Monday, October 7, 2013

Launch Pad 34, Kennedy Space Center

On January 27, 1967, module CM-012  was on Launch Pad 34 at the Kennedy Space Center.  The module was being tested, not even being launched, something (the cause is still unknown) sparked a fire.  Astronaut Grissom shouted "Fire!" followed by Astronaut White saying "We've got a fire in the cockpit!".  The fire burned hot and fast in the oxygen-rich environment, and 30 seconds later, it was all over, the three astronauts had died.  These were the first deaths of the U.S. Space Program.

The complex still stands, though it has not been used in a very long time.  NASA used to allow visitors, but is said to have stopped doing so due to "strange occurrences*" (though you can take a bus tour of the area...rather indicating that this is nonsense).  

Naturally, the place is now the subject of ghost stories.  Visitors and security patrols report eerie feeling in the vicinity of the pad, and many have reported hearing agonized screams.  There are references to "floating apparitions" - I assume of the astronauts, though I can't find any specific descriptions - and at least one visitor (who, it should be said, went looking for ghosts) claims that a patch that he had left behind mysteriously moved 30 feet after he dropped it and went back to find it (for the record, as someone who routinely puts things down in the field and has to go back to find them, 30 feet is not much of a distance to mis-remember when you go to pick something back color me unimpressed by this claim).

Regardless, this is the second ghost story associated with space travel that I have found, and it is a noteworthy part of the folklore.

*I have my doubts about this being the reason that visitors were no longer allowed there.  When a ghost story is attached to a place, it is almost inevitable that people will claim that mundane things occurred for "strange" reasons...when they occurred for mundane reasons.

Commentary: Shades of SLC-6, another space launch complex said to be haunted. This story, however, is not dripping in the racism inherent in the SLC-6 "cursed by an Indian Shaman!" story. Rather, it is based on a real life tragedy that befell several astronauts.

The deaths were preventable, though, like the later Challenger and later Columbia disasters, the decisions that led to the deaths were not readily acknowledged until it was too late.  NASA disagreed with many of North America Aviation's initial design decisions, requesting changes that, arguably, made the spacecraft more dangerous.  As summarized by Wired:

Even before tragedy struck, the command module was criticized for a number of potentially hazardous design flaws, including the use of a more combustible, 100 percent oxygen atmosphere in the cockpit, an escape hatch that opened inward instead of outward, faulty wiring and plumbing, and the presence of flammable material.
Regarding the cabin atmosphere and hatch configuration, it was a case of NASA overruling the recommendations of the North American designers. North American proposed using a 60-40 oxygen/nitrogen mixture but because of fears over decompression sickness, and because pure oxygen had been used successfully in earlier space programs, NASA insisted on it being used again. NASA also dinged the suggestion that the hatch open outward and carry explosive bolts in case of an emergency mainly because a hatch failure in the Mercury program's Friendship 7 capsule had nearly killed Gus Grissom in 1961.
So CM-012 was completed as ordered and delivered to Cape Canaveral.
The three astronauts knew they were looking at a potential death trap. Not long before he died, Grissom plucked a lemon from a tree at his house and told his wife, "I'm going to hang it on that spacecraft."
Growing up, my father would often tell me about the failed launch, and the horror that he and his friends felt when they heard the news. After a decade of the on-going triumphant conquest of space, the dangers inherent in the enterprise became frighteningly obvious.  This realization shook the public, but it should not have surprised them.  Many of the people who witnessed the tragedy were old enough to remember when airplanes were the horribly dangerous province of dare devils and not the routine transportation that they had become by the late 20th century.  And, in the scheme of things, it wasn't that far back in our history when the ocean wasn't a route for pleasure cruises but rather "the great grey widow-maker."
Humans have always been drawn to explore.  It is, perhaps, one of the better qualities of our species. However, just as we have had stories of ghost ships for centuries, it shouldn't surprise us that we now have stories of ghost space ships.  And, should we continue our off-planet exploration, as I hope we do, it's likely only a matter of time before a space-age equivalent of the Flying Dutchman enters our folklore.

Sources: Roadtripper (a Gawker Media site), Published Book, The rather mis-named TruTVWired

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