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The Original Rocket Man

Seventy-five years ago today, 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

Saving Skylab

Thirty-seven years ago this week, 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 time in 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

Lunar Landing Dry Run

Forty-one years ago this week, Apollo 10 set sail for the Moon on a mission that would see American astronauts fly within a mere 8 nautical miles of the lunar surface.  This historic flight cleared the way for the first manned lunar landing just 2 months later.

The infamous Apollo 1 fire in January 1967 resulted in a 21-month suspension of manned spaceflight operations for the United States.  By the time the first post-Apollo 1 flight occurred in October 1968, a scant 14 months remained for fulfillment of the national goal to land men on the Moon and return them safely to the Earth by the end of the 1960’s.

Not a few held the position that the lunar landing goal could not be achieved by the end of the decade.  Some went so far as to say a successful lunar landing would never occur.  Space program opponents had a field day.  As always, these ever-present naysayers averred that the US should be spending its money on more “socially-important” programs.

Despite the undercurrents of pessimism and vacillation, NASA resolutely pressed forward.  In October of 1968, the Apollo Command Module was thoroughly tested in Earth orbit during Apollo 7.  Then, in December of 1968, the  mighty Saturn V launch vehicle placed the crew of Apollo 8 in lunar orbit.  Finally, the Lunar Module was successfully flight-tested by the Apollo 9 astronauts in March of 1969.

Incredibly, each of the key Apollo flight hardware had been individually tested during 3 missions that were flown over the course of 5 months.  Now it was time to test them together.  Enter Apollo 10.  The purpose of Apollo 10 was to fly to the Moon and do everything short of an actual landing.  Apollo 10 was thus a complete dress rehearsal for Apollo 11 sans the landing.

On Sunday, 18 May 1969, Apollo 10 lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s LC 39B at 16:49 UTC.  The crew consisted of Mission Commander Thomas P. Stafford, Command Module Pilot John W. Young and Lunar Module Pilot Eugene A. Cernan.  Riding on 7.5 million pounds of first stage thrust,  the Saturn V accelerated, went through 2 staging events and arrived in Earth orbit 12 minutes after lift-off. 

Following systems checkout, the Saturn IVB third was re-ignited to start the translunar injection (TLI).  Apollo 10 entered lunar orbit almost 76 hours after launch.  The astronauts later circularized their orbit at 60 nautical miles and then rested in preparation for the next day’s lunar landing rehearsal.

At a mission elapsed time of 98 hours, the Apollo 10 Command and Lunar Modules undocked and separated from one another.  Stafford and Cernan crewed the Lunar Module and while John Young flew alone in the Command Module.  Over the next 18 hours the Lunar Module crew flew all the flight maneuvers and executed all the procedures associated with a lunar landing. 

As planned, Stafford and Cernan did not land on the Moon.  The closest approach to the lunar surface was approximately 8 nautical miles.  The view was great and thoughts about landing were in the crew’s minds.  In actuality, the Apollo 10 Lunar Module was not configured for a lunar landing.  Had the crew attempted such, they would have been doomed.

The Lunar Module’s return to rendezvous and dock with the Command Module was unremarkable with the exception of staging.  The crew mistakenly left the Abort Guidance System (AGS) in AUTOMATIC rather than ATTITUDE HOLD.  At separation of the Ascent and Descent Stages, the Ascent Stage wildly gyrated and flirted with gimbal lock. 

The crew quickly discovered the AGS switch position problem and brought the vehicle back into control.  But it was pretty hairy there for a few moments.  As Stafford and Cernan worked to steady their steed, both astronauts articulated their surprise and concern with the dire situation using colorful and interesting language not typically associated with refined behavior.

Happily, the trip back to Earth was nominal.  Apollo 10 landed at 16:52 UTC in the Pacific Ocean on Monday, 26 May 1969.  Their mission had been highly successful.  The way was now clear for an actual lunar landing attempt.  That opportunity came just 2 months later.  History records that men landed on the Moon and safely returned to the Earth in July 1969.

John Young returned to and landed on the Moon as Commander of Apollo 16 in April of 1972.  He went on to command the first Space Shuttle mission (STS-1) in April of 1981.  Gene Cernan was Commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972 and was the last man to walk on the Moon.  Tom Stafford never returned to the Moon.  However, he served as Apollo Spacecraft Commander for the ASTP mission in July of 1975.

Posted in Aerospace, History

A Bad Day in the Cockpit

Forty-three years ago today, NASA’s experimental M2-F2 lifting body flight research aircraft was demolished in a horrific landing mishap on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base.  Although critically injured, NASA test pilot Bruce A. Peterson survived the mishap.

