The Space Review

 
Apollo 1 crew
Could the Apollo 1 astronauts have been saved had NASA known about a similar Soviet accident? (credit: NASA)

Could the CIA have prevented the Apollo 1 fire?

The 40th anniversary of NASA’s first space-related fatal accident, the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, is an opportunity to consider one of the myths that have grown up around the tragedy: the claim that the CIA might have prevented the Apollo fire.

As if foreshadowing the Apollo 1 fire, the first documented fire-related fatality in a space program also occurred during a simulation. On March 23, 1961, a flash fire in an oxygen-saturated isolation chamber took the life of cosmonaut-trainee Valentin Bondarenko, at age 23 the youngest member of the year-old cosmonaut team. His death came during a routine training and medical screening activity. Published sources (references 1 and 2) differ on the details, but Bondarenko was the seventeenth cosmonaut trainee to spend ten days or more in the chamber in the previous year. The chamber atmosphere was high in oxygen content because decompression was among the stresses in store for the trainees. When he used an alcohol-soaked cotton swab to remove the adhesive residue from medical sensors on his body, and then casually discarded the swab, it fell on a electrical element used for heating food in the oxygen-rich environment and sparked a flash fire that engulfed him; he died within hours from burns over 90 percent of his body. After a rigorous investigation, testing resumed, and a few weeks later, two more trainees successfully completed the test; the next year the first women cosmonaut-trainees did, too.

No sooner had Bondarenko’s tragedy permeated the Western space consciousness than the question arose: could the Apollo fire have been avoided if only the Soviet Union had been forthcoming about Bondarenko’s fate earlier?

Less than three weeks later, the historic orbital flight of Bondarenko’s colleague, Yuri Gagarin, in the first Vostok spacecraft challenged America’s sense of technological superiority, and moved President Kennedy to set the national goal that became the Apollo program. Soviet-era secrecy being what it was—especially if the news did not reflect favorably on the Soviet Union—word of Bondarenko’s death didn’t reach the West until 1986. That was the year of the second American spacecraft disaster, the loss of Challenger and her crew just moments after launch. (Space aficionados shuddered at the eerie similarity of the date, January 28, 1986, with that of the Apollo 1 fire.)

No sooner had Bondarenko’s tragedy permeated the Western space consciousness than the question arose: could the Apollo fire have been avoided if only the Soviet Union had been forthcoming about Bondarenko’s fate earlier? Perhaps, the thinking went, such an object lesson might have influenced NASA to design its Apollo spacecraft to use a two-gas (nitrogen and oxygen) cabin atmosphere, instead of the pure oxygen atmosphere already in use in the Mercury capsules. Or, at the very least, surely NASA would have avoided the cabin leak check procedure that required pressurizing the cabin above sea level pressure, at least not with pure oxygen. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, no stranger to near-death experience himself, even posited that the CIA must have successfully pierced Soviet secrecy, learned of Bondarenko’s death, and informed NASA, but that the space agency still stubbornly refused to change the gas mixture.

In fact, the decision to adopt a pure oxygen atmosphere for Apollo was vigorously debated by spacecraft manufacturers and government and academic clinicians before it was finalized by NASA as a weight-saving step. And as for object lessons, there was no shortage of them, even without the CIA’s help. NASA could also have taken warning from at least seven examples of oxygen-related fires in operational US testing facilities (reference 3), four of which occurred between two years and nine months before the Apollo fire. Three involved unmanned tests of Apollo life support systems, at least one of which used pure oxygen at the planned cabin pressure of five pounds per square inch. The remaining four fire events took place during manned US Air Force and US Navy chamber tests in the late 1950s and 1962. Three of those were tests of cabin atmospheres planned for Mercury and Gemini, and their crews escaped with injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to first and second degree burns. The fourth, in early 1965, saw two Navy divers die in a fire in a chamber pressurized to 8.6 atmospheres. In this case, the pressure and gas combination was being investigated for use in deep ocean operations, not space flight. (These events—but not the Bondarenko fatality—and about 70 chamber fires since then are reviewed in reference 4.)

That NASA failed to grasp the lessons of those fires is regrettable, but it was not unusual. Only four days after the Apollo fire, the Air Force lost two veterinary technicians in a pure oxygen chamber fire. Clearly NASA’s own object lesson was lost on the Air Force as well.

