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We Seven

Fifty-seven years ago this month, NASA held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to introduce the seven men selected to be Project Mercury Astronauts. They would become known as the Mercury Seven or Original Seven.

Project Mercury was America’s first manned spaceflight program. The overall objective of Project Mercury was to place a manned spacecraft in Earth orbit and bring both man and machine safely home. Project Mercury ran from 1959 to 1963.

The men who would ultimately become Mercury Astronauts were among a group of 508 military test pilots originally considered by NASA for the new role of astronaut. The group of 508 candidates was then successively pared to 110, then 69 and finally to 32. These 32 volunteers were then subjected to exhaustive medical and psychological testing.

A total of 18 men were still under consideration for the astronaut role at the conclusion of the demanding test period. Now came the hard part for NASA. Each of the 18 finalists was truly outstanding and would be a worthy finalist. But there were only 7 spots on the team.

On Thursday, 09 April 1959, NASA publicly introduced the Mercury Seven in a special press conference held for this purpose at the Dolley Madison House in Washington, D.C. The men introduced to the Nation that day will forever hold the distinction of being the first official group of American astronauts. In the order in which they flew, the Mercury Seven were:

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr., United States Navy. Shepard flew the first Mercury sub-orbital mission (MR-3) on Friday, 05 May 1961. He was also the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon. Shepherd did so as Commander of Apollo 14 (AS-509) in February 1971. Alan Shepard succumbed to leukemia on 21 July 1998 at the age of 74.

Vigil Ivan Grissom, United States Air Force. Grissom flew the second Mercury sub-orbital mission (MR-4) on Friday, 21 July 1961. He was also Commander of the first Gemini mission (GT-3) in March 1965. Gus Grissom might very well have been the first man to walk on the Moon. But he died in the Apollo 1 Fire, along with Astronauts Edward H. White II and Roger Chaffee, on Friday, 27 January 1967. Gus Grissom was 40 at the time of his death.

John Herschel Glenn Jr., United States Marines. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth (MA-6) on Thursday, 22 February 1962. He was also the only Mercury Astronaut to fly a Space Shuttle mission. He did so as a member of the STS-95 crew in October of 1998. Glenn was 77 at the time and still holds the distinction of being the oldest person to fly in space. John Glenn is the only living member of the Mercury Seven and will turn 95 in July 2016.

Malcolm Scott Carpenter, United States Navy. Carpenter became the second American to orbit the Earth (MA-7) on Thursday, 24 May 1962. This was his only mission in space. Carpenter subsequently turned his attention to under-sea exploration and was an aquanaut on the United States Navy SEALAB II project. Scott Carpenter died in October 2013 shortly after suffering a stroke. He was 88 at the time of his passing.

Walter Marty Schirra Jr., United States Navy. Schirra became the third American to orbit the Earth (MA-8) on Wednesday, 03 October 1962. He later served as Commander of Gemini 6A (GT-6) in December 1965 and Apollo 7 (AS-205) in October 1968. Schirra was the only Mercury Astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions. Wally Schirra died from a heart attack in May 2007 at the age of 84.

Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr., United States Air Force. Cooper became the fourth American to orbit the Earth (MA-9) on Wednesday, 15 May 1963. In doing so, he flew the last and longest Mercury mission (22 orbits, 34 hours). Cooper was also Commander of Gemini 5 (GT-5), the first long-duration Gemini mission, in August 1965. Gordo Cooper died from heart failure in October 2004 at the age of 77.

Donald Kent Slayton, United States Air Force. Slayton was the only Mercury Astronaut to not fly a Mercury mission when he was grounded for heart arrythemia in 1962. He subsequently served many years on Gemini and Apollo as head of astronaut selection. He finally got his chance for spaceflight in July 1975 as a crew member of the Apollo-Soyuz mission (ASTP). Deke Slayton died from brain cancer in June of 1993 at the age of 69.

