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T Minus 5 Days and Counting: The Ghosts of Apollo 1

The crew of Apollo 11 poses in the command module “Columbia” during an egress test on 10 June 1969. From left: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin.

From a distance of 40 years it’s pretty easy to see the Apollo 11 astronauts as loosey-goosey test pilots and thrillseekers. PR photos like this one help.

Sometimes there are hints of another 1960s group with the same jaunty angles:

Or even more directly:

The resemblance is not exact, but the attitude is familiar.

You could probably spend a few pleasant few hours drawing the lines from Sinatra to John F. Kennedy on through to the Apollo astronauts. Kennedy was occasional pals with King Cool Sinatra, and Kennedy was the man who in 1961 gave the country the goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

There’s a certain laconic style of cool affected by nearly all astronauts and airline pilots, as I think Tom Wolfe pointed out in The Right Stuff, and it’s not so far from Sinatra in its way.

What the Apollo astronauts did that Sinatra would never do, what most sensible people would never do, was this: Climb willingly into a space capsule that had already proved itself to be a death trap.

Climb in and then bolt the hatch.

1967 was the year that Apollo 1 went up in flames, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. It was a simple launch-pad test gone wrong. A random spark or faulty wiring ignited the pure oxygen inside the capsule into an instant blast furnace of fire and poison gas.

The burst of pressure from the combustion was so great that the capsule actually ruptured, sending flame and smoke pouring out. People near the launch tower who heard the sound thought the capsule had exploded.

It took the support crew five minutes to remove the three separate hatches, fighting smoke and flames to use ratchets on red-hot bolts. Grissom, White and Chaffee were long dead from burns and asphyxiation before even the first hatch was cleared.

Among other grisly details, the melted masses of nylon from the astronauts’ suits prevented the first rescuers from removing them from the capsule at all.

Bad wiring wasn’t the only problem — far from it. Dozens of design errors were exposed. Had the astronauts gotten to the main hatch, it wouldn’t have helped: it opened inward, and they couldn’t have pulled it in against the pressure from the fire. And on and on.

See NASA’s chillingly clinical review of the fire for details. (“At 23:30:54.8 GMT, a significant voltage transient was recorded…”)

A “significant voltage transient,” yes. The hatch of Apollo 1 after the fire looked like the hatch to the main boiler of the HMS Titanic.

Yet two years later, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin were climbing through another hatch, going through the same politely-named “egress tests,” all with the assumption that the Apollo I problems had been fixed. They took their lives in their hands.

I guess the point is not that these were brave men or brawny men or the best and the brightest. Everyone can imagine the extraordinary qualities needed just to spend eight days crammed into a capsule the size of a Volkswagen without freaking out, to say nothing of performing the tasks of astronauts into the bargain.

Yet these man had still another extra measure of steel or calm or ambition (or philosophical enlightenment) that let them shinny into the capsule and look past that plain primal danger of Apollo 1… and get on with business.

That extra measure of whatever-it-was is just a little bit eerie or even scary in its way. Certainly it’s well beyond “cool.”

The Apollo 11 crew relaxes during training on 24 May 1969, two months before going to the moon.

Plenty of sensible people came down on the Apollo program after the fire. NASA points out that respected Senator William Fulbright, a longtime critic of both NASA and excess government spending, blamed the tragedy on what he called “the inflexible, but meaningless, goal of putting an American on the moon by 1970.”

Fulbright was right, but only in the way that a pitcher is right when he throws an 0-2 fastball in the perfect spot — and then watches Babe Ruth knock it out of the park anyway. The absolute goal of reaching the moon by 1970 drove the whole Apollo project, and there were always men willing to climb through the hatch and take the chance.

One of the small tasks that Armstrong and Aldrin managed on 20 July 1969 — with, hey, a full 160 days on the deadline to spare — was to leave a mission patch from Apollo 1 on the surface of the moon.

(Spacecraft photos courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Rat Pack photo from the 1964 film Robin and the Seven Hoods)

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