Thomas Ronald Baron was a quality control inspector for North
American Aviation (NAA), the company responsible for building the
command module. Baron's activities after the Apollo 1 fire are
interpreted by conspiracists as support for a conspiracy.
Mr. Baron started working for NAA in September 1965 and was
assigned as an inspector at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the launch
site. In late 1966, Baron presented to NASA officials a 58-page report alleging improper action, discrepancies, failures, and
other irregularities he had witnessed. KSC officials notified NAA
managers, who met with Baron to address his concerns. The senior
quality control officer of NAA attended this meeting. They found that
some of Baron's criticism had merit, but the rest of his report was
inapplicable or unfounded for a variety of reasons.
Baron, apparently displeased with NASA's and NAA's response,
leaked his report to the media. This angered NAA officials, who fired
him in late 1966. NAA also issued a public response to his report.
On his own, Mr. Baron began to assemble a more thorough report
(about 500 pages long, according to Baron) in which he
apparently hoped to document his charges of safety violations. After
the Apollo 1 fire, he delivered his report to the Congressional
committees investigating the incident. He also testified before a
subcommittee headed by Rep. Olin Teague (D-TX).
Shortly after the committee rendered its findings, Thomas Baron
and his family were killed when their car was struck by a train.
Thomas Baron's report
was especially damning to NASA.
If anything it was especially damning to North American, not to
NASA. The 58-page report (which has survived) does not bring any
allegations against NASA, therefore it's unsupportable to assume the
longer report (which has not survived) necessarily would have.
The investigation after the fire pitted North American against
NASA. If either one of them appeared clearly at fault, the other
would likely be exonerated. NASA charged that NAA had been negligent
in building the spacecraft and filling it with flammable items. NAA
charged that NASA demanded far too many changes in the design without
giving NAA time to accommodate them, and unsafely operated the
spacecraft with a high-pressure oxygen environment, and that the
flammable items had been demanded by NASA's astronauts and therefore
could not be easily refused.
If anything, NASA would have wanted Baron's report to be given
special attention because it outlined lax safety procedures on the
part of North American alone, exonerating NASA. NASA had previously
questioned the effectiveness of North American's development program.
Although this seems callous to think this way, NASA would have been
motivated to pin the blame on North American, and Baron's report would
have helped that.
Thomas Baron found
evidence of massive safety violations at North American, and North
American tried to suppress the evidence.
Baron was so prolific with his official incident reports that his
supervisor ran out of report forms. To some this would seem that
Baron was adamant about his job as a quality control inspector. But
to others it might seem as if he is being nit-picky or petty. He
complains that his reports didn't seem to go any farther than his
immediate supervisor. If Mr. Baron was constantly overtaxing the
quality control reporting mechanism with low-priority items,
management would probably respond by routinely shelving his
recommendations, thus perhaps even overlooking important ones he might
make. It is important for this reason not to "cry wolf" in the
capacity of a safety inspector.
We know in hindsight that at least some of Baron's concerns were
valid, and that at least some of his incident reports should have
elicited action. But it's easy to see how management might have
become desensitized to Baron's input and thus dismissed the valid
reports along with the nit-picky ones. It is reasonable to conclude
that North American squelched Mr. Baron, but because of the volume of
his complaints and not their content.
However there is good evidence that Baron eventually found an
avenue for communicating his concerns to upper management. He met
with the head of North American's quality control division. While
some of his charges were completely anonymous or had been blown out of
proportion, North American found items they believed were worthy of
action. All agree that North American was in the process of
addressing Baron's few credible allegations with changes to their
procedures when the Apollo 1 fire took place.
Thomas Baron unwisely leaked his report to the media shortly after
meeting with NAA officials, and this undoubtedly soured North
American's relationship with him. Baron was a rank-and-file employee.
He did not necessarily have the perspective necessary to evaluate his
charges in context of the entire spacecraft construction. Since some
of his charges were valid, the unknowing media could plausibly assume
that all were valid. And the resulting sensational coverage would
have placed North American in unfavorable light that they did not
necessarily deserve. Baron's conversations
with Congress indicate that he was, to a certain extent, a
disgruntled employee and not the best witness.
It is perhaps proper to consider Thomas Baron at least the
bellwether of the tragedy, and to chide North American for not paying
closer attention to his reports. The fact that three astronauts died
is a clear indication that safety procedures were either inadequate or
were not being followed.
But it's going a bit too far to claim that Baron's supervisor
shelved his reports for any reason other than that he was submitting
too many of them. And it's probably going a bit too far to claim that
North American's officials didn't act on them once they were informed
of them. And it's reasonable to expect North American to defend
itself against unfair allegations in the press, especially at the
hands of one of their employees who might be afforded greater credibility.
The 500-page report
written by Thomas Baron mysteriously disappeared after his
death. NASA probably destroyed it.
The characterization of the missing report is an interesting
historical mystery, for whose answer we turn to Baron's testimony
before Rep. Olin Teague's (D-TX) subcommittee on NASA oversight, and
Al Holmburg's testimony immediately following Baron's.
