Did Politics Doom Apollo 1?

We live in an age where politics seems to pervade every aspect of our daily lives, touching everything from sports and entertainment to items as seemingly non-political as soft drinks and children’s cartoons. Apparently, nothing is off-limits. Yet if there was one entity that might be free of the taint of politics then perhaps NASA would be it. But sadly, that is not the case. 

The American space program is a source of national pride and wonderous accomplishment, culminating in six lunar landings from 1969 to 1972.  Americans don’t like to think that something as noble as NASA, which put the stars and stripes on the moon, could fall prey to political influences but it can and it has throughout its storied history. 

At the height of its prestige, during the race to the moon, NASA was responsible for roughly 5 percent of the federal budget, and that is far too large of a piece of the fiscal pie to leave on the table untouched. The very act of placing the new Mission Control Center in Houston, as opposed to Cape Canaveral, was all about politics and the influential juggernaut of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Political meddling also creeped into Apollo.

By early 1967, NASA had completed its first two programs – Mercury, with a goal of getting a man in space and orbit the earth, and Gemini, which would hone the skills necessary to reach the moon, were in the books. American astronauts had flown 16 missions without a disaster in space. There had been a few close calls, and three astronauts had been killed in plane crashes, but the space program had been free of tragedy. No astronaut had lost his life inside a spacecraft.

Then came January 27, 1967. Apollo 1 sat on launch pad 34 atop its Saturn 1B booster. The astronauts – Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee – were locked inside wearing their space suits. The spacecraft was running on its own power with an atmosphere of 100 percent oxygen at a pressure of more than 16 pounds per square inch. It was billed as a routine launch simulation test, known as a “plugs out test.” 

Several hours into the test a wire sparked and ignited the oxygen-rich atmosphere. The fire ran rapidly across the capsule, feeding on flammable material throughout the ship. With temperatures reaching more than a thousand degrees, the astronauts perished in seconds. 

An investigation revealed that the spark likely came from a wire that had been frayed during the assembly of the spacecraft. The responsibility largely, though not totally, would fall on North American Aviation, who had the contract to build the Apollo command and service module. 

So how does politics fit into such tragic accident?

Project Apollo was jumpstarted by President Kennedy, who put the nation on a path to the moon on May 25, 1961. NASA awarded the contracts for every component of Apollo that autumn. Perhaps the biggest plumb, the construction of the command and service module, went to North American Aviation. 

Yet during the initial evaluation of five major companies vying for the big prize, North American finished second behind Martin Marietta (today Lockheed Martin). The evaluation board was made up of experts – aerospace engineers and technicians, people who know what they are talking about. The contract should have gone to Martin. A few NASA engineers even made the point of telling the astronauts that they liked Martin’s proposal better than what North American submitted. 

But then the politicians stepped in. NASA executives asked the evaluation team to re-evaluate and take into consideration a company’s past experience with experimental aircraft, which gave a huge advantage to North American, the company that produced the X-15 rocket plane, which NASA had used to fly to the edge of space. 

Why would NASA make such a move? Jim Webb, NASA’s administrator, had once been an executive with the Kerr-McGee oil company. One of the partners, Robert Kerr, held a United States Senate representing the state of Oklahoma. In 1961, he chaired the Senate Space Committee. And he wanted a large chunk of NASA’s moon program for his state and he was determined to get it.

Before NASA awarded any Apollo contracts, Kerr had previously met with North American executives and wanted to know what they would do for Oklahoma. And when the chairman of one of the most important Senate committees asks that question, one should answer honestly, if they wanted a big bite of NASA’s piece of the pie. North American agreed to build a plant in Tulsa to construct some of the spacecraft components and promised to hire as many as 20,000 Oklahomans. Naturally, if North American was offering Kerr a good deal for Oklahoma, then he would be favorable toward the awarding of the contract.

Word began spreading around the astronaut corps that North American had it in the bag. There was no need to go any further with evaluations and meetings. And after the re-evaluation, North American finished in first place and won the contract. North American built a plant in Tulsa and, in order to take care of its banking business in Oklahoma, opened accounts in Tulsa in banks where Kerr, and Jim Webb, had extensive stock holdings. 

Martin was out and workers at North American were soon brandishing hats and shirts with a new slogan: NA$A.

After the fire, investigations by NASA revealed sloppy and shoddy workmanship on the part of North American Aviation, while congressional hearings revealed the underhanded dealings in awarding the contract. NASA officials were caught lying to Congress and withholding information.

Did politics kill Gus, Ed, and Roger in the Apollo 1 fire? Could political considerations have played any role in the disaster? If the contract had been awarded to Martin, as it probably should have, would the tragic outcome have been different? 

Astronaut John Young, a veteran of six space flights, believed it might have. “I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the awarding of the original prime contract for the Apollo command and service module had gone differently,” he wrote his memoirs in 2013. “Maybe the problems with the command module would just have been different ones, of a kind that could also have led to disaster and death. We’ll never know. But I’ll always wonder.” 

Though we can also wonder, it is obvious that if the politicians had stayed out of the process of evaluating aerospace companies and awarding major contracts, the fire would never have happened. It is a lesson that all Americans should learn but probably never will. It has become the price of doing business with the US government. 

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