Former astronaut Donn Eisele, 55, has followed the hearings of the committee investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster with understandable interest. In 1967 Eisele was a member of the backup crew on Apollo 1. On Jan. 27, 1967 that spacecraft caught fire on the launching pad, killing astronauts Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil I. Grissom and Edward H. White. Now an investment counselor in Fort Lauderdale, Eisele discussed the similarities he sees between that earlier tragedy and Challenger’s with correspondent Kent Demaret.
Are you shocked at the evidence that’s come out of the investigation into the shuttle disaster?
I’m astonished at what I hear and see, and yet, in a way, I have seen it all before. There are striking parallels between what seems to have been going on in the shuttle program and what went on in the Apollo development before the fire. We thought that we astronauts were the pilots and that we were going to have to get into this thing and fly it. NASA officials, on the other hand, tended to see the astronauts as passengers, a sort of cargo. They regarded us as troublemakers. We raised issues they didn’t want to hear about, pretty much the same way, I take it, as the current management team didn’t want to hear the criticisms of the shuttle made by chief astronaut John Young and others. What happens, I believe, is that they fall into a pattern of group think, where the number of people involved in the decision-making process gets smaller and smaller, and they decide to perceive something in a certain way. From then on, all information that doesn’t jibe with the mind-set of the group is rejected.
Is it possible, too, that NASA started drifting into bad decisions due to over confidence?
In the beginning NASA wanted to develop a truly reusable spaceship. It was supposed to be a two-stage vehicle. The idea was that the booster part would have wings just like the orbiter. After it got up to a certain height and burned out, it would turn around and glide back to the launch pad, and the space ship would fly itself into orbit. The thought was that with the reusable booster the shuttle would become a routine sort of deal, like an airline. Well, they didn’t have enough money to do that. So they compromised. The result is that every shuttle flight is an experiment. But NASA promised everyone the routine, airliner-to-space deal. Well maybe, in some curious way, they deluded themselves into thinking that’s what they really had. That sort of thinking would, of course, be compounded by having 24 successful flights in a row with no major problems. This could lead to overconfidence.
What do you think are the causes of the accident?
It appears it was equipment failure that caused it, and that failure may have been caused by operating a system too close to or outside the design envelope [limitations] or under conditions for which it was not properly tested.
How could this happen?
“Go fever”: trying to keep the flights on schedule.
Why would they be so concerned about keeping on schedule?
Damned if I know; they always are. I asked the Apollo managers before the fire, “What’s the hurry?” We had until 1970 to land on the moon. They had it worked out that they were going to do it in 1968, two years early. The trouble was they were forcing the pace. It’s the same sort of thing here. They said if this shuttle didn’t get off on time, it would de-track the next one. Somewhere in there they had a launch of a ship that was going to go out and look at some planets, and if it didn’t meet its launch window, they wouldn’t be able to do it again for 13 months. My only reaction is that, in the general scheme of things, what’s 13 months?
What do you think will be the result of the inquiry?
NASA will have to get a little more realistic and admit that the space shuttle really is an experimental flight-test program. I think everyone is going to get very honest about what they are doing, and they will have to think a lot harder about cutting corners and accepting compromises.
Do you think civilian outsiders should be aboard the shuttle?
I don’t think they ought to send any more amateurs up there. No school teachers, politicians, visiting firemen from another country. It’s too hazardous. There are a lot of people who would go over Niagara Falls in a barrel if given the chance and there was enough acclaim. But that kind of attitude has no place in the space program.
Is the shuttle too hazardous and fragile to fly reliably?
No. It’s complicated, as any spaceship is. But if they’re careful, it can be flown reliably. They have to learn what the limitations are and stay within them. Like the guy said: “Do you want me to wait until April to launch?” Well, hell yes! If it stays cold until April, then that’s what you’ll have to do. They didn’t recognize that. They do now.
Would you fly on the next shuttle?
Oh, yes. The one after the accident is always the best one. They will spare no effort to make it the safest flight there ever was.