A Brief on the Apollo 1 (Capsule 204) Fire, January 27, 1967


Apollo 1 after the fire.

Apollo 1 after the fire.

What happened?

The Apollo 1 (204) Command Module was on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center on January 27, 1967 when a fire broke out in the capsule.  The three crew members (Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White) died quickly from asphyxiation.

What caused the problem?

A small spark in the capsule quickly caused a major fire in the 100% oxygen atmosphere inside the capsule.  The three astronauts couldn’t escape quickly in part because the capsule’s door opened inward (it was deliberately designed this way to prevent an astronaut from accidentally opening outward in space).

Who investigated?

NASA quickly organized its own internal Apollo 204 Review Board, chaired by NASA Langley Director Floyd Thompson.

Were there any previous inklings of major problems?

A few months before the accident, Thomas Baron, a mid-level quality inspector for the contractor North American Aviation at Kennedy Space Center, had complained in writing about quality control problems.  He was in the process of expanding a 50-page paper into a 500-page report when the accident occurred.

In addition, in 1965 Samuel C. Phillips, Apollo Program Director at NASA Headquarters, had initiated a review of NASA’s contract with North American to determine why work on both the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V second stage was behind schedule and over budget. report NASA Associate for Manned Space Flight George Mueller had requested this highly critical study, known as the Phillips Report.

What major corrective actions and changes were made?

A new quick-opening hatch was developed.

A new Office of Flight Safety was established, as well as the independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

Tests involving a 100% oxygen atmosphere were classified as hazardous.

How much time elapsed before further program activities resumed?

Apollo 7 launched on October 11, 1968, and successfully carried a three-person crew into orbit around the Earth for 10 days.

Where can more information and further reading be found?

http://history.nasa.gov/Apollo204/

http://history.nasa.gov/Apollo204/biblio.html

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The Space Shuttle and the Expansion of the Astronaut Cadre in Space


The Space Shuttle coming at you.

The Space Shuttle has proven itself one of the most flexible space vehicles ever flown. Most assuredly, the range of possibilities for operations in orbit expanded dramatically with the launch of Columbia in 1981. Through the end of the program in 2011 there will be 135 Space Shuttle missions, including the Challenger and Columbia accidents, and the range of activities on each of these has been impressive.

Undoubtedly, and this is a significant aspect of the shuttle’s flexibility, its size and capability greatly expanded the opportunity for human spaceflight. From a crew of three for Apollo missions, the shuttle routinely flew seven, and by the end of the program the number of astronauts flown aboard shuttles will be more than 280.

Accordingly, among other notable developments, the shuttle allowed NASA to expand the astronaut corps beyond the white male test pilots who had exclusive domain during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo eras.

The shuttle enabled an expansion of the astronaut complement to non-pilots and to women and minorities. As all know, in June 1983 Sally K. Ride, a NASA scientist-astronaut, became the first American woman to fly in space aboard STS-7, and in August 1983 Guion S. Bluford became the first African American astronaut to fly on STS-8.

The shuttle era also saw flights by people who were not truly astronauts. NASA inaugurated both a payload specialist program to fly individuals associated with specific experiments as well as a “Space Flight Participant Program” aimed at allowing non-scientists or engineers to experience orbital flight. The first person was a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger accident in January 1986, but a journalist and perhaps a poet were also possibilities for future missions. Notably, educator Barbara Morgan has flown, along with several other educator astronauts.

In addition, astronauts from many other nations flew aboard the shuttle, including astronauts from Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland. This democratization of human spaceflight was a major attribute of the shuttle era, and the result of its flexibility as a space vehicle.

It also led to what many view as abuses of the system as politicians flew on the shuttle. Senator Jake Garn (R-Utah) and Representative Bill Nelson (D-Florida) both left Congress long enough to fly on the shuttle in late 1985 and early 1986, respectively. Critics accused NASA of pandering to Congress and other constituencies for support by offering such perquisites to a carefully selected few. Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau skewered Garn with a succession of appearances. In one, he showed Garn rehearsing memorable statements that he might make from orbit. He rejected all of them until he decided upon, “One giant leap towards approving the 1986 NASA budget.” Despite such criticisms, the mission went forward.

