Capsule on fire: An interview with Robert Seamans about the Apollo 1 accident
by Dwayne A. Day
|“Vice President Humphrey started speaking and he was a very glib speaker as you know, but even he was beginning to wind down a bit, and he kept lookin’ at me and I’d look at him and shake my head. And then I got a message that it appeared that everything was under control, that they had de-spun the Gemini. And so I nodded to him to make an announcement which he did.”|
In 1999, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, radio station WAMU in Washington, DC, aired a 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 Seamans. After the radio program aired, the producer turned transcripts of the interviews over to NASA as historical documents.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. Seamans spoke about previous NASA accidents and near-misses, such as the Gemini 8 incident. He also spoke at length about the hearings, NASA’s relationship with North American, and a particular moment during the hearings when Senator Walter Mondale asked Webb about a damning report on poor quality at North American and how Mondale may have learned about it. This exchange ultimately got Seamans chewed out by Webb, eventually leading to their estrangement and Seamans’ departure from NASA. The questioner is not identified in the interview, but was probably producer Richard Paul. The interview is reproduced below with limited editing for clarity.
Questioner: There were accidents that preceded the fire that most people don’t know about, right?
Seamans: We’d had at NASA, we’d had a number of accidents, yes.
Questioner: Didn’t you lose two astronauts when they were coming in to land at St. Louis?
Seamans: The accidents that I can think of off-hand were when two astronauts were coming in and they’re in their jet. It was a day with a low overcast. They broke clear, but they weren’t over the runway and they elected to try to go around and land over the overcast and they didn’t make it. They went into a building.
Questioner: The accident I want to talk about is the one where Neil Armstrong was almost lost in a docking accident. Tell us the details of the accident first and then I want to talk about the response.
Seamans: A near-accident we had was with Neil Armstrong on Gemini 8. This is the first time that we’re going to actually physically dock with another vehicle. An unmanned vehicle to be sure, an Agena. The docking took place on schedule. It was going very well. And just at that point, I wanted to make sure that they were docked before leaving for going to a big, I guess the Wright Brothers Dinner or something of that sort. By the time I got to the hotel, I was told that we were in deep trouble. Neil and Dave Scott realized that they were starting to rotate in an uncontrolled way. And they figured it had to be something to do with the Agena, and so they disconnected the Gemini 8 from the Agena, and then they started to really started to spin out very rapidly. And they got up to a spin rate of two complete cycles a second. And at that point they figured it had to be the one of their jets, 100-pound jets was misfiring, and so they just turned off all of the jet controls that they had. And of course, that didn’t de-spin them, but at least they didn’t start to spin any faster. Then they had to figure out how to de-spin. And the only recourse they had was to go to the controls that were normally used for re-entry.
I was at one of these big Washington, DC, functions with I would guess 1,500 people; black tie with Vice President Humphrey as a speaker. And I was sitting right next to him at the head table, and I was getting frequent information being brought to me from behind the podium. And when Humphrey started to speak, he said, “Well I hope we’ll have good news before I finish my speech.” I guess I should state to begin with, I had felt I had to notify everyone at the dinner that we had this problem, ’cause I felt it would be leaking out because the networks were already carrying it. And so everybody there knew that we had this imminent disaster or potential disaster. So anyway, Vice President Humphrey started speaking and he was a very glib speaker as you know, but even he was beginning to wind down a bit, and he kept lookin’ at me and I’d look at him and shake my head. And then I got a message that it appeared that everything was under control, that they had de-spun the Gemini. And so I nodded to him to make an announcement which he did.
When I went to the dinner, everything was just fine. I stayed at home using my own home telephone to Mission Control just so I didn’t want to arrive at the dinner without knowledge of what was going on. And everything was perfect when I left, I did not have a radio in the car to listen. Nobody called me on the telephone in the car. So when I drew up to the hotel, there was sort of a gang of NASA people who descended on me and swept me into a room and briefed me on what was going on.
