Saturday, 28 March 2009

Apollo 1 Tribute

I stumbled across this artifact in the possession of renowned UK collector David Worrow in the Fall of 2010. He had purchased this piece from the Atwood estate some 10 years previous. David formed the opinion, based upon the wording of the label, that J. Leland Atwood (President, CEO and Chairman of North American Aviation) considered this connector to be the ignition source for the Apollo 1 fire, January 27th, 1967.

The Apollo 204 Review Board came to the conclusion that the fire initiated in the vicinity of the Environmental Control Unit (ECU) located in the lower left side of the Command Module. Max Faget suggested it was the result of chaffing to wiring insulation in a bundle of cables adjacent to the ECU access door. This however was pure speculation. Evidence to the contrary included eyewitness statements from NAA personnel who had inspected the wiring on the morning of January 27th.

It raises the question… “What, if anything had changed?” Prior to January 27th the spacecraft had undergone 4 altitude tests at the same pure oxygen pressure level for a total of 6 hours with no problems.The only test difference was a gas chromatograph had been removed from the vehicle on the morning of the fire; the connector powering this device had been left in place.

Post fire evaluation confirmed that movement of the connector would have been sufficient to cause an electrical arc. The connector was still powered at the time of the fire.

Gyro data suggests that Gus Grissom left his couch 35 seconds before the first report of fire. Telemetry from the chromatograph cable then shows a power surge consistent with an electrical arc. Grissom returned to his couch and seconds later came the first report of fire.

Where...... one might ask was the live chromatograph cable located? In the lower left side of the Command Module in the vicinity of the Environmental Control Unit, close to Grissom’s feet.


Significantly, the painstaking post fire investigation discovered the chromatograph cable was not in the position in which it had been left by the NAA personnel on the morning of January 27th.

We may never know with any certainty whether or not this connector was responsible for starting the flash fire on that fateful January day. Whether or not this was part of the suspect gas chromatograh cable. “Lee” Atwood passed away in 1999 and left no details about the items in his personal collection.
But according to Larry Korb, Engineering Supervisor of Metals and Producibility for North American Aviation, and a member of the Apollo 204 Investigation Team supporting the Apollo 204 Review Board...."the type of hardware, the label and the date are all consistent with it coming from the Apollo 204 spacecraft." Further examination by Larry of close-up images suggest this component reached temperatures in the region of 1900 degrees and 2500 degrees farenheit. This is consistent with findings of the Apollo Fire Review Board. Furthermore this presentation is consistent with other known Apollo 1 displays produced by NAA at the time.





















It was Atwood himself who confirmed that he had kept items from the Apollo fire in his office. In a paper entitled “Apollo Spacecraft Program and Additional Notes” dated August 1989 Atwood wrote “I have had some samples of the spacecraft wire in my desk since the fire”. Previously, in a paper with equally limited distribution entitled “The Apollo Fire; An Analysis by J. Leland Atwood”, published in October 1988 he came to the conclusion “The most probable source was a slightly loosened wire connection where the cycle of electrical resistance, heat and oxygen corrosion progressively increased until the wire insulation caught fire”

My research suggests this connector, recovered from the Apollo 204 spacecraft just five weeks after the blaze (the ID label on the reverse is dated March 2nd, 1967), is typical of numerous identical connectors used throughout the vehicle, one of which in the opinion of Atwood, possibly this one, was the most likely ignition source.

40 plus years after the fire (an episode described by Wernher von Braun as “A blind spot”), the topic remains a very sensitive subject and naturally so.

Atwood commissioned this display as a poignant reminder of a particularly troubling day for every body associated with the space program; a permanent reminder helping prevent blind spots occurring in the future.

Yet the Challenger and Columbia disasters, it could be argued are examples of subsequent blind spots; were lessons had not been learned.

There is a tendency to keep hidden reminders of the tragedy. Moves to have the spacecraft placed on display have to date proved fruitless and the vehicle remains locked away in an anonymous hanger at Langley Research Center.

It is my understanding anywhere between 50 and 100 artifacts were made using material recovered from the Apollo 204 spacecraft. Intended for senior managers and employees at NAA they are rarely seen; few admit to even owning them.

Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee pose in front of the launch vehicle on Pad 34 shortly before they were killed in the spacecraft fire of January 27th, 1967.

With thanks to cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, I was able recently to fly aboard the International Space Station an Apollo 1 crew patch. In space for 6 months, this was my tribute to a crew without whom none of this would have been possible. RIP Gus, Ed and Roger.


Gennady signing the Certificate of Authenticity shortly after his successful mission.

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