. The race to beat the Russians to the moon was so intense that no obstacle, not even incompetence or the possible death of an astronaut, would have stood in the way of NASA's inexorable charge forward. In that vein, the public's perception of the astronauts had to be kept pure and no one, not even the press in those days would dare to openly suggest that Grissom might have "screwed the pooch."

Incidentally, Grissom's story about the hatch blowing on its own was corroborated by evidence unearthed years later.

As I mentioned above, NASA's opinion of Grissom was certainly high enough for him to be selected to command two subsequent missions, both of which were to be the inaugural flights of new programs.  Gemini, America's first two manned spacecraft would incorporate new techniques and maneuvers into the skill sets of the U.S. space program such as space walks, the rendezvous between two spacecraft, and extended time in space, and the Apollo program which would use those new skill sets to enable it land on the moon.

It was a quantum leap from Grissom's primitive first flight, which lasted only about fifteen minutes, to landing on the moon, which would happen almost exactly eight years later to the day. That fact was made tragically clear, 51 years ago today. Up to that point there had been sixteen NASA manned space missions with a few mishaps and partial failures, but no loss of life. The Gemini program had catapulted the United States ahead of the Soviet Union for the first time in the space race, and all systems were go, or so they seemed, for a trip to the moon. But Grissom and his crewmates on Apollo 1 knew better, they were skeptical that their spacecraft was ready. Design flaws were abundant and the crew knew that corners were being cut in the haste to get to the moon in a timely matter. Things got so bad that Grissom hung a lemon in the Apollo flight simulator.

In this picture, the crew posed in mock prayer with a model of their space capsule to illustrate their frustrations with the preparations for their trip, scheduled for February, 1967, the debut of the three man Apollo spacecraft. The picture was meant to be a joke, but it was a tragic harbinger for what in retrospect was the inevitable result of complacency and ill preparedness.

At 1PM EST on January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White, the first American to walk in space, and Roger Chaffee a rookie astronaut, climbed into their spacecraft for what was intended to be a routine "plugs out" launch simulation to determine if the systems inside the craft were working normally on their own. The test was assumed to be without risk as the rocket sitting underneath the capsule was not loaded with fuel. The astronauts were sealed inside their capsule with full flight conditions in place, spacesuits connected to a steady stream of pure oxygen. Things began to go wrong almost immediately as the astronauts detected a foul odor emanating from their suits. Then a communication problem took place which caused a frustrated Grissom to blurt out: "how are we going to get to the moon if we can't communicate two or three buildings over?" Delay upon delay took place to troubleshoot the problems.

In all the astronauts remained strapped into their seats in the confinement of the capsule for five and one half hours before a spark, probably from faulty wiring ignited a fire that was fed by the pure oxygen environment inside the capsule and the scores of objects made of combustible materials. At 6:31 EST, Grissom could be heard over the communications system yelling "Fire". A few other scrambled voices and screams from the astronauts could be heard in the subsequent seconds. A desperate attempt was made by them to release the ridiculously complicated escape hatch, ironic given Gus Grissom's problems with the hatch on his first space flight. In normal circumstances, it would take about ninety seconds to open the hatch from the inside of the Apollo capsule, much longer from the outside. It was estimated that the astronauts were rendered unconscious from the noxious gasses produced by the fire in fifteen seconds. Despite the desperate efforts of the ground crew who risked their own lives trying to free the men, the astronauts never had a chance.

The tragedy may have been a real eye opener to the American public and especially to the powers that be who ran the space program, but not of course to the astronauts who knew all along that they were putting their lives on the line every time they stepped into a spacecraft. After all the investigations, out of necessity, heads rolled, layers of bureaucracy were eliminated, and most of the kinks in the process were worked out. The spacecraft was re-worked, including eliminating most of the combustible materials, a complete overhaul of the hatch system and most importantly replacing the all oxygen environment with one combining oxygen and nitrogen. On October 11th the following year, the backup crew for Apollo I, Walter Cunningham, Donn Eislie, and one of the Mercury 7, Walter Schirra, blasted off from the same launchpad, atop the same rocket, the Saturn 1B, as their predecessors hoped to twenty months earlier. Apollo VII as it was dubbed, orbited the earth 163 times and was the first successful manned mission of the Apollo program. On December 21, 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, sitting atop a much larger Saturn V rocket, blasted off from Cape Kennedy. That rocket's size was necessary to enable the spacecraft to leave the earth's orbit, which it did later that day. By Christmas Eve, the three were orbiting the moon. In doing so, they became the first human beings to set eyes on the earth from outer space. This is how it looked:

Earthrise from the moon, December 24, 1968.  Photograph by William Anders.
Here is a fascinating account of the Apollo VIII mission.

As the late Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon said:
We went to explore the moon and in fact discovered the earth.
I don't think it would be hyperbolic to call this image, made by astronaut William Anders, the most important photograph ever made.  For the first time we saw our beautiful blue planet as it truly is, all alone, cast adrift in a sea of darkness and desolation. It certainly should come as no surprize that the publication of this and subsequent photographs of the earth made from the moon helped inspire the environmental movement and the idea that the resources of our lovely planet, abundant as they may be, are finite and worth preserving.

For a brief shining moment in the sixties, amidst all the turmoil of that decade, human beings undertook a seemingly impossible mission and accomplished it. Along the way we learned a lot, not only about space travel, but about ourselves. At that time it seemed that with hard work and sacrifice, anything might be possible.

Unfortunately, today we all know better.

Out of greed and convenience, the powers that be in our time, have all but rejected science and what we have learned about the fragility of our planet since we went to the moon almost fifty years ago. Some even go so far to say that the moon landing was fake news, that it was in fact, staged by Hollywood. The climate for ignorance and irrationality is so intense these days, there are even people who are proud to publicly proclaim that the earth is indeed flat.

We could go on and on about the merits of sending human beings into space. But given the current attacks, even from the very top on knowledge, science and even human intelligence itself, perhaps it's time to return to space, if only to awaken ourselves from the slumber of complacency, indifference  and ignorance. Because it wasn't slumber, indifference and ignorance that got us to the moon, it was hard work, sacrifice and perhaps above all, science.

Perhaps on this day, the anniversary of the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, we can honor them and their sacrifice* by re-confirming our commitment to hard work and sacrifice in the name of truth, knowledge and science, and the eradication of ignorance, be it self-imposed or not, especially where it concerns our beautiful planet, our one and only home.

I think they'd be OK with that.

* not to forget the last crew members of the space shuttle Challenger whom we lost on January 28, 1983:

Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist.
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Teacher

and the last crew members of the space shuttle Columbia whom we lost on February 1, 2003:

Rick Husband, Commander
William C. McCool, Pilot
Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander/Mission Specialist 3 
David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1 
Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2 
Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4 
Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist

No comments: