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We Remember

Twenty-seven years ago today, the seven member crew of STS-51L were killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch from LC-39B at Cape Canaveral, Florida.   It was the first fatal in-flight accident in American spaceflight history.

In remarks made at a memorial service held for the Challenger Seven in Houston, Texas on Friday, 31 January 1986, President Ronald Wilson Reagan expressed the following sentiments:

“The future is not free: the story of all human progress is one of a struggle against all odds.  We learned again that this America, which Abraham Lincoln called the last, best hope of man on Earth, was built on heroism and noble sacrifice.  It was built by men and women like our seven star voyagers, who answered a call beyond duty, who gave more than was expected or required and who gave it little thought of worldly reward.”

We take this opportunity now to remember the heroic fallen:


Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Commander

Michael John Smith, Pilot

 Ellison S. Onizuka, Mission Specialist One

Judith Arlene Resnik, Mission Specialist Two

 Ronald Erwin McNair, Mission Specialist Three

S.Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist One

Gregory Bruce Jarvis, Payload Specialist Two


Speaking for his grieving countrymen, President Reagan closed his eulogy with these words:

“Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, Greg and Christa – your families and your country mourn your passing.  We bid you goodbye.  We will never forget you.  For those who knew you well and loved you, the pain will be deep and enduring.  A nation, too, will long feel the loss of her seven sons and daughters, her seven good friends.  We can find consolation only in faith, for we know in our hearts that you who flew so high and so proud now make your home beyond the stars, safe in God’s promise of eternal life.”

Tuesday, 28 January 1986.  We Remember.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Cactus 1549

Four years ago this month, US Airways Flight 1549 successfully ditched in the Hudson River following loss of thrust in both turbofan engines.  Incredibly, all 155 passengers and crew members survived.

US Airways Flight 1549 lifted-off from Runway 4 of New York’s LaGuardia Airport at 18:25:56 UTC on Thursday, 15 January 2009.  The Airbus 320-214 (N106US) was making its 16,299th flight.  Call sign for the day’s flight was Cactus 1549.

Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III and First Officer Jeffrey B. Skiles were in the cockpit of Cactus 1549.  Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh and Sheila Dail served as flight attendants.  Together, these crew members were responsible for the lives of 150 airline passengers.

Following a normal take-off, Cactus 1549 collided with a massive flock of Canadian Geese climbing through 3,000 feet.  Numerous bird strikes were experienced.  Most critically, both CFM56-5B4/P turbofan engines suffered bird ingestion.  As Captain Sullenberger succinctly described it later, the result was “sudden, complete, symmetrical” loss of thrust.

Quickly assessing their predicament, Captain Sullenberger instinctively knew that he could not get his aircraft back to a land-based runway.  He was flying too low and slow to make such an attempt.  He would have to ditch his 150,000-pound aircraft in the nearest waterway; the Hudson River.

The story of what ensued following loss of thrust is best told by Captain Sullenberger himself.  The reader is therefore directed to chapters 13 and 14 of his post-mishap book entitled “Highest Duty”.  The bottom line is that the aircraft was successfully ditched in the Hudson River roughly three and half minutes after loss of thrust.

Once the aircraft was on the water, the crew members evacuated all 150 passengers in less than 4 minutes.  People either got into life rafts or stood on the aircraft’s wings.  It was very cold.  Air temperature was 21F with a windchill factor of 11F.  The water temperature registered at 36F.

First responders from the New York Waterway quickly came to the aid of Cactus 1549.  A total of fourteen vessels responded to the emergency with the first boat arriving within four minutes of the aircraft coming to a stop.

Many selfless acts of compassion and exemplary displays of valor were observed during Cactus 1549 rescue operations.  This was true for those amongst the ranks of the rescuers and rescued alike.

Happily and to the great relief of the US Airways flight crew, there was no loss of life resulting from the emergency ditching of Cactus 1549.  Now known as “The Miracle on the Hudson”, the events of that harrowing experience on a winter day in NYC will be forever remembered in the annals of aviation.

For their professional efforts in handling the Cactus 1549 in-flight emergency, Chesley Sullenberger, Jeff Skiles, Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh and Sheila Dail received the rarely-awarded Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators Master’s Medal on Thursday, 22 January 2009.

In part, the Master’s Medal citation read: “The reactions of all members of the crew, the split second decision making and the handling of this emergency and evacuation was ‘text book’ and an example to us all.  To have safely executed this emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement.”

To which we say:  Amen!

Posted in Aerospace, History

Navaho Flight Test Milestone

Fifty-five years ago this month, a XSM-64 Navaho G-26 flight test vehicle flew 1,075 miles in 40 minutes at a sustained speed of Mach 2.8.  It was the 8th flight test of the ill-fated Navaho Program.

The post-World War II era saw the development of a myriad of missile weapons systems.  Perhaps the most influential and enigmatic of these systems was the Navaho missile.

Navaho was intended as a supersonic, nuclear-capable, strategic weapon system.  It consisted of two (2) stages.  The first stage was rocket-powered while the second stage utilized ramjet propulsion.  The aircraft-like second stage was configured with a high lift-to-drag airframe in order to achieve strategic reach.

While there were a number of antecedants dating back to 1946, the Navaho Program really began in 1950 as Weapon System 104A.  The requirements included a range of 5,500 miles, a minimum cruise speed of Mach 3 and a minimum cruise altitude of 60,000 feet.  The payload included an ordnance load of 7,000 pounds delivered within a CEP of 1,500 feet.

North American Aviation (NAA) proposed a 3-phase development plan for WS-104A.  Phase 1 involved testing of the missile alone (the X-10) up to Mach 2.  Phase 2 covered the testing of the two-stage launch vehicle (the G-26) up to Mach 2.75 and a range of 1,500 miles.  Phase 3 would be the ultimate near-production vehicle (the G-38).  Only Phase 1 and Phase 2 testing took place.