History records that the Mercury Seven was the only group of NASA astronauts that had a member that flew each of America’s manned spacecraft (i.e, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle). Though just men and imperfect mortals, we honor and remember them for their genuinely heroic deeds and unique contributions made to the advancement of American manned spaceflight.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Final Flight: Lady Be Good

Seventy-three years ago this month, a USAAF/Consolidated B-24D Liberator and her crew vanished upon return from their first bombing mission over Italy. Known as the Lady Be Good, the hulk of the ill-fated aircraft was found sixteen years later lying deep in the Libyan desert more than 400 miles south of Benghazi.

The disappearance of the Lady Be Good and her young air crew is one of the most intriguing and haunting stories in the annals of aviation. Books and web sites abound which report what is now known about that doomed mission. Our purpose here is to briefly recount the Lady Be Good story.

The B-24D Liberator nicknamed Lady Be Good (S/N 41-24301) and her crew were assigned to the USAAF’s 376th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force operating out of North Africa. Plane and crew departed Soluch Army Air Field, Libya late in the afternoon of Sunday, 04 April 1943. The target was Naples, Italy some 700 miles distant.

Listed from left to right as they appear in the photo above, the crew who flew the Lady Be Good on the Naples raid were the following air force personnel:

1st Lt. William J. Hatton, pilot — Whitestone, New York
2nd Lt. Robert F. Toner, co-pilot — North Attleborough, Massachusetts
2nd Lt. D.P. Hays, navigator — Lee’s Summit, Missouri
2nd Lt. John S. Woravka, bombardier — Cleveland, Ohio
T/Sgt. Harold J. Ripslinger, flight engineer — Saginaw, Michigan
T/Sgt. Robert E. LaMotte, radio operator — Lake Linden, Michigan
S/Sgt. Guy E. Shelley, gunner — New Cumberland, Pennsylvania
S/Sgt. Vernon L. Moore, gunner — New Boston, Ohio
S/Sgt. Samuel E. Adams, gunner — Eureka, Illinois

The LBG was part of the second wave of twenty-five B-24 bombers assigned to the Naples raid. Things went sour right from the start as the aircraft took-off in a blinding sandstorm and became separated from the main bomber formation. Left with little recourse, the LBG flew alone to the target.

The Naples raid was less than successful and like most of the other aircraft that did make it to Italy, the LBG ultimately jettisoned her unused bomb load into the Mediterranean. The return flight to Libya was at night with no moon. All aircraft recovered safely with the exception of the Lady Be Good.

It appears that the LBG flew along the correct return heading back towards their Soluch air base. However, the crew failed to recognize when they were over the air field and continued deep into the Libyan desert for about 2 hours. Running low on fuel, pilot Hatton ordered his crew to jump into the dark night.

Thinking that they were still over water, the crewmen were surprised when they landed in sandy desert terrain. All survived the harrowing experience with the exception of bombardier Woravka who died on impact when his parachute failed. Amazingly, the LBG glided to a wings level landing 16 miles from the bailout point.

What happens next is a tale of tragic, but heroic proportions. Thinking that they were not far from Soluch, the eight surviving crewmen attempted to walk out of the desert. In actuality, they were more than 400 miles from Soluch with some of the most forbidding desert on the face of the earth between them and home. They never made it back.

The fate of the LBG and her crew would be an unsolved mystery until British oilmen conducting an aerial recon discovered the aircraft resting in the sandy waste on Sunday, 09 November 1958. However, it wasn’t until Tuesday, 26 May 1959 that USAF personnel visited the crash site. The aircraft, equipment, and crew personal effects were found to be remarkably well-preserved.

The saga about locating the remains of the LBG crew is incredible in its own right. Suffice it to say here that the remains of eight of the LBG crew members were recovered by late 1960. Subsequently, they were respectfully laid to rest with full military honors back in the United States. Despite herculean efforts, the body of Vernon Moore has never been found.

A pair of LBG crew members kept personal diaries about their ordeal in the Libyan desert; co-pilot Toner and flight engineer Ripslinger. These diaries make for sober reading as they poignantly document the slow and tortuous death of the LBG crew. To say that they endured appalling conditions is an understatement. The information the diaries contain suggests that all of the crewmen were dead by Tuesday, 13 April 1943.

