Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

The Hunches of Tom Baron

All the tests and modifications in the spacecraft did not go far enough or fast enough in the view of one North American employee, Thomas R. Baron of Mims, Florida. Baron's story has significance for two reasons. His attitude reflected the unidentified worries of many who did not express them until too late. Also, the reaction of KSC managers indicated a determination to check every lead that might uncover an unsafe condition. The local press at the time gave ample but one-sided coverage of the Baron story.

Baron had a premonition of disaster. He believed his company would not respond to his warnings and wanted to get his message to the top command at KSC. While a patient at Jeff Parrish Hospital in Titusville, Florida, during December 1966, and later at Holiday Hospital in Orlando, Baron expressed his fears to a number of people. His roommate at Jeff Parrish happened to be a KSC technical writer, Michael Mogilevsky.23 After Baron claimed to have in his possession documentary evidence of deficiencies in the heat shield, cabling, and life support systems, Mogilevsky went to see Frank Childers in NASA Quality Control on 16 December. Childers called in an engineer of the Office of the Director of Quality Assurance, and Mogilevsky related Baron's complaints and fears again.24

That evening Rocco Petrone asked John M. Brooks, the Chief of NASA's Regional Inspections Office, to locate and interview Baron. Brooks interviewed Baron twice and briefed Debus, Albert Siepert, and Petrone on Baron's complaints: poor workmanship, failure to maintain cleanliness, faulty installation of equipment, improper testing, unauthorized deviations from specifications and instructions, disregard for rules and regulations, lack of communication between Quality Control and engineering organizations and personnel, and poor personnel practices.

Baron claimed to possess notebooks that would substantiate his charges. He promised to cooperate with KSC and with North American Aviation if someone above his immediate supervisor would listen to what he had to say. He did not believe his previous complaints had ever gone beyond that supervisor. He asked to be allowed to talk to John Hansel, Chief of Quality Control for North American. Baron's complaints were against North American, not KSC. He believed that the center needed additional personnel to enforce compliance with procedures in the Apollo program. Brooks later reported: "Baron was assured that an appropriate level of NAA management would be in touch with him in the next day or two."25

On 22 December 1966, Petrone and Wiley E. Williams, Test and Operations Management Office, Directorate for Spacecraft Operations, received a briefing on Baron's complaints. The two men recognized that these were primarily North American Aviation in-house problems and that the company should inquire into Baron's complaints and advise KSC officials of the results. NAA officials W. S. Ford, James L. Pearce, and John L. Hansel met with Petrone that same day. They arranged to talk with Baron the following day.26

Since Baron had confidence in Hansel, who was an expert in Quality Control, Hansel's testimony is especially valuable. Baron had lots of complaints but, Hansel insisted, no real proof of major deficiencies, either in the papers Baron had in his possession or in the report that Baron wrote (and Hansel was to read) a short time later. Lastly, Hansel stated, Baron was not working in a critical area at that time.27

North American informed Petrone of the interview by 4 January, but sent no written report to Petrone's office.28 On 5 January a North American spokesman told newsmen that the company was terminating Baron's services.29 Since his clearance at the space center had been withdrawn, Baron phoned John Brooks, the NASA inspector, on 24 January and invited him to his home. Brooks accepted the invitation, and Baron gave him a 57-page report for duplication and use. Brooks duplicated it and returned the original to Baron on 25 January.30 Brooks assured Baron that KSC and NAA had looked into his allegations and taken corrective action where necessary.

Petrone received a mimeographed copy of Baron's report on 26 January. John Wasik of the Titusville Star Advocate telephoned Brooks to ask about KSC's interest in Baron's information. Wasik indicated that he was going to seek an interview with Petrone. On the following morning, Gordon Harris, head of the Public Affairs Office at KSC, heard that Wasik had spent approximately one and one-half hours with Zack Strickland, of the North American Aviation Public Relations Information Office, going over the Baron report.31

That same day Hansel, North American's head of Quality Control - the man Baron had hoped his report would reach - told Wasik that Baron was one of the most conscientious quality control men he ever had working for him and that his work was always good. "If anything," Hansel related in the presence of Strickland, "Baron was too much of a perfectionist. He couldn't bend and allow deviations from test procedures - and anyone knows that when you're working in a field like this, there is constant change and improvement. The test procedures written in an office often don't fit when they are actually applied. Baron couldn't understand this." Wasik also stated: "Hansel readily agreed that Baron's alleged discrepancies were, for the most part, true."32 What Wasik did not say was that none of the discrepancies, true though they were, was serious enough to cause a disaster.

Hansel was not alone in his misgivings about Baron. Hansel did not know of Frank Childers's report nor had he ever talked to Childers about Baron. Childers, too, had doubts about the man's reliability. Even though he had sympathetically reported to NASA officials the fears of the North American employee, Childers admitted that Baron, who signed himself T. R. Baron, had the nickname "D. R. (Discrepancy Report) Baron."33 R. E. Reyes, an engineer in KSC's Preflight Operations Branch, said Baron filed so many negative charges that, had KSC heeded them all, NASA would not have had a man on the moon until the year 2069.34 To confirm the opinions of these men, Baron himself admitted before a congressional investigating committee a short time later that he had turned in so many negative reports that his department ran out of the proper forms. Further - in confirmation of Hansel's view of Baron's report - Baron based his testimony on hearsay, not on any personal records in his possession.35 Baron's forebodings were to prove correct, but not for any reason he could document.*

Both NASA and North American Aviation, a historian must conclude, gave far more serious consideration to Baron's complaints than a casual perusal of newspapers during the succeeding weeks, or even close reading of such books as Mission to the Moon, would indicate.36

* The Chairman of the House Subcommittee on NASA Oversight, Congressman Olin Teague of Texas, said in thanking Baron for his testimony: "What you have done has caused North American to search their procedures." House Subcommittee on NASA Oversight, Investigation into Apollo 204 Accident, 1: 499.