I wrote a brief obit for Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon, a couple of weeks ago. I felt I could be brief because I'd given him a fulsome trib in December 2015. It cost a lot to get Cernan and the other eleven moon-walkers to the surface of the moon and back: so much that the Human Genome Project, which cost about $1billion, usually employed the US Space Program as the only comparable mega-science endeavour. There were costs along the way which are hard to dollarise and costs afterwards as two Space Shuttles came back to earth in small pieces.
Don't Press This Button button and unravelled Margaret Hamilton's computer program. There was a tension between the NASA management who wanted the astronauts to be quiet passengers while they controlled everything from Houston and the astronauts, almost all previous test-pilots who wanted to be doing. Doing some daft things like Alan Shepard bringing a 6-iron and two golf balls to the moon and whacking one of them into the distance. NASA believed Grissom had not been tricking about with the door, let alone panicking to get relief from claustrophobia, and that's all the counted. He went up in Gemini 3, becoming the first man to do space twice but was still eclipsed in the public mind and history by John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.
Whatever you feel about the sinking of Liberty Bell 7, Apollo 1 was a good candidate for a Normal Accident: a cascade of small-small t'ings had to go wrong or go unnoticed. The inside of the capsule was pressurized a little above atmospheric with pure oxygen (!). A smoldering candle will burst into full flame in such an atmosphere. One of the ironies of the disaster was that the door was designed to open inwards - partly because of Grissom's earlier mishap with out-opening doorways. Another door shouldered some of the blame. An access port had, through repeated opening for inspection, stripped off the insulation of a silver-coated copper wire. The inspections were necessary because a tube transporting ethylene-glycol coolant was always leaking. With 20:20 hindsight it was revealed that silver had a positive electrolytic effect on ethylene-glycol and the ignition wouldn't have occurred with plain copper wire. One suspects that the silver coating was there to justify a fabulously inflated price for the material by NASA contractors North American and Grumman. They charged top dollar because they could, but their workmanship was often shoddy, the delivery time-keeping weak, and design-flaws manifold. We remove our shoes in the run up to all air-flights now because on 22 Dec 2001 Richard "Bat-shit bonkers" Reid smuggled a bomb aboard an American Airlines flight in his shoes. Likewise, the NASA contractors stopped using silver coated wire anywhere rather than thinking about the next potential hazard. If ethylene-glycol started the fire, there was plenty of flammable material in the cockpit to keep it going. The walls had been almost carpetted with Velcro which had been recently invented by George de Mestral; this allowed the astronauts to park pretty much everything while weightless but burned very well in pure oxygen . . . likewise the space-suits.
If you read Richard Feynman's story of the Challenger disaster and investigation, and you should, you'll get the feeling that NASA's managers were culpably negligent in heeding the concerns of their astronauts and terrestrial engineers about redundancy, safety, testing, and analysis of complex systems. Mean with the routine but necessary checks and balances, they were spend-thrift with contracts and were always cranking up the ante to make NASA more sexy and pioneering. It was as if they knew Congress would only buy into the idea of space-travel if the projects became increasingly complex and hard to fully comprehend. Feynman concluded that NASA management were almost ideologically incapable of grasping probability and risk-assessment.
In 1999, three decades after it sank, Liberty Bell 7 was recovered from the ocean floor. 52 more dimes were found loose in the capsule. It seems that Grissom wasn't the only one sending souvenirs into space - but he was the only man with the bottle to ride with the illicit payload.
I've been to the Kansas Cosmosphere and seen the Liberty 7. Absolutely frightening to contemplate getting into that tiny tin can and being blasted into near space. There are lounge chairs that are bigger.ReplyDelete