After his flight, Nelson offered this assessment of the space program: “If America ever abandoned her space ventures, then we would die as a nation, becoming second-rate in our own eyes, as well as in the eyes of the world….Our prime reason for commitment can be summed up as follows…space is our next frontier.”

Of course, the most famous instance of a politician flying was the return to flight of John Glenn in 1998 aboard STS-95. While this was clearly a favor for a valued Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, it was also at some level recognition of Glenn’s life of sacrifice and courage as a Marine combat pilot and Mercury astronaut.

Walter Cronkite, who came out of retirement to cover this mission, perhaps summed it up best when he said, “as far as I’m concerned, John Glenn is a hero and he can do pretty much whatever he wants.”

It is obvious that the flexibility of the Space Shuttle as a human space vehicle has been both a positive and a negative over time.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Home Run Heard Round the World: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Giants-Dodgers Pennant Race”


9780486480589_p0_v1_s260x420The Home Run Heard Round the World: The Dramatic Story of the 1951 Giants-Dodgers Pennant Race. By Ray Robinson. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2011 ed.

This is a classic work of baseball history. Originally published in 1991, it tells the story—and it is a very journalistic account as written here—of the 1951 National League pennant race in which the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers battled for the chance to meet the New York Yankees in the World Series. Of course the Giants earned the pennant, and were dispatched in the World Series by the Yankee juggernaut led by future Hall of Famers Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra.

To get to that point, however, the Giants made a dramatic come-from-behind late season surge to tie the Dodgers for the National League title. Both the Giants and the crosstown rival Dodgers finished the regular season with identical 96-58 records. They then had to play a best-of-three game extension of the season to determine who advanced to the World Series. It was in the last game of that extension that Bobby Thompson hit his dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth homer to defeat the Dodgers 5-4. Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges captured the euphoria of the moment in his in-air chant, “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT.” It was the perfect response to a great moment in baseball history.

Getting to that point was not easy, however. As of August 11, Brooklyn held a commanding 13½-game lead over the Giants. They managed to catch the Dodgers by winning their next 16 games, and 37 of their last 44 games, while Brooklyn played the rest of the season at a 26–22 clip. The Giants then tied the Dodgers for the league championship on the last day of the regular season when they beat the Philadelphia Phillies, only one year removed from their pennant-winning “Whiz Kids” season in 14-innings to force the best-of-three-games showdown. The Giants and Dodgers split the first two games of this series, and the Giants come-from-behind win in the third sealed the deal.

This is an excellent narrative of that epic struggle. It was written by a veteran baseball writer with a real feel for the telling anecdote and the dramatic scene. Republished in 2011 by Dover, after having been out of print from HarperCollins for many years, it now reappears at the time of the 60th anniversary of this most stunning of all walk off homers, excepting perhaps only Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series homer, in major league history.

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Redirect: “Apollo Lunar Landings Multiscreen” Video


This is pretty neat. This video depicts simultaneously the landing of all six Apollo missions that reached the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. The compiler took all of the video from the Lunar Module and realligned them to 45 degrees to show what image that the Lumar Module Pilot saw during the the descent. The compiler then added audio from the landings, splicing together pieces from each of the missions, to create a new account. The result is inventive. Enjoy!

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3-D Scans of the Apollo 11 Command Module


downloadTo mark the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission, the Smithsonian has made available a stunning, high resolution 3-D scan of the Command Module Columbia. This is available here: http://3d.si.edu/apollo11CM. Now anyone with an internet connection can explore the entire craft, including its intricate interior, a feat not possible when viewing the artifact in the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution — in collaboration with Autodesk |Smithsonian.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Inventing George Washington”


Inventing George WashingtonInventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth & Memory. By Edward G. Lengel. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

How have Americans dealt with the immortalization of the commanding general of the Continental Army of the United States of America and the nation’s first president. George Washington, like so many of the nation’s founders was a study in contrasts and contradictions, but few understand that as the case. This is in part because of the concerted hagiography and misinterpretation of this incredibly significant figure. Edward G. Lengel, editor of chief of the Washington Papers, offers in this short and accessible study the manner in which Washington the man has been reinterpreted for the benefit of U.S. citizens over the ages. He finds that two distinct portraits have emerged. He is first the “Father of His Country” and serves as an eternal symbol of all that the nation views as virtuous. His private life, however, has been elusive and poorly understood.

