Tag Archives: cosmonauts

577. The First Space Walk (2)

The space suit worn by Alexei Leonov on the first human space walk. On display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Author: Nijuuf

This is the rest of Tuesday’s post. If you haven’t read it yet, take the time to do so, or this won’t make much sense.

Alexey Leonov had extreme difficulty reentering the airlock. His space suit had over inflated; the boots and gloves had slipped beyond his toes and fingertips, and his suit had increased in girth. He had to vent part of his rapidly depleting oxygen in order to bring his suit down in size, and even then he entered the airlock head first, instead of feet first as planned. Once inside the airlock, he had extreme difficulty contorting his body to close the outer door. All this time, his body was heating up dangerously; surrounded by vacuum, there was nothing to carry away the heat his body was generating.

Once air pressure had been restored in the airlock, Belyayev opened the inner door and Leonov was safe. For the moment. As he said in an article for Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine in 2005, “the difficulties I experienced reentering the spacecraft were just the start of a series of dire emergencies that almost cost us our lives.”

The mission had achieved it’s goal and it was time to return, but just before the scheduled time for firing retro rockets the cosmonauts discovered that their automatic guidance system was malfunctioning. It took time to prepare for manual entry, so they had to wait one orbit, which would make them miss their return point by a thousand miles. (To find out why it would be a thousand miles, see the post coming on March 25.) Most of that orbit they were out of radio communications. (The Americans had built a string of radio relay stations around the world to maintain constant communication with their astronauts, but the Soviets had not.)

When communications were restored, ground control asked them where they had landed.

Their orbital path was set; the moment of firing their retro rockets would determine where on that orbit they would land. They chose a target just past the Urals. Using the clumsy and difficult manual backup equipment, they achieved the correct attitude and fired the retro rockets in the conical rear portion of the craft called the orbital module. The orbital and landing modules were supposed to separate ten seconds after retrofire. They didn’t.

The two cosmonauts knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. Instead of the steady press of force against their backs as they decelerated, they found themselves whipped about by confused forces that exceeded ten gravities. A communication cable between the two modules had failed to release, and now both modules were whipping about each other, tethered by the cable.

Finally, about 60 miles up, the cable burned through and the cosmonauts were freed. The drogue chute deployed, and then the main. All was peaceful and in order – briefly. Then it became dark as they dropped below cloud cover, the final rocket fired to slow them to landing speed, and they touched down in six feet of snow.

They were 1200 miles beyond their intended landing point.

They blew the explosive bolts to release the hatch. It didn’t open. They had landed in the middle of a forest and the hatch was held shut by a tree. By yanking violently they dislodged it and it fell away, lost in the snow.

They made their way out of the spacecraft and waded through snow to a small clearing. Those back at headquarters had not heard their landing signal, but a passing cargo plane had. It circled, and was soon joined by other planes and helicopters, but none of them could land in the rough taiga. Pilots threw a bottle of cognac; it broke. They threw warm clothing which got caught in the trees, but at least two pairs of wolfskin boots made it to the ground.

The light was failing. The cosmonauts returned to their craft for shelter. Leonov was walking in calf deep sweat still trapped in his space suit from his space walk. Both cosmonauts stripped, removed the liners from their space suits and wrung them dry, then put the on again along with the wolf skin boots. They abandoned the useless space suits and crawled into the landing module for the night, well aware that the taiga was filled with bears and wolves, and that this was mating season, when they were most aggressive.

The hatch was out of reach. The lights failed, but the circulation fan ran all night, adding to their misery. The temperature dropped to 22 below zero.

A rescue party arrived on skis the next morning; they chopped trees to build a small log cabin and a big fire. The cosmonauts spent a second night, then skied out to where a second, larger party had chopped down enough trees for a helicopter to land.

I guess they made ‘em tough in those days. I suspect they still do.

576. The First Space Walk (1)

I posted this in 2016, under the title Spacecraft Threatened by Bears. The title was snarky but accurate. Back then I had few followers, so it seems time to post the amazing story again.

My admiration for the people of the early American space program is boundless, but the Russians were no slouches either. They were the first to perform many feats, including the first space walk, during the flight of Voskhod 2 on March 18-19, fifty-four years ago.

I had the great good fortune of living through the early days of manned space flight. I was nine years old when the Russians orbited the first satellite, and the early manned flights came when I was in high school. I watched every American launch with fascination and envy, but the Russian launches were shrouded in secrecy. I knew only the bare minimum that all Americans knew. I’m not sure the president knew much more.

During those early days, nothing was routine. Every mission was dangerous. They still are, of course, but not so much as then. American failures were there for all the world to see, while the Soviets kept their’s secret.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, information about the early Russian space program became generally available, but by then few people cared. I did, and I sought out the stories.

