Another week begins and it’s time for #HistoryMonday again. That of course means I choose a historical event that occurred on this day and offer my thoughts about that event. Today provides an opportunity for a double-header both dealing with outer space.
On this day in 1967, the AS-204 command module catches on fire at the launch pad while program tests were being conducted at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The fire resulted in deaths of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chafee. Investigators believed a faulty wire sparked in the oxygen-rich environment of the
Astronauts Grissom and White had already flown space missions during Project Gemini, while Chaffee was expecting to make his first spaceflight with the launch of the AS-204 spacecraft. North American Aviation was responsible for the construction of the spacecraft. Shortly before the spacecraft was delivered to Florida, the crew expressed concern of the plentiful use of flammables such as nylon netting and Velcro that were usually used to secure tools and equipment. Skepticism about the timeline of the program led the crew to jokingly remind the construction manager for the spacecraft that maybe divine intervention was necessary.
Also happening subsequently around locations in London, Moscow, and Washington D.C. the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty) is signed by a plethora of UN members. The Outer Space Treaty provides the framework for international space law. Signatories to the treaty agreed that weaponizing space is not permissible according to the terms of the contract. By signing this contract and including the moon as safe zone from weaponization, the three major nations of the United States, United Kingdom, and the United Soviet Socialist Republics foresaw that reaching the moon by space travel would be soon accomplished.
Shortly after the AS-204 failure, an investigation was launched by NASA pursuant to their established procedures after the Gemini 8 failure. The investigation determined that a pure oxygen atmosphere, flammable materials, faulty wiring, and restrictive hatch design ultimately contribute to a perfect storm of issues leading to the disaster. Congressional investigations were also launched which included reports from a previous investigation into construction delays and costs of the spacecraft. Based on the investigation of the failures, insulated wiring, fireproof coating of the nylon netting, a 60/40 mix of oxygen to nitrogen under pressure, and an outward opening hatch were to be installed on the next spacecrafts.
The widows of the astronauts asked NASA to officially designate the mission Apollo 1 which the crew had hoped to name the mission before their untimely deaths. NASA complied with this request in honor of the crew’s wishes. Although, three unmanned missions had launched before the new Apollo 1 mission they were left nameless. Of these three flights, only 2 included spacecraft and were connected to the new number sequencing. This resulted in Apollo 4 being the next launch while Apollo 2 & 3 were left unused. The mission and the crew have been memorialized in various locations around the U.S. Of course, as a Hoosier, I’ve visited Gus Grissom’s hometown Mitchell many times and seen a memorial dedicated to his memory in Spring Mill State Park. Grissom’s work at NASA likely inspired a handful of others in Lawrence County, Indiana to become astronauts as well.
The Outer Space Treaty would eventually go into effect on 10 October 1967. It has since been signed by 109 signatories the last being France in September of 1967. Many others have deposited their accession to the treaty at one of the three locations even as recently as February of last year. Follow-up agreements include: The Rescue Agreement of 1968, The Space Liability Convention of 1972, and The Registration Convention of 1976. These treaties are coordinated by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) to answer relevant questions of space jurisdiction. It’s worth noting these treaties are only agreed upon by Earth parties and it isn’t known whether extraterrestrial parties will sign these treaties. More likely, the United Federation of Planets will combine elements of these treaties with treaties from other planets in order to form their government and law into founding documents next century sometime in 2161.
What do you remember about Gus Grissom and the other astronauts on Apollo 1?