Both the public and the private man have been vital to American identity for more than 200 years, but these themes compete and conflict with each other give rise to separate mythologies that duel for primacy. Accordingly, was Washington the persevering enlightened man who championed and then guarded the progress of the American democratic republic or was he the wealthy slaveholder who accepted an evil system, perhaps not even fully understanding its corruption of himself? Of course, he was both.

At sum, by exploring how Washington has been interpreted over the life of the nation, Lengel offers a valuable exploration of the individual who lived and breathed and loved and hated and succeeded and failed just as all do. He also illuminates how the nation has embraced and distanced itself from him over time. This is an important and helpful book. If one either reveres or reviles Washington, this will help to establish balance in perspective. Lengel gives Washington his due, but also challenges extreme arguments of virtue or criticism of the first U.S. president.

 

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Vikings 1 and 2 and the Failure to Detect Life on Mars


This first panoramic view by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars in 1976 depicts an out of focus spacecraft component toward left center is the housing for the Viking sample arm, which is not yet deployed. Parallel lines in the sky are an artifact and are not real features. However, the change of brightness from horizon towards zenith and towards the right (west) is accurately reflected in this picture, taken in late Martian afternoon. At the horizon to the left is a plateau-like prominence much brighter than the foreground material between the rocks. The horizon features are approximately three kilometers (1.8 miles) away. At left is a collection of fine-grained material reminiscent of sand dunes. The dark sinuous markings in left foreground are of unknown origin. Some unidentified shapes can be perceived on the hilly eminence at the horizon towards the right. A horizontal cloud stratum can be made out halfway from the horizon to the top of the picture. At left is seen the low gain antenna for receipt of commands from the Earth. The projections on or near the horizon may represent the rims distant impact craters. In right foreground are color charts for Lander camera calibration, a mirror for the Viking magnetic properties experiment and part of a grid on the top of the Lander body. At upper right is the high gain dish antenna for direct communication between landed spacecraft and Earth.

This first panoramic view by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars in 1976 depicts an out of focus spacecraft component toward left center is the housing for the Viking sample arm, which is not yet deployed. Parallel lines in the sky are an artifact and are not real features. However, the change of brightness from horizon towards zenith and towards the right (west) is accurately reflected in this picture, taken in late Martian afternoon. At the horizon to the left is a plateau-like prominence much brighter than the foreground material between the rocks. The horizon features are approximately three kilometers (1.8 miles) away. At left is a collection of fine-grained material reminiscent of sand dunes. The dark sinuous markings in left foreground are of unknown origin. Some unidentified shapes can be perceived on the hilly eminence at the horizon towards the right. A horizontal cloud stratum can be made out halfway from the horizon to the top of the picture. At left is seen the low gain antenna for receipt of commands from the Earth. The projections on or near the horizon may represent the rims distant impact craters. In right foreground are color charts for Lander camera calibration, a mirror for the Viking magnetic properties experiment and part of a grid on the top of the Lander body. At upper right is the high gain dish antenna for direct communication between landed spacecraft and Earth.

The first truly successful landings on Mars took place in 1976 when the Viking mission used two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter. Launched on August 20, 1975, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Viking 1 spent nearly a year cruising to Mars, placed an orbiter in operation around the planet, and landed on July 20, 1976, on the Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains). Viking 2 was launched on September 9, 1975, and landed on September 3, 1976. The Viking proj­ect’s primary mission ended on November 15, 1976, 11 days before Mars’s superior conjunction (its passage behind the sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. The last transmission from the planet reached Earth on November 11, 1982.

One of the most important scientific activities of this proj­ect involved an attempt to determine whether ­there was life on Mars. Although the three biology experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, ­they provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in soil near the landing sites. According to mission biologists, Mars was ­self-­sterilizing. ­They concluded that the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil, and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry had prevented the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil.

Carl Sagan with the Viking lander mock-up in Death Valley, California, on October 26, 1980.

Carl Sagan with the Viking lander mock-up in Death Valley, California, on October 26, 1980.

The failure to find evidence of life on Mars devastated the optimism present for astrobiology in an era of great expectations. Collectively, these missions led to the development of two essential reactions. The first was a questioning by a significant minority of scientists that complex life might not exist elsewhere in the Solar System, but that did not mean that it was not present throughout the universe. While scientists grew discouraged, it was a disappointment that did not remain for many of them. JPL director Bruce Murray believed that the legacy of failure to detect life, despite the billions spent and a succession of overoptimistic statements, would spark public disappointment and perhaps a public outrage.

