Apollo Missions and an Alternative History

Fifty-four years ago today, Apollo 11 lifted off for its historic mission to the moon.

For those 2 of you who have followed my occasional blogs on the Neptunus Lex page – you know how I like history – and the little-known bits that are either ignored or rarely acknowledged – that can become so profound. Some years ago, I read in one of my history magazines – only a paragraph or so – that an American Tory, after the Revolutionary War, suggested to James Cook that they consider Australia as a prisoner repository now that the American colonies were gone.

I believe that this little paragraph was in the BBC History Magazine but I have never found anything on the Internet documenting this.

But if true, think how that affected history with the settlement of Australia with that first shipment of 700+ prisoners to Botany Bay a few years after Yorktown.

Then there was the lost German bomber pilot who, during the Battle of Britain, dropped his bombs on the docks of West London instead of his assigned target. Which, up to this time, Hitler and Churchill supposedly had a tacit agreement that they would each leave the other’s cities alone.

The raid gave Churchill the excuse to send some Lancasters over Berlin, where the Reichsmarschall assured its citizens that if Berlin was ever bombed, “they can call me Meyer”. And Berliners, known for their humor, subsequently referred to Herr Göring as “Herr Meyer”. (out of the ears of the Gestapo, I would assume). Which so enraged Hitler that he ordered a change in focus for the Luftwaffe to attack London instead of RAF facilities.

So anyway, I have enjoyed several groups in Facebook, one devoted to historical auto racing and the other devoted to space exploration.

Both, I have discovered, have members who were actual participants in those days. Some were large and some on the periphery.

Since today is the anniversary of that historic Apollo 11 liftoff, I posted a cartoon that acknowledged 3 astronauts who were not there that day to savor that moment.

On January 27, 1967, during a routine test a flash fire swept through the oxygen rich capsule and within seconds astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee were gone.  I can remember at the time the entire program being put on hold while the capsule life support system and hatch  were completely re-engineered.

A NASA review board found a stray spark (probably from damaged wires near Grissom’s couch) started the fire in the pure oxygen environment. Fed by flammable features such as nylon netting and foam pads, the blaze quickly spread.


Further, the hatch door — intended to keep the astronauts and the atmosphere securely inside the spacecraft — turned out to be too tough to open under the unfortunate circumstances. The astronauts had struggled in vain to open the door during the fire, but the pressure inside the spacecraft sealed the door and made it impossible to open.

So, for the alternative history. One of the members, who serviced the T-38 planes that the astronauts used (and was acquainted with all 3), suggested that if this fire hadn’t happened, but had instead happened during one of the missions, would the Apollo program have been cancelled?

He mentioned that this very scenario was hesitatingly raised by none other than Chris Kraft. It was a tragedy that possibly averted even greater implications.

Imagine during a communications check, the unknown Apollo, 100,000 miles from earth, is suddenly not responding. With the pure oxygen environment feeding the flames, the astronauts wouldn’t even have had time to radio Houston of their predicament.

And it would never respond, leading to speculation for years of its fate.

Was it a failure of the life-support system? The fuel cells? (as they nearly killed Apollo 13). A meteorite strike?

It would never be known, and unless the capsule crashed onto the moon, never would be known in the vastness of space. And the odds would be good that the Apollo program, and the mission to the moon, would have been cancelled.

So Grissom, White and Chaffee contributed in their own way through their sacrifices to the success of the Apollo program.

As far as this historic day, President Nixon, like Eisenhower with his own D-Day contingency plan, had his own alternative announcement

18 thoughts on “Apollo Missions and an Alternative History”

  1. A deep tragedy, but perhaps better than your suggested scenario. That could have been a death blow to the space program. I wonder if the Apollo in your scenario would have gone into a lunar orbit?

  2. Good question but it was suggested our entire space program would’ve been canceled with this hypothetical unknown mystery.

  3. Well, there was an unfortunate accident with the Space Shuttle program which killed astronauts — and yet the Space Shuttle program was not cancelled. Then there was a second Space Shuttle accident in which more astronauts died — and still the Space Shuttle program was not cancelled.

    Based on that track record, and on the fact that the Apollo program was not cancelled after the deaths of Grissom, White, & Chafee, it seems unlikely that the loss of an Apollo mission in space instead of on the ground would have resulted in program cancellation.