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Oceans are big targets and landing in water cushions the fall. That is why Americans always splashed down. The Soviets were unwilling to land their craft anywhere outside of the USSR for reasons of security. Their hard landings had an effect of the design of their spacecraft.

The first six manned Soviet spaceflights were aboard Vostok craft, which came down on land — hard. Vostok astronauts wore space suits throughout their flights and landed by personal parachute separate from the capsule. Before the second generation Soyuz spacecraft came on line, the Soviets launched two additional manned missions on modified Vostoks called Voskhod.

On Voskhod, an additional rocket was added to the spherical descent module to fire at the last minute. This softened the landing enough so the cosmonauts could remain within the descent module all the way to the ground. Since ejection seats were no longer used, the weight saving allowed Voskhod 1 to carry three astronauts.

Voskhod 1 cosmonauts flew without space suits, as did early Soyuz missions. Voskhod 2 cosmonauts Belyayev and Leonov wore space suits because they were scheduled for the first space walk.

American space walks first took place during the Gemini program (see post 87). That craft had two hatches but no airlock; both astronauts were in vacuum during the entire spacewalk.

To exit his Voskhod in space, Leonov used an inflatable airlock (see drawing above), leaving Belyayev in the craft and unable to aid him. I had known this for several years but just in the last few days found out why. Russian electronics within Vostok and Voskhod were air cooled. American electronics were not. This meant that if a Voskhod were opened to space, the electronics would overheat.

On Voskhod 2, Leonov crawled into the airlock, sealed the inner door and opened the outer one. Belyayev remained in the pressurized descent module.

For ten minutes, Leonov remained within the airlock but exposed to the vacuum of space, then he slipped free and floated on a tether for another ten minutes. He was called back in to terminate his space walk, and his difficulties began.

(Or perhaps they had already begun. Some sources state that he “experienced a disorienting euphoria” during the space walk and other sources state that he suffered bends like symptoms after the space walk was over; I haven’t been able to confirm these statements.)

This post concludes on Thursday.

551. Apollo 8

photo taken from Apollo 8

Things always look different in the rear view mirror.

If I were telling the story of Apollo 8 as it was understood when it was happening, it would be a different story than what it looks like today. We in the US knew what we were doing. We suspected what the Russians were doing, and our actions were based on those suspicions.

We were wrong. Here’s what was going on that we did not know then.

The Russians were developing a rocket, the N1, similar in size to the Saturn V. It was designed to carry two men into lunar orbit and allow one of them to land. America was aware of the existence of the N1, but not in any detail. It had been seen by reconnaissance satellite (shown here), but little else was known. Russia looked much closer to reaching the moon than the facts warranted.

In fact, the first N1 launch attempt came two months after Apollo 8, and was a disaster. There were four launch attempts in all, the last in November 1972, almost three years after Apollo 11. All ended in massive explosions and the N1 program was cancelled.

We didn’t know any of this until decades later. Based on our assessment, the Russians seemed to be on the verge of reaching the moon first, particularly after the delays that followed the Apollo One fire.

The LEM was not ready for use. The next mission was supposed to be in high Earth orbit, but NASA decided to go for broke instead. They changed the Apollo 8 mission, with only a few months to go, from an Earth orbit mission to a circumlunar mission.

On December 21, 1968 — fifty years ago this Friday — Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders launched from Kennedy Space Center.

For anyone younger than sixty, it is impossible to recapture the feeling of the moment. We all know how the story came out, and that will be true over the next few years as a whole batch of fifth anniversaries come and go. At the time these spaceflights took place, no one knew if any of the astronauts would return to Earth alive.

The launch occurred at about eight AM, EST. The first and second stages burned their fuel and fell away. The third stage placed the craft in Earth orbit and remained attached.

The craft spent nearly three hours in near Earth orbit. This was standard; it allowed a full post-launch check before the craft’s irreversible journey to the moon began. Return to Earth from an aborted mission remained a possibility until the third stage fired again.

Once the third stage had fired, the CSM separated and rotated to have a view of the third stage and the retreating Earth. Having the spacecraft and the unmanned third stage on the same orbit was no part of the plan, so after five hours, the third stage vented its remaining fuel changing it to a different orbit that would not get in the way of the CSM.

The rocket in the Service Module was not used on the way to the moon. It could not be, for reasons that will be explained when we look at Apollo 9 in late February.

After nearly three days, Apollo 8 reached the vicinity of the moon. The Service Module engine fired for the first time, slowing the craft to place it in lunar orbit. The famous Earthrise photo at the top of this post was taken shortly thereafter. During the next twenty hours, Apollo 8 orbited the moon ten times. Then the Service Module engine fired again, sending them back to Earth to land in the Pacific on December 27th.

The lunar orbits took place on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. While in orbit, the astronauts read the first ten verses of the book of Genesis in a TV broadcast to Earth.