Questioner: What was Administrator Webb’s reaction to how things were handled that night?
|“As I opened the door, my wife called out, ‘Bobbie, there’s been an accident.’ So I went tearing to the phone and it was George Low, and George was, I could tell immediately, was very, very upset and his first words were something like, ‘They’re all gone.’”|
Seamans: He wasn’t terribly happy. He was not there at the dinner. He was back at headquarters and he was also dealing with the problem. And because we weren’t communicating one-with-the-other, uh it was partly my fault. Once I found out that we had this situation, I should have before going into the dinner, contacted him and said, “I’m going into the dinner and because I’m going to be partially out-of-touch, you ought to be taking over.” Instead, I was the general manager of NASA at the time. And I was asked to leave the podium at one point—not leave the podium, leave the head table to talk to Walter Cronkite. I actually did go and talk to him. It was a good lesson in the problems you can get into when you have a potential disaster.
Questioner: And you made your own promise to yourself as a result of that night too, right—in terms of being better in-touch when accidents happened?
Seamans: I certainly did. First of all, after that I dug out the protocol that we had, the instruction manual on how to deal with disasters or potential disasters and I re-wrote it. And not in there, but to myself, something like if this ever happens again, I’m going to leave wherever I am and go to NASA Headquarters and get in my office where I’ll have proper communications and deal with the situation.
Questioner: At that point in NASA’s history, the procedure for investigating accidents was pretty much straightforward and clear, right? You operated pretty much on a military model.
Seamans: Yes we did, and the model was basically to select an accident review committee which would report to the general manager… myself, as Associate Administrator of NASA. Well the military model is that after an accident, a special ad hoc review board is established which is empowered to delve into all aspects of the accident, all of the remains or whatever they may be or, say the aircraft are made available. All prior reports that might relate to the accident are made available to the board. The board puts its reports together and during this period, there is no oversight for that board, they have the full responsibility, and only when they are finished with their accident review are the results made public.
Questioner: So let’s move ahead now to the 204 fire. I understand that you learned about the 204 fire after coming from the White House? Tell the circumstances of that.
Seamans: It coincidentally was to be a three-pronged day. There was to be a signing of a [Outer] Space Treaty at the White House, it was to be a thank-you for the Gemini team, and it was to be what might be called a “pep rally” for the Apollo teams who were about to become front and center. So there was the White House and then there was to be a large dinner at which Mr. Webb was going to officiate. I had planned long before this was arranged to have a dinner at my house for the President’s Science Advisor, Don Hornig was the one, I believe, and Dr. Draper from MIT, and about ten people were coming to my house for a rather special, select dinner.
And so I left the White House and went immediately home and I came in the door and as I opened the door, my wife called out, “Bobbie, there’s been an accident.” So I went tearing to the phone and it was George Low, and George was, I could tell immediately, was very, very upset and his first words were something like, “They’re all gone.” And I said, you know, “Who’s all gone?” And he named the three astronauts who were lost in the fire: Grissom, White and Chafee. So I tried to get from him some other particulars and he didn’t know much more than that and so I told him that I’d be immediately leaving for my office, my headquarters and that I would be in touch with him as soon as I got there for more information. The particulars of the accidents are known. Namely that a fire started, we never were able to determine the exact source.
The Apollo 1 capsule after the fatal fire. (credit: NASA)
Questioner: We know how bad this accident was, but give us an idea of how much worse it could have been.
Seamans: It spread extremely rapidly because we had 14.7 pounds per square inch of oxygen and as it burned, built up pressure as a result; so the astronauts were not able to get out. And it reached the point where their suits were burned through and they were asphyxiated. About this same time, the capsule itself burst. And I went down and looked at it the next day. You could actually see where the flames had come out and licked the side of the capsule.
The capsule was up on top of the rest of the Saturn vehicle and it had up on its nose the so-called escape tower was there—it was a solid motor which was there for the purpose of escaping if after launch there were any kind of problem developing. That might very well have been ignited, for example, which would, unfortunately had the result of taking care of eliminating—killing the people who were outside the capsule supervising and helping out on the test. And what might have happened beyond that is conjecture. It might very well have been a lot worse.
