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Eight Days in a Garbage Can

Forty-nine years ago this month, NASA astronauts Leroy Gordon Cooper and Charles M. “Pete” Conrad set a new spaceflight endurance record during the flight of Gemini 5. It was the third of ten (10) missions in the historic Gemini spaceflight series. The motto for the mission was “Eight Days or Bust”.

The purpose of Project Gemini was to develop and flight-prove a myriad of technologies required to get to the Moon. Those technologies included spacecraft power systems, rendezvous and docking, orbital maneuvering, long duration spaceflight and extravehicular activity.

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

Gemini-Titan V (GT-5) lifted-off at 13:59:59 UTC from LC-19 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Saturday, 21 August 1965. The two-stage Titan II launch vehicle placed Gemini 5 into a 189 nautical mile x 87 nautical mile elliptical orbit.

A primary purpose of the Gemini 5 mission was to stay in orbit at least eight (8) days. This was the minimum time it would take to fly to the Moon, land and return to the Earth. Other goals of the Gemini 5 mission were to test the first fuel cells, deploy and rendezvous with a special rendezvous pod and conduct a variety of medical experiments.

Despite fuel cell problems, electrical system anomalies, reaction control system issues and the cancellation of various experiments, Gemini 5 was able to meet the goal of an 8-day flight. But it wasn’t easy. The last days of the mission were especially demanding since the crew didn’t have much to do. Pete Conrad called his Gemini 5 experience “8 days in a garbage can.”

On Sunday, 29 August 1965, Gemini 5 splashed-down in the Atlantic Ocean at 12:55:13 UTC. Mission elapsed time was 7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes and 13 seconds. A new spaceflight endurance record.

Gemini 5 was Gordon Cooper’s last spaceflight. Cooper left NASA due to a deteriorating relationship with management. Pete Conrad flew three (3) more times in space. In particular, he commanded the Gemini 11, Apollo 12 and Skylab I missions. Indeed, Conrad’s Apollo 12 experience made him the third man to walk on surface of the Moon.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Skyrocket Max Altitude Mission

Sixty-one years ago today, the USN/Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket soared to an unofficial world record altitude of 83,235 feet. The Skyrocket’s record altitude mission was piloted by USMC test pilot and World War II triple-ace Lieutenant Colonel Marion E. Carl.

The D-558-II was a United States Navy (USN) X-aircraft and first flew in February of 1948. It was contemporaneous with the USAF/Bell XS-1. The aircraft measured 42 feet in length with a wing span of 25 feet. Maximum take-off weight was 15,266 pounds. Douglas manufactured a trio of D-558-II aircraft (Bureau No.’s 37973, 37974 and 37975).

The original version of the swept-wing D-558-II had both rocket and turbojet propulsion. The latter system provided a ground take-off capability. However, like other early X-aircraft such as the XS-1, X-1A, X-2 and X-15), the D-558-II achieved maximum performance through the use of a mothership and rocket power alone.

On Friday, 21 August 1953, D-558-II (Bureau No. 37974; NACA 144) was carried to a drop altitude of approximately 30,000 feet over Edwards Air Force Base by a USN P2B-1S launch aircraft. Following drop, Carl fired his LR-8 rocket motor and executed a pull-up in an effort to extract maximum altitude from the D-558-II. Carl hit a maximum Mach number of 1.728 and exceeded the existing altitude by about 3,800 feet.

Flying the D-558-II to altitudes beyond 65,000 feet required Carl to wear a full-pressure suit. The versions available to test pilots in the early 1950′s were crude by today’s standards. They were extremely uncomfortable and very confining. The pilot had to use reverse breathing to supply adequate oxygen to the lungs.

Reverse breathing involves the inhalation of air under pressure wherein oxygen is forced into the lungs by simply opening the mouth. One then has to make a conscious effort to exhale against that pressure in order rid the lungs of carbon dioxide. This unnatural breathing process had to be practiced by a pilot until it became second nature.

Flying the D-558-II (and other 1950′s high-speed research aircraft such as the X-1, X-1A and X-2) to extreme altitude was a sporty proposition. These aircraft exhibited disturbing lateral-directional control characteristics at low dynamic pressure. None of the early X-planes were configured with a 3-axis reaction control system. Control had to be maintained solely by aerodynamic means.

Marion Carl’s altitude mark in the D-558-II would stand until September of 1956 when USAF Captain Iven Kincheloe flew the USAF/Bell X-2 to an altitude of 126,200 feet. Today, the record-setting D-558-II (NACA 144) is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in our Nation’s capital.

