During research for an article about the Apollo 7 mission on its 50th anniversary in October, 2018, I interviewed Col. Frank Borman about his work in seeing that the Apollo spacecraft received the necessary design changes to ensure crew safety and mission success during the crucial sequence of Apollo missions to follow. NASA was running out of time to meet President John F. Kennedy’s lunar landing “before the decade is out” deadline.
My article on Apollo 7 is here.
With Col. Borman’s death on November 7, 2023, I wanted to share his thoughts on that period of recovery from the Apollo Fire, leading up to Apollo 7 and his Apollo 8 mission in late 1968.
I’ve edited the interview transcript lightly for brevity and clarity.
Jones Thanks for agreeing to talk about Apollo 7. Next year is the 50th anniversary year of your flight and Apollo 7. I thought a lot of people were going to write about Apollo 8. There is a new book about your mission out, and so I thought that I’d try to tackle a less well-known mission and try to tell that story.
Borman Well, I think it was a less well-known mission, but Apollo 7 was absolutely critical to the program. If it had failed, I don’t know what would have happened.
Jones I would start with your service on the Apollo 204 review board. You were a key member of that board. Then you followed on with the redesign effort. What were the changes that they had to make to the command and service modules before they could qualify Apollo for flight?
Borman Well, the best-known change, of course, was the hatch. We changed it from a self-sealing hatch that was extremely difficult to open over to a hatch that opened outward and could be opened very rapidly. The program was really instrumental in a lot of ways. And the primary mover in this program was George Low. He ran what he called the change board back in Houston, which controlled the changes that would be put into the spacecraft. And he demanded that the leaders of all the departments in Houston at MSC [Manned Spaceflight Center, later Johnson Space Center] be there for what I think were weekly meetings. And if you had a certain system that you wanted changed, you brought this change before the change board, and they discussed it and then it went Yea or Nay. If it was Yea, then they sent it out to Downey, where I was with the team of Aaron Cohen and others, and then we would make certain that North American implemented these as desired by the change board. We were more executors than designers.
Jones The designers were where then? Were they at Downey or back in Houston?
Borman Well, they were a combination of both, at North American and in Houston. But the change board, which finally said yea or nay to the changes, was in Houston and it was chaired by George Low.
Jones So the hatch, as an example: Was this an open-ended process where you said, “We’re going to take all the time that’s required before we qualify Apollo for flight,” or did you have a deadline that you had to have all these changes done by?
Borman There was always schedule pressure. The program was oriented toward getting to the moon and back, in the Sixties. That was very prominent in everyone’s mind. But I honestly don’t know of any shortcuts that were made in that respect that would have jeopardized safety. Especially after the fire, safety was paramount.
Jones Did you feel that the contractor was just as safety-conscious, after the fire, as anybody at NASA was? Who, if anyone, was pushing the safety envelope?
Borman NASA in the Sixties was a wonderful place to work, because excellence was the primary thing, and if you didn’t cut it you were gone. So, the guys at North American who had been responsible for the Apollo fire, that spacecraft–they were gone. Harrison Storms and another man who I can’t remember were gone. The replacement was Bill Bergen who had been at Martin. Then he appointed a master for each spacecraft, and he was responsible for overseeing all of the changes and all the work done on that particular spacecraft. I remember on Apollo 7 it was a man by the name of John Healey. They also replaced the North American people at the Cape. And they brought back a guy who’d been involved in the Atlas program…You gotta remember now it was 50 years ago.
It was a rough time. But it wasn’t the same team; it was a whole new cadre of people at North American.
Jones You spent all those months out in California after the fire. Were you still looking at all of the spacecraft design changes, or were you focused on your Apollo 8 vehicle at that point?
Borman Remember, we were originally going to fly after Apollo 8. We were going to be Apollo 9. Our mission was supposed to fly after McDivitt’s mission, which was Apollo 8. McDivitt had spacecraft -103, and we had -104. When they switched the mission and we became Apollo 8, we took over Apollo spacecraft -103, and McDivitt inherited -104. To be honest with you, I was out in Downey, where we spent most of our time on Apollo 7 and all the spacecraft, not one specific craft.