Questioner: I would imagine the press was crawling all over everything at this point, or was this a different age, when there was more restraint on the part of the press?
Seamans: They would’ve liked to have been crawling all over everything, but of course the launch pad was not open to the public or the press. So they couldn’t actually get to the site. When I went down there the next day… I left Washington, DC, in a NASA plane at around 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. I went to Langley Field to pick up a person named Dr. Thompson, Tommy Thompson, who was the head of Langley [Research Center] and was going to be the chairman of the accident review board. We flew together down to the Cape. When I got there, they announced that the press were all ready for a briefing. And I announced there would not be any briefing while I was there.
Questioner: Talk about how you applied any lessons you learned from the Gemini experience in dealing with the press. Didn’t Peter Hackes from NBC call and suggest that you have a press conference immediately after the accident?
|“And for the life of me, I can’t believe that I didn’t keep [Webb] informed. But he claimed after the fire that no one had ever told him about these problems.”|
Seamans: Yes, the night before when I was in my office and I was doing two things: I was notifying people either when they called in, or when I wanted to let the people know. I was also planning what we were going to do about it. That is, who would be on the review board and how we were going to empower them. I was getting the directive together that I was going to officially give it to the chairman of the Review Board and I happened to be talking to McNamara’s aide. McNamara’s aide had called me and asked what the facts were and I was talking to his aide when the operator cut right in, she said, “It’s an emergency, it’s an emergency” and I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well somebody has to talk to you.” It was Peter Hackes and he said, “You gotta come up here to the studio right away, the country is amazed; aghast and in turmoil and you’ve got to come up here and help calm everybody down.” I said “Peter, you’re nuts. I don’t know what the facts are. There could not be any possible benefit in my going up and conjecturing about what’s going on.” And I was very upset, needless to say, that the telephone operator had cut into my call.
Questioner: Talk about what steps NASA took right away after the fire. Lay out the steps: Webb called the President, you arranged for an internal review… Lay out the steps.
Seamans: Alright, well, what I was involved in was how to carry out this review. What Jim Webb had to do and did very effectively was work out the political side. As you know from what anyone can see from Challenger, as the result of Challenger’s accident, it turned into a Presidential Commission with an outside commission investigating. We felt that we had the capability within NASA and things would go more smoothly if we carried out the investigation. But we recognized that the danger in doing that was that people would say: “Well the investigation is being carried out by the very people who ought to be investigated.” And so the first step was to get in touch with the President and make sure that he was agreeable to having NASA take this responsibility. Then the next step was to make sure that the key committee chairmen in the House and Senate were agreeable to this. Then to agree on the specific steps to be taken during this time when the committee was in operation. The action that was agreed to was that I would go down to the Cape and sit with the committee and then write my own report on the way back to Washington, give it to Mr. Webb and if he approved it, he’d take it immediately to the President and then a relatively few hours later it would go up to the [congressional] committees and then it would be released to the press.
Questioner: I want to get to what came to be known as “the Philips Report” it is evident that you knew about some considerable problems out at North American before the fire.
Seamans: The fire took place at the end of January and I would, I don’t remember the specific dates, but somewhere at the end of October or November , there was considerable dissatisfaction on the part of the Phillips team, which included the people in Houston, as to how North American was performing. And it was decided to put together what’s sometimes called a “Tiger Team” to get in there and turn over all the stones and see what’s going on. A Tiger Team to go to North American and take a look sort of behind the scenes. We did not have a close, tight communication with North American that we had had with say, McDonnell Douglas on Mercury and Gemini. And the report was submitted, but it was not really called a report. The Tiger Team came in and with the aide of viewgraphs indicated what they’d found and what they recommended and what the changes should be and so on.
Questioner: So what were the problems that you were finding out about?
