Before the Fire

Veteran space reporter Jay Barbree recalls Apollo’s darkest day.

Jay Barbree (left)and Gus Grissom around the time of the astronaut's Gemini 3 flight in 1965. (Courtesy Jay Barbree)

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In the coming days, I questioned Apollo managers often and regularly. I wanted to know why they weren’t addressing problems that had been brought to my attention. I wanted to know why they were in such an all fired hurry to launch in late 1967 or early 1968. John Kennedy had set the launch for before the decade was out. Why didn’t they take their time? Was beating the Russians more important than astronaut lives? But the news media then weren’t as aggressive as they are today. This was six years before Watergate, and no matter how many times I raised Gus’s complaints with colleagues, most reporters gave his concerns short shrift.

One exception was my friend Howard Benedict of the Associated Press. I briefed Howard and we both stayed on top of Gus’s worries, nipping at the heels of Apollo’s movers and shakers.

Howard had come to the Cape a year after I did – only a few years out of Tokyo where he worked with my boss Russ Tornabene on the Army’s newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. This sort of made us family, and he and I became tight. We spent three decades leading the pack and watching each other’s backs. Damn, I miss him! Howard was the kind of close friend you hated to see leave this world ahead of you.

I kept trying to get NBC to do more stories on the problems with the Apollo. The Today Show passed and Huntley-Brinkley turned the story over to one of their favorites. He kissed off Gus’ concerns while I did what I could on the NBC Radio Network. The press and public ignored the whole damn thing, and the first Apollo labeled “flight worthy” was stacked atop its Saturn 1B rocket. The launch team prepared for the one launch-pad test considered essential. Called a “plugs out” test, it was a complete shakedown of the spacecraft’s ability to fly safely -- a countdown simulation with 100 percent oxygen and fully suited astronauts sealed inside. The space agency posted Friday, January 27, for this “full dress rehearsal.”

Neither Howard Benedict nor myself felt easy. NASA refused us permission to cover the test, and just before Gus slipped feet first into Apollo 1, his backup, Wally Schirra, stopped him. Wally hated that damn hatch. He had been arguing all along it should have been built with a quick-opening explosive mechanism that operated instantly like those in Mercury. For Wally, Apollo 1’s hatch was fashioned from overtime stupidity. It was double-hulled. It had to be opened manually, and to escape in an emergency it was necessary to open both hulls and then release a third hatch protecting Apollo during liftoff. Engineers had designed it that way to avoid an accidental loss of the hatch en route to the moon or during the punishing reentry, when Apollo would come blazing back to earth at more than 24,000 miles per hour.

“Listen to me, Gus,” Wally told his friend. “It’ll take you a minute and a half, possibly two, to get all those hatches open. If you have a problem, even if your fucking nose itches, get the hell out. Make sure they solve the problem before you get back in. Got it?”

“Got it,” Gus nodded and smiled. “Thanks buddy.”

“We’re ready to get with the count.” That from the blockhouse speakers told every person connected with the rehearsal to get with it.

The lights flashed, the clocks ticked, and the countdown moved through the “plugs out” test – meaning Apollo and the Saturn would stand alone, would operate on their own internal power, with no help from outside.

The launch team was verifying that everything, except fueling and actual launching, would work in a symphony.

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