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Before This Decade is Out

Fifty-three years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy boldly proposed that the United States conduct a manned lunar landing before the end of the 1960’s. The President’s clarion call to glory was delivered during a special session of the United States Congress which focused on “urgent national needs”.

The transcript of that historic speech given on Friday, 25 May 1962 indicates that the ninth and last issue addressed by President Kennedy was simply entitled SPACE. The most stirring words of that portion of his speech may well be these:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Although he did not live to see the fulfillment of that goal, history shows that 8 years, 1 month, and 26 days later, the United States of America did indeed land a man (men) on the moon and returned him (them) safely to earth before the decade was out.

Thus, as a country, we can say now, even as we said then to our departed leader: Mission Accomplished, Mr. President.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Saving Skylab

Forty-one years ago this month, astronauts Pete Conrad, Joe Kerwin and Paul Weitz became the first NASA crew to fly aboard the recently-orbited Skylab space station. Not only would the crew establish a new record for duration in earth orbit, they would effect critical repairs to the space station which had been seriously damaged during launch.

Skylab was America’s first space station. The program followed closely on the heels of the historic Apollo lunar landing effort. Skylab provided the United States with a unique space platform for obtaining vast quantities of scientific data about the Earth and the Sun. It also served as a means for ascertaining the effects of long-duration spaceflight on human beings.

A Saturn IVB third stage served as Skylab’s core. This huge cylinder, which measured 48-feet in length and 22-feet diameter, was modified for human occupancy and was known as the Orbital Workshop (OWS). With the addition of a Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) and Airlock Module (AM), Skylab had a total length of 83-feet.

Skylab was also outfitted with a powerful space observatory known as the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). This unit sat astride the MDA and was configured with a quartet of electricity-producing solar panels. The OWS had a pair of solar panels as well. The entire Skylab stack weighed 85 tons.

The Skylab space station (Skylab 1) was placed into a 270-mile orbit using a Saturn V launch vehicle on Monday, 14 May 1973. Upon reaching orbit, it quickly became apparent that all was far from well aboard the space station. The micro-meteoroid shield and solar panel on one side of the OWS had been lost during ascent. The other OWS solar panel was stuck and did not deploy as planned.

With the loss of an OWS solar panel, Skylab would not have enough electrical energy to conduct its mission. The station was also heating up rapidly (temperatures approached 190 F at one point). The lost micro-meteoroid shield also provided protection from solar heating. Sans this protection, internal temperatures could rise high enough to destroy food, medical supplies, film and other perishables and render the OWS uninhabitable.

NASA engineers quickly went to work developing fixes for Skylab’s problems. A mechanism was invented to free the stuck solar panel. A parasol of gold-plated flexible material, deployed from an OWS scientific airlock, was then fashioned and tested on the ground. This material would cover the exposed portion of the OWS and provide the needed thermal shielding.

The onus was now on the Skylab 2 crew of Conrad, Kerwin and Weitz to implement the requisite fixes in orbit. On Friday, 25 May 1973, the Skylab 2 crew and their Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) were rocketed into orbit by a Saturn IB launch vehicle. They quickly rendezvoused with Skylab and verified its sad condition. It was time to get to work.

The first order of business was to try to free the stuck solar panel. As Conrad flew the CSM in close proximity to Skylab, Kerwin held Weitz by the feet as the latter leaned out of the open CSM hatch and attempted to release the stuck solar panel with a pair of special cutters. No joy in spaceville. The solar panel refused to deploy.

The Skylab 2 crew next attempted to dock with Skylab. They tried six times and failed. The CSM drogue and probe was not functioning properly. The crew had to fix it or go home. With great difficulty, they did so and were finally able to dock with Skylab. The objective now was to enter Skylab and deploy the parasol thermal shield.

With Conrad remaining in the CSM, Kerwin and Weitz sported gas masks and cautiously entered Skylab. The temperature inside of the OWS was 130 F. Fortunately, the air was found to be of good quality and the pair went to work deploying the thermal shield through a scientific airlock. The deployment was successful and the temperature started to slowly fall.

It would not be until Thursday, 07 June 1973 that the stuck solar panel finally would be freed. On that occasion, Conrad and Kerwin donned EVA suits and spent 8 hours working outside of Skylab. Their initial efforts with the cutters were unsuccesful.

Undeterred, Conrad and Kerwin improvised and were able to cut the strap that restrained the solar panel. Then, heaving with all their might, the pair finally freed the solar panel. In obedience to Newton’s 3rd Law, as the solar panel deployed in one direction, the astronauts went flying in the other. Happily, they were able to collect themselves and safely reenter the now adequately-powered Skylab.