An aftermath of the Viking landings in 1976 was that the prospects for discovering extraterrestrial life on Mars had been oversold. Planetary scientist and JPL director Bruce Murray complained at the time of Viking about the landers being ballyhooed as a definite means of ascertaining whether or not life existed on Mars. The public expected to find it, and probably so did many of the scientists, and what would happen when hopes were dashed? Murray argued in his memoir that “the extraordinarily hostile environment revealed by the Mariner flybys made life there so unlikely that public expectations should not be raised.” Carl Sagan, who fully expected to find something there, accused Murray of pessimism. Murray accused Sagan of far too much optimism. And the two publicly jousted over how to treat the Viking mission.

Murray, as well as other politically savvy scientists and public intellectuals, argued that the legacy of failure to detect life, despite billions spent on research since the beginning of the space age and overoptimistic statements that a breakthrough was just around the corner, would spark public disappointment and perhaps an outrage manifested in reduced public funding for the effort.

The Viking Lander.

The Viking Lander.

The failure of Viking to find evidence of life on Mars revealed a core problem of overselling possibilities for extraterrestrial life and its discovery. The disappointment was palpable, at least if missions are sparked by success. Thereafter, no spacecraft went to Mars for more than twenty years after Viking. Not until 1988 did the Soviet Union, just a year away from collapse and the end of the Cold War, sent Phobos 1 and 2 to Mars, while one failed en-route the second completed part of its mission prior to failure. The Mars Observer launched by the United States on September 25, 1992, fared little better. Intended to provide the most detailed data available about Mars as it orbited the planet since what had been collected by the Viking explorers of the mid-1970s, the mission was progressing smoothly until August 21, 1993, three days before the spacecraft’s capture in orbit around Mars. Suddenly and without warning, controllers lost contact with it.

The engineering team working on the project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory responded with a series of commands to turn on the spacecraft’s transmitter and to point the spacecraft’s antennas toward Earth. No signal came from the spacecraft, however, and the Mars Observer was not heard from again. The loss of the nearly $1 billion Mars Observer probably came as a result of an explosion in the fuel lines of the space vehicle. One wit offered an alternative explanation, suggesting that after the landing by the Vikings in 1976 the Martians had developed a planetary defense system and it was now knocking out everything aimed at the red planet.

We now know that was never the case, of course, but the question of life on Mars at some time in the distant past remains open.

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Baseball Is… A Lot of Fun


What an enjoyable little book! My good friend Paul Dickson, well known for his writing on the history of baseball and other aspects of American history, has assembled a witty and sometimes funny collection of comments from a range of people characterizing the game we all love, whether we know it or not. Baseball has long been used as a metaphor for life, meaning, the universe, God, and anything else anyone can think of. I have heard it used to teach lessons in the bedroom, the board room, and the bar; in the church and in the community center; and even on the all knowing, all seeing television.

Here are just a few of my favorite statements from the book:

  •  “Baseball is simple but never easy”—Roger Angell.
  • “In the great department store of life, baseball is the toy department”—Anonymous.
  • “Baseball is the slowest sport this side of long-distance needlepoint”—Russell Baker.
  • “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical”—Yogi Berra.
  • “Baseball is the only sport where you can do everything 100 percent right and still fail”—Wade Boggs.
  • “Baseball, my son, is the cornerstone of civilization”—Dagwood Bumstead.
  • “Baseball is not unlike war, and when you get right down to it, we batters are the heavy artillery”—Ty Cobb.
  • “Baseball is a romance, marked by good days and bad, heartaches and thrills, ups and downs, but always with each day promising something new”—Michele Walters Costa.
  • “Baseball is very big with my people. It figures. It’s the only time we get to shake a bat at a white man without starting the riot”—Dick Gregory.
  • “Baseball is the only game you can see on the radio”—Phil Hersh.
  • “Baseball is the most important thing in life that doesn’t matter”—Robert B. Parker.
  • “It is said that baseball is only a game. Yes, and the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona”—George Will.

I also enjoyed one from Nuke Laloosh in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham: “A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.” I also like that he included a quote from Annie Savoy from the same film: “Baseball is never boring. Which makes it like sex.” Just great!

