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NASA leadership, including administration James Webb (second from left) testifying at a Senate hearing about the Apollo 1 accident in 1967. (credit: NASA)

When Senator Walter Mondale went to the Moon: the Apollo 1 fire and the myths we create

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In 1999, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, radio station WAMU in Washington, DC, aired a fascinating program about the role of Washington politics in the lunar landing. “Washington Goes to the Moon” was written and produced by Richard Paul and featured interviews with a number of key figures in the story, including CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and former NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans. The program remains an excellent introduction to the subject of politics and Apollo and is worth listening to even 20 years later.

Mondale was asked about that “From the Earth to the Moon” episode and bristled both at the TV show’s portrayal of him and the claim that he was opposed to the Apollo program.

One of the people interviewed for the program was former Vice President Walter Mondale, who in the mid-1960s was a young senator (entering the Senate at the end of 1964.) He played a key role in hearings about the Apollo 1 fire—then referred to as Apollo 204—that killed three astronauts in early 1967. During a hearing, after all the senior senators had asked their questions of the top NASA leadership, Mondale asked NASA Administrator James Webb about a damning report chronicling shoddy workmanship at North American Aviation prior to the fire. It was a bombshell revelation, and not the kind of thing somebody would have expected from a young and inexperienced senator. It revealed that the fire was not just some random accident, but likely the inevitable result of a project that was not being well-managed up to that time.

Webb was testifying before the Senate with Seamans and the head of the Office of Manned Space Flight, George Mueller. In the 1998 HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon,” Mondale is portrayed badly, as a NASA critic opposed to the Apollo program. At one point the Mondale character in the show explains to Webb in private that there are other things the government is doing that he is interested in, “and if getting what I want means we don’t go to the Moon, then so be it.” When he was interviewed for “Washington Goes to the Moon” in 1999, Mondale was asked about that episode and bristled both at the TV show’s portrayal of him and the claim that he was opposed to the Apollo program. Mondale noted that he was an Apollo supporter, not somebody looking to cut the budget. He did not have an axe to grind with NASA; rather, he simply wanted to find out the truth about the fire.

Fortunately, after the radio program aired, the producer turned transcripts of the interviews over to NASA as historical documents. These transcripts include unaired portions of the interviews, including Mondale’s interview. This interview, where the questioner is not identified but was probably producer Richard Paul, is reproduced below with limited editing for clarity. It has never been published before.

Questioner: What had you been hearing, and from whom, about problems at North American Aviation?

Mondale: I was a new member of the Senate and a new member of that committee. I was working very hard on space issues at the time. Had time to do it because I was new there. And while I strongly supported the manned flight to the Moon and the first use of Saturn V, I was starting to pick up comments from people in and around the program along two lines: They were having management problems; and there were risks that were not being fully dealt with. This program was new and they were having trouble with the private contracts with it. That they were in a hurry and might be taking some chances, all of this was pretty general, but I was aware of it. And then a day or so before those hearings to which you refer, a reporter came to me and told me that there was a report called “the Philips Report” hidden in the NASA bureaucracy. There was a General [Sam] Phillips who had headed it up and had really criticized the management of the program for being haphazard, for being risky, and had been very critical of the private contractor who was in charge of the development of the space vehicle.

When I went into the hearings, I was aware that if that story, that rumor, was correct… whether they were going to disclose it or not I didn’t know that. In fact, there was big debate going on in NASA privately which included the possibility of firing the general contractor who was handling the space program. And they were that concerned about it.

“And while I strongly supported the manned flight to the Moon and the first use of Saturn V, I was starting to pick up comments from people in and around the program along two lines: They were having management problems; and there were risks that were not being fully dealt with.”

Questioner: So it’s your turn to question Webb and Mueller and you hit them with your first question about “the Phillips Report.” What was Webb’s reaction when you asked him about this?

