BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN In the wake of Jan. 27, 1967, Dale Vander Linden said he spent a lot of time in front of the television watching news coverage.
That was the day when astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire during a launch rehearsal for Apollo 1.
Having worked on components of the spacecraft, and having met White and Chaffee personally several times, Vander Linden felt personally connected to the catastrophe, and still does 50 years later.
The path to Apollo work
Vander Linden grew up in Osceola, IA, where he first acquired an interest in engineering.
“When I was in high school, I heard the term ‘electrical engineering,’” Vander Linden said. “That was before electronics.”
After watching a few students from his community unsuccessfully pursue engineering degrees at Iowa State University, Vander Linden decided to attend Iowa Wesleyan College.
After going on to join the Navy, Vander Linden said he still had electrical engineering in his head, but someone had told him “naval air is a good racket,” and his interest was piqued.
In 1955, when he got out of the Navy, he worked at Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids, IA.
He went on to attend and graduate from the University of Iowa and reluctantly relocated to Rockwell, CA, to work for North American Aviation in 1961.
“I didn’t want to go there, but North American’s offer was 25 percent higher than Collins’ offer,” Vander Linden said.
While working in the systems engineering department, he found out about the opportunity to work on the Apollo 1 equipment.
“One of the Collins guys was visiting and we got to chatting,” Vander Linden said. “He said they had an opening for a quality assurance rep. I went and talked to them. They were excited to find someone willing to go to Iowa.”
Vander Linden technically worked for the Space and Information Systems Division of North American Aviation at a Collins Radio resident field office.
Preparing the Apollo 1 equipment
“The technology was a little different then,” Vander Linden said, offering an example. “The computer in the spaceship that landed on the moon had 30K (kilobytes) of 16-bit wordlength memory.
“Program Evaluation and Review Technique insisted that Collins send a weekly update,” Vander Linden continued with another technology-related example. “The TWIX (typewritten communication on a Teletyper Exchange Service) was 60-feet long. They decided they didn’t need that every week.”
As for the technology in Apollo itself, Vander Linden classified it as “a quantum leap over Mercury and Gemini.”
“They came up with a whole new set of quality assurance policy manuals,” Vander Linden said. “No one was used to following those, so it was quite a challenge.”
Quality assurance was key.
Even when it came to a wooden mockup of a signal conditioner, everything had to be perfect.
“It was supposed to be stamped ‘Not for flight,’” Vander Linden said. “ . . . It was smudged. The ‘Not for flight’ stamp was haphazardly stamped all over it. We were told that piece of wood would go before Congress and it wouldn’t be going like that.”
When it came to approving those components, Vander Linden’s department had the final say.
“If we rejected something, it didn’t do any good to pull strings farther up the company,” Vander Linden said.
Meeting the astronauts
Grissom, White, and Chaffee each had different pieces of equipment they were responsible to inspect and they took turns flying their planes to different locations to do so. That included Vander Linden’s place of work.
“White and Chaffee were monitors at Collins,” Vander Linden said.
He remembers how they stood out from others.
“They just seemed like you could walk into a meeting, knowing there were two astronauts in there, and you’d be able to pick them out,” Vander Linden said. “There was an aura about them. They were very congenial.”
One example of that congeniality was how they treated the staff and even their family members.
“Our office manager had a 12-year-old son,” Vander Linden said. “The guys said, ‘Bring him in. We’d be happy to meet him.’”
Vander Linden’s children never had the chance to meet either astronaut, but White autographed a photo of himself to the “Vander Linden boys.”
“Mistakes are terrible lessons to learn,” Vander Linden said.
That was certainly the case when it came to Apollo 1.
A small fire, possibly in a transponder, caused the entire spacecraft to catch fire.
“They used pure oxygen at that time,” Vander Linden said. “It didn’t occur to anyone that even the smallest electric short would cause an explosion.”
Audio records indicated that an astronaut first reported a fire, followed by two seconds of scuffling sounds, and immediately followed by someone saying, “We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.” After 6.8 seconds of silence, a badly garbled transmission occurred. Vander Linden believes they said something like, “Get us out; we’re on fire!”
Because the lid was bolted shut, it took about five minutes to open it.
“They guys were probably gone in less than a minute,” Vander Linden said.
In a way, a North American Aviation project manager foreshadowed the event, though no one thought of it that way at the time.
“It’s ironic because, before the accident, someone asked, ‘How big is the inside of the spacecraft?’” Vander Linden said. “He said, ‘About the size of three coffins.’ At that time, it was funny.”
Vander Linden was no longer working on spacecraft at that time, but the loss of the astronauts still hit him hard.
“I’d lost grandparents, but still had my parents and siblings,” Vander Linden said. “It came close to losing a member of the family. The aspect of losing these guys was so broad.”
Late January and early February has historically been a bad time for space shuttle catastrophes.
In addition to the Apollo 1 fire Jan. 27, 1967; the Challenger explosion occurred Jan. 28, 1986, killing seven; and the Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members Feb. 1, 2003.
While Vander Linden had no connection to the Challenger, he did go on to work on the Return to Flight program in 2005, following the Columbia catastrophe.
“I had kept my name out there,” Vander Linden said. “I learned Lockheed Martin in New Orleans had an opening. I had never been to New Orleans. I sent my résumé in. They called back and said, ‘Can you be there Monday?’”
Vander Linden went, even though he wasn’t sure what his responsibilities would be.
“I almost blurted out, ‘What am I doing here?’” Vander Linden said. “I thought I might as well take a whack at it. It was really interesting. I did tests on different consistencies and types of foam.”
His tenure there stretched from July of 2005, to May of 2006.
He was proud of the finished product, noting that a person could place a hand on the exterior of the fuel tank despite its incredibly cold contents.
During his time there, he also met astronaut John Young, who was the ninth person to walk on the moon as commander of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972.
The future of space exploration
When asked about the current state of the space program, Vander Linden said, “I think abandoned is a good word.”
He referenced astronaut Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to walk on the moon, who died Jan. 16.
“He said he had constantly been in Washington, trying to get the interest rejuvenated, but was never able to gain any traction,” Vander Linden said. “He hoped it would happen again and he hoped it would be Americans that did it.”
Vander Linden said he shares those hopes.