IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NASA has to fight the forgetting

As America's return to the moon gathers strength, NASA needs to keep the harsh realities of spaceflight in mind, not the comforting myths of sacrifice. Commentary by NBC News space analyst James Oberg.
Roger Chafee, Ed White and Gus Grissom practice their tasks in preparation for a launch that never took place. The three astronauts died 40 years ago in the Apollo 1 fire.
Roger Chafee, Ed White and Gus Grissom practice their tasks in preparation for a launch that never took place. The three astronauts died 40 years ago in the Apollo 1 fire.NASA file

HOUSTON - Astronauts had died before, in aircraft accidents associated with their training, but the Apollo fire on Jan. 27, 1967, was different. They were in spacesuits, in their spacecraft, on the pad, and in radio contact with Mission Control in Houston — about as close to a real mission as they could get.

Enough rockets had blown up over the years that the idea of it happening with men on board was never far from people’s minds. The idea of people getting killed while doing a space mission was accepted in light of how hard and risky spaceflight clearly was.

But when it actually happened, all the anticipation and speculation was forgotten in the shock of the moment. The crew was already well known to the public, especially Gus Grissom and his Mercury and Gemini flights, and Ed White and his stirring spacewalk, and even rookie Roger Chaffee and his bantam-rooster air of confident competence. It hurt then, and it still hurts now.

In post-disaster attempts to make sense, and impart meaning, to the fire, many said that it “taught lessons” and inspired the space team to better workmanship. The sacrifice, so they said, made Apollo safer, and probably prevented an even greater catastrophe later during actual moon missions. Historians agree that this was, in fact, a consequence of the disaster — but there are still differences of opinion as to whether such a disaster was the only way to achieve such ends.

Now as America’s return to the moon gathers strength, NASA is gathering anew the wisdom and insights of the Apollo experience. Documents, memoirs and even interviews with veterans are providing clues to the methodologies and mental attitudes that created an Earth-moon transportation system with high reliability and adequate robustness, even in the face of breakdowns such as Apollo 13.

But perhaps the mythologization of the Apollo-204 fire (the more formal mission designation that gave way to “Apollo 1”) — the comforting urge to wrap a disaster in meaningful significance — is itself a cultural failing. It could be a distraction from what a more cold-blooded calculus should be telling us, and what we really should know — and believe — as we embark again for the moon.

If we accept the “inevitability” of the disaster, and of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies that followed (and are also memorialized now in a three-for-one NASA observance), and if we congratulate ourselves for “how much the sacrifices taught us,” we are ducking a fearsome responsibility. It is this: We should have known already, and people should not have had to die to remind us. The later disasters were not “accidents,” random and unavoidable — they were consequences of complacency and carelessness.

Month in Space: January 2014

Slideshow  12 photos

Month in Space: January 2014

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

In hindsight, they were predictable. What’s even more horrifying is that they had been predictable in foresight as well — and that some engineers, true to NASA’s traditional safety culture, had tried to warn their teammates and managers. Why they failed is a lesson that the future space program must never be allowed to forget.

The Apollo fire occurred amid the passions of the early space race, and some relevant engineering data were unavailable because of Cold War secrecy. The Soviets had killed a cosmonaut-trainee in an oxygen chamber fire a few years before, but had kept it secret to protect their propaganda programs (Nikita Khrushchev, in charge at the time, later regretted not sharing the incident privately with NASA). NASA engineers had some experience with oxygen and thought they could keep it safe. So maybe there were marginally mitigating circumstances in 1967.

Not so in 1986 and 2003, and not so today or tomorrow or in the next decade. Two space shuttles, and seven astronauts each time, were wiped out not by surprising hazards or unknown circumstances, but because space workers forgot what they once knew, and still should have known, about minimizing the dangers as much as possible in space. They forgot the lessons paid for in time, treasure and blood on Jan. 27, 1967.

How to fight the forgetting
Fighting this “forgetting process,” this all-too-human gradual decline in the intensity of meticulous and thorough hardware development and mission preparation that comes with repeated mission successes, is the ultimate challenge to the new projects. NASA is trying to do this with lectures, with posters, with occasional ceremonies — but I’m not persuaded that’s enough.

The deaths of astronauts did, indeed, drive lessons home, but at hideous cost. The emotional impact of funerals, of images of weeping mourners and stunned onlookers, so overpowers any occupational habits or intellectual exercises that it is a challenge to develop less ghastly “consciousness-raising methods” — but it is a challenge NASA must respond to.

To drive home the necessary lessons, space workers need to actually touch (and be touched by) the terror of past tragedies more viscerally and less cerebrally. There are tricks here that NASA, as yet, hasn’t tried.

I remember discussing this with my boss Gene Kranz in the early 1990s, as we chatted about facing the safety challenges of building and operating the space station. He gazed out his window and mentioned his longstanding intention to build a real memorial to the Challenger astronauts, and for Apollo-204 as well, in Mission Control, to serve as a constant reminder of the death-defying duties each person there carried. One candidate location we discussed was a landing on the stairway in the control center building. It was an alcove that workers passed by on a daily basis, an appropriate place for a reminder.

We never got to build it. Instead, Kranz (along with his own boss, center director Aaron Cohen, a no-nonsense engineer) was soon retired, victim of political forces that had elevated diplomacy and public image over traditional NASA safety standards. Officials still proclaimed that safety was the first concern, but all their actions belied their words. And as the bumper sticker tells us, God may forgive, and man may forgive, but nature — never.

After the 73 seconds
Instead, we got make-believe “official remembrances” that glossed over, rather than got into, the emotional heart of the then-recent Challenger disaster. I recall the Challenger ceremonies at Johnson Space Center in which people assembled on the mall in front of the administration building to observe 73 seconds of silence — the time from liftoff to disintegration. But then the loudspeakers dismissed the crowds to meander aimlessly for a while during the next two and a half minutes when in 1986 the crew — still alive — plunged to the ocean and met their deaths.

That segment, the most emotionally horrifying part of the Challenger astronauts' ordeal, was edited out of the official remembrances and out of the minds of the workers — or at least, most of them. I remember that a small handful of us did remember, and remained standing still, in silence, our eyes on our watches and our minds on what had actually been going on in the skies off the Florida coast, for this period. Our colleagues, passing us on their way back to their offices, threw us puzzling glances.

The lessons of Apollo-204, and Challenger, and Columbia, tell us that intellect alone will not long keep us true to the traditions of “least dangerous” (never safe, but perhaps “safe enough”) space mission management. We need more primitive motivations — we need to touch and to feel, to sweat and to fear, to relive and to imagine dying — in order to resist the creeping complacency that repeated success carries with it.

Touching the tragedy
Space workers need to touch the wreckage of Apollo-204 and the lost shuttles, not have the fragments stashed away underground, out of sight and mind. They need pieces on display — and more, open to physical contact — where they do their death-defying work. They need images, not of the astronauts, but of their parents, spouses and children left behind. They need high-fidelity replays of the horrifying deaths of their friends and colleagues, and no-holds-barred confrontations with the decisions made by individuals that paved the path to ultimate catastrophe.

They need the consequent inescapable ache of fear and the gnawing of doubt that keeps asking, over and over, if they’ve covered all angles and done all they can. And if their stomachs do not knot up, and mouths go dry, as they confront such decisions — perhaps they need new jobs.

They do not need comforting myths about “valuable sacrifices” and “space-is-very-very-hard” rationalizations for the failures of individuals and teams. And most of all, they do not need more human sacrifices to remind them of things they knew, but somehow allowed themselves to forget.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly implied that the "Apollo 1" designation was not in use until months after the 1967 fire.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.