Seamans: Well these were problems having to do with management and the responsiveness of the project people, specific people involved. Yeah, all of those issues. First, you have to realize that they were still making the very first articles, the test articles, or I guess by then they were involved then in making flight articles, and they did not like the workmanship. You always have in the early stage of development a lot of changes that have to be made as you go along. And it was that there were an excessive number of re-works that had to be made, of changes that had to be made inside of the capsule and various components. There was felt that there was not as tight a control as there should be over the costing of a lot of the equipment that were being provided by subcontractors. [They] just felt that the management was much too loose. The whole, all of the procedures, had to be tightened up if this were to be a successful program that would finish on time.
Questioner: Talk to me about Harrison Storms. I have read George Mueller’s assessment that Storms set up a corporate culture at North American that was, he felt, in large part responsible for problems that you were having. Or probably the better way to put it was that the interplay between Harrison Storms and Lee Atwood was responsible for problems. Talk a little bit about Storms, then about Atwood, then about what the problems were that were created.
Seamans: Well I was not as close to the situation as George Mueller was. I had known Harrison Storms for many years. He had a great record in projects like the X-15. We had felt among other things that they were somewhat short-handed at the top. Lee Atwood had a very large number of responsibilities beyond the Apollo program and we weren’t getting the intensity of corporate attention that was needed if this was going to be carried out. Stormy was a kind of gung-ho… sort of a gun-slinging kind of a guy. He talked fast and used abbreviated language and that was his style and it had worked in the past. But in this case, there was so much interaction that was required between the responsibilities he had and the responsibilities of Grumman and responsibilities at all the other major contractors, Boeing and all the rest, that that kind of leadership it was felt to be questionable. That was one of the articles that was investigated.
Questioner: Were you bringing information about these problems to Mr. Webb?
Seamans: You gotta. That’s a very sensitive question, if you will, because I met with Mr. Webb every single day when I was there and he was there. Before we’d go home I’d tell him about all the horrors, of all the problems, and he’d usually say to me, “Well you’ve gotta admit Bob, it’s interesting.” And for the life of me, I can’t believe that I didn’t keep him informed. But he claimed after the fire that no one had ever told him about these problems. And I have never run a complete survey to see whether or not I didn’t bring up and show him, say, those slides, the viewgraphs that were used in the presentation to me. That’s one of the things I feel badly about, that at least he felt that he’d been kept out of the loop.
NASA leadership testifying at a Senate hearing about the Apollo 1 accident in 1967. Seamans is on the left. (credit: NASA)
Questioner: Let’s talk, now about that Senate hearing, the one where Mondale sprung the “Phillips Report” on you. What were you expecting when you walked into that hearing?
|“At first [Webb] would bring up things about others, George Mueller and others, and say, ‘They’ve sort of let us down, haven’t they?’ And I’d say, ‘Well you’ve gotta realize what they’ve accomplished.’ … But then, a few people came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to realize that up on The Hill, what he’s saying about others, he’s also saying about you.’”|
Seamans: Well that’s a good question, and I don’t know that I could actually answer that’s exactly what we expected. We expected we were going to have to give a full report on what we knew about the accident up to then, and what we were going to do about it, and we knew we were going to be in for some mighty tough questioning. And Mondale, being the junior senator, he came in last, if I remember it. And it was a long, long session, and so by the time he came along, I won’t say we were waning, but we’d been through quite a bit already. And when he brought this up, my recollection was, he said, “Was there a report that had been written about North American that indicated that they were not doing an exemplary job?” And Mr. Webb referred that to George Mueller, that question. George said, “No there was no such report.” And “Isn’t that right, Sam?” And Sam said, “No, no report.” At that point, I had the sense that Mondale wasn’t just asking this on an exploratory basis, that he knew about something and the question was what it was. I felt that it probably had to do with this Tiger Team effort we’d had a month or two before. And so I introduced the thought that we did periodically carry out extensive reviews of our contractors and he might be referring to the results of one of those reviews. And that’s sort of the way it ended up.
I remember it so clearly as I left there, Mr. Webb nailing me on the floor there of the hearing room saying, “I want you to come with me.” And as soon as we got in the car… it had a window in it that you could crank up between the driver and the back seat, and he cranked that window up and he really turned on me, he said, “There’s really no excuse for you volunteering information at that hearing.” He said, “We’re dealing here with matters that can result in millions and millions of dollars of lawsuits and this is not like the kind of friendly hearing that you’re used to.”
