Source: This document taken from the Report of Apollo 204 Review Board
NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA History Office, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC.

NASA Office of the Administrator

Statement By
James E. Webb

NASA is releasing today a third interim report on the work of the Apollo 204 Review Board resulting from two days of meetings with the Board by Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans at Cape Kennedy. These meetings took place on February 23 and 24.

This statement and Dr. Seamans' third interim report have been reviewed with Chairman Clinton Anderson and Senior Minority Committee Member Senator Margaret Chase Smith and with Congressman George Miller. In continuation of the Senate Committee's review of the Apollo 204 accident, Senator Anderson has announced that the Senate Committee will hold an open hearing on the preliminary findings of the Board and actions to be taken by NASA at 3 p.m., Monday, February 27.

In addition to the information set forth by Dr. Seamans in his three interim reports, I have had the benefit of a review by three members of the Board -- the Chairman, Dr. Floyd Thompson, Astronaut Frank Borman, and Department of Interior combustion expert Dr. Robert Van Dolah. This included the preliminary views of the Board as to the most likely causes of ignition, the contributing factors in the rapid spread of the fire, the inadequacy of the means of emergency egress for the astronauts, and the need to recognize that all future such tests be classified as involving a higher level of hazard.

The following emerges from the preliminary views of the Board and the Board's preliminary recommendations:

  1. The risk of fire that could not be controlled or from which escape could not be made was considerably greater than was recognized when the procedures for the conduct of the test were established. Our experience with pure oxygen atmospheres included not only the successful Mercury and Gemini flights but a number of instances where a clearly positive source of ignition did not result in a fire. In one such instance an electric light bulb was shattered, exposing the incandescent element to the oxygen atmosphere without starting a fire.

  2. Our successful experience with pure oxygen atmospheres in Mercury and Gemini, our experience with the difficulty of storing and using hand-held equipment under zero-gravity conditions, and our experience with the difficulty of making sure before flight that no undiscovered items had been dropped or found their way into the complex maze of plumbing, wiring, and equipment in the capsule, led us to place in the Apollo 204 capsule such items as Velcro pads to which frequently used items could be easily attached and removed, protective covers on wire bundles, nylon netting to prevent articles dropped in ground testing from being lost under or behind equipment in the capsule, and a pad or cushion on which, in the planned escape exercise, the hatch could be placed without damage to the hatch itself or to the equipment in the spacecraft. While most of these were constructed of low - combustion - potential material, they were not so arranged as to provide barriers to the spread of a fire. Tests conducted in an Apollo - type chamber since the accident have shown that an oxygen fire in the capsule will spread along the surface of Velcro and along the edges of nylon netting much faster than through the material itself.

  3. Soldered joints in piping carrying both oxygen and fluids were melted away, with resultant leakage contributing to the spread of the fire.

  4. The bursting of the capsule happened in such a way that the flames, as they rushed toward the rupture and exhausted through it, traveled over and around the astronauts' couches. Under these conditions, and with just a few seconds of time available, the astronauts could not reach the hatch and open it.

  5. This fire indicates that a number of items related to the design and performance of the environmental control unit will require the most careful examination and may require redesigns.

Astronaut Borman, in commenting on his reactions to the conditions surrounding the Apollo 204 test and subsequent knowledge he has gained as a result of serving on the Review Board, stated to Dr. Seamans, Dr. Thompson, and to me that he would not have been concerned to enter the capsule at the time Grissom, White and Chaffee did so for the test, and would not at the time have regarded the operation as involving substantial hazard. However, he stated that his work on the Board has convinced him that there were hazards present beyond the understanding of either NASA's engineers or astronauts. He believes the work of the Review Board will provide the knowledge and recommendations necessary to substantially minimize or eliminate them.

Dr. Thompson, Astronaut Borman, and Dr. Van Dolah have returned to Cape Kennedy and are proceeding with the work of the Board. This will require several weeks to complete.

Chairman George Miller, of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, has announced that as soon as the Board's work is complete, the Committee's Oversight Subcommittee, chaired by Congressman Olin Teague, will conduct a complete investigation of all factors related to the accident and NASA's actions to meet the conditions disclosed. Chairman Teague spent Friday and Saturday at Cape Kennedy with members of the Manned Space Flight Subcommittee, of which he is also Chairman, reviewing progress in the Apollo program. Dr. Seamans, Dr. George Mueller, and I will report further to him at 10 a.m., Monday February 27.


Updated February 3, 2003
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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