Notwithstanding all of the foregoing, is it still possible that NASA, if it had truly known of Bondarenko’s fate, might have been motivated to modify, if not the design of the Apollo life support system, then at least the ground test protocol to eliminate the high-pressure, pure-oxygen environment that made the Apollo fire so devastating? In fact, we have two examples of ill-advised decisions that the Soviet space program made, identified and corrected, in full public view, which NASA did not formalize in its own engineering requirements for years.

The first involved a means of extricating crewmembers from a spacecraft in case of a launch gone badly. In 1964 and 1965, the Soviets flew two manned Voskhod spacecraft (hurriedly modified Vostoks, rechristened to obscure their origin) to preempt NASA’s upcoming Gemini series by claiming the first multi-man flight (the three men aboard the first Voskhod trumped Gemini’s two-man capacity) and the first spacewalk (by Leonov on Voskhod 2). Both Voskhods lacked a means of escaping from the rocket booster if it went out of control soon after launch. All of the previous Vostoks carried ejection seats, and all subsequent Soyuz piloted launches have had launch-escape rockets, one of which actually saved a crew from a booster explosion on the launch pad in 1983. But the absence of a launch-escape technique aboard the Voskhods (the ejection seat was eliminated so the same spherical capsule could hold more than one cosmonaut) prompted disdain in the West—until 1983, when NASA’s Space Shuttle vehicle started flying without any means of extracting its crews during a failed launch. NASA finally experienced its first shuttle launch disaster when it lost the Challenger crew in 1986. Subsequent shuttle missions have carried a rudimentary bail-out capability for use only during landing, but any more thorough escape capabilities will not be available until 2014, when an entirely new NASA spacecraft, Orion, begins flying.

We have two examples of ill-advised decisions that the Soviet space program made, identified and corrected, in full public view, which NASA did not formalize in its own engineering requirements for years.

The second example involves astronaut pressure suits as a back-up in case cabin pressure is lost during launch or landing. The first Voskhod and the first ten Soyuz missions carried their cosmonaut crews wearing only garments similar to tracksuits. After the Soyuz 11 crew died during a re-entry cabin depressurization in 1971, subsequent Soyuz capsules were modified so all cosmonauts could wear lightweight full-pressure suits. Thankfully, no crews have needed this layer of protection since then. However, NASA did not provide similar “launch and entry suits” until the Challenger loss prompted more thoughtful consideration of the various scenarios in which such protection might afford the crews a better chance of survival. However, it must be noted that during the Apollo flights, American astronauts wore space suits during launch and major maneuvers; after Soyuz 11, NASA even considered reinforcing its suit-wearing policy on the remaining Apollo lunar missions, but determined that other measures already in place were adequate. Still, in the Shuttle era, Russian evidence supporting the need for pressure suits during launch and reentry was apparently not considered sufficient by NASA for another 15 years after the loss of the Soyuz 11 crew.

The anniversaries of space tragedies are rightly a time to consider the unique causes and effects that lead to terrible losses. The loss of the Columbia and her crew during reentry in 2003, from damage incurred during launch but not detected until long after the accident, came only days after the Apollo and Challenger anniversaries, another chilling coincidence. However, it prompted a reexamination of national space policy, leading to the decision to end the Space Shuttle program and initiate the Orion program, designed to be less susceptible to the launch-phase failures of the Shuttle.

Thus, there is evidence that the NASA of the 21st century has learned from object lessons of the past. For example, NASA’s White Sands Test Facility excels in testing and evaluating potentially hazardous materials for space flight (reference 5). But, if the NASA of the 1960s, 1970’s, and 1980’s was unable to generalize from knowledge of its own object lessons and those of the Air Force and Navy, let alone those publicly known from the Soviet Union, we cannot expect that the knowledge of one more such lesson, even one as graphic as Bondarenko’s death, would have made a difference.

References

  1. Russia’s Cosmonauts, Inside the Yuri Gagarin Training Center, by Rex D. Hall, David J. Shayler and Bert Vis, Praxis Publishing, Ltd., Chichester, UK, 2005, pp. 75-77.
  2. Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race, by David Scott and Alexei Leonov, Thomas Dunne Books, New York City, 2004.
  3. Report of Apollo 204 Review Board, Appendix D, Enclosure 2-6, pp. D-2-23 - 26.
  4. “Hyperbaric and hypobaric chamber fires: a 73-year analysis,” P.J. Sheffield and D.A. Desautels, Undersea Hyper Med 1997; 24(3):153-164.
  5. Oxygen Systems.

The author sincerely thanks Valerie Olson for her thoughtful comments and suggestions for this essay.


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