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Mercury-Redstone 4

Fifty-five years ago this month, Mercury Seven Astronaut Vigil I. “Gus” Grissom, Jr. became the second American to go into space. Grissom’s suborbital mission was flown aboard a Mercury space capsule that he named Liberty Bell 7.

The United States first manned space mission was flown on Friday, 05 May 1961. On that day, NASA Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. flew a 15-minute suborbital mission down the Eastern Test Range in his Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft. Known as Mercury-Redstone 3, Shepard’s mission was entirely successful and served to ignite the American public’s interest in manned spaceflight.

Shepard was boosted into space via a single stage Redstone rocket. This vehicle was originally designed as an Intermediate-Range ballistic Missile (IRBM) by the United States Army. It was man-rated (that is, made safer and more reliable) by NASA for the Mercury suborbital mission. A descendant of the German V-2 missile, the Redstone produced 78,000 lbs of sea level thrust.

Shepard’s suborbital trajectory resulted in an apogee of 101 nautical miles (nm). With a burnout velocity of 7,541 ft/sec, Freedom 7 splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean 263 nm downrange of its LC-5 launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Shepard endured a maximum deceleration of 11 g’s during the reentry phase of the flight.

Mercury-Redstone 4 was intended as a second and confirming test of the Mercury spacecraft’s space-worthiness. If successful, this mission would clear the way for pursuit and achievement of the Mercury Program’s true goal which was Earth-orbital flight. All of this rested on the shoulders of Gus Grissom as he prepared to be blasted into space.

Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was a better ship than Shepard’s steed from several standpoints. Liberty Bell 7 was configured with a large centerline window rather than the two small viewing ports featured on Freedom 7. The vehicle’s manual flight controls included a new rate stabilization system. Grissom’s spacecraft also incorporated a new explosive hatch that made for easier release of this key piece of hardware.

Mercury-Redstone 4 (MR-4) was launched from LC-5 at Cape Canaveral on Friday, 21 July 1961. Lift-off time was 12:20:36 UTC. From a trajectory standpoint, Grissom’s flight was virtually the same as Shepard’s. He found the manual 3-axis flight controls to be rather sluggish. Spacecraft control was much improved when the new rate stabilization system was switched-on. The time for retro-fire came quickly. Grissom invoked the retro-fire sequence and Liberty Bell 7 headed back to Earth.

Liberty Bell 7’s reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere was conducted in a successful manner. The drogue came out at 21,000 feet to stabilize the spacecraft. Main parachute deployed occurred at 12,300 feet. With a touchdown velocity of 28 ft/sec, Grissom’s spacecraft splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean 15 minutes and 32 seconds after lift-off. America now had both a second spaceman and a second successful space mission under its belt.

Following splashdown, Grissom logged final switch settings in the spacecraft, stowed equipment and prepared for recovery as several Marine helicopters hovered nearby. As he did so, the craft’s new explosive hatch suddenly blew for no apparent reason. Water started to fill the cockpit and the surprised astronaut exited the spacecraft as quickly as possible.

Grissom found himself outside his psacecraft and in the water. He was horrfied to see that Liberty Bell 7 was in imminent peril of sinking. The primary helicopter made a valiant effort to hoist the spacecraft out of the water, but the load was too much for it. Faced with losing his vehicle and crew, the pilot elected to release Liberty Bell 7 and abandon it to a watery grave.

Meanwhile, Grissom struggled just to stay afloat in the churning ocean. The prop blast from the recovery helicopters made the going even tougher. Finally, Grissom was able to retrieve and get himself into a recovery sling provided by one of the helicopters. He was hoisted aboard and subsequently delivered safely to the USS Randolph.

In the aftermath of Mercury-Redstone 4, accusations swirled around Grissom that he had either intentionally or accidently hit the detonation plunger that activated the explosive hatch. Always the experts on everything, especially those things which they have little comprehension of, the denizens of the press insinuated that Grissom must have panicked. Grissom steadfastly asserted to the day that he passed from this earthly scene that he did no such thing.