A lifting body is a wingless aircraft wherein the aerodynamic lift required for flight is derived solely from the fuselage.  Interest in such a configuration stems from the type’s inherent suitability for lifting atmospheric entry from space.  The primary attributes being favorable cross-range capability and aerodynamic heating performance.

Lifting body concepts date back to at least the 1950’s.  From 1963  to 1975, both NASA and the United States Air Force conducted a number of manned lifting body flight research programs.  The aircraft involved were the M2-F1, M2-F2, M2-F3, HL-10, X-24A and X-24B.  All were flown out of Edwards Air Force Base between 1963 and 1975.

The favorable hypersonic flight performance of lifting bodies comes at a price.  Specifically, lifting bodies are not particularly good subsonic aircraft from the standpoint of lateral-directional handling qualities.  The type also falls like a rock in the approach and landing phase.   Due to characteristically-low values of subsonic lift-to-drag ratio, touchdown speeds can exceed 250 knots.

The M2-F2 was the first of the heavy weight lifting bodies.  It measured 22 feet in length and 9.4 feet in span.  The aircraft had an empty weight of 4,630 pounds.  The M2-F2 had boosted hydraulic 3-axis flight controls and a stability augmentation system.  The vehicle was also configured with a quartet of hydrogen peroxide rockets rated at 400 pounds of thrust each.

On Wednesday, 10 May 1967, the M2-F2 (NASA S/N 803) fell away from the fabled B-52B (S/N 52-0008) launch aircraft at an altitude of 44,000 feet.  NASA test pilot Bruce A. Peterson was at the controls of the M2-F2.  This was Peterson’s 3rd flight in the M2-F2 and the aircraft’s 16th overall.  It would be the last research flight for both.

The early part of the mission was unremarkable.  Then the flight test gremlins made their presence known.  Passing through 7,000 feet in a steep glide, Peterson pushed forward on the control column and brought the M2-F2 to quasi-zero angle-of-attack.  The aircraft quickly entered a Dutch Roll with extreme, rapid lateral excusions.

Peterson increased angle-of-attack to arrest the wild lateral-directional motions of the M2-F2.  However, he was no longer pointed toward Runway 18 on Rogers Dry Lake as intended.  The ground was coming up rapidly and he would have to land the M2-F2 on a part of the lakebed that did not have the typical visual aids required for correctly judging height above surface level.

Peterson might have gotten himself and the M2-F2 on the ground in one piece except for the helicopter that now loomed directly ahead in his landing path.  Not that it was the helicopter pilot’s fault.  It was just that the M2-F2 had strayed so far from its intended flight path that the helicopter was suddenly a navigational hazard.

Managing to somehow avoid a collision with the flight support helicopter, Peterson now fired his landing rockets in an attempt to stay in the air a little longer.  He then hit the landing gear switch.  In 1.5 seconds the gear would be down and locked.  Unfortunately, there was only one second of flight time remaining before touchdown.

As the M2-F2 contacted the lakebed at 220 knots, its main landing gear was jammed back up into the fuselage.  That was the end of the ball game.  The M2-F2 tumbled end-over-end across Rogers Dry Lake shearing off the canopy, main gear and right vertical tail.  The battered and twisted airframe finally came to rest inverted on the lakebed. 

Incredibly, rescue crews found Bruce Peterson still alive as they came upon the crash scene.  He was even conscious,  However, the pilot was terribly hurt.  Peterson’s oxygen mask had been torn off as the M2-F2 tumbled six (6) times.  He received severe facial injuries due to repeated impact with the lakebed surface.  In addition, Peterson suffered a fractured skull, severe damage to his right eye and a broken hand.

Bruce Peterson came back from his brush with eternity.  He needed extensive reconstructive surgery on his face and lost the sight in his right eye.  Peterson served as a project engineer for a number of NASA flight programs and even flew as a Marine reservist.  He later served as a safety officer on the B-2 flight test effort.  Bruce Peterson passed away at the age of 72 on 01 May 2006.

For those who remember, “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was a television series about a fictional test pilot who had been badly injured in an aircraft accident.  In the storyline, the fictional character was “rebuilt” by doctors using bionic technology.  Trivia buffs may be interested to know that the basis for “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was Bruce Peterson’s M2-F2 experience.

For those that remember, the “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was a televison series about a fictional test pilot who had been badly injured in an aircraft accident.  In the storyline, the fictional character was “rebuilt” by doctors using bionic technology.  Trivia buffs may be interested to know that the basis for “The Six-Million-Dollar Man” was Bruce Peterson’s terrifying M2-F2 crash.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The Flight of Freedom 7

Forty-nine years ago this week, 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