Mondale: He looked dazed and stunned. And I still don’t know if he knew about it. I think he did. Remember, I asked him to produce a copy for the committee and he said, as I recall, that he would certainly look at that but we had to be aware that there was a lot of sensitive information that may not be available. And he didn’t give me a yes-or-a-no answer. But at least I had raised the issue. The committee was now aware of it. And the national press was alerted to the possibility that this report existed. I think it was inevitable from that point out that it would be produced.

Questioner: What was the atmosphere in the room? Was it tense?

Mondale: Oh yeah. We were holding hearings on the tragedy of the 204 fire and disaster that killed three astronauts who were getting ready for a Moon shot, but who had been killed in the fire because the atmosphere in the space capsule was a pure oxygen environment. And that was one of the things that they’d been warned about. In pure oxygen, just the slightest spark will lead to a fire of tremendous heat, and it’ll immediately… it’ll even burn up asbestos. It’s that hot. And it’s that immediate. Anything’ll set it off. That had been anticipated, and there’d been a lot of expressions of concern about that. What I knew was that the report had been harshly critical of the management of the program. I didn’t know the details.

Questioner: You asked them whether or not the report existed and they said “no.” (laughs)

Mondale: Well, if you read what he said: he didn’t quite say “no.” He said “We’ll have to look into it” or something like that.

Questioner: You thought they were holding out on you, right? — by not telling you about this report?

Mondale: Oh they didn’t like it. In fact Webb came to see me later privately and criticized me for bringing up the subject. He said I had a duty to go to him privately and not publicly. I said, “You know, Mr. Webb, I don’t agree with you. I’m a United States senator, this is public business. And I think I did exactly the right thing and I’m not gonna get in a position where I have to ask permission to ask questions. I reserve that right, I’m a senator.”

Questioner: Talk about the advantage you were at by being in this position. What did it mean, from your perspective to have this information which they didn’t know you had?

Mondale: Well you know what I was interested in was whether they would make disclosure during the hearing on the 204 disaster of the management problems and difficulties that the Phillips Report had talked about, or whether they wouldn’t disclose of these kinds of criticisms. Instead of that, as I recall the hearings—it’s been a long time so I’ve gotta be careful here that I’m fair to everyone—but my recollection was that there wasn’t a hint in the opening testimony of any problems of this kind. When in fact, privately, behind the scenes, everybody was concerned about it.

Questioner: And it didn’t end with that hearing, did it? You continued after them about this for several months.

Mondale: My recollection was that they really wanted to cover it up. They didn’t want to get into it. They didn’t want to disclose it. They didn’t want a public discussion of the problems that the space program was into. And so I kept pressin’ ’em.

Questioner: What did having that report enable you to accomplish? Talk about the impact you had on the space program by being able to question NASA officials in such minute detail. What did you accomplish?

“I don’t want to be excessively critical of them. In other words, they were working hard, doing their best, but I think that it was clear at the time that they did not want the public to know that this program was under deep… was really in trouble.”

Mondale: I don’t want to take credit on myself, but I think that by forcing a public confrontation about these heretofore secret and deep concerns about the safety and the management of the program, it forced NASA to restructure and reorganize the program in a way that was much safer. They corrected a lot of these fundamental problems that were involved in the Phillips Report. And I think over the next few years, NASA got much better control of the program and did a far better job, and I believe some of that occurred because they were under pressure from the Congress and from the press to correct these problems.

Questioner: They wanted to keep it all in-house, right?

Mondale: I think so. You know, I don’t want to be excessively critical of them. In other words, they were working hard, doing their best, but I think that it was clear at the time that they did not want the public to know that this program was under deep… was really in trouble. And that they had a report that they had commissioned themselves under General Phillips which told them it was so severely troubled that they should consider firing the general contractor.

Questioner: You asked them about the report at the hearing. Had you actually seen it yet?

Mondale: No. I just I got it from a source that was very credible, and I was pretty sure it was right. But I asked it in the conditional sense. I said, “Do you have a Phillips Report in the department that was prepared by General Phillips that was very critical of your program?” I put it that way.

Questioner: It’s very funny, because with all the people I’ve talked with up to now who were involved in the hearing… they all thought you had it in-hand at the hearing.

