Shoot for the Moon by James Donovan

Shoot for the Moon by James Donovan

Author:James Donovan
Language: eng
Format: epub
Tags: None
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Published: 2019-03-12T00:00:00+00:00


The grief and shock felt throughout NASA—particularly in Houston, where so many knew the three men personally—were palpable. For their part, the astronauts knew they had to put the tragedy behind them and get on with it; the test pilots, especially, were accustomed to death. They had lost friends before and knew there was nothing to do but continue the job.

But the nature of the catastrophe and its primary cause—an oversight that was not the fault of one person but of many—meant that getting past it was very difficult for some people, especially the engineers and managers associated with the command-module design, testing, and checkout. During a briefing in Bob Gilruth’s office, one blank-faced engineer walked over to a blackboard, drew a large box with lines leading to smaller boxes below it, and announced it was an organizational chart of heaven. “At the top is God, whom we’ll call Big Daddy,” he began, then lapsed into incoherency. He was flown home in a straitjacket, although he eventually recovered with the help of psychotherapy and electroshock treatment. A McDonnell adviser to the review board descended into severe depression and spent three weeks in a mental institution. Another engineer, one of NASA’s, also went off the deep end, exhibiting outlandish behavior, but he never received treatment and left soon after.

Joe Shea, the brilliant, youthful, high-energy director of the Apollo program, counted several of the astronauts as good friends—he often played handball with them and would get in punning duels with Wally Schirra. Shea had been warned about the dangers of 100 percent oxygen, but he eventually concluded that the safer two-gas setup would be too complicated and only worsen the ongoing weight problem. He blamed himself for the fire and began drinking heavily—a habit quite a few at NASA took up. He became so despondent, he was almost unable to function, especially when it became apparent to everyone that he had been, in Frank Borman’s words, “a poor administrator who had simply let North American’s design mistakes pile up like unnoticed garbage.”

Hearings in both houses of Congress began a week after the fire and continued through May. Webb, some of NASA’s top administrators and managers, and several astronauts were grilled at length in the government’s efforts to ascertain the exact reason for the accident. Webb told a committee that the agency had taken technical risks because of an “austere budget,” which didn’t go over well. More than anything, the congressmen appeared determined to fix blame somewhere—and Webb was just as determined to protect his agency. He told his subordinates that he planned to take the brunt of the criticism, and he did so, especially after a year-old internal NASA report criticizing the work of North American and some of its subcontractors came to light; few of the recommendations in it had been carried out. Webb knew nothing about the report and had to admit that fact, which didn’t help; if he truly hadn’t known about it, he should have, went the reasoning.



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