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Tragedy hits home for ex-NASA worker

Bob Lacy recalls the 20 years he spend working with NASA more than 30 years ago. He vividly remembers the deaths of three astronauts in 1967 during a simulated flight during the Apollo program. / Andrew Mariman — — — — Lake Creek man recalls a similar catastrophe in 1967, when three astronauts he knew died in the Apollo — fire

LAKE CREEK ' Bob Lacy felt a familiar sinking feeling in his gut Saturday morning, one he hoped never to experience again.

As he watched news reports of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, the retired manned space flight worker knew just what the NASA employees and its contractors were enduring.

For the families of the people who died, that's a terrible thing to have to go through, he said.

But it's also a terrible thing for the NASA workers. A lot of them are now wondering, 'Could I have done something else to prevent this from happening? Could I have done something wrong?' It's a horrible feeling.

Lacy, 68, had worked on the Apollo — spacecraft that burst into flames, killing three astronauts on Jan. 27, 1967, at Cape Canaveral.

That was during a simulated flight ' there was a fire, he quietly recalled. They couldn't get out.

Astronauts Virgil Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White perished in that fire. Lacy knew all three, having worked with them on the project.

It was a horrible experience for everyone, he said. People who worked on that program went into deep depression. You feel guilty.

Now they'll take you to counselors, he added. In those days, the U.S. Congress actually put us on trial.

An investigation revealed the three suffocated from burning plastics ignited by electrical arcing caused by a short circuit in the cabin. The fire-resistant plastics became flammable in the cabin's pure oxygen atmosphere, the investigation concluded.

Although it likely will be a long time before the cause of the Columbia disaster is known, those who worked on it already are replaying in their minds everything they did on the project, he said.

There are a lot of good people in the space program, and they'll take this very hard, he said.

Lacy worked in the rocket industry for 20 years before turning a hobby of restoring classic cars into a full-time occupation in 1972.

He was trained to work on aircraft engines in the Air Force, then graduated to rocket engines, where he was on the ground floor of the space program. As a civilian, he worked for North American Aviation Inc., a principal NASA contractor for the Apollo program.

When I went to Cape Canaveral, nobody had as much experience on those Atlas booster engines as I did because I had worked on developing the prototype, he said.

He arrived at Cape Canaveral in 1955.

I saw many, many rockets blow up before they were successful, he said.

He became a senior space vehicle test mechanic who worked in the Mercury and Apollo programs.

You always had a combination of relief and happiness when it was successful, he said. In those early years of the space program, successes meant a lot.

He was there on Feb. 20, 1962, when astronaut John Glenn rocketed skyward to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

He got in that rocket with a 50 percent chance of it blowing up, Lacy said, adding that was perhaps the most frightening moment of his life in the space program.

Among his space-age mementos are photographs of himself with flight crews taken during the early days of the space program.

At the bottom of a photo of Glenn, the astronaut signed his name and wrote, To Bob, with best regards.

Thanks for the boost, reads a card signed by astronaut Scott Carpenter.

We appreciate all the good thrust, says another signed by astronaut Gordon Cooper.

Lacy's job was to monitor rocket engines, making sure they performed within safe parameters.

When I worked there, I didn't leave anything to chance, he said. I rechecked everything myself. Totally.

But working with rockets is a dangerous business, no matter how many precautions are taken, he said.

Personally, I've always felt that Mercury and Apollo were dangerous, but that the shuttle was even more dangerous, he said. The Mercury and Apollo rockets were kind of gentle in comparison.

The shuttle spacecraft relies on a different kind of fuel than the earlier rockets when blasting off as well as a gliding re-entry method that causes extreme heat, he noted.

I feel we're lucky that we've only had two (shuttle disasters), he said. It's a very edge-of-the-razor thing. Everything has to go perfectly or you get a disaster like this.

Four years ago, Lacy received a videotape on America's space program, one which focused on Apollo 1.

I realized then that everybody involved felt like I did, he said. You feel very bad. And it really never goes away.

Bob Lacy recalls the 20 years he spend working with NASA more than 30 years ago. He vividly remembers the deaths of three astronauts in 1967 during a simulated flight during the Apollo program. Mail Tribune / Andrew Mariman - Mail Tribune images