Setbacks in US Space History: Why Well-Supported Science Matters

Fifty years ago, on January 27th, 1967, three astronauts died in a fire aboard the capsule that would have been Apollo I. During a routine preparation test, a short circuit in their computing machinery ignited inside the capsule’s all-oxygen pressurized environment, leading to an immediate fireball engulfing the cabin within seconds. Simply put, this accident was avoidable and caused ultimately by the haste of the NASA personnel designing the Apollo program.

Earlier missions in NASA’s Mercury program exposed the risk involved with having a mixed nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere inside the capsule: more complex machinery to provide both gases and the risk of astronauts experiencing decompression sickness (AKA the “bends”). Surprisingly, NASA officials admitted they hadn’t considered the impact of a 100% oxygen environment on fire risk.

Additionally, the Apollo capsule’s interior was not designed with fire mitigation in mind, as the review board found after the accident. Wires throughout the capsule were not adequately shielded. Combustible materials were placed near heat sources without caution. Lastly, the capsule’s liquid cooling system, prone to leaks, used a solution that reacted with the highly-oxygenated atmosphere of the capsule in an exothermic nature.

The Space Race had NASA cutting corners wherever possible to get their astronauts strapped onto a rocket and shot into the sky. Communication and caution in these cases would have saved lives. Instead, our ambition as a nation wasted them.

Thirty-one years ago, seven of America’s bravest men and women perished on their journey to the stars. Their journey ended, tragically, just minutes into their flight aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, as the orbiter, its external fuel tank, and solid rocket boosters violently exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The late Dr. Richard Feynman, renowned physicist, traveled across the country to find the answers as part of a Congressional commission. Not to spoil the linked excerpt from his memoir, but actually this pretty much spoils it: he ultimately found that pressures to launch on time forced management at a contracted aerospace company to ignore and sequester their engineers’ concerns that the material of which the shuttle’s solid rocket booster’s sealing O-Rings would not perform to specification given the unusually cold weather at the launchpad the morning of the launch.

The failure of these O-Rings allowed for highly-pressurized, super-hot combustion artifacts to leak from the starboard solid rocket booster. This plume burned a hole in the external fuel tank (the big orange one), which suffered a catastrophic failure ultimately resulting in a very large explosion and disintegration of the entire vehicle.

Fourteen years ago, seven more of our nation’s selfless explorers were lost. The Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on atmospheric re-entry on February 1st, 2003. Pieces of the shuttle, including personal equipment of the astronauts, were found strewn about Texas and Louisiana.

It was discovered after investigation that a piece of insulation foam from the external fuel tank struck the leading edge of the orbiter’s wing, damaging it and leaving it susceptible to high-temperature gas entry during re-entry. These high-temperature gases entered the internal structure of the wing and effectively destroyed it.

During Columbia’s orbit, concern was raised over the condition of the wing by engineers on the orbiter team, but their concerns were responded to with callous disregard for human life: “You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS [Thermal Protection System]… Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”

Headstrong pushes for achievement over careful progression, as well as failure to address legitimate concerns from the people actually doing the work have cost the lives of several astronauts. These were all preventable accidents, if only the individual contributors were trusted as much as the top brass.

Without skilled, patient, and disciplined scientists, we are doomed to repeat our own failures, at the cost of our fellow humans’ lives. This is why support for a thriving scientific community is critical to our nation’s well-being and safety.

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