Liberty Bell 7 rested at a depth of 15,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean until it was recovered by a private enterprise on Tuesday, 20 July 1999; a day short of the 38th anniversary of Gus Grissom’s MR-4 flight. The beneficiary of a major restoration effort, Liberty Bell 7 is now on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. The spacecraft’s explosive hatch was never found.

As for Gus Grissom, ultimate vindication of his character and competence came in the form of his being named by NASA as Commander for the first flights of Gemini and Apollo. Indeed, Grissom and rookie astronaut John W. Young successfully made the first manned Gemini flight in March of 1965 during Gemini-Titan 3. Later, Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee trained as the crew of Apollo 1 which was slated to fly in early 1967. History records that their lives were cut short in the tragic and infamous Apollo 1 Spacecraft Fire of Friday, 27 January 1967.

Posted in Aerospace, History

We Came in Peace

Forty-seven years ago today, the United States of America landed two men on the surface of the Moon. This feat marked the first time in history that men from the planet Earth set foot on another celestial body in the solar system.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility region of the Moon on Sunday, 20 July 1969 at 20:17:40 UTC. Less than seven hours later, Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. became the first human beings to walk upon Earth’s closest neighbor. Fellow crew member Michael Collins orbited high overhead in the Command Module Columbia.

As Apollo 11 commander, Neil A. Armstrong was accorded the privilege of being the first man to step foot upon the Moon. As he did so, Armstrong spoke these words: “That’s one small step for Man; one giant leap for Mankind”. He had intended to say: “That’s one small step for ‘a’ man; one giant leap for Mankind”.

Armstrong and Aldrin explored their Sea of Tranquility landing site for about two and a half hours. Total lunar surface stay time was 22 hours and 37 minutes. The Apollo 11 crew left a plaque affixed to one of the legs of the Lunar Module’s descent stage which read: “Here Men From the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon; July 1969, A.D. We Came in Peace for All Mankind”.

Following a successful lunar lift-off aboard the Eagle, Armstrong and Aldrin rejoined Collins in lunar orbit. Approximately seven hours later, the Apollo 11 crew rocketed out of lunar orbit to begin the quarter million mile journey back to Earth. Columbia splashed-down in the Pacific Ocean at 16:50:35 UTC on Thursday, 24 July 1969. Total mission time was 195 hours, 18 minutes, and 35 seconds.

With completion of the flight of Apollo 11, the United States of America fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s 25 May 1961 call to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth before the decade of the 1960’s was out. It had taken 2,982 demanding days and a great deal of national treasure to do so.

Mission Accomplished, Mr. President.

Posted in Aerospace, History

B-2 First Flight

Twenty-seven years ago this month, the USAF/Northrop B-2 Stealth Strategic Bomber flew for the first time. The aircrew for the B-2’s maiden trip upstairs included Northrop B-2 Division Chief Test Pilot Bruce J. Hinds (command pilot) and B-2 Combined Test Force Commander USAF Col. Richard S. Couch (co-pilot).

The B-2 traces it lineage to a variety of Northrop flying wing aircraft including the piston-powered YB-35 and jet-propelled YB-49. These 1940’s-era experimental aircraft served as important stepping stones in the evolution of large flying wing technology.

An all-wing aircraft represents an aerodynamically-optimal configuration from the standpoint of high lift, low drag and therefore high lift-to-drag ratio. These favorable aerodynamic attributes translate to high levels of range performance and load-carrying capability. In addition, the type’s high aspect ratio and slim profile provide for more favorable low observable characteristics than traditional fuselage-wing-empennage aircraft geometries.

Arguably the most challenging aspects of creating an all-wing aircraft have to do with flight control and handling qualities. The crash of the second YB-49 flying wing in June of 1948 underscored the insufficiency of aerospace technology at that time to handle these design challenges. It was not until the advent of modern flight control avionics during the 1980’s that the full potential of a flying wing aircraft would be realized.