The Navaho missile-booster vehicle measured 84 feet in length and weighed about 135,000 pounds at lift-off.  The launch weight for the booster was 75,000 pounds; most of which was due to the alcohol and LOX propellants.  The missile empty weight was 24,000 pounds.

On Friday, 10 January 1958, Navaho G-26 No. 9 (54-3098)  lifted-off from LC-9 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Climbing out under 240,000 pounds of thrust from its dual Rocketdyne XLR71-NA-1 rocket motors, missile-booster separation occurred at Mach 3.15 and 73,000 feet.  Following air-start and take-over of twin Wright XRJ47-W-5 ramjets, generating a combined thrust of 16,000 pounds, the Navaho missile initiated a near triple-sonic cruise toward the Puerto Rico target area.

As the Navaho missile approached the environs of Puerto Rico, the vehicle was commanded to initiate a sweeping right-hand turn back towards the Cape.  Unfortunately, the right intake experienced an unstart and a concommitant, asymmetric loss of thrust.  Underpowered and without a restart capability, the vehicle was subsequently commanded to execute a dive into the Atlantic.

Flight No. 8, although only partially successful, flew longer and farther than any Navaho flight test vehicle.  Only G-26 Flight No. 6 flew faster (Mach 3.5).

Although three (3) flights would follow G-26 Flight No. 8, all would suffer failure of one kind or another.  In point of fact, the Navaho Program had been canceled on Saturday, 13 July 1957.  The final six (6) Navaho flights were simply an attempt to extract the most from the remaining missile-booster rounds.  Over 15,000 NAA employees lost their jobs the day Navaho died.

Navaho was cancelled primarily due to the ascendancy of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).  Very simply, an ICBM could deliver nuclear ordnance farther, faster and more accurately than a winged, unstealthy strategic missile.  Navaho’s relatively numerous technical issues and programmatic delays simply served to drive the final nail into a long-prepared coffin.

While few today remember or even know of the Navaho Program, its technology has had a profound influence on all manner of aerospace vehicles up to the present day.  Interestingly, the Space Shuttle launch vehicle concept bears a strong resemblance to the Navaho missile-booster combination.  That is, a winged flight vehicle mounted asymmetrically on a longer boost vehicle.

Posted in Aerospace, History

The Mission of Gemini-Titan 2

Forty-eight years ago this month, NASA successfully completed the unmanned Gemini-Titan 2 (GT-2) space mission.  The suborbital spaceflight served as a final test preparatory to the first manned Gemini mission (GT-3) flown several months later.

The Gemini Program was America’s second manned space project.  Gemini pioneered  key technologies required to land men on the Moon including space navigation, rendezvous, docking, orbital maneuvering, long-duration spaceflight and extra-vehicular activity (EVA).  Without Gemini, the United States would not have achieved the goal of landing men on the Moon before the end of the 1960’s.

The two-man Gemini spacecraft weighed 8,500 pounds at lift-off and measured 18.6 feet in length.  Gemini consisted of a reentry module (RM), an adapter module (AM) and an equipment module (EM).

The crew occupied the RM which also contained ships’ navigation, communication, telemetry, electrical and reentry reaction control systems.  The AM contained maneuver thrusters and the deboost rocket system.  The EM included the spacecraft orbital attitude control thrusters and the fuel cell system.  Both the AM and EM were used in orbit only and discarded prior to entry.

A two-stage Titan II  launch vehicle served as the chariot that Gemini rode into space.  Designed for the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) role, the native reliability of the Titan II had to be substantially improved for the vehicle to safely carry men into space.  The history of spaceflight records that the man-rated Titan II truly fulfilled the measure of its creation by successfully launching ten (10) Gemini crews into earth orbit.

Gemini-Titan (GT-2) was the second and last unmanned flight test of the Gemini spacecraft.  Since the primary goal was to flight-prove the craft’s heat shield performance during reentry, the mission was suborbital in nature.  GT-2 lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-19 at 14:22:14 UTC on Tuesday, 19 January 1965.  The vehicle’s arcing ballistic trajectory took it over the Atlantic Ocean on a flight that lasted only 18 minutes and 16 seconds.  Maximum altitude and impact range were 92.4 nm and 1,847.5 nm, respectively.

Gemini 2’s ablative heat shield functioned as designed and came through the fiery reentry in excellent condition.   Most of the spacecraft’s other flight systems performed satisfactorily during the vehicle’s brief sojourn into the heavens.  Exceptions here included the fuel cell system which failed prior to lift-off and cooling system temperatures which exceeded design requirements.

Gemini 2’s splashdown point was located approximately 45 nm from the USS Lake Champlain.  About 90 minutes after splashdown, Gemini 2 was hauled aboard the recovery ship.  The spacecraft came through the flight in such good shape that it actually flew a second suborbital reentry in November of 1966.  Along with the OPS 0855 boilerplate spacecraft, the Gemini 2 reentry module was flown aboard a Titan IIIC launch vehicle in support of the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program.

The successful completion of GT-2 (along with the previous GT-1 orbital mission) provided NASA with the confidence needed to proceed with manned Gemini missions.  The first of ten (10) such missions, GT-3, was successfully flown in March of 1965.  A mere 20 months later (December 1966), the Gemini Program was brought to a successful conclusion with the splashdown of Gemini 12.

The Gemini Program was remarkable for its many significant and historic spaceflight achievements that paved the way to the moon.  The brief mission of Gemini-Titan 2 was a small, but important part of that larger story.  Today, aerospace aficionados can view the twice-flown Gemini 2 reentry module at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Posted in Aerospace, History