Questioner: How do you think Mondale, of all people, ended up with those notes? I’m wondering less about who leaked it. What I’m getting at is: someone leaked it. That person had an agenda, and that person chose Mondale as the best person to put forward their agenda. Why Mondale?
Seamans: I have no idea why it would be Mondale. If somebody… perhaps maybe they went to some of the others and they weren’t interested in it, and only the junior senator felt he had something to gain by delving into it. I have no idea.
Questioner: Was he known as an opponent of Apollo? or was he known as an opponent of North American?
Seamans: No… he. No! Not that I know, not to my knowledge.
Questioner: I’d like your gut reaction to something I learned yesterday: did you know that when Mondale asked you about the Phillips Report, he had no idea that the report existed?
Seamans: I sort of assumed his staff had a copy. I didn’t really assume he had it sittin’ right in front of him.
Questioner: This seems like a good time to talk a little bit about Jim Webb. His reputation is sort of legendary at this point. Why is that?
Seamans: He was a very, very powerful individual on a man-to-man basis. He came on extremely articulate. He was a very fast-talking person. After one long hearing, Senator Brooke, who was on the committee, asked the chairman if there was time for one more question. The Chairman said, “There’s time for the question, but not the answer. Adjourned.” ‘Cause when Webb got hold of a question, he always would turn it to his advantage. If we were getting a barrage of questions, he knew how to slow things down by extending his discussion. He was very, very forceful before committees and in meetings and so on. He worried about details that most administrators would not worry about.
Questioner: He was trying to create the “perfect management” at NASA.
Seamans: That’s a very, very good point. He had a very definite idea about how to manage large institutions. And he really wanted to have the management of NASA as his final, great undertaking. People would say, “How do you manage something?” They’d say, “You do it the way Jim Webb did at NASA.” He was always fretting about and agonizing over and tweaking and trying to change the management. And at times, he had someone working for him, namely me, that wasn’t always too enthusiastic about that. I thought we had a tremendous job to do, and that we could get the job done pretty much with the organization we had. We ought to go with it until we reached our major objective.
Questioner: The fire, and the handling of the so-called “Phillips Report,” had an impact on you professionally, didn’t it? I get the sense that Webb felt you’d been holding out on him—not keeping him fully informed.
Seamans: I found that our relationship had been exemplary for about six years. He’d been just a wonderful boss. He’d given me a lot of latitude. I felt I’d kept him informed well, we worked together on several joint things. And all of a sudden, I felt as though he had me sort of under the gun. At first he would bring up things about others, George Mueller and others, and say, “They’ve sort of let us down, haven’t they?” And I’d say, “Well you’ve gotta realize what they’ve accomplished.” I tried to explain to him why the accident had occurred. It wasn’t really a case of mismanagement on anyone’s part. But then, a few people came to me and said, “You’ve got to realize that up on The Hill, what he’s saying about others, he’s also saying about you.” And then I could tell that we really were changing, that he was doing some things of a project nature where I wasn’t being informed, and things of that sort. And so, it just seemed to me that the situation was not too favorable for NASA if I stuck around, so sometime in the fall I felt it was time to move on and do something else.
Questioner: I take it you just felt that the bad feeling between you and Webb was bad for NASA.
Seamans: It’s pretty hard to have the general management of the operation not have the confidence of the CEO. He had lost confidence in what he’d called “The Engineers” and it took time for that to get really get worked out. I admired Jim and the job that he did and I understand that he had to take strenuous action at that time to keep things movin’ ahead, which we did. We did carry out the mission within the decade. And we did keep the support of the President and the Congress and so on. So it was a magnificent achievement on his part.