The B-2 is only 69 feet in length, but has a wing span of 172 feet and a wing area of 5,140 square feet. Gross take-off and empty weights are 336,500 lbs and 158,000 lbs, respectively. Embedded within the wings are a quartet of fuel-efficient F118-GE-100 turbofan engines, each generating 17,300 lbs of thrust. The aircraft has a top speed of about Mach 0.85, an unrefueled range of 6,000 nm and a service ceiling of 50,000 feet. Maximum ordnance load is 50,000 lbs.

B-2 AV-1 (Spirit of America; S/N 82-1066) took-off for the first time from Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, California on Monday, 17 July 1989. Supported by F-16 chase aircraft, the majestic flying wing flew a 2 hour 12 minute test mission which concluded with a landing at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. As a first flight precaution, the entire mission was flown with the landing gear down.

The first B-2 airframe to enter the operational inventory was AV-8, the Spirit of Missouri (S/N 88-0329). It did so on 31 March 1994. While initial plans called for a production run of 132 aircraft, only 21 B-2 airframes were actually built. With the 2008 loss of the Spirit of Kansas shortly after take-off from Andersen Air Force Bas in Guam, 20 of these aircraft remain in active service today.

Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri serves as Air Force’s home for the B-2. From there, the majestic flying wing has flown a multitude of global strike missions to deliver a variety of ordnance with pinpoint accuracy. To date, the B-2 has successfully engaged targets in Kosovo, Afganistan, Iraq and Libya. The B-2 is truly a technological marvel and a national defense asset. As such, it may be expected to be a vital part of the Air Force’s active inventory for decades to come.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Home For the Fourth

Thirty-four years ago this week, the Space Shuttle Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force Base to successfully conclude the fourth orbital mission of the Space Transportation System. Columbia’s return to earth added a special touch to the celebration of America’s 206th birthday.

STS-4 was NASA’s fourth Space Shuttle mission in the first fourteen months of Shuttle orbital flight operations. The two-man crew consisted of Commander Thomas K. Mattingly, Jr. and Pilot Henry W. Hartsfield who were both making their first Shuttle orbital mission. STS-4 marked the last time that a Shuttle would fly with a crew of just two.

STS-4 was launched from Cape Canaveral’s LC-39A on Sunday, 27 June 1982. Lift-off was exactly on-time at 15:00:00 UTC. Interestingly, this would be the only occasion in which a Space Shuttle would launch precisely on-time. The Columbia weighed a hefty 241,664 lbs at launch.

Mattingly and Hartsfield spent a little over seven (7) days orbiting the Earth in Columbia. The orbiter’s cargo consisted of the first Getaway Special payloads and a classified US Air Force payload of two missile launch-detection systems. In addition, a Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES) and the Mono-Disperse Latex Reactor (MLR) were flown for a second time.

The Columbia crew conducted a lightning survey using manual cameras and several medical experiments. Mattingly and Hartsfield also maneuvered the Induced Environment Contamination Monitor (IECM) using the Orbiter’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS). The IECM was used to obtain information on gases and particles released by Columbia in flight.

On Sunday, 04 July 1982, retro-fire started Columbia on its way back to Earth. Touchdown occurred on Edwards Runway 22 at 16:09:31 UTC. This landing marked the first time that an Orbiter landed on a concrete runway. (All three previous missions had landed on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards.) Columbia made 112 complete orbits and traveled 2,537,196 nautical miles during STS-4.

The Space Shuttle was declared “operational” with the successful conduct of the first four (4) shuttle missions. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan even greeted the returning STS-4 flight crew on the tarmac. However, as history has since taught us, manned spaceflight still comes with a level of risk and danger that exceeds that of military and commercial aircraft operations. It will be some time before a manned space vehicle is declared operational in the desired sense.

Posted in Aerospace, History