Although they did not made it out of the desert, the LBG crewmen far exceeded the limits of human endurance as it was understood in the 1940’s. Five of the crew members traveled 78 miles from the parachute landing point before they succumbed to the ravages of heat, cold, dehydration, and starvation. Their remains were found together.

Desperate to secure help for their companions, Moore, Ripslinger and Shelley left the five at the point where they could no longer travel. Incredibly, Ripslinger’s remains were found 26 miles further on. Even more astounding, Shelley’s remains were discovered 37.5 miles from the group. Thus, the total distance that he walked was 115.5 miles from his parachute landing point in the desert.

We honor forever the memory of the Lady Be Good and her valiant crew. However, we humbly note that theirs is but one of the many cruel and ironic tragedies of war. To the LBG crew and the many other souls whose stories will never be told, may God grant them all eternal rest.

Posted in Aerospace, Final Flight, History

First Space Shuttle Mission

Thirty-five years ago today, the United States successfully launched the Space Shuttle Columbia into orbit around the Earth. It was the maiden flight of the Nation’s Space Transportation System (STS).

The Space Shuttle was unlike any manned space vehicle ever flown. A giant aircraft known as the Orbiter was side-mounted on a huge liquid-propellant stage called the External Tank (ET). Flanking opposing sides of the ET was a pair of Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB). The Orbiter, SRB’s and ET measured 122 feet, 149 feet and 154 feet in length, respectively.

The Space Shuttle system was conceived with an emphasis on reusability. Each Orbiter (Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor) was designed to fly 100 missions. Each SRB was intended for multiple mission use as well. The only single-use element was the ET since it was more cost effective to use a new one for each flight than to recover and refurbish a reusable version.

NASA called STS-1 the boldest test flight in history. Indeed, the STS-1 mission marked the first time that astronauts would fly a space vehicle on its inaugural flight! STS-1 was also the first time that a manned booster system incorporated solid rocket propulsion. Unlike liquid propellant rocket systems, once ignited, the Shuttle’s solid rockets burned until fuel exhaustion.

And then there was the Orbiter element which had its own new and flight-unproven propulsion systems. Namely, the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) and Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS). Each of the three (3) SSME’s generated 375,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Thrust would increase to 475,000 pounds in vacuum. Each OMS rocket engine produced 6,000 pounds of thrust in vacuum.

The Orbiter was also configured with a reusable thermal protection system (TPS) which consisted of silica tiles and reinforced carbon-carbon material. The TPS for all previous manned space vehicles utilized single-use ablators. Would the new TPS work? How robust would it be in flight? What post-flight care would be needed? Answers would come only through flight.

To add to the “excitement” of first flight, the Orbiter was a winged vehicle and would therefore perform a hypersonic lifting entry. The vehicle energy state would have to be managed perfectly over the 5,000 mile reentry flight path from entry interface to runway touchdown. Since the Orbiter flew an unpowered entry, it would land dead-stick. There would only be one chance to land.

On Sunday,12 April 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted-off from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Official launch time was 12:00:03 UTC. The flight crew consisted of Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippen. Their Columbia launch stack tipped the scales at 4.5 million pounds and thundered away from the pad on over 7 million pounds of thrust.

Columbia went through maximum dynamic pressure (606 psf) at Mach 1.06 and 26.5 KFT. SRB separation occurred 120 seconds into flight at Mach 3.88 and 174,000 feet; 10,000 feet higher than predicted. This lofting of the ascent trajectory was later attributed to unmodeled plume-induced aerodynamic effects in the Orbiter and ET base region.

Following separation, Columbia rode the ET to burnout at Mach 21 and 389.7 KFT. Following ET separation, Columbia’s OMS engines were fired minutes later to achieve a velocity of 17,500 mph and a 166-nautical mile orbit.

Young and Crippen would orbit the Earth 37 times before coming home on Tuesday, 14 April 1981. In doing so, they successfully flew the first hypersonic lifting reentry from orbit. Though unaware of it at the time, the crew came very close to catastrophe as the Orbiter’s body flap had to be deflected 8 degrees more than predicted to maintain hypersonic pitch control.

