Whistleblowers Make Spaceflight Safer, Says Witness to Apollo Tragedy

The drive from Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex to the launch facilities that line the Atlantic coast offers spectators a beautiful glimpse into American innovation: the gargantuan Blue Origin facility, the SpaceX landing zones and multiple NASA launch complexes.

It’s on this path that the now-deserted Launch Complex 34 sits, “ABANDON IN PLACE” spray-painted in black on the four columns holding up the concrete launching cradle. A barely noticeable plaque fastened to the structure reads, “Ad Astra Per Aspera (A Rough Road Leads to the Stars).”

In the early 1960s, the site was bustling with the activity of NASA engineers and contractors, but today it stands as a reminder of one of NASA’s most tragic days. It’s where, 55 years ago, my grandfather experienced one of the most traumatic days of his life.

When the clock ticked 6:31 P.M. at Cape Canaveral on January 27, 1967, an electrical fire erupted inside the command module where astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were conducting what was supposed to be a routine “plugs-out” test, one month before Apollo 1, the first crewed mission of the Apollo program, was scheduled to take flight.

At the time of the accident, my grandfather, James Gleaves, was the lead technician for North American Aviation, the NASA contractor that designed and manufactured the command and service module (CSM-012) that caught fire. As panic consumed the white room, he worked frantically with several other men to open the three-layered hatch holding the crew members captive, but the inferno ripped through the interior within seconds, killing each of the men inside.

On this 55th anniversary of the tragedy, as space exploration becomes more privatized and technological capabilities become more advanced, the Apollo 1 fire serves to remind those people trying to push space exploration forward of many things, but most importantly why we need to value a culture of safety and create a framework that incentivizes the people who speak up when that culture is forsaken—the whistleblowers—to come forward.  

Space Launch Complex 34
This was the site (known as Space Launch Complex 34) of the launch pad accident that killed Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. They died in a flash fire on Jan. 27, 1967, during a test in preparation for their flight. Credit: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

My grandfather has been reluctant to speak about the accident; he is humble, has dealt with the pain of the memory for many years, and initially, was misquoted in news reports. Only recently has he divulged the weight of the constant pressure he and his fellow contractors felt to meet incentive deadlines and the shortcuts that inevitably had to be taken. My grandfather tried to fix issues as they arose, but when another colleague spoke out, his concerns were dismissed.

Men slept on shift, took egregiously long bathroom breaks, and, to the shock of those on the prime crew, left tools scattered about the CSM, creating a messy, disorganized work environment. In one example of shocking behavior, my grandfather recalls men siphoning grain alcohol—intended to clean the command module—into baggies to take home and consume or sell. 

The culture during that time was one of productivity and timeliness, leaving scant opportunity for critiques that could cause delays. Ensuring safety is often a time-consuming part of any space endeavor.

Everyone knew about safety issues, including the crew. Despite the Apollo 1 astronauts airing confidence to the media, behind closed doors they let their colleagues know they had concerns, In one famous instance, Grissom’s hung a lemon on the faulty Apollo simulator as a sign of his discontent.

But in the end, the project moved forward, even as a combination of several ignored red flags, tight deadlines wrought by a “go fever” mentality, groupthink and lackluster workmanship paved the path to tragedy.

Promoting a truly transparent workplace where safety concerns are paramount simply makes good business sense, and could very well have prevented the Apollo 1 disaster. That’s why Elon Musk’s recent comments toward whistleblowers are even more disappointing given his successes in the industry thus far and his purported dedication to the cause. He should know better than most what’s at stake when things go awry.

It wasn’t until after the fire that many of the warnings about the Apollo capsule’s pure oxygen environment, exposed wiring and excessive use of flammable materials came to light. The dawn of a new era in safety at NASA, most famously ushered in by Gene Kranz’s “tough and competent” speech, didn’t come until it was too late, and can be easily forgotten if the culture surrounding today’s projects don’t prioritize a “flat” hierarchy of opinion. 

And while the need for an open culture should pervade the next generation of spaceflight, perhaps the most valuable lesson from the Apollo 1 fire is remembering that space exploration needs people, as well as automation. We stand to gain a tremendous amount from automating many of the processes involved, on top of rapid advancements in the field, but what do we stand to lose by not taking the time to look back?

As time has given him an opportunity to reflect, grieve and process the events, my grandfather, among others, has become more willing to discuss how the events 55 years ago affected his life. He remembers the smell of smoke when fire billowed out of the capsule, the ashes that filled the room falling like confetti, and the panic he felt knowing he might not make it home to his daughters, one of whom would eventually become my mother.

It took time, but the man who declined an invitation to attend the prime crew’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and who refused to be a part of a documentary on his receiving the NASA Medal for Exceptional Bravery, is now in a place to share his story. And for that, our understanding of U.S. space history has benefited.

What these space veterans know, understand and feel is important to the development of the next grand achievement in space. They are living, breathing testimonials of our country’s history in space, and we need to take advantage of their insights because we are losing them. Whether it’s in the aftermath of successes or disasters, our journey into this new era will suffer if we fail to recognize and promote their memories.

Although the horrific event of the Apollo 1 fire paradoxically changed the trajectory of the U.S. space program for the better, with later improvements in safety protocols and processes, it also led to lawsuits, conspiracy theories, an astronaut’s widow’s suicide, and a burnt capsule languishing in a dark and isolated NASA storage unit.

This is all only part of the story.

A monument honoring Grissom, White and Chaffee sits in Arlington National Cemetery, and an exhibit dedicated solely to the Apollo 1 mission is open at Kennedy Space Center. The tributes are the result of years of work by those who believe humankind’s raison d’etre is a constant search for the unknown and who refuse to let the events of that day become a mere footnote in the history of American space exploration. We would know so little of the emotion and the story of those moments if all we’d had were data logs and diagnostics.

During my family’s trip to see the Apollo 1 exhibit, my grandfather, in usual fashion, spoke very little. When walking through the exhibit, he stared at a picture of his younger self on the North American employee tag that was on display. I asked him to tell us what he was thinking, but he politely declined.

It wasn’t until the tour guide was passing Launch Complex 34 that he spoke up, saying he’d like to see that. For the first time in decades, he walked into the site that 55 years ago, he almost didn’t walk out of.

As our group looked around, admiring the memorial plaque bearing the names of the three men lost on that day, our tour guide commented that he had heard present-day astronauts use the site as a sort of holy ground for contemplation before taking off on journeys of their own.

I remember thinking how apt that was. A place of tragedy turned into a place of reflection. Then I turned to my grandfather, who was looking down at his feet, giving a gentle nod and smile.