I have never been comfortable with that action. I recognize the need to comfort and unify the country at the end of a troubled year, and the need to set America apart from Russia. After all, Khrushchev had stated the Russian position when he said, “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” And, despite those of us who disagree, America is demographically and historically a Christian country.

Nevertheless, why Genesis, the part of the scriptures most quoted by those who would hold back science? They would have been better to follow the lead of Linus van Pelt and quote Luke 2: 8-14. It was Christmas, after all.

The went, they orbited, and they returned. It doesn’t sound like much if you put it that way, but there was an additional factor. What if they didn’t make it back?

By the time of Apollo 8, eight astronauts had died in training or in on the launch pad. All those deaths were virtually instantaneous, but death in space could come another way. Astronauts could become stranded, unable to return.

That problem had been well understood from the first. During John Glenn’s first flight, my father, an Oklahoma farmer who considered the space program a complete waste of time and money, left his tractor in the field and went in to sit for hours in front of the television. He said later, “I just had to get that old boy back on the ground before I could go back to work.”

America had held its breath before, but going to the moon upped the ante. The possibility of three men being trapped in lunar orbit and unable to return was on everybody’s mind during Apollo 8. With subsequent moon landings, everybody worried about men being trapped on the moon, and unable to return.

It all turned out well; we know that now. But to have a sense of how it felt to those of us who watched it in real time, you have to factor in the fear of complete disaster.

295. Space Walks (1)

260px-ed_white_first_american_spacewalker_-_gpn-2000-001180EVAs (extravehicular activities) or space walks are commonplace today. It wasn’t always that way. In the early days of space exploration, every space walk was a brush with death. The Russians denied that reality and the American’s downplayed it. But the fact was, in the words of Gene Cernan (see also 293. the Last Man on the Moon), “. . . we didn’t know diddly-squat about walking in space when I popped my hatch open on Gemini 9. . . It’s a sobering reflection when I think about it now, and I thank God that I lived through the experience.”

It was life threatening from the beginning. Alexey Leonov nearly died on man’s first spacewalk (see 116. Spacecraft Threatened by Bears). Three months later, Ed White’s space walk was exhilarating until it came time to reenter his Gemini craft. Then he found getting back in to be nearly impossible. Nothing is as easy as it looks in space.

There are basically three problems with spacewalks – vacuum, vacuum, and weightlessness. Vacuum outside and pressure inside makes space suits incredibly difficult to bend. Reaching over to flip a switch, which a bedfast child could do on Earth, takes great strength when suited up and in vacuum. Vacuum also provides insulation. When a spacewalking astronaut is working hard to bend in his pressure suit, the vacuum of space is keeping his body heat from dissipating. Finally, weightlessness makes it impossible to get purchase to exert one’s strength.

Both Leonov and White floated happily, but when it came time to reenter their vehicles, they found it hard to maneuver, hard to bend, and they both overheated.

Cernan’s spacewalk, the third ever attempted, was worse. He was given an impossible series of tasks to perform. Nevertheless, he was determined to perform them. People who fail, don’t remain in the astronaut corps, and trying to do the impossible nearly killed him.

First, the two astronauts fully suited up and opened the hatch. This meant that not only Cernan was suddenly encased in a “garment made of hardened plaster of paris”, but so was Stafford, reducing his ability to help. They released the “snake”, their term for the umbilical cord that carried electricity, oxygen, and communications. Ed White had also been on the end of an umbilical, but he had had a hand powered jet that he used for mobility. Cernan’s first experiment was to see if he could move around space, simply tugging on the umbilical.

He couldn’t.

The snake uncoiled and recoiled, subject to internal stresses. Any time Cernan tried to move by tugging on it, he ended up being spun out of control. This went on for half an hour until it was clear that no astronaut would ever be able to use his umbilical to maneuver.

Cernan clung to the hatch to catch his breath, then began the second experiment. The MMU was a backpack style manned maneuvering unit designed for an astronaut to fly freely at the end of  a safety line. It was a great idea, but there was no place in the Gemini to store it, so it had been fastened into a recess in the very base of the vehicle.

Now he just had to get there. concluded tomorrow

168. A Woman in Space

53 years ago today, the first woman flew in space. Her name was Valentina Tereshkova. The Soviets hailed her as a hero of the People (see131. Chasing Cosmonauts), and as proof that Russia was ahead of the US in social advancement as well as in space travel.

The US treated her as a joke.

Both assessment were wrong, although both contained kernels of truth. Even today, half a century after the event, it is difficult to come to a balanced appraisal of the flight of Vostok 6. Russian propaganda and American dismissal still cloud the picture.  I am taking a shot at accuracy here, but a workman is only as good as his tools, so keep a measure of skepticism in mind.