    Incidentally, it was reported that the second Space Shuttle disaster might just possibly have been avoided if NASA had understood the damage which the Shuttle had experienced on launch. Someone came up with a plan to use a spy satellite to photograph the Shuttle, which would have shown the extent of the damage. But the woman whom NASA had put in charge of the mission nixed the plan. Dead astronauts did not stop NASA from promoting more women to critical positions.

    And let’s not forget the rumored deaths of multiple Russian cosmonauts during their space program. The track record suggests that deaths are accepted as an unfortunate consequence of pushing the limits in astronautics.

  4. Yes, the O2 atmosphere was changed, but was there any plan _before_ the accident to complicate the air system to make it safe?

    I asked about the frequency of telemetry because a fire in space might not have appeared as just a mysterious radio silence. Mission Control might have had a bit of warning first. But I agree that a sudden unexplained silence, that early in the space program, would have put things on pause for a while until we had convinced ourselves that this wasn’t some brand new effect at work.

  5. In the case of the space shuttle, we knew what went wrong when the accidents happened. Or at least in the case of the challenger we had a baseline to start from

    Just imagine the Apollo capsule 100,000 miles away and suddenly they don’t respond and never do. And they would have no idea what happened

    Who’s to say whether the program would’ve continued or not?

    By the way I saw a YouTube a video of Robert “hoot” Gibson. He’s really an amazing pilot having flown everything from the F 14 tomcat to the space shuttle to a stint at Southwest airlines flying a 737, to a competitor at the Reno air races.

    Which incidentally his record at 500+ miles an hour still holds in the unlimited class.

    Anyway while he was a space shuttle commander they had one of those tile problems.

    And because they were hauling a classified cargo the Pentagon did not want them to use the normal means of photographing it without encryption

    And the encryption when decrypted did not have the original resolution and the people at NASA, seeing the less than full resolution picture, said it was OK

    They were shocked when the shuttle landed seeing the damage.

    there could’ve been a third disaster

    BTW an excellent book on the early space race from the Soviet point of view and then at the same time line comparing NASA is Beyond by Steven Walker


  6. BTW as it was revealed in the above mentioned book, the Russians had a similar accident although it was not in a space capsule

    It was in an isolation chamber where the cosmonauts would spend days simulating time in space. And one of them had a hot plate and I forget the exact circumstances but in the 02 rich environment there was a configuration and he too was gone in an instant.

    And of course we knew nothing of this for years

    And yes they had to re-engineer the hatch making it easier for the astronauts to exit. I can remember when the whole project was put on hold while I guess it was North American aviation who completely re-engineered the environmental system and the capsule hatch

    IIRC it was about a year before they were ready to resume testing

  7. The biography of the USAF’s missile general Bernard Schriever mentions that a 1957 TIME cover story about Schriever refers to the general and his crew as “tomorrow’s men.” In retrospect, this was true only if one defined “tomorrow” as the interval between the appearance of the article and, aY, July 1969.

    It is interesting that the moon landing roughly coincided with the end of the era in which the US could do big things quickly. It could be argued that Schriever was a man of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the era of the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building. In our current era, the execution of such projects has become difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Schreiver faced down General LeMay and Secretary Talbott..would a modern-day Schriever be able to prevail against the lilliputian army of lawyers, “community activists,” and “public interest” nonprofits who obstruct every single project of any size?

    My review of the bio:

  8. The reference to James Cook is surely misremembered. Cook was a superb seaman who was used by the British government for his extraordinary skills of navigation and mapmaking to investigate and report on parts of the world that had not then been fully explored, in the European race to acquire territory and resources. He was the first European to map the east coast of Australia in 1770 and no doubt his reports were influential in the decision 16 or 17 years later to send a fleet to establish a convict settlement where Sydney now stands, but he had no role further role in that project. There would have been little point in putting proposals to him for what do with the lands he explored, as he was not in a position to make any official decision as to the uses that the government of his country might make of his discoveries. Perhaps the unnamed Tory mentioned above spoke to someone else?