It appears some of the committee members have some doubt about
Baron's credibility. Their questioning reveals that he has little or
no firsthand knowledge about conditions which may have contributed to
the fire. Mr. Holmburg testifies that the Baron report is almost
entirely hearsay -- Baron himself didn't actually witness the vast
majority of what he reported. The deliberations of the committee
suggest the primary contribution of Mr. Baron's report to the
committee investigation is to provide names of other possible
witnesses, not to tell an accurate picture of what was going on at
At this point it becomes important to distinguish between legal
admissibility and useful information. North American found
Mr. Baron's work at least partly helpful in reforming their own
operations. But testimony before government authority is not allowed
to be hearsay. Mr. Baron collected reports of discrepant action from
both named and anonymous sources, but in each case someone who
actually witnessed the action would have to testify to it in order for
that testimony to be valid in shaping public policy. So Mr. Baron's
report isn't necessarily admissible itself as evidence.
But the disposition of the report is in question, not its value.
The committee balked at printing it as part of the official record
because it was so long. And this would be prohibitively awkward and
expensive for something which is largely inadmissible. If the report
had been treated as an exhibit, which was suggested, its contents
would not be part of the official findings, but it may have been
retained in archive.
Baron's untimely death complicates matters because he would have
been the logical person to receive the report after Congress was
finished with it. NASA couldn't have destroyed it because NASA never
had custody of it. It went from Thomas Baron's hands to Congress's
hands. North American never had custody of it either. With no one to
claim it, and with its usefulness to Congress limited to supplying
names of future witnesses, and with an abbreviated version already
part of the record and acknowledged by North American, there simply
was no compelling reason to keep it around. We may consider that the
report was returned to Baron, or that it was simply destroyed. At
present Congress cannot determine whether it still has custody of it.
Conspiracists balk at this possibility, but we must face reality.
The report was simply not as important -- in the evidentiary sense --
as they say it was. It was not a smoking gun. It was not anything
which hadn't already been heard.
NASA had Thomas Baron
killed in order to keep him from revealing embarrassing
Officially Thomas Baron's death is ruled an accident by the Florida
Highway Patrol. The investigating trooper concluded that Baron had
tried to beat a train at a crossing. Had Baron been
murdered, it would have made more sense to do that before he
testified and before he delivered a lengthy report to Congress.
Baron had already been known to the press as a sort of whistle-blower
and a critic of North American since early 1967 at the latest. To try
to "silence" him three months later, after his testimony, is useless.
NASA had nothing to gain by Baron's death. North American would
have had something to gain had it occurred before his testimony and
report. As it happens, NAA was not seriously implicated by Baron's
testimony. NAA was able to substantiate that it had acted on the
valid points of Baron's first report with due diligence, and was doing
so when the Apollo 1 tragedy occurred.
If we dig a big deeper, we find that Thomas Baron was merely a
pawn in a much larger political game. Sen. Walter Mondale (D-MN), an
avowed opponent of NASA and space exploration, used the Apollo 1
hearings to reopen the question of whether Apollo was a prudent use of
the nation's resources, and arranged for Baron's testimony precisely
because he thought it would illustrate the waste and mismanagement at
NASA and its contractors. We doubt whether Sen. Mondale was aware of
how poor a witness Baron would turn out to be.
By his own admission, Baron had been treated earlier for an
unspecified nervous condition. It is likely he was not in a good
state of mental health during this period. This point was raised
during Baron's testimony before Rep. Teague's subcommittee, but it
is unclear whether it affected his judgment or had anything to do
with his death.
Didn't Apollo defenders
once claim that Baron had committed suicide?
Yes. That report was based on discussions among historians that
occurred in about 2002 but was ultimately revealed to be little more
than hearsay. Investigative journalist Gary Corsair reports the
findings of the Florida Highway Patrol, and has uncovered no evidence
Mr. Baron's "accident" is
just a little too convenient.
Only if one assumes his testimony and report were sufficiently
In the final analysis, Baron's testimony did not materially
affect the outcome of the committee's findings. But since he had
trumpeted his findings in the press, the media reports of his report
and activities were probably overstated.
If we put ourselves in the position of Mr. Baron's hypothetical
murderer, we have to wonder first about timing. It's far too late to
keep him from contributing to the investigation of the Apollo 1 fire,
and Baron's credibility is already seriously compromised by the
contradicting testimony of one of Baron's principal informants, Mervin "Al" Holmburg.
event to which Baron's death allegedly correlates chronologically is the release of
the committee findings. If this is indeed a significant event in the
chronology of the investigation, then it would look very suspicious
for a participant in the hearings to meet his death -- by any means --
so soon after. Thus, the murder of Thomas Baron would serve no useful
purpose, and look unnecessarily suspicious.
The story of Thomas Baron is indeed a sad one, but it is by no
means evidence in favor of a lunar landing hoax.