The reason for this “hypersonic anomaly” was that ground test and aero modeling had failed to capture the effects of high temperature gas dynamics on Orbiter pitch aerodynamics. Specifically, the vehicle was more stable in hypersonic flight than had been predicted. This necessitated greater nose-down body flap deflections to trim the vehicle in pitch. It was a close-call. But Columbia and its crew lived to fly another day.

Columbia touched-down at 220 mph on Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, California at 18:20:57 UTC. Young and Crippen were euphoric with the against-the-odds success of the Space Shuttle’s first mission.

NASA too reveled in the Shuttle’s accomplishment. And so did America. This was the country’s first manned space mission since 1975. The longest period of manned spaceflight inactivity ever in the Nation’s history.

Fittingly, a well-known national news magazine celebrated Columbia’s success with a headline which read: “America is Back!”

And while it nor any of its stablemates fly no more, we remember with fondness that first Orbiter, its first flight, and its many subsequent accomplishments. To which we say: Hail Columbia!

Posted in Aerospace, History

First Air-Launched Orbital Mission

Twenty-five years ago today, the Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) orbited a PegSat satellite using the then-new Pegasus 3-stage launch vehicle. This historic event marked the first successful implementation of the air-launched satellite launcher concept.

The concept of air-launch dates back to the 1940’s and the early days of United States X-plane flight research. A multi-engine aircraft known as the mothership was employed to transport a smaller test aircraft to altitude. The test aircraft was subsequently released from the mothership and went on to conduct the flight research mission.

A clear benefit of air-launch was that all of the fuel and propulsion required to get to the test aircraft drop point was provided by the mothership. Thus, the test aircraft was allowed to use all of its own fuel for the flight research mission proper. In that sense, the mothership-test aircraft combination functioned as a two-stage launch vehicle.

The value and efficacy of the air-launch concept was demonstrated on numerous X-plane programs. Flight research aircraft such as the Bell XS-1, Bell X-1A, Bell X-1E, Bell X-2, Douglas D-558-II, and North American X-15 were all air-launched. More recently, the X-43A and X-51A scramjet-powered flight research vehicles also employed the air-launch concept.

An added benefit of the air-launch technique is that the launch site is highly portable! This provides enhanced mission flexibility compared to fixed position launch sites. The associated operating costs are much lower for the air-launched concept as well.

Orbital Science’s original Pegasus launch vehicle configuration was designed to fit within the same dimensional envelope of the X-15. The standard Pegasus external configuration measured 50 feet in length and featured a wingspan of 22 feet. The same dimensions as the baseline X-15 rocket airplane. Pegasus body diameter and launch weight were 50 inches and 41,000 pounds, respectively.

A key design feature of the Pegasus 3-stage launch vehicle configuration was the vehicle’s trapezodal-planform wing which provided the aerodynamic lift required to shape the endoatmospheric portion of the ascent flight path. This made Pegasus even more like the X-15.

The defining difference between Pegasus and the X-15 was propulsion. The X-15 flew a sub-orbital trajectory using an XLR-99 liquid rocket engine rated at 57,000 pounds of sea level thrust. Pegasus employed a combination of three (3) Hercules solid rocket motors to perform an earth-orbital mission. The first, second and third stage rocket motors were rated at 109,000, 26,600 and 7,800 pounds of vacuum thrust, respectively.

On Thursday, 05 April 1990, the first Pegasus launch took place over the Pacific Ocean within an area known as the Point Arguello Western Air Drop Zone (WADZ) . Pegasus 001 fell away from its NASA B-52B (S/N 52-0008) mothership at 19:10 UTC as the pair flew at Mach 0.8 and 43,000 feet. Pegasus first stage ignition took place 5 seconds after drop.

Following first stage ignition, the Pegasus executed a pull-up to begin the trip upstairs. The second and third stage rocket motors fired on time. The stage separation and payload fairing jettison events worked as planned. Roughly 10 minutes after drop, the 392-pound PegSat payload arrived in a 315 mile x 249 mile elliptical orbit.

Since that triumphant day in April 1990, both the Pegasus launch vehicle configuration and mission have signifcantly grown and matured. Of a total of 42 official Pegasus orbital missions to date, 37 have been flown successfully.

Posted in Aerospace, History