    Mind you, it is certainly true that Australians have traditionally viewed ‘Captain Cook’ as one of the fathers of their nation. So much so that the city I live in – Melbourne – contains a Yorkshire stone cottage that is supposed to be James Cook’s childhood home, which many years ago was disassembled, shipped to Australia and carefully rebuilt in parkland near the centre of the city. It still attracts many visitors! And there are many statues and monuments to him around Australia. Unfortunately he has been dragged into the woke culture wars that now plague the Western world, with his statues being defaced and damaged by the usual suspects, because … well, racism! Colonialism! And so on

  9. Re: The Challenger disaster, I remembered Reagan’s televised speech that night when he said of the dead astronauts “… slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.“ I think that should be the aspiration of most us as long as we remember not to try to replace Him.

    It has been 56 years since Apollo I, 56 years before that there was still an Austro-Hungarian Empire and a Kaiser. There were people who not only personally followed Lindbergh and Hillary’s conquest of Everest, but also many who remembered the heroic age of the Antarctic expeditions, In other words, that past is most certainly in another country Not to mention that the Project Mercury astronauts had all been test pilots

    Apollo had too much momentum behind it to be stopped; the smartest thing that JFK did was to put a deadline on the project keeping everyone focused on the outcome and not the process. Losing people without a trace is a traumatic affair; however, as the recent loss of the Titan reminds us, we have lost submarines that way. Mysteriously and with all hands, in many ways we can think of space crafts lost in that manner as similar to subs.

    I hope that we are emotionally prepared for the death toll that will come in the next age of Space exploration. Sending people to a permanent moon base, mining camps, and onto Mars is going to be a costly affair and to Bill’s post, we are going to have a lot of people who just won’t merely die but will disappear without a trace. Still, with all those risks, there will be no shortage of volunteers. In a sense the problem is not finding people to go, but having the guts to send them, There has been a lot of snark about Musk and the other billionaires playing with their rockets but we often forget that the difference between risk-taking and insanity is both a matter of perspective and not whether you have taken your meds or not.

    (To Miksa’s point, James Cook, Yes!)

  10. One of my medical school classmates was a former USAF pilot who had flown F 89s. He told a story of flying over a decommissioned aircraft carrier being towed to Puget Sound for the mothball fleet, He made a couple of passes pretending he was going to land on it. He said guys were running out on to the flight deck to wave him off. Anyway, he was invited to join the first astronaut group and said “No thank you.”

  11. David, I never did write about my IBM 650 days but, speaking of solid fuel rockets, another medical school classmate, in fact my lab partner, was a PhD in Physical Chemistry who with another guy at Thiokol developed the solid rocket fuel used in the Minuteman missile. In those days (1962) medical students got the summer off and he would work at Thiokol each summer and come back to medical school in the fall. He flunked his first Biochemistry quiz in freshman year. The professor talked to him about it, realized the quiz was wrong, and gave him an A in the course. That was his biochem class. He went into Pathology but discovered he was colorblind.

  12. I looked it up, there have been 310 people that have died climbing Mount Everest so far. The only recent year without multiple fatalities is 2020. Here’s the list:

    Climbing Everest has long ceased to have any real significance beyond a bucket list item for the pretentiously fit and affluent. Some people place the manned exploration of space in the same category. The pretense of “safety” would suit them as well as any other to end what they see as a frivolous and wasteful activity. I also note in passing that in January 1967, 403 Americans were listed as killed in Vietnam and that on that day, roughly 100 Americans died in traffic accidents. Safety always needs to be weighed against prospective gain. It’s still not clear what the ultimate rewards will be from occupation of space but the human toll to date doesn’t seem exceptional.

    None of the above excuses the piss poor engineering from NASA and their contractors that lead to all of these disasters. All of the flawed decision making that recently resulted in the covid disaster, still ongoing, were in florid abundance for decades at NASA. These episodes should be used to beat anyone and everyone advocating government “solutions” about the head until they stop. The most positive recent development in space exploration is that NASA is becoming increasingly irrelevant and will soon be unable to impede progress.

    A fire in the Apollo capsule during a mission would have registered in the telemetry many ways, most obviously in cabin temperature, pressure (It would have spiked dramatically.) and composition. A great deal of thought went into the telemetry systems and making sure they would survive much more violent scenarios long enough to phone home. They had a lot of practice with what it took to survive explosions. One specific requirement was that if something catastrophic happened during the radio blackouts from passing behind the Moon, the data would survive.