Jones They were going to be identical, weren’t they?
Borman No, there were some subtle changes in them, particularly in the ones that were designed for rendezvous. Apollo 7 didn’t have that design feature, but there were some subtle changes and improvements as you went along, as there are in a lot of programs. There was also a difference in the weights for some I can’t remember. But they were basically very similar.
Jones That redesign process included the hatch, and also a two-gas atmosphere system on the launchpad. Did these changes go smoothly, or did you have big arguments about how to proceed?
Borman The arguments about the changes were going on at the change board in Houston. There were vigorous presentations in which I participated, and it was a wonderful management process. The big thing about it was that the decisions were made right then. It wasn’t referred to a committee. At that time, it was management at its best, in my opinion.
Jones That’s a good line. If you can recall, when did NASA finally say that October of 1968 is the launch date for Apollo 7?
Borman Well, let me just add something about that two-gas system. There was a lot of controversy about that, and in Congress we took a lot of hits because we had used a single-gas system in all of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. But the only change we made to a two-gas system at launch, or on the pad, I think it was 60/40 oxygen/nitrogen, and then as it bled off [during ascent] it ended up being 100 percent oxygen anyway. There wasn’t any fundamental difference in the hardware, if you see what I’m saying.
Jones Did that nitrogen supply come from the ground servicing equipment or did you have a nitrogen tank on the ship?
Borman I think it came from the ground servicing equipment.
Jones So, as you climbed towards orbit, the pressure dropped via a regulator and the atmosphere was just purged with oxygen?
Borman At first it was almost equally oxygen and nitrogen, but as we flew, the CO2 [removal] canisters removed that bad stuff, and eventually we ended up with 100% oxygen at, if I recall, 5 psi, which was equivalent to the oxygen pressure at sea level.
Jones Were there any other major changes that came out of the fire? There was obviously better quality control, better workmanship. But were there any other big system changes that you can think of?
Borman I remember one: the spacecraft, as you can imagine, because of the changes–the hatch and so on–grew in weight. The people at Huntsville had been around a while and, thank God for them, they had designed a rocket that could handle that increase in weight. But the parachute system required an additional de-reefing line that had never been used before. So, there was a big hassle over that. I think we finally ended up with three de-reefing lines. All the parachute people wanted to test it. That test was going to cost $250,000, as I recall, and I approved it out at Downey.
Well, George Low came out and he was around there for a while, and he said, “You don’t need to do that. Cancel that test.” Everybody else thought it should be done. So, I went to Sam Phillips—he was a wonderful program manager—and I explained the situation to him. He said, “Look, don’t worry about it. Go ahead and do the test, and I’ll take care of it.” That kind of management, if you know what I’m saying, was what helped us.
Jones You had this year and a half recovery period from the fire. Obviously, nobody was planning for the fire, but did NASA then have a chance to regroup and make improvements that they needed that they wouldn’t have had time for, other than the fire? Did that open up the envelope to give you some breathing room?
Borman I’m not certain about that. I do know that the forcing function was Apollo 8 going to the Moon: the hardware, software, and procedures for recovery. All of a sudden, they were required in a four-month period. I think that was one of the important things about Apollo 8, that it was a forcing function as far as developing not just the hardware but the operational software to make it work.
Jones Let’s bring in Wally Schirra. While you were out at Downey, how much interaction did you have with Schirra and his crew? Were you seeing them a lot? Were they living out there with you? Did you live in a hotel, or did you have a bedroom at the plant?
Borman We lived in a terrible place; I’ll tell you about the government deal on that. It was called the Tahitian Village. That’s where I had a room. It was one of those motels in beautiful downtown Downey where they had lingerie shows at lunchtime. Do I need to say anymore?
It was a terrible place. Nobody gave a damn about us out there…I’ll tell you another thing that was interesting. I hadn’t been out there long when I found that the mechanics and others working on the spacecraft, at lunch break, were loading up on beer. I went to North American, and they said, “Jeez, these are union guys…” I went to the union and said “This doesn’t make sense.” By God, the union said, “That’s right,” and they stopped it. There was cooperation and a shared interest in making things better.
End of Part 1. I’ll post a link here for Part 2.