Questioner: I want to talk about the impact that this had on Joe Shea. I take it that he took this tragedy personally. Tell me about that.
|“I think you can say that as tragic as it was, if we had not had the accident then, we would not have gone to the Moon in the decade. If we’d had the accident somewhat later in time there wouldn’t have been time to make the changes. We were headed for a major problem. No question about it.”|
Seamans: Well, Joe couldn’t have been more heavily involved. Not only was he the direct project manager of the very parts that failed, mainly the Apollo capsule and Service Module, but on top of that he was at the Cape to participate in the tests that were to be run, and he had on a headset and was all set to slide in underneath the three astronauts who were on their couches. There was room for him to be underneath them so he could be inside the capsule and physically observe what was going on. And at the very last minute he says, “You know, my head-set’s not working very well, I’m getting a lot of static. And there’s no point in my bein’ in here” so before they closed the hatch, he ducked out. And then he felt he better get back to Houston. So he was on a plane on the way back to Houston when he heard the result. It was horrible.
Questioner: And did this start to have an impact on the way he did his job?
Seamans: Well it affected a lot of people. Joe was certainly one of them. Ah, he was under tremendous… a tremendous stress. A lot of it was self-imposed. Because, y’know, he really felt so keenly the loss of the three men all of whom he knew personally, and also this whole thing had happened on his watch.
Questioner: Talk if you would in a broad way about the changes that were made on the space craft as a result of the fire.
Seamans: First, the relationship with North American had to be adjusted. It was adjusted very reluctantly, I should say, by North American. They did change the management. Harrison Storms left his job. And a new project manager was brought in. At the same time, North American agreed that they had not done the job they should have done, and they accepted a penalty of ten million dollars.
Overall, the main management change was to come up to provide a whole new contract effort to Boeing. Boeing already were responsible for the first stage of the Saturn vehicle. They were given the job of integration of all the stages and the capsule and the LEM—the lunar module—and all the major parts, all together and with the ground environment. A very major undertaking that NASA had been doing really with its own personnel, and it hadn’t been, it was not being realized as well as it should be. And by making this change, it was possible to bring in a very large number of professionals to make sure that the electric connections were correct and the hydraulic connections and all the gas and fuel and all those things were properly integrated together.
And then there were specific design changes. Obviously got rid of everything we could that was inflammable, put in new astronauts suits that would not burn. Changed the window in the capsule, so in an emergency it opened out so when they were still on the ground they could get out of there in a hurry. Changed the whole oxygen, the whole atmospheric situation, environmental situation in the capsule so there’d be less opportunity for a fire. I think you can say that as tragic as it was, if we had not had the accident then, we would not have gone to the Moon in the decade. If we’d had the accident somewhat later in time there wouldn’t have been time to make the changes. We were headed for a major problem. No question about it.
Questioner: It’s so different from what was done after the Challenger explosion.
Seamans: I believe very strongly that the accident was handled correctly. We didn’t have all the expertise within NASA to carry out the accident review. We brought in specialists from the Bureau of Mines and the Air Force and other places to round out the team so we had some real fire experts, for example. At the height of the investigation, we had over 5,000 people working on the investigation. We were taking apart the burned capsule side-by-side with a brand new untouched capsule, so you could compare parts as you took it as you went after it. It was a very thorough, it was a very hard-hitting investigation, and it led to the changes that were made that led to the success.
In the case of the Challenger, one way to look at it is by having an outside commission, by having open hearings, open to the public, by having people in NASA having to testify almost in public, or sometimes in public. It was putting—it was tremendously unfair because the public was getting information sort of piecemeal, for one thing, and it took an excessive amount of time. The time it took in the case of Apollo from the accident til flight was approximately half that from the time of the shuttle accident until its next flight.
I really think we did, we did it the right way. It’s a question of whether you believe you’re investigating malfeasance or whether you think you’re investigating a technical problem where you need to find the answers and fix ’em in a hurry. And I don’t think that what happened was a case of malfeasance, although there was a lot of poor workmanship.
But the simple fact of the matter was we forgot one very important test, and we were stupid that we forgot it. But we should have taken a boilerplate capsule and put similar kinds of equipment in it and started a fire and seen what happened. We tested all the rocket engines, we tested the stages, we tested everything up, down, and sideways. And the one thing we never tested was a capsule on fire.
“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.
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