Skylab 2 went on to spend 28 days in orbits; a record for the time. This record was quickly eclipsed by the Skylab 3 and Skylab 4 crews which spent 59 and 84 days in space, respectively. Skylab was an unqualified success and provided a plethora of terrestrial, solar and human factors data of immense importance to space science. These data played a vital role in the design and development of the ISS.

Skylab was abandoned following the Skylab 4 mission in February of 1974. The plan was to reactivate it and raise its orbit using the Space Shuttle when the latter became operational. Unfortunately, a combination of a rapidly deteriorating orbit and delays in flying the Shuttle conspired against bringing this plan to fruition. Skylab reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke-up near Australia in July of 1979.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The Last American to Orbit the Earth Alone

Fifty-one years ago today, NASA Astronaut Leroy Gordon Cooper was successfully launched into Earth orbit to begin a 22-orbit mission lasting 34 hours. Designated Mercury-Atlas No. 9 (MA-9), Cooper’s flight was the final orbital space mission of the fabled Mercury Program.

Cooper’s eventful space mission began with lift-off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-14 at 13:04 hours UTC on Wednesday, 15 May 1963. Splashdown of his Faith 7 spacecraft occurred 70 miles southeast of Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean on Thursday, 16 May 1963. Mission total elapsed time was 34 hours 19-minutes 49-seconds.

While the first 19 orbits of the MA-9 mission were mostly unremarkable, the final three orbits severely tested Cooper’s mettle and piloting skills.

By the time that he manually initiated ripple-firing of the retro motors at the end of the 22nd orbit, Cooper was flying a dead spacecraft. The electrical system was not functioning, the environmental control system was saturated with carbon dioxide, and even the mission clock was inoperative. Temperatures in the spacecraft exceeded 130F.

Cooper had to align his spacecraft for retro-fire using the horizon as a reference, used a watch for timing, and manually operated the reaction control system to counter dangerous spacecraft oscillations during the retro burn.

Cooper also manually controlled Faith 7 during entry and initiated deployment of the drogue and main parachutes.

Incredibly, Cooper landed within 5 miles of the recovery ship USS Kearsarge. In so doing, he established the record for the most accurate landing in the Mercury Program. Gordon Cooper was the last American astronaut to orbit the Earth alone.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The Flight of Freedom 7

Fifty-three years ago today, United States Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. became the first American to be launched into space. Shepard named his Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7.

Officially designated as Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) by NASA, the mission was America’s first true attempt to put a man into space. MR-3 was a sub-orbital flight. This meant that the spacecraft would travel along an arcing parabolic flight path having a high point of about 115 nautical miles and a total range of roughly 300 nautical miles. Total flight time would be about 15 minutes.

The Mercury spacecraft was designed to accommodate a single crew member. With a length of 9.5 feet and a base diameter of 6.5 feet, the vehicle was less than commodious. The fit was so tight that it would not be inaccurate to say that the astronaut wore the vehicle. Suffice it to say that a claustrophobic would not enjoy a trip into space aboard the spacecraft.

Despite its diminutive size, the 2,500-pound Mercury spacecraft (or capsule as it came to be referred to) was a marvel of aerospace engineering. It had all the systems required of a space-faring craft. Key among these were flight attitude, electrical power, communications, environmental control, reaction control, retro-fire package, and recovery systems.

The Redstone booster was an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) modified for the manned mission. The Redstone’s uprated A-7 rocket engine generated 78,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Alcohol and liquid oxygen served as propellants. The Mercury-Redstone combination stood 83 feet in length and weighed 66,000 pounds at lift-off.

On Friday, 05 May 1961, MR-3 lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 5 at 14:34:13 UTC. Alan Shepard went to work quickly calling out various spacecraft parameters and mission events. The astronaut would experience a maximum acceleration of 6.5 g’s on the ride upstairs.

Nearing apogee, Shepard manually controlled Freedom 7 in all 3 axes. In doing so, he positioned the capsule in the required 34-degree nose-down attitude. Retro-fire occurred ontime and the retro package was jettisoned without incident. Shepard then pitched the spacecraft nose to 14 degrees above the horizon preparatory to reentry.

Reentry forces quickly built-up on the plunge back into the atmosphere with Shepard enduring a maximum deceleration of 11.6 g’s. He had trained for more than 12 g’s prior to flight. At 21,000 feet, a 6-foot droghue chute was deployed followed by the 63-foot main chute at 10,000 feet. Freedom 7 splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean 15 minutes and 28 seconds after lift-off.

