Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

Congress Investigates

When the review board began its investigation in February, the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences held a few hearings but confined its queries to major NASA officials.68 When the Apollo 204 Review Board turned in its report to Administrator Webb, the Senate Committee enlarged the scope of its survey; and the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, more particularly the Subcommittee on NASA Oversight, went into action.

Congress had wider concerns, however, than the mechanics of the fire that had occupied so much of the review board's time. Both houses, and especially two legislators from Illinois, freshman Senator Charles Percy and Representative Donald Rumsfeld, showed great interest in the composition of the review board, especially its lack of non-government investigators.69 Members of Congress questioned the board's omission of any analysis of the possibility of weakness in the managerial structure that might have allowed conditions to approach the point of disaster. Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts wondered about the extensive involvement of North American Aviation and its capacity to handle such a huge percentage of the Apollo contracts.70 To the surprise of both NASA and NAA officials, members of both the Senate and House committees were to take a growing interest in the report of the Phillips review team of December 1965. This probing was to lead to some embarrassing moments for Mueller of NASA and Atwood of North American Aviation.71 But these aspects of the hearings belong more properly to the NASA Headquarters history.

Questioning of Debus by two members of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics at a hearing in Washington on the evening of 12 April bears directly on the KSC story. Congressman John Wydler of New York asked Debus to clarify his secrecy directive, which Wydler believed had caused some misunderstanding. Debus read his initial directive of 3 February, which asked for total cooperation with the board and squelched other discussion of the disaster; and then his second announcement of 11 April, after the review board had submitted its report, which removed all restraints.72 Wydler seemed satisfied.

When Congressman James Fulton of Pennsylvania asked Debus a few minutes later if he would like to make a short statement for the record, Debus came out candidly:

As director of the installation I share the responsibility for this tragic accident and I have given it much thought. It is for me very difficult to find out why we did not think deeply enough or were not inventive enough to identify this as a very hazardous test.

I have searched in my past for safety criteria that we developed in the early days of guided missile work and I must say that there are some that are subject to intuitive thinking and forward assessment. Some are made by practical experience and involved not only astronauts but the hundreds of people on the pads. . . .

It is very deplorable but it was the known condition which started from Commander Shepard's flight. . . . from then on we developed a tradition that. . . . considered the possibility of a fire but we had no concept of the possible viciousness of this fire and its speed.

We never knew that the conflagration would go that fast through the spacecraft so that no rescue would essentially help. This was not known. This is the essential cause of the tragedy. Had we known, we would have prepared with as adequate support as humanly possible for egress.73

Congressman Fulton congratulated Debus on his statement. "This is why we have confidence in NASA. We have been with you on many successes. We have been with you on previous failures, not so tragic. . . . The Air Force had five consecutive failures and this committee still backed them and said go ahead." By looking at matters openly and seeking better procedures, Fulton felt that NASA was making progress.74

The House Subcommittee on NASA Oversight, under the chairmanship of Olin Teague of Texas, held hearings at the Kennedy Space Center on 21 April. When the investigation opened, it soon became clear - as the review board had already learned - that any emergency procedures at the space center would be extremely complicated matters involving conferences between NASA and contractor counterparts, and even in certain instances with representatives of the Air Force safety section. Beyond this the most noteworthy event of the hearing was the recommendation of Congressman Daddario that the members commend the brave men on the pad* who had tried to save the astronauts.75

While the Senate committee in Washington spent a great deal of time on the Phillips report, and embarrassed NASA and NAA officials with questions about the document, the committee finally had to agree with the testimony that "the findings of the Phillips task force had no effect on the accident, did not lead to the accident, and were not related to the accident."76 On the positive side, the committee learned from President Atwood that North American Aviation had made substantial changes in its management. The firm had placed William B. Bergen, former president of Martin-Marietta, in charge of its Space Division; obtained the full-time services of Bastian Hello and hired as consultant G. T. Wiley, both former Martin officials; and transferred one of its own officers, P. R. Vogt, from the Rocketdyne Division to the Space Division. Atwood testified that North American would probably make other changes.77 In the end, the Senate committee recommended that NASA move forward to achieve its goal within the prescribed time, but reaffirmed the review board's insistence that safety take precedence over target dates, and reminded NASA to keep appropriate congressional committees informed of any significant problems that might arise in its program.78

* Six spacecraft technicians who had risked their lives to save the astronauts received the National Medal for Exceptional Bravery on 24 October 1967. They were Henry H. Rodgers, Jr., of NASA, and Donald O. Babbitt, James D. Gleaves, Jerry W. Hawkins, Steven B. Clemmons, and L. D. Reece, all of North American Aviation. Taylor, Liftoff, p. 267.