Buck up baseball fans, this book is for you. It contains a loving set of statements about baseball and its meaning. Some of them are trite, some silly, some compelling, some enlightening, and some provocative. All of them are entertaining.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Viva Baseball”


Viva BaseballViva Baseball: Latin Major Leaguers and their Special Hunger. By Samuel O. Regalado. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

This very well-done book chronicles the rise of Latin American baseball players from the nineteenth century to the 1990s. As the beginning point in this study, Viva Baseball is a major step in historical scholarship concerning a major aspects of the socio-cultural aspects of the American Pastime. By the time that Regalado published this book nearly twenty-years ago Latin American players had emerged as the dominant ethnicity of all players—some 20 percent of all major leaguers and more than thirty-three percent of minor league players—and their numbers have growth since that time.

Viva Baseball takes a chronological approach to this subject, noting that in the nineteenth century a few Latin players such as Cuba’s Esteban Bellan made their way to the United States and played for MLB teams. Not until World War II, however, did large numbers start to arrive. First from Cuban and then from Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean. Some of them became stars and household names. Bobby Avila from Mexico, Venezuela’s Luis Aparicio, and Cubans Vic Power, Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant, and Tony Oliva, were among the first. They were followed by many more—Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty, Dennis Martinez, Rod Carew, Manny Sanguillen, and Tony Perez, among others—all of them making an indelible mark on the game and the socio-cultural landscape.

Roberto Clemente deserves a special place in this pantheon, as the Latin player of the 1960s that most redrew the landscape of baseball. Playing in relative obscurity for much of his career for the Pittsburgh Pirates Clemente never achieved the level of stardom he deserved until his remarkable performance leading the Pirates over the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series. The showcase established his legend after years of difficulties with MLB management, sportwriters, and some fans. His tragic death on January 1, 1973, which flying supplies to victims of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua cast a mythical status on his entire life and career.

Regalado seeks to equate the experience of these Latin players to the larger aspects of all Hispanics in America. He notes that they were always strangers in the land, without knowledge of the culture, the language, and the mores of the racist U.S. society. Some adapted to it well, learned what they needed to get by, and the U.S. their permanent home. Others had more difficulty, were homesick, fiercely lonesome, and returned to their families each winter. Luis Aparicio made the point of learning as much English as possible, explaining that the bat and the ball are the same regardless of where he plays but the language is different and he needed to master that as well. Others, such as Felipe Alou went on to leadership with several different teams over the years.

Largely, Regalado finds that Latin MLB players are a microcosm of the larger Hispanic culture in the U.S. They face the same issues, prejudices, and roadblocks. Sometimes, they serve as rallying points for Hispanic society. His chapter on “Fernandomania” in 1981 is a case in point. Fernando Valenzuela’s remarkable pitching performance for the Los Angeles Dodgers galvanized millions of Hispanics who cheered for his success. And he delivered, leading the Dodgers to a World Series victory over the New York Yankees.

While there is much to praise in this book, I find the author’s lumping together of the divergent Hispanic culture into a single entity a bit unnerving. Mexican baseball is different than that played in the Caribbean, different than Cuban or South American baseball. The players come from different cultures, although they may all speak Spanish. What differences exist? How are Puerto Ricans, who are after all U.S. citizens, differ from other groups? Might we also effectively analyze those differences?

Regardless, this is an excellent entrée into a complex topic.

 

 

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In Remembrance: Molly Macauley


Macauley_5x7

I was both shocked and saddened to learn over this last weekend that Molly K. Macauley, whom I worked with many times over the years, was murdered while walking her dogs in Roland Park in Baltimore, Maryland, on the night of July 8. Molly was an excellent economist who specialized in science and technology, and did considerable work on the economics of spaceflight. The news story from the Baltimore Sun is here. Marcia Smith has a fine recollection of Molly’s life and contributions to space economics here.

I first met Molly not long after beginning work at the NASA Headquarters as the Chief Historian in 1990. She urged me to pursue historical projects that had an economics element. Ultimately, she said, everything is about economics. She was right and over time convinced me to emphasize more of the economics story into the history of spaceflight. I have tried to do that to the present.

Her tragic death is a loss to all of us involved in space policy and history. My condolences to her family and friends.

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