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Penultimate Lunar Landing

Forty-years ago this month, the United States successfully conducted the next-to-last Apollo lunar landing mission with the flight of Apollo 16. The lunar landing occurred in the densely-cratered Descartes Highlands region located near the Descartes crater.

On Sunday, 16 April 1972, Commander John W. Young, Command Module Pilot Thomas K. Mattingly II, and Lunar Module Pilot Charles M. Duke, Jr. lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-39A at 17:54:00 UTC.  Apollo 16′s goal was to land in the lunar highlands whose surface material was older than that of the previously-visited lunar maria landing sites.

Apollo 16 entered lunar orbit in the 75th hour of the outbound flight. Young and Duke undocked their Lunar Module Orion from the Command Module Casper piloted by Mattingly just short of 96.5 hours into the mission. Slightly more than 8 hours later, Orion safely touched-down near Descartes crater at 2:23:35 UTC on Friday, 21 April 1972.

During their 71-hour lunar stay, Young and Duke conducted a trio of surface EVA’s to explore the Descartes region. Totaling more than 20 hours, these exploratory jaunts were facilitated by use of the motorized Lunar Rover that allowed the crew to venture as far as 2.7 miles from the Lunar Module.

Although too extensive to adequately report here, the astronauts’ exploratory discoveries were truly phenomenal and ultimately changed our understanding of the Moon’s geology. Young and Duke collected roughly 211 lbs of lunar surface samples. At 1:25:47 UTC on Monday, 24 April 1972, Orion and her crew lifted-off from the lunar surface and docked with Casper a little more than 2 hours later.

Following transfer of crew and cargo to Casper, Orion was jettisoned, and the 3-man crew remained in lunar orbit for almost a full earth day conducting experiments and surface observations before being rocketed back to Earth. The trip home and earth atmospheric entry were uneventful in the main.

Command Module splashdown took place at 19:45:05 UTC on Thursday, 27 April 1972 in the South Pacific Ocean. Crew, lunar cargo and spacecraft were safely recovered aboard the USS Ticonderoga some 37 minutes later.

Apollo 16 was a grand achievement both scientifically and technologically. Along with the other Apollo lunar landing missions, Apollo 16 reminds us what be accomplished when vision, commitment and hard work are brought to bear. Today, the lone Apollo 16 spacecraft component to return to Earth, the Command Module Casper, is on public display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Project PRIME Finale

Forty-five years ago this month, the United States Air Force successfully flew and recovered the third and final Project PRIME Flight Test Vehicle (FTV-3).  PRIME stood for Precision Recovery Including Maneuvering Entry.  The ability to generate aerodynamic lift allows a reentry vehicle to maneuver along the endoatmospheric portion of its entry flight path.   The main goal of Project PRIME was to flight test a hypersonic, maneuvering lifting body vehicle designated as the USAF/Martin SV-5D.  Configured with 3-axis aerodynamic and reaction controls, the SV-5D weighed 892 lb and measured 6.7 ft, 4.0 ft and 2.8 ft in length, span and height, respectively.  Thermal protection was provided by a then-novel charring ablator material.  The SV-5D was an autonomous vehicle and thus had its own guidance, navigation and control system.  On Wednesday, 19 April 1967, PRIME FTV-3 was launched by an Atlas booster from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.  The vehicle’s trajectory took it toward Kwajalein Missile Range (KMR) located 4,400 nm to the west in the Marshall Islands.  FTV-3 performed a variety of controlled maneuvers during entry in which a maximum crossrange of 710 nm was achieved.  The vehicle modulated crossrange by banking as much as 64 degrees while simultaneously pulling angles-of-attack as high as 57 degrees to achieve the required lift vector.  Indeed, this very same crossrange maneuvering strategy would be used by the Space Shuttle Orbiter a decade and a half later.  FTV-3 deployed a drogue parachute as it passed through Mach 2 at 100,000 feet. Main parachute deployment then occurred in the vicinity of 50,000 feet.  As the vehicle-parachute combination neared an altitude of 12,000 feet, the crew of a USAF/Lockheed JC-130B Hercules then executed the only successful aerial recovery of a PRIME flight test vehicle.  A planned fourth flight was cancelled due to the great success achieved in the preceding trio of PRIME flight tests.  As a final note, FTV-3 was subsequently returned to the contractor for post-flight inspection and testing.  Today, the recovered FTV-3 airframe is on public display at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Neil’s Cross-Country Flight

