What Is Project Egress?

By Kristen Lomasney

Project Egress -- a collaboration between Adam Savage and the Smithsonian Institution -- is a celebration, not only of the technology, but the thinkers and makers, seen and unseen, who made the first lunar landing possible.

In 1967, during a routine countdown simulation on the Apollo 1 spacecraft, an electrical fire erupted inside the cabin. Under ideal conditions, the three-part hatch could be opened inwards within 60 to 90 seconds, but the fire spread quickly within the pure oxygen environment, and the atmospheric pressure difference was too great. The astronauts -- Gus Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee --were unable to exit in time.

Following the Apollo 1 tragedy, engineers were tasked with designing a new hatch that could be opened in three seconds and allow the crew to egress in under half a minute.

THE APOLLO 11 COMMAND MODULE (NASA)

The new hatch design integrated the three layers into one, and equipped the perimeter of the door with 15 latches, actuated by five strokes of a ratcheting handle. It also included a plunger mechanism, a gas powered piston to push the hatch open and attenuate travel, a manually operated pressure dump valve, and a screw jack attachment for emergency closure.

This impressive feat of engineering was unprecedented. It is estimated around 150 new tools were designed and built just to work on it. One account refers to the unified hatch as "the most carefully engineered and manufactured door ever built."

In July 2019, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first time humankind set foot on the moon. To commemorate this historic event, Adam Savage, in collaboration with the Smithsonian, set out to create a life-size replica of the epocal unified hatch.

Using advanced 3D scans of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia captured by the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office, and technical drawings in the Smithsonian archives, engineering student Andrew Barth reverse engineered and CAD modeled the entire hatch, one intricate mechanical component at a time.

Artist Jen Schachter then recruited a team of more than 40 makers and fabricators from around the country to contribute to Project Egress. Referencing the 3D files and dimensioned drawings, each artist precisely manufactured one piece of the hatch assembly using a process of their own choosing.

The result? A sculpture that is a patchwork of materials and techniques showing the hand of each builder and the ways we interpret aerospace history and material culture.

At its core, Project Egress is a celebration, not only of the technology, but the thinkers and makers, seen and unseen, who made the first lunar landing possible.

The Project Egress hatch was assembled before a live audience at the National Air and Space Museum by Adam, Andrew, Jen and several other makers on July 18, 2019. Be sure to check it out in person next time you visit the museum!

PROJECT EGRESS CONTRIBUTORS