It was too late to save the lives of American astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, whose Apollo module burst into flames on a Cape Canaveral launchpad during a test.
But once investigators traced the blame for the blaze in 1967 to excessive flammable materials in the cramped quarters, among various factors, St. Paul’s David “Al” Stivers and others were directed to ensure that such a tragedy never happen again.
Stivers, a longtime chemical engineer for 3M whose work led to the creation of lifesaving fire-resistant aircraft seats, died April 8 of natural causes. He was 88.
Stivers’ collaboration earned him and his colleagues induction into the Space Technology Hall of Fame in 1996. Their innovation “saves 20 to 25 lives each year with all the major domestic airlines, as well as a large number of international carriers, now using this technology,” the Space Foundation said at the time it bestowed the honor in a medal-draping ceremony in Colorado Springs.
“Anytime you fly on an aircraft now” passengers are being protected by this material, said John Keating, a fellow 3M scientist who was among the inductees. “You used to have five minutes max” to be spared from the flames, Keating said. “Now you have about 15, depending on where the fire is in the aircraft.”
After the Apollo accident, the assignment quickly came from NASA for Stivers, Keating and others to prevent the polyurethane foam in the seats from igniting.
Keating said he and Stivers needed to make a fire-resistant, rubberlike material, “so that if there was a spark, it wouldn’t cause a fire.”
About 18 months later, Keating said, they had a solvent that could be sprayed, would dry and stand up to testing.
Not only was the substance applied in the fabric that surrounded the foam seating in future capsules, but the same material was molded and included in the astronauts’ uniforms, he said.
“When they first went to the moon, 92 pounds of that material was in the capsule,” Keating said.
Without what Stivers and Keating together created, NASA would have needed several more years to make its capsules more fire-resistant, Keating said.
“It would’ve taken another three to five years” for the historic 1969 American moon landing, he estimated, “and the Russians might have gotten there first.”
NASA’s success in this area of safety led to a Federal Aviation Administration regulation in 1984 that required the retrofitting of more than 600,000 seats with the flame-blocking system for the safety of travelers worldwide.
Stivers was born in Cleveland, Tenn., in 1924, attended Darlington School in Rome, Ga., and went on to receive degrees in chemical engineering and industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He ran the mile on the track team while in college.
Stivers is survived by Peggy, his wife of 49 years. The two of them started a kennel in 1970 and bred Gordon setters and Irish setters.
He is also survived by sons David Stivers Jr. and Ramsey Stivers; and daughter Rebekah Stivers; brother Theodore Stivers; and sisters Rachel Lou “Wakie” Stivers Heckman and Betty Rose Stivers Perry. Services in St. Paul have been held.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482