By Andy Cooke
January 27th, 1967: the first deaths of NASA astronauts on live operations. A day burned indelibly into the heart of NASA.
The Space Race was well under way. Vostok had been answered by Mercury. Voskhod and Gemini were nearly simultaneous. Now, at last, the Americans were pulling ahead. The frenetic pace was coming to a crescendo, and the first Apollo mission was nearly ready to go.
Changes, changes, changes
The rapid pace of design evolution was causing difficulties. The Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) would be out-of-date before it even launched - new ideas, solutions, deductions, realizations, wires rerouted, new black boxes replacing old ones - changes propagating from other components of the programme - coupled with the time taken to make any changes through the lengthy change management process meant that the hardware to be flown on Apollo 1 would bear little resemblance to that to be flown to the Moon - which could be as soon as Apollo 6 or 7.
Worse still, for the pilots, the simulator used for training and practice was so far behind the changes made to even the Apollo 1 CSM that Gus Grissom, the commander, felt it was almost dangerous. He hung a lemon on it to show how he felt. However, the lessons to be learned from the flight of the "Block I" Apollo CSM would be incorporated into the still-under-development "Block II," which would be flown in Apollo 2 and onwards.
Grissom was the second American into space, and the seniormost man in the astronaut corps (Alan Shepard, first American in space (and second human) had been grounded with an unexpected case of Menieres disease). Having survived a scare when his Mercury capsule, Liberty Bell 7, sank after landing when the hatch mysteriously blew open, Grissom was not shy in giving his opinions as to how to improve the capsules. Indeed, the Gemini capsule incorporated so much of his design suggestions, the other astronauts nicknamed it "The Gusmobile."
Grissom flew his second mission as commander of Gemini 3, the first manned Gemini mission, and became the first American to fly into space twice. He called his second spacecraft "Molly Brown," after a popular musical: The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in a reference to his Mercury mishap. When NASA officials asked for a different name, unhappy at the levity shown, he suggested "Titanic."
They went with the first name.
NASA had come up with an alphabetised series of missions that needed to be successfully carried out. The A-Class and B-Class missions were unmanned tests of the Saturn V launcher/CSM and the Lunar Module (LM) respectively. The C-Class mission would be a manned test of the CSM in Earth Orbit. This would be repeated by a second C-Class mission with a Block II CSM, before a D-Class mission would test the entire spacecraft (CSM and LM together and separately) in Low Earth Orbit.
Once they were content that the D-Class mission was safely and reliably carried out (however many flights it took), they would repeat it in High Earth Orbit (the E-Class mission). Then would come the F-Class mission, which would test the entire system in lunar orbit, including a partial descent and ascent - a dress rehearsal - before the G-Class mission would complete the first landing on the Moon and return to the Earth.
Planning beyond that, H-Class missions would demonstrate precision landings and systematic lunar exploration, I-Class missions would be manned lunar orbit surveys, and J-Class missions would be extended scientific landing missions including a Lunar Rover. Beyond that, was planned return visits, ultra-extended missions, Lunar Hoppers to fly astronauts short distances across lunar landscapes, LM-Labs, LM-Shelters, and the first steps to a Moonbase (hopefully by 1980). That was the plan.
Together with Ed White (the first American to spacewalk) and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee, Grissom would fly the first "C-Class" mission on the road to the lunar surface.
Moreover, the first man on the Moon had been selected. Deke Slayton, head of the Astronaut Office and Director of Flight Crew Operations (and one of the Mercury Seven who had been grounded by atrial fibrillation before his first flight), was determined that a Mercury astronaut would be first on the Moon. With himself and Al Shepard grounded, Scott Carpenter having left under a cloud, John Glenn reserved for publicity, only three were left. One of whom, Gordon Cooper, was not seen as the most reliable option. In any case, everyone liked Gus: he was the seniormost astronaut, and completely dedicated to the programme.
Grissom would command the first landing mission. And if that didn't land, for whatever reason, he'd have the next one as well.
Delays and disruption
The A-Class and B-Class missions were rapidly slipping to the right. Instead of being flown in late 1966, the A-Class mission was still unflown on that January morning. The B-Class mission should have been close to flying, with LM delivery scheduled for September 1966 to be checked out for a spring 1967 launch. It, too, was several months behind schedule.
Gus was determined that the C-Class mission (which did not need the delayed Saturn V; it would be launched on a proven Saturn IB) would not suffer the same fate.