Mondale: (laughs) Well (laughs) I didn’t. But I had a pretty good source. So, I was quite sure I was right on it. If you listen to Webb’s answer… (READS FROM THE HEARING TRANSCRIPT) And Webb says, “Senator, I would like to say that we are using industry that has been accustomed to making large quantities of things like airplanes and various other components, to do research and development on very advanced systems from fuel cells to environmental control systems to a spacecraft to go to the Moon, to land, and come home. We have had no contractor in this kind of work against which unfavorable reports have not been filed.” In other words, they’ve all been criticized. “On the other hand, we have also found we could work out the problems with each one of them.” In other words, he’s not answering my question. But he’s trying to provide the conditioning for saying, well we work with ‘em anyway. (KEEPS READING) “Mr. Chairman, do we have a copy of this February 19 report in the committee files, the so-called Phillips’ report? Mr. GEHRIG: No. Senator Mondale: Could we be supplied with a copy of that February 19 report? Mr. Webb: I would like to take that as a request, Senator Mondale, and examine it very carefully because, obviously, these companies are public companies. You have got many factors related to this and certain of these reports are regarded as of deep concern. What we would be very happy to do is to make it available to the Comptroller General under any request that the committee or you would make to him.” (STOPS. LAUGHS) In other words, (laughs) he’s trying to think of every way he can to prevent producing it. They didn’t [succeed]. They did produce it.

Questioner: Was there talk about a balance needing to be struck in order to do all that the government needed to do back then? I mean it’s sort of a zero-sum game. The federal pie is only so big.

Mondale: Oh sure. There was a how could we do all of that? “Can you have guns and butter?” was the famous question. Can we do all of this in Vietnam and still carry on and do what we want to do at home? And there was a lot of effort to try and make, to try to develop priorities. This is where I began to question the NASA commitment to follow on to the Apollo program, that is the Moon shots, to some kind of space shuttle and station system. The cost of that at that time was just phenomenal, and I wondered whether this was appropriate.

Questioner: I’ve talked with Charles Schultze, who was [President Lyndon] Johnson’s budget director in the mid-60’s, and he talked about the pressure at the time to fund everything that needed funding. there was the war on poverty, the war in Vietnam, the space program as well as everything else that the government needed to do. Talk about your own personal struggle with this.

Mondale: It was a tough time for a person with my philosophy ‘cause I wanted to see progress in education, dealing with poverty, and so on at home. I also, at that time was supporting the war in Vietnam, I regret to say. And we also were moving ahead with the space program, and I sat on the space committee and I supported most of that. But as the 60’s kept moving along, the war kept costing more and more … the space program was demanding more money all the time, and we had authorized and were slowly beginning to fund some of these so-called Great Society programs, and it just got too much, and we started getting inflationary pressures.

Questioner: It’s fair to say that you supported the Apollo program, but you also had other priorities, right?

Mondale: Oh yes. I supported the Apollo program. You know it was well along the way when I got to the Senate. But I supported that and I still believe it was a good idea.

Questioner: And you were feeling, even in the mid-60’s that we had other priorities as well, right?

Mondale: Yeah. That’s right.

“I supported the Apollo program. You know it was well along the way when I got to the Senate. But I supported that and I still believe it was a good idea.”

Questioner: We found an op-ed by Whitney Young, who was head of the National Urban League, where he said: “It will cost thirty-five billion dollars to put two men on the Moon. It would take ten billion dollars to lift every poor person in this country above the poverty line. Something is wrong somewhere.” What’s your opinion of that sentiment?

Mondale: Well, you know that was the sort of thing… you know, Whitney Young was an old friend of mine who I really liked. But I think we learned that it’s not an either/or case. And unfortunately, that money spent on education we now know would not necessarily lift too many people. I personally think we should be doing more, should have done more then and do more now to support education. But we’ve learned that it’s much harder to move people ahead than we thought in those days.

Questioner: Would that have been your opinion back then?