Fifty-years ago this week, future Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong piloted the fifty-first and longest mission of the X-15 Program.  The research flight was highlighted by Armstrong having to make a 180-degree turn over Los Angeles to recover the X-15 back at Edwards Air Force Base following a 45-mile overshoot of the intended landing area.  X-15 Ship No. 3 (S/N 56-6672) was configured with the Honeywell MH-96 adaptive flight controller for the purpose of easing the pilot’s workload during atmospheric exit and entry.  NASA test pilot Neil Armstrong was assigned responsibility to perform the early flight testing of this unit.  On Friday, 20 April 1962, Armstrong made his fourth and last flight in Ship No. 3.  Peak altitude and speed achieved during the flight was 207,447 feet and 3,788 mph (Mach 5.31), respectively.  As Armstrong approached the Edwards area from the northeast, his trajectory ballooned anomalously.  That is, rather that continuing to descend and scrub-off velocity, the X-15 climbed slightly and maintained an above-nominal speed.  As he passed by Rogers Dry Lake heading south, Armstrong was still traveling at 100,000 feet and Mach 3.  Armstrong banked the aircraft until it was practically inverted and invoked full elevator in an effort to get the X-15 to bite into the atmosphere and turn back towards Edwards AFB.  However, it wasn’t until he was over Los Angeles, roughly 45 miles beyond the base, that he got the aircraft turned around.  Now, would he have enough energy to glide back and touchdown on Rogers Dry Lake?  Somehow, Armstrong managed his energy state properly and made it back to Edwards.  But it was a close thing.  Rather than making the standard overhead turn and landing on the north side of Rogers Dry Lake, Armstrong executed a straight-in approach and landed on the south side of the desert playa.  Chase pilots are recorded to have said that he cleared the Joshua trees at the south end of Rogers Dry Lake by only about 100-150 feet.  Nonetheless, pilot and aircraft were unscathed in what turned-out to be the longest flight in the history of the X-15 Program (12 minutes 28.7 seconds).  In the post-flight joviality, fellow NASA test pilots reportedly referred to Armstrong’s adventure as “Neil’s cross-country flight”.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Stratofortress Maiden Flight

Sixty-years ago this week, the USAF/Boeing YB-52 Stratofortress (S/N 49-231) all-jet strategic bomber took to the air on its maiden flight.  The crew for this historic event consisted of Boeing’s Alvin M. “Tex” Johnston (command pilot) and USAF Lt Col Guy M. Townsend (co-pilot).  The B-52 was designed by the Boeing Company for the United States Air Force in the 1940′s.  Its mission was to provide the Strategic Air Command (SAC) with a global nuclear strike capability.   As originally designed, the B-52 featured a top speed of 513 mph at 35,000 feet and a range of 6,005 nm for a gross take-off weight of 280,000 lbs.  Power was provided by an octet of Pratt and Whitney J-57 turbojets; each of which generated a maximum sea level thrust of about 10,000 lbs.  With a fuselage length of 160 feet, the B-52 was configured with a huge wing having a span of 185 feet and a leading edge sweep of 35 degrees.  The initial pair of prototype B-52 aircraft (S/N 49-230 and S/N 49-231)received the designation of XB-52.  However, the second XB-52 (S/N 49-231) was subsequently designated as the YB-52 and was the first B-52 airframe to fly.  It did so on Tuesday, 15 April 1952.  This 2.35-hour maiden flight originated from Boeing Field near Seattle, Washington and recovered at Larson AFB, Washington.  The big airplane performed well on its initial foray into the wild blue yonder and it was clear from the start that USAF and Boeing had a winner.  Indeed, the Stratofortress would go on to a storied career whose length and breadth could not have been foreseen by its creators.  The type’s speed, range and gross weight would increase over the years.  New and more powerful engines would provide the improved performance.  A total of 744 copies of the B-52 were built in eight (8) different production versions (B-52A through B-52H); roughly 90 of which are still flying.  Amazingly, three (3) generations of Air Force pilots have flown the aircraft.  With a service period that began in the Cold War and extends into the present, the B-52 Stratofortress holds the distinction of being the longest serving bomber aircraft in the history of military aviation.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Early Bird Satellite Launch

Forty-seven years ago this week, the first International Telecommunications Satellite (Intelsat I) was launched into a geosynchronous orbit by a Thrust-Augmented Delta (TAD) launch vehicle.  Popularly known as Early Bird, the satellite holds the distinction of being history’s first commercial communications orbital platform.  It was also the first satellite to provide direct and quasi-instantaneous communication between the North American and European continents including transmission of television, telephone, and telefax signals.   Fired into orbit from LC-17A at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Tuesday, 06 April 1965, Early Bird consisted of a 28-inch diameter cylinder measuring 23-inches in height.  Spin-stabilized about its longitudinal axis, the satellite weighed just 85 lbs.  Power was provided by an array of 6,000 solar cells covering its external surface.  Early Bird was capable of handling 240 two-way telephone circuits or a single TV channel via a pair of 6-watt transmitters.  Though primitive by today’s standards, Early Bird functioned well its role as a communications satellite.  Among its many accomplishments, the satellite helped make possible the first live television broadcast of the splashdown of a manned spacecraft when Gemini 6 returned to earth in December of 1965.  Early Bird was deactivated in January of 1969 following a 48-month service period that began on Monday, 28 June 1965.  This service duration was well beyond the type’s original design life of 18 months.  When the Atlantic Intelsat satellite failed at a most inopportune moment, Early Bird was returned to operational status on Sunday, 29 June 1969 to support the Apollo 11 mission.  This reactivation period was brief and ended on Wednesday, 13 August 1969.  With the exception of a short period of reactivation in 1990 to honor its 25th launch anniversary, Early Bird has silently orbited the Earth ever since.  The Intelsat Program grew remarkably following the fledging flight of Early Bird so long ago.  Indeed, more than 120 Intelsat and Intelsat-derivative satellites have been orbited by a variety of American, Russian, French and Chinese launch vehicles since 1965.

Posted in Aerospace, History