The Science of Existence (75-3-1) Apollo 1

 Apollo 1

One giant leap for mankind. ~ American astronaut Neal Armstrong while standing on the Moon in 1969

The Apollo space program was NASA’s last step to having an American walk on the moon before the 1960s expired; a national goal set in 1961 by President Kennedy at the height of the Cold War, as a rallying distraction to the diplomatic follies of his and the Soviet Union’s administrations.

The distraction proved expensive. $24 billion was spent getting there; at the time, by far the largest commitment of resources ever made by any modern nation in peacetime. At its apex, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people, and required support from over 20,000 corporations and universities.

NASA management was always concerned about cutting payload. To this end, only pure oxygen was circulated in a spacecraft. Nitrogen, 78% of ordinary air, was considered deadweight.

NASA partly acknowledged the risk of using pure O2 in a 1966 technical report: “in pure oxygen [flames] will burn faster and hotter without the dilution of atmospheric nitrogen to absorb some of the heat or otherwise interfere.”

As soon as O2 absorbs heat, the molecule atomizes. Each atom raises hell by stealing electrons from nearby atoms; sizzling larceny that hots up any fire.

Worse, it takes but the slightest stimulation to spark an O2 orgy. Some NASA engineers fretted that static electricity from the Velcro on the astronauts’ suits might cause spontaneous combustion.

Yet NASA’s 1966 report concluded: “inert gas has been considered as a means of suppressing flammability… Inert additives are not only unnecessary but also increasingly complicated.”

In space, where there is no atmospheric pressure, just enough gas to breath is all that is needed. But on the ground, owing to atmospheric pressure, technicians had to pump the simulators with prodigious quantities of pure oxygen to keep the simulator walls from crumpling.

Mere months after the O2 report, during a capsule training simulation, an unexplained spark ignited a fire that cremated the 3 astronauts inside within seconds; whereupon NASA management decided that inert gases had something going for them after all.