Mondale: I probably would have said I think we can do both. You know, the economy was growing very strongly. In those days, productivity was rising every year and there was what we used to call a “fiscal dividend” every year that allowed us to do more than we could do the year before. But I think what broke the bank was the war in Vietnam, which by late ’67, ’68 it was just getting too much, so we were getting inflation, and further pressure on all these programs.

Questioner: You must know that the Philips report episode helped earn you the enmity of many people, both in the space program and among your colleagues and their staffs. Was it worth it?

Mondale: Sure. I think that’s the job of a senator. And I think there’s a very strong argument that disclosing this information led to the reforms that made NASA a stronger program. When you’re doing the public’s business, it’s got to be public. This was not a secret defense program or CIA project, this was a highly public space program, and the public was entitled to know it and I think that the space program’s much the better for it.

Questioner: Where do you think this opinion of you came from, that you were a consequential opponent of the Apollo program? Because you know that opinion’s out there, and it’s fairly widespread. it’s almost like an urban myth? (laughs)

Mondale: I don’t know… You know, you’ve got to remember that there was a problem here that gave this a lot of emotional punch. Three astronauts had been killed in the 204 fire. In order to do the Moon program, we built up a fairly large bureaucracy of people skilled to build and support manned flight in space. And when that Moon program was over, and before there was another manned flight in space, NASA was in the position where they had these enormous plants and maybe thousands of employees sitting around with nothing to do! And either they closed down the program, which they didn’t want to do, or they, as quickly as possible, went on to the next manned flight program. And the debate that I led about the wisdom, the cost, the danger, of this kind of flight—in which I was echoing the point of view of the leading space scientists in America—was trying to readjust the program toward more unmanned, instrumented, practical and scientific uses of space. This was a very difficult and emotional issue for NASA. They were trying to keep from public debate the fact of this enormous embarrassment of a huge bureaucracy, which for the moment had nothing to do. And I stepped in the middle of that. And I think some of ’em still resent it. Although I still think what I did was right.

Questioner: You think people are sort of confusing their chronology and sort of backing it up and saying, “Oh, Mondale opposed the Apollo program”

Mondale: Well, some of them seem to be saying they would like to put me in the “know- nothing” corner of being against science, being against pioneering. When, in fact, I was listening to the scientists in the space field. But there was a lot of resentment about it.

Questioner: Have you seen “From the Earth to the Moon” on HBO?

Mondale: No, I (laughs) I didn’t look at it.

Questioner: You’re the villain of that episode.

“I think the record is pretty clear. I don’t know what explains the virulence of some of this… But I apparently touched some pretty raw nerves.”

Mondale: I know. I didn’t have the heart to look at it. It just… apparently, they even had me enjoying the death of these astronauts. I don’t know why they’d do that? I mean I knew those people. I was I was as hurt as anybody.

Questioner: Here’s what Tom Shales said in the Washington Post, “Among facts some of us may have forgotten, Walter Mondale, then a senator from Minnesota, was a virulent enemy of the space program, a real Luddite from Hell.”

Mondale: It’s unbelievable. It’s uh… It, the thing of it is, none of it’s a secret. In other words, the debate, what I said, the questions I asked, are all well known. And none of them could conceivably be characterized in that way.

Questioner: Do you think your legacy is damaged by the perpetuation of this myth?

Mondale: Look (laughs) what can you do about it? I mean I’m not gonna run around trying to spend time chasin’ rumors and so on. I think the record is pretty clear. I don’t know what explains the virulence of some of this. Here we are, it’s almost 30 years later. But I apparently touched some pretty raw nerves. You know, I was so hurt I didn’t even look, I didn’t have the stomach to look at it. But somebody came up to me after they saw this Tom Hanks thing. And they said, “They just made a monster outta ya.” And I just didn’t have the heart to look at it.


“Washington Goes to the Moon” was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation, NASA, WAMU FM, WABE FM, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. You can listen to parts 1 and 2 for free here. This subject will be covered again next week, from a different angle, that of NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans.

The “Phillips Report” can be read here.

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