Apollo 1 disaster 53 years ago in sharper relief following SpaceX Crew Dragon explosion
The 53rd anniversary of the Apollo I fire, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, falls just nine months after the explosion of the SpaceX Dragon crew capsule. The trauma of the 1967 disaster, which put America’s lunar landing programme on hold, explains why NASA won’t take chances with its newest great venture – the Commercial Crew Programme.
The 1967 tragedy happened during a practice session for the first manned Apollo mission. Its purpose, according to NASA, was "to demonstrate all space vehicle systems and operational procedures in as near a flight configuration as practical and to verify systems capability in a simulated launch." The extensive investigation identified the contributing factors and concluded that the Apollo team failed to give adequate attention "to certain mundane but equally vital questions of crew safety," and the Board’s investigation "revealed many deficiencies in design and engineering, manufacture, and quality control."
NASA began funding commercial-crew activities in 2010, in an attempt to spur the development of private astronaut taxis that take over the duties once performed by the Space Shuttle. According to Space.com, the agency has awarded some U.S. $270 million to four companies for such work – SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra.
SpaceX had planned to launch its Dragon crew vessel, carrying astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station (ISS) in June 2019. The Apr 20 explosion occurred, with no crew aboard, during a Static Fire Test on the launch pad. NASA and SpaceX have gone back to the drawing board, as the Apollo team did after the 1967 fire. The key test and launch plans for all four companies will be on hold until everyone is sure history won’t repeat itself with a commercial crew.
NASA officials stressed that the setback offers a chance to make Crew Dragon a better, safer vehicle. "This is why we test," NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our Commercial Crew Programme."
Space.com notes that there is another lesson as well – one that the Apollo 1 fire, the losses of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and other spaceflight disasters have drilled into us.