Yes, the Apollo system had problems. Yes, there were malfunctions in the environmental system, there were coolant leaks, wiring issues, problem after problem - but it was a brand new spacecraft being built on the edge of technological capability. Mercury and Gemini had had issues as well, and Grissom had helped push them through, resolve the difficulties, amend the design, and then pilot them into space successfully - especially Gemini, when they'd finally started listening to him. If Slayton could pick one astronaut to sort out Apollo, he'd pick Grissom.
In fact, he had.
On the day of the 27th of January, they were to carry out a "plugs-out" test on the pad. In the spacecraft (unnamed - for some reason, all American manned spacecraft from Gemini 4 onwards had been unnamed...), the astronauts would use only the spacecraft's internal systems for one of their last tests before launch. The Saturn IB booster would not be fuelled for the test, of course - safety was important.
"How are we going to get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?"
The test was not going well. Grissom had delayed it by an hour when there was an unidentified smell in the on-board oxygen (as with Mercury and Gemini, pure oxygen was used in order to allow a lower pressure and far simplified plumbing in comparison to an oxygen-nitrogen mix. North American, the manufacturers, had been unhappy over this due to the many risks of using a pure oxygen atmosphere; with the confidence of fifteen consecutive successful manned mission, NASA overruled them). Then, when they climbed in to start the test and pulled the plugs out, the balky communications system started playing up again. Grissom had, almost in jest, suggested that North American's Programme Manager, Joe Shea, climb into the capsule with them if he didn't believe them. Shea, who certainly did believe the problems, considered it seriously - the alternative viewpoint provided could be useful. In the end, realising he'd be stuck under the astronauts on the floor, he decided the perspective would be of limited benefit and stayed in the blockhouse with the monitoring equipment.
The afternoon wore into the evening and the simulated launch was delayed again and again as they tried to get the radios working. In frustration, Grissom asked (over the barely audible radio), how they expected to fly to the Moon if they couldn't even talk between the buildings. The countdown was held at T-10 minutes while they tried yet again to sort out the issues. Eleven minutes into the latest hold, the radio managed to convey an important message from the capsule. It sounded like: "Fire!"
The next message was clearer and more distinct. At least the communications were starting to work. You could even recognize Roger Chaffee's urgent voice (as Command Module pilot - really, the co-pilot to the Commander - his responsibility was to keep communications flowing in case of an incident): "We've got a fire in the cockpit!"
The "pad rats" jumped into action, one of them wondering "Why don't they blow the hatch!?" The answer to his question was that since the Liberty Bell 7 incident, NASA had rejected the use of explosive hatches. The hatch on the Block I Apollo capsule took ninety seconds to open, using a special tool. But with the roaring fire flashing through the capsule's pressurised pure-oxygen atmosphere, it rapidly became impossible. The internal pressure was way beyond human capabilities to overcome.
It wasn't until the capsule itself ruptured in the heat and pressure that the pad-rats got the hatch opened - several minutes into the fire. Grissom and White were tangled under the inside of the hatch, their suits melted together. Chaffee was still in his seat, having stayed there to keep the communications lines open. All three were, unsurprisingly, dead.
Apollo was instantly grounded. An inquiry was under way, with the famous Senator Mondale on the warpath. Despite their warnings over the pure oxygen atmosphere, North American were nominated to carry the can, with Joe Shea moved off the programme almost immediately.
The inquiry determined that the fire started somewhere under the astronauts' feet. The pressurised oxygen atmosphere provided the perfect environment for it to bloom, and the acres of velcro (added at astronauts insistence - they'd found from experience that it was essential for holding equipment in one place in zero-gee) provided ample fuel. And it was judged to have been impossible for the crew to escape or survive when this had happened.
There had been long discussions over the safety versus danger of a pure oxygen atmosphere. One argument had been that even in a 100% oxygen environment, the lower pressure (5 pounds per square inch (psi) rather than the 14.7 psi sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth) meant that the crew had more of a chance to stop any fire from exploding out of hand. But in a sea-level test of the capsule, the pressure was run up to over 16 psi in order to demonstrate that the capsule could withstand the differential pressures. And at that pressure, the fire simply exploded.
A series of recommendations followed. Apollo Block II would use an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere after all. A simplified and rapid crew egress system would be developed (the hatch on the Block II ended up being able to be opened easily in three seconds flat). Control of changes would be reinforced. Control of velcro and other "little additions" would be reinforced. Many other safety changes were made, and time was allowed for changes to propagate through the system. But more and more pressure was put on to find more scapegoats, Mondale smelling blood.