Marion Carl went on to serve his country until he retired from the Marine Corps in 1973 after having attained the rank of Major General. Sadly, Carl was shot to death in 1998 at the age of 82 as he defended his wife Edna from a home invader. A true American hero, Marion E. Carl was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Echo From the Past

Fifty-four years ago this month, the United States successfully launched the Echo 1A passive communications satellite into Earth orbit. The 100-foot diameter balloon was among the largest objects ever to orbit the Earth.

A plethora of earth-orbiting communication satellites provide for a global connectivity that is commonplace today. Such was not always the case. Roll the clock back a half-century and we find that a global communications satellite system was just a concept. However, keen minds would soon go to work and provide mankind with yet another tangible space age benefit.

Communications satellites are basically of two types; passive and active. A passive communications satellite (PCS) simply reflects signals sent to it from a point on Earth to other points on the globe. An active communications satellite (ACS) can receive, store, modify and/or transmit Earth-based signals.

The earliest idea for a PCS involved the use of an orbiting spherical balloon. The balloon was fabricated from mylar polyester having a thickness of a mere 0.5 mil. The uninflated balloon was packed tightly into a small volume and inserted into a payload canister preparatory to launch. Once in orbit, the balloon was released and then inflated to a diameter of 100 feet.

The system described above materialized in the late 1950′s as Project Echo. The Project Echo satellite was essentially a huge spherical reflector for transcontinental and intercontinental telephone, radio and television signals. The satellite was configured with several transmitters for tracking and telemetry purposes. Power was provided by an array of nickel-cadmium batteries that were charged via solar cells.

Echo 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Friday, 13 May 1960. However, the launch vehicle failed and Echo 1 never achieved orbit. Echo 1A (sometimes referred to as Echo 1) lifted-off from Cape Canveral’s LC-17A at 0939 UTC on Friday, 12 August 1960. The Thor Delta launch vehicle successfully placed the 166-lb satellite into a 820-nm x 911-nm orbit.

An interesting characteristic of the Echo satellite was the large oscillation in the perigee of its orbit (485 nm to 811 nm) over several months. This was caused by the influences of solar radiation and variations in atmospheric density. While these factors are just part of the earth-orbital environment, their effects were much more noticeable for Echo due to the type’s large surface area-to-weight ratio.

Echo 1A orbited the Earth until it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere on Saturday, 25 May 1968. Echo 2 was a larger and improved version of Echo 1A. It measured 135-feet in diameter and weighed 547-lb. Echo 2 orbited the Earth between January of 1964 and June of 1969. Other than the Moon, both satellites were the brightest objects observable in the night sky due to their high reflectivity.

The Echo satellites served their function admirably. For a time, they were quite a novelty. However, progress on the ACS scene quickly relegated the PCS to obselescence. Today, virtually all communication satellites are of the ACS variety.

Posted in Aerospace, History

A New Altitude Record

Sixty-three years ago today, a United States Navy Viking rocket soared to an altitude of 136 miles. In doing so, it eclipsed the previous single stage altitude record of 114 miles set by a captured German V-2 rocket on Tuesday, 17 December 1946. The mission was part of the Navy’s 12-flight Viking Rocket flight test series conducted between May 1949 and February 1955.

At 1659 UTC on Tuesday, 07 August 1951, Viking No. 7 was fired from LC-33 at White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG), New Mexico. Burnout velocity was 5,865 feet per second following a rocket motor burn time of 72 seconds. Viking No. 7 weighed 10,730 pounds at lift-off (roughly 8,000 pounds of which were propellants) and carried a scientific payload of 394 pounds.

Viking No. 7 was the last of the early Viking rocket configurations which measured 49-feet in length and had a diameter of 32-inches. Starting with Viking No. 8, the rocket’s airframe was modified to carry more propellants for greater altitude performance and measured 42-feet (length) by 45-inches (diameter). This modification allowed Viking No. 11, flown from WSPG on Monday, 24 May 1954, to capture the all-time Viking altitude record of 158 miles.

Although almost forgotten today, the Viking Rocket Program played a vital role in the history of American rocketry. Viking was the first large, liquid-fueled rocket developed by the United States. It’s rocket motor generated 21,000 pounds of lift-off thrust and employed an innovative two-axis gimbal system for pitch and yaw control. Fin-mounted reaction jets provided roll control.

The Viking Rocket Program provided a tremendous amount of scientific data about Earth’s atmospheric properties such as pressure, temperature, density, winds, and composition. Additionally, the Viking rocket formed the technological basis for a number of 1950′s launch vehicle systems including the Navy’s Vanguard satellite launcher and the USAF Titan ICBM.

Posted in Aerospace, History