The Greatest Leap, Part 1: How the Apollo fire propelled NASA to the Moon
Seated in Mission Control, Chris Kraft neared the end of a tedious Friday afternoon as he monitored a seemingly interminable ground test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft. It was January 1967, and communications between frustrated astronauts inside the capsule on its Florida launch pad and the test conductors in Houston sputtered periodically through his headset. His mind drifted.
Sudden shouts snapped him to attention. In frantic calls coming from the Apollo cockpit, fear had replaced frustration. Amid the cacophony, Kraft heard the Apollo program’s most capable astronaut, Gus Grissom, exclaim a single word.
Noise blared for a few more seconds—then stopped completely.
An awful silence pervaded mission control. Engineers—pale, rigid, and silent—contemplated the worst. Kraft wondered if three of his friends had just died on his watch.
At that moment, astronaut Walt Cunningham was flying into Houston. He had worked inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft the evening before, and he had planned to stay in Florida until Grissom and the rest of the prime crew had finished their tests. But as delays pushed the morning “plugs-out” test into late afternoon, Cunningham and his fellow astronauts bailed, jumping into their T-38 aircraft and returning home for the weekend.
They knew something had gone wrong when they saw a grim-faced program manager waiting on the Houston runway as their aircraft taxied to a stop.
Norman Chaffee had left the space center in Houston earlier that evening, his day’s work done. An engineer helping to build the reaction control system thrusters used to orient the Apollo spacecraft, Chaffee was relaxing in an easy chair watching television when his telephone rang. Something had happened, a supervisor said, something bad with the prime crew. Chaffee had best prepare for some long days ahead.
That evening was clear and cold in Houston, as an almost-full Moon rose overhead. When the men and women of Apollo stopped for groceries on Friday evening after the fire, pulled in trash bins from the curb, or shivered and smoked a cigarette on the patio, they would have seen its brilliant light. And on that bitter night, it never seemed so far away.
All three astronauts had indeed died in the fire. In its aftermath, Kraft, Cunningham, and Chaffee were among thousands of Apollo program employees facing a harsh reality. Fewer than three years remained in the decade during which they were supposed to land on the Moon. And the spacecraft built to carry astronauts into deep space was now smoldering atop a rocket in Florida.
Outside of the aerospace industry, the story of Apollo 1, along with NASA’s rapid recovery through the historic Apollo 4 rocket launch and the Apollo 7 crewed mission, has largely been relegated to a historical footnote. It pales against the dazzle of six Moon landings. Yet without the fire, and the difficult decisions made in 1967 and 1968, NASA would never have met President Kennedy’s Moon mandate.
In fact, humans might never have reached the Moon at all.
“It really floored me”
A skinny kid with humble roots in rural Virginia, Chris Kraft had come to NASA in 1958 as one of its founding members, invited to join the Space Task Group after more than a decade as an engineer testing new aircraft. When the original spaceflight tasks were parceled out, it fell to him to figure out how to conduct space missions. This included drawing up flight plans, monitoring a spacecraft’s systems during flight, and communicating with astronauts.
No one in the Western world had done any of these things before, so Kraft set to work inventing the concept of mission control, basing the role's rigorous procedures and iconic communication styles on how air traffic controllers operated. Soon, he attracted a cadre of talented young flight controllers.
In early May 1961, he was flight director when a slim Redstone rocket—really, a barely modified Cold War ICBM—flung a lone American away from the Florida Coast and into a parabola that arced 188 kilometers up before splashing down into the Atlantic Ocean. Alan Shepard’s entire flight in the tiny Mercury capsule had only taken 15 minutes, but at the end of it America had finally joined the space race.
Less than three weeks later, Kraft received a heads-up from a supervisor that he should watch President Kennedy’s speech to Congress later in the day. Kraft's heart almost stopped when the president said, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The Moon? Did he hear that right?
Shepard had only just completed a suborbital flight, and Kraft and his fellow mission planners were still grappling with the mechanics of human spaceflight around the planet. Now his president was saying that NASA would put an astronaut on the Moon. In less than nine years.
“It really floored me,” Kraft said, reflecting on that moment. “I really thought it was beyond our scope. I must say, the team of people we had didn’t quite feel that way.
"I think they were excited as hell about it,” he added with a chuckle. “And so I became excited about it.”
Almost immediately, Kraft began thinking about all of the aerospace technology needed to reach the Moon. All of it would have to be invented and tested. And it wasn’t just a hardware problem; there were huge, basic questions to be answered. What was the surface of the Moon made of? How much radiation would astronauts be exposed to? How much power would they need?
He also began thinking about communicating with the crew. In 1961, state of the art communications consisted of landlines and teletypes. As Mercury capsules flew around Earth, controllers in Florida could communicate with remote monitoring sites in far-away places like Zanzibar—but only with a few words at a time, sent via teletype. This wouldn't be nearly sufficient for the volume and speed of information expected on a lunar flight.
The Mercury program would see NASA address multiple challenges as it transitioned from short, suborbital flights to its capstone flight—when Gordon Cooper orbited the planet 22 times over the course of 34 hours. By then, the pioneering Mercury spacecraft had reached its limit; its batteries could not support longer flights. The vehicle also had little maneuverability in orbit beyond some attitude control and the firing of a retrorocket to bring it back to Earth. In the summer of 1961, even before NASA had flown its second Mercury mission, work therefore began on the Gemini spacecraft to address these issues.
NASA flew 10 Gemini missions between March 1965 and November 1966, or one flight every two months. Then and now, it was an astonishing cadence, considering that each mission was unique and built upon the achievements of previous flights. On one flight, the much more capable Gemini spacecraft might perform an endurance test of its new fuel cells, marking the first time a spacecraft flew without using batteries as its primary power source. On another, two vehicles might rendezvous in orbit. Then came a docking. Astronauts performed spacewalks. By the end of Gemini, NASA had demonstrated many of the basic technologies needed to reach the Moon.
Critically, the daring dash of Mercury and Gemini had covered only about five years since Kennedy’s speech. A few brief scares aside, the program had gone off almost flawlessly. By early 1965, with some of the early Gemini missions behind them, NASA had sprinted ahead of the vaunted Soviet space program. NASA had made it look easy—perhaps too easy.
Listing image by NASA / Aurich Lawson