In the end, at a public inquiry, Frank Borman (one of five astronauts chosen to speak to the Congressional Inquiry and veteran of Gemini 7, the longest spaceflight to date), faced hostile questioning, especially from Mondale. After withstanding it for a while, an obviously exasperated Borman stated firmly, "Stop the witch hunt and get on with Apollo. We at NASA are trying to tell you that we are confident in our management. We are confident in out training and in our engineering and in ourselves. I think the question is really: are you confident in us?"
Mondale had overplayed his hand and the Apollo programme was back on - albeit delayed by eighteen months. The C-Class mission - with a Block II CSM - was finally flown in October 1968, on Apollo 8 (the Apollo 1 number was held for the lost crew, Apollos 2 and 3 were cancelled, the delayed unmanned A-Class mission(s) were flown as Apollo 4 and 6, and the B-Class mission was flown as Apollo 5).
The eighteen months, and the lessons learned from the tragedy, were crucial in allowing Apollo development to catch up with the programme. The Apollo capsules flown were far, far safer than they otherwise would have been.
The fire was essentially a random event. It might well have been a near-certainty that such a spark and conflagration would have happened eventually, given the casual way the pure oxygen atmosphere was being treated and the relentless pace of development.
You could, of course, simply have that particular spark not happen. Or even have Joe Shea decide to go in with the astronauts after all. He pointed out afterwards that the position he'd have been curled up in, although less than handy for monitoring what was going on, would have put his eye line directly over the point where the spark was believed to have occurred. In the circumstances, he assessed a better than evens chance of him being able to put the fire out before it even got started.
Whichever way you choose, you now have a surviving Apollo 1 capsule, with Grissom, White, and Chaffee living on. If Shea has to intervene, you can guarantee there would be a mini-inquiry and a huge sigh of relief at dodging another bullet.
Apollo 1 would certainly be delayed, but the Block I capsule would have flown later that spring. It may have been only partially successful, with an early re-entry. Or it could have succeeded and Apollo 2 been launched with an only partly amended Block II CSM. One with a balky hatch, pure oxygen atmosphere, plentiful fire sources, other safety issues, and rushed development.
It wouldn't even have saved much time on the schedule. The Saturn V rocket and the LM were behind schedule and the programme could only move at the pace of the slowest element. This would not, though, have meant that North American would have had more time to sort out their problems - contractually obliged to provide capsules as quickly as possible, rolling off the assembly line like shells to be stored at Kennedy Space Center until used, they would keep their problems hidden until later.
Sooner or later, the odds would have caught up with NASA. There would have been a fire in a capsule. Maybe, if the astronauts happened to be in their suits at the time and they managed to open the (laborious) hatch in time, they could have put the fire out by venting the air into space - fire cannot burn in a vacuum. Maybe, if they were looking in the right place at the right time, they might have stopped it before it spread out of hand. More probably, though, they would have burned. Even at 5 psi, a pure oxygen environment is very unforgiving of fire.
In space. On a mission. Maybe the C-Class mission, maybe the D-Class one, maybe the E-Class one. Maybe in lunar orbit, on one or more dress rehearsals (in OTL they needed only one; with less proven and more experimental hardware, how many would they need in this ATL?). Maybe on the landing mission itself - this Timeline's "Apollo 11" equivalent.
Not only would the disaster have been even more devastating psychologically (especially if it was on the first landing mission), NASA would have been unable to properly carry out an inquest. Unable to tear the capsule down and go through it item by item, panel by panel, inch by inch as they uncovered the cause. Instead of an eighteen month delay, how long would the delay have been? If it caused them to miss the end-of-decade deadline, or if the Soviets had succeeded in beating them to lunar orbit at least, would it have been terminal? Imagine the national trauma from America losing their first astronauts in the moment they finally reached out to the Moon. What would the Space Race have looked like beyond that point?
One thing we do know, however. If (and it's a big "If") the delayed fire had occurred on the G-Class mission, the lunar landing, whatever number it turned out to be, it would still have claimed the life of Gus Grissom. If it did not kill him, your timeline would not have had Neil Armstrong as the first man on the Moon. If it was not Alexei Leonov, or Vladimir Komarov, it would have been Gus.
Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP