Recovering from the Fire

The tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire stemmed from a series of failures in the program, from quality control to configuration management, and from NASA's relationships with its contractors. It brought congressional hearings and a traumatic reevaluation across the Apollo program. The high-profile crisis it provoked concerning the larger Apollo spacecraft meant the software problems could be worked out below the glare of publicity. In the fallout, Joe Shea was forced out, and Chris Kraft rose to renewed prominence;his operations-oriented approach would dominate the remainder of the program. The balance of power shifted noticeably toward NASA Mission Control, toward Houston, toward the astronauts, and away from ballistic missile-style systems engineering.

None of this was lost on Bill Tindall. Barely two months after the fire, he was already acknowledging, ''It is possible to take advantage of the stretch out of the Apollo flight schedule in the manner in which we develop the spacecraft computer programs at MIT.'' For Martin, ''it was a pretty tense time,'' and he acknowledged that ''we were not building that program in a way that was disciplined, and organized, and had trace-ability in it.''81 Battin, too, realized that he was too technical, too interested in the guidance itself to be the right kind of manager. ''He [Tindall] really did apply good discipline to our shop, and we did learn how to get people. It was ...a management technique which I, frankly, was not equipped to handle. . . . I wasn't really up to trying to direct the whole orchestra when I wanted to concentrate on a piece of it.''82

Copps remembered the turning point. ''One day Tindall just gave us hell____He really beat us up. 'How can you possibly do this? Here you sit at the very center of the success or failure of this extremely important program. You're behind. Get it through your head you are fucking this up.''' By this time, however, the MIT group respected Tindall enough that they could hear his message.83

By March 1967, Tindall was calm for the first time, his remarks conveying a dramatic difference in tone. ''It is my feeling that no major problem exists any longer in this area. MIT has an organization and facilities geared up to handle the workload in an orderly, professional, unharried manner.''84 It was just two months after the fire, but already things were looking up. The number of separate versions of the software was reduced. In principle, only two were needed—one for the CSM and one for the LM. But several others had been planned for earth-orbital flights, and several others when the intended programs were not ready. The flight schedule had slipped sufficiently that software was no longer the pacing item, nor was crew training, nor testing. Furthermore, the value of quality had pervaded the organization. Techniques like ''code inspection,'' a fancy name for a human being closely reading a printout of code, had proven effective in finding bugs. Still, Apollo software never flew completely bug-free; known problems remained in the code, which hopefully remained free of unknown errors.

In addition, there was a new realism about whether the programs could be prepared far in advance, or even whether they should be. ''Instead of releasing the flight program for rope manufacture at the earliest possible date,'' Tindall directed, ''we should release it at the latest possible date.'' Then any changes that might come along in testing would have the longest possible time to be included.85 A ''Software Verification Plan'' clearly laid out the steps for verifying, simulating, testing, and qualifying any new programs and changes, its flowcharted procedures for organizations indistinguishable from computer programs.86 While struggles continued into the fall of 1967, with delays and quality problems in software, and NASA continued to issue schedule emergencies, Tindall and the IL engineers found the software on increasingly solid footing.87

When Tindall retired, his colleagues wrote a poem for him. One of its five stanzas read:

Yes! Gemini was a hard act to follow!

But you did it again when we got to Apollo.

You became the world's foremost authority

On an agonizing process called data priority.

You said the onboard software was a GD bag of worms

And that was one of your milder terms.

You gave those programs a real thorough wash,

While MIT was out playing squash!88

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