This paper is going to compare the Apollo 1 and the Challenger disasters.
Both space programs were unfortunate disasters, caused by a series of oversights
and misjudgments. How did this lost of life occur in such a high tech
environment? Apollo 4
On January 27, 1967, the three astronauts of the Apollo 4, were doing a
test countdown on the launch pad. Gus Grissom was in charge. His crew were
Edward H. White, the first American to walk in space, and Roger B. Chaffee, a
naval officer going up for the first time. 182 feet below, R.C.A technician
Gary Propst was seated in front of a bank of television monitors, listening to
the crew radio channel and watching various televisions for important activity.
Inside the Apollo 4 there was a metal door with a sharp edge. Each time
the door was open and shut, it scraped against an environmental control unit
The repeated abrasion had exposed two tiny sections of wire. A spark
alone would not cause a fire, but just below the cuts in the cable was a length
of aluminum tubing, which took a ninety-degree turn. There were hundreds of
these turns in the whole capsule. The aluminum tubing carried a glycol cooling
fluid, which is not flammable, but when exposed to air it turns to flammable
fumes. The capsule was filled with pure oxygen in an effort to allow the
astronauts to work more efficiently. It also turns normally not so flammable
items to highly flammable items. Raschel netting that was highly flammable in
the pure oxygen environment was near the exposed section of the wires.
At 6:31:04 p.m. the Raschel netting burst into an open flame. A second
after the netting burst into flames, the first message came over the crew’s
radio channel: “Fire,” Grissom said. Two Seconds later, Chaffee said clearly,
“We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” His tone was businesslike (Murray 191).
There was no camera in the cabin, but a remote control camera, if zoomed
in on the porthole could provide a partial, shadowy view of the interior of the
There was a lot of motion, Propst explained, as White seemed to
fumble with something and then quickly pull his arms back, then reach out again.
Another pair of arms came into view from the left, Grissom’s, as the flames
spread from the far left-hand corner of the spacecraft toward the porthole
(Murray 192). The crew struggled for about 30 seconds after their suits failed,
and then died of asphyxiation, not the heat. To get out of the capsule
astronauts had to remove three separate hatches, atleast 90 seconds was required
to open all three hatches.
The IB Saturn rocket contained no fuel, so no chance of fire was really
thought of, so there were no fire crews or doctors standing by. Many people
were listening to the crew’s radio channel, and would have responded, but were
caught off guard and the first mention of fire was not clearly heard by anyone.
On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger was ready to launch.
The lead up to the launch had not been without its share of problems. The talk
of cold weather, icicles, and brittle and faulty o-rings were the main problems.
It was revealed that deep doubts of some engineers had not been passed on by
their superiors to the shuttle director, Mr. Moore.
Something was unusual about that morning in Florida: it was uncommonly
cold. The night before, the temperature had dropped to twenty-two degrees
fahrenheit. Icicles hung from the launch pad, it was said that the icicles
could have broken off and damaged the space shuttle’s heat tiles. It had been
the coldest day on which a shuttle launch had ever been attempted.
Cold weather had made the rubber O-ring seals so brittle that they no
longer sealed the joint properly. People feared a reduction in the efficiency
of the O-ring seals on the solid rocket boosters. Level 1 authorities at NASA
had received enough information about faulty O-rings by August 1985 that they
should have ordered discontinuation of flights.
The shuttle rocketed away from the icicle laden launch pad, carrying a
New Hampshire school teacher, NASA’s first citizen in space. It was the worst
accident in the history of NASA in nearly 25 years. 11:38 a.m. cape time, the
main engine ignition followed by clouds of smoke and flame came from the solid
fuel rocket boosters. Unknown to anyone in the cabin or on the ground, there was
a jet of flame around the giant orange fuel tank coming from the right-hand
booster rocket. Seventy-three seconds after lift-off the Challenger suddenly
disappeared amid a cataclysmic explosion which ripped the fuel tank from nose to
tail (Timothy 441). The explosion occured as Challenger was 10.35 miles high
and 8.05 miles downrange from the cape, speeding toward space at 1,977 mph.
Lost along with the $1.2 billion spacecraft were a $100 million satellite that
was to have becooome an important part of NASA’s communications network
(Associated Press 217). Pictures taken revealed that even after the enormous
explosion occurred the cockpit remained somewhat intact. Aerodynamic pressure
exerted on the human passengers would have killed anyone who survived the
explosion. The remains of the shuttle were spread over miles of ocean. Over
half were recovered.
In comparison, both disasters were preventable. Both disasters had a
main explosion or malfunction, but even if there were survivors they would have
died because there was no escape. The Challenger disaster was mainly a lot of
people wanting to get better jobs and more money, or simply to get on the good
side of someone. The Apollo 4 had many problems which should have been caught.
Apollo 4 had many deficiencies: loose, shoddy wiring, excessive use of
combustible materials in spite of a 100 percent oxygen atmosphere, inadequate
provisions for rescue, and a three layer, ninety plus second hatch. The
Challenger had faulty O-rings, icicles, and bad management which threatened to
bring the entire american astronaut program to an end. Over a billion dollars
was lost all together.
Both disasters could have been prevented if the time, effort, and
funding was spent. Many people involved in both disasters were either lazy or
Biel, Timothy L. The Challenger. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc.
Murray, Charles A. Apollo, the Race to the Moon. New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1989.
Appel, Fred and Wolleck, James. The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated
Encyclopedia of Discovery and Expedition. Vol. 16. New York: Marshall
Bond, Peter. Heroes in Space. New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1987.
Associated Press. Moments in Space. New York: Gallery Books, 1986.
Encarta. Challenger Disaster. Encyclopedia Cd-rom. Funk and Wagnell’s
Burton, Jonathon “The Haunting Legacy of the Challenger.” Scholastic
Update. December 4, 1992: 10,11