  13. After reviewing the Apollo 1 accident, NASA realized they lucked out, big time. Any manned mission before was using similar wiring, 100% atmosphere and similar quality control. The same wire was known at the time as a cause of several aviation fires.

    Changing wires to something that didn’t degrade in a 100% O2 environment under heat and pressure stress (big Duh! there,) changing to a more normal mixed-gas system and, most importantly, basically shaking the capsule until all the ash and trash fell out (no, really, shaking and rotating until nothing could be heard moving inside was a real thing) was what saved NASA.

    As to the two Shuttle disasters, they knew within moments of happening, well, days before it happened, what went/would go wrong.

    But if we had lost a shuttle with complete telemetry loss and no observable damage before the loss, that would have shut the program down.

    Of course, if the o-rings were designed for 40 degree or colder weather, like you find in Florida in the winter or at the alternate launch site at Vandenberg, CA, (never used because they wired the pad wrong and so many other things) or if the outer foam had been left alone with the original formula using freon or if any of the 4-5 actually created repair kits for damaged tile repair (including leading edges) were allowed to be carried and used, there would have, most likely, been no lost shuttles. And if the ejection crew cabin had been allowed to be armed and used as an ejection crew cabin on Challenger, the astronauts would have survived that, too.

    But, no, gotta pinch the pennies, gotta shave every last gram of excess weight.

    Which is why SpaceX is beating everyone with it’s big, beefy, stainless steel Starship.

  14. On the 100% oxygen atmosphere, my understanding is that Gemini and Apollo used 100% O2 at 5 psi in space. For the 1967 Apollo 1 test on the ground, they used 100% O2 at 1 atmosphere (15 psi) which made the fire much worse.

    [web search to job my memory] After the Apollo 1 fire, one of the changes made was to launch with an oxygen/nitrogen mix at 1 atmosphere, and then switch to 100% O2 at 5 psi once in space. The space shuttle and the ISS used oxygen/nitrogen at 1 atmosphere all the way through.

  15. So both Bill’s post and a conversation this weekend got me thinking about risk (as did Bean’s comment) Based on a recommendation I found a paper “NASA’s Understanding of Risk in Apollo and Shuttle” which looked at how the two programs approached risk from both a mission objective and a management perspective. Very short summary? Apollo was a boutique project (my words) not only seen as very high risk with probable deaths, but time lines were flexible. The Shuttle which was seen basically seen as a logistics project, an over-promised space truck that was supposed to be a break-even proposition; this led to an emphasis (as Beans mentioned) to cut costs and adhere to launch schedules. Even a management shmuck like me can appreciate the difference between the mundane vs. the heroic. I don’t think I ever referenced Apollo by name but I did tell a team at a warehouse I was visiting that there was nothing here worth getting hurt over, safety first!

    This bring us to 10 years in the future. Take the scenario of a heroic project, sending a man to Mars, as opposed to the mundane shuttling people to a Moon base camp. Half-way to Mars we lose contact with the ship, people die, the mission fails, and though we have a pretty good theory as to why we’re not 100% sure. Let’s also assume that we have the same hard-core engineering leadership culture that we had in Apollo. What happens to this particular Mars project? Going to Mars at all in the short-to-medium term?

    I’m willing to bet that there is a line out the door of astronauts who want a piece of that Mars action, even with a less than 50-50 odds of survival that Apollo 11 faced. So beyond a certain point it’s not so much about saving lives or “doing it for them.” or as it is about us. Would you be willing to accept a certain higher level of risk as an explicit trade-off to beat the Chinese? What are you trying to accomplish and what are you willing to lose to obtain it (i.e. it’s not just about getting to Mars “someday”)?

    Sorry didn’t mean to come across as bloodthirsty but my booze-fueled conversation yesterday reminded me of a training session from an earlier career regarding expendability and mission objectives. . I loved Apollo, perhaps we should call it the heroic age of engineering especially with what happened with Apollo 13. However engineering can only carry you so far, no? What have we accomplished in space for the past 50 years? A space truck (the Shuttle), a hotel (ISS), and sending robots (various probes) I’m “inspired” and I doubt any kid on the playground played at being an “ISS astronaut”, sitting around and doing science experiments or pretending they were pilots at the low-earth orbit equivalent of a cross-dock space warehouse.

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