Following splashdown, Shepard egressed Freedom 7 and was retreived from the ocean’s surface by a recovery helicopter. Both he and Freedom 7 were safely onboard the carrier USS Lake Champlain within 11 minutes of landing. During his brief flight, Shepard had reached a maximum speed of 5,180 mph, flown as high as 116.5 nautical miles and traveled 302 nautical miles downrange.

The flight of Freedom 7 had much the same effect on the Nation as did Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927. However, in light of the Cold War fight against the world-wide spread of Soviet communism, Shepard’s flight arguably was more important. Indeed, Alan Shepard became the first of what Tom Wolfe called in his classic book The Right Stuff, the American single combat warrior.

For his heroic MR-3 efforts, Alan Shepard was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by an appreciative nation. In February 1971, Alan Shepard walked on the surface of the Moon as Commander of Apollo 14. He was the lone member of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to do so. Shepard was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Freedom in 1978.

Alan Shepard succumbed to leukemia in July of 1998 at the age of 74. In tribute to this American space hero, naval aviator and US Naval Academy graduate, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 spacecraft now resides in a place of honor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The Original Rocket Man

Seventy-nine years ago this month, pioneering rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard and staff fired a liquid-fueled rocket to a record altitude of 7,500 feet above ground level. The record-setting flight took place at Roswell, New Mexico.

Robert Hutchings Goddard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on Thursday, 05 October 1882. He was enamored with flight, pyrotechnics, rockets and science fiction from an early age. By the time he was 17, Goddard knew that his life’s work would combine all of these interests.

Goddard was a sickly youth, but spent his well moments as a voracious reader of all manner of science-oriented literature. He graduated in 1904 from South High School in Worcester as the valedictorian of his class. He matriculated at Worcester Polytechnic and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1908. A Master of Science degree and Ph.D. from Worcester’s Clark University followed in 1910 and 1911, respectively.

Goddard spent the next eight years of his life working on numerous propulsion and rocket-related projects. Then, in 1919, he published his now-famous scientific treatise entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. In that paper, the press glommed on to Goddard’s passing mention that a multi-staged rocket could conceivably fly all the way to the Moon.

Goddard was roundly ridiculed for his fanciful prognostications about Moon flight. The New York Times was especially derogatory in its estimation of Goddard’s ideas and accused him of junk science. A Times editorial even criticized Goddard for his ”misconception” that a rocket could produce thrust in the vacuum of space.

Even the U.S. government largely ignored Goddard. This scornful treatment to which Goddard was subject hurt him profoundly. So much so that he spent the remainder of his life alienated from the denizens of the press as well as the dolts of governmental employ.

Despite the blow to his professional reputation, Goddard resolutely pressed on with his rocket research. Indeed, after more that five years of intense development effort, Goddard and his staff launched the first liquid-fueled rocket on Tuesday, 16 March 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts. The flight duration was short (2.5 seconds) and the peak altitude tiny (41 feet), but Goddard proved that liquid rocket propulsion was feasible.

Goddard’s liquid-fueled rocket testing would ultimately lead him from the countryside of New England to the desert of the Great South West. With financial support from Harry Guggenheim and the public backing of Charles Lindbergh, Goddard transfered his testing activities to Roswell, New Mexico in 1930. He would continue liquid-fueled rocket testing there until May 1941.

On Friday, 31 May 1935, experimental rocket flight A-8 took to the air from Goddard’s Roswell, New Mexico test site at 1430 UTC. Roughly 15 feet in length and weighing approximately 90 pounds at lift-off, the 9-inch diameter A-8 achieved a maximum altitude of 7,500 feet (1.23 nautical miles) above the desert floor. Only a flight in March of 1937 would go higher (9,000 feet).

Robert Goddard was ultimately credited with 214 U.S. patents for his rocket development work. Only 83 were awarded in his life time. His far-reaching inventions included rocket nozzle design, regenerativley cooled rocket engines, turbopumps, thrust vector controls, gyroscopic control systems and more.

Goddard died at the age of 62 from throat cancer in Baltimore, Maryland on Friday, 10 August 1945. Many years would pass before the full import of his accomplishments was comprehended. Then, the posthumously-bestowed recognition came in torrents. In 1959, Congress issued a special gold medal in Goddard’s honor. The Goddard Spaceflight Center was so named by NASA in 1959 as well. Many more such bestowals followed.

Perhaps the most meaningful of the recognitions ever accorded Robert Hutchings Goddard occurred 24 years after his passing. It was in connection with the first manned lunar landing in July of 1969. And it was poetic not only in terms of its substance and timing, but more particularly in light of the source from whence the recognition came.

A terse statement in the New York Times corrected a long-standing injustice. It read: “Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Issac Newton in the 17th century, and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vaccum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

Posted in Aerospace, History