Tereshkova’s father was MIA during WWII, leaving her mother to raise Tereshkova alone. She left school early to join her mother working in a state textile mill. There she joined a parachute club, which was a military auxiliary, and became an expert parachutist as well as secretary of the local Komsomol.

Early in the Soviet space program, there was a movement to add female cosmonauts, mostly for propaganda purposes. Candidates did not need flight experience since the Vostok craft were fully automated, but the did need extensive parachute experience, since at that early stage cosmonauts finalized their landings by personal parachute (see130.  First Into Space). Tereshkova was one of fifty-four candidates interviewed, and one of five who made it through training.

Tereshkova was personable, doctrinally sound in communism, from the peasant and workers class, hard working, willing, and an expert parachutist. She was not well educated nor an experienced pilot. Ponomaryova and Solovyova, female cosmonaut trainees who had those additional qualifications, were scheduled for a later, more sophisticated flight, and Tereshkova was scheduled for the Vostok 5/6 dual flight.

Vostok 5, crewed by  Valery Bykovsky, was launched on June 14, scheduled for an eight day flight, but a low orbit forced it to be shortened to five. Vostok 6, crewed by Tereshkova, was launched on June 16 and remained in orbit for three days. They passed within five kilometers while in space.

During the flight, Tereshkova discovered that the automatic orientation system had her flying sideways in orbit, an error that would have been fatal during reentry. Ground control confirmed and corrected. Whether she activated her final reentry personally or not is still unclear.

In those early days, landing accuracy had not been perfected. When she ejected from her craft, she found herself coming down into a large lake, and was only saved from downing by a strong wind that carried her to a rough landing on shore.

American astronauts, all of whom were test pilots, had little respect for the skills of Soviet cosmonauts. They used Tereshkova’s flight to justify their ridicule, saying that the Russians had simply pulled a woman off the line in a factory and sent her up into space as a glorified passenger. There was a bit of justification in their assessment. It was a propaganda stunt, but that didn’t mitigate the dangers. Tereshkova was uneducated, but by six years later she had taken advantage of her situation to earn a degree in engineering. She was not a pilot when chosen for training, but by the time of Vostok 6 she had learned to fly jets and had made 120 additional jumps to hone her skills as a parachutist.

Alan Shepard was a superb test pilot when he flew his Mercury mission, but he had almost no control over his capsule and nobody called him spam-in-a-can. Well, actually, Chuck Yeager did, but that’s what too much testosterone will do to your thinking.

Tereshkova’s contribution to space flight was real, but the Soviet commitment to equality was not. Ponomaryova and Solovyova’s flight was cancelled, and it would be nineteen years before another Soviet woman flew in space. It would be twenty years before the first American woman, Sally Ride, entered space, even though thirteen American female astronauts had been chosen and trained during the early sixties. Like Ponomaryova and Solovyova, they never flew.

162. False Fame, reprise

In October, 2015, I wrote a post about the people who got fame they didn’t deserve, or failed to get the fame they did deserve, or who deserved fame, but for reasons other that what the public believed to be true. Since we are going to visit a bunch of forgotten heroes in the next two weeks, I am reprising that post here.

True or false: Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly across the Atlantic.
False. He was the ninth.

True or false: Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic.
False. He was the third.

The first flight across the Atlantic was by the NC-4, a flying boat with a crew of six, which left New York on May 8, 1919 and arrived at Lisbon, Portugal on May 27, after several stops and numerous problems. (coming June 13)

Less than three weeks later, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a converted WWI bomber. (coming June 14)

Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York, north to Newfoundland, then across the Atlantic ending up in Paris. His flight was longer, but the Atlantic crossing was identical to the one made by Alcock and Brown eight years earlier.

Ask anyone in America today who was the first to fly across the Atlantic, and they will either say nothing or name Lindbergh. Alcock, Brown, and the crew of the NC-4 have all been forgotten. It’s not enough to be first, or best, if you don’t also catch the public imagination, or fall under the anointing power of the press.

*****

John Glenn was the most famous astronaut until Neil Armstrong replaced him. If you asked anyone in America during the sixties who was the first man in space, they would have said John Glenn. Nope, he was fifth.

All right then, he was the first man in orbit. Nope, he was third.

First American in space? Nope, third.

Russian Yuri Gegarin was the first man in space and in orbit. (see 130. First in Space) Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight was next, followed by Gus Grissom, also in a sub-orbital flight. Russian Gherman Titov orbited next, then John Glenn. For the completist who is reaching for his reference materials, the first X-15 pilot to win his astronaut’s wings came in just after Glenn. (We’ll look at the X-15 tomorrow and Thursday)

John Glenn earned his fame, and he never asked to be better remembered than his fellow astronauts. But he was.

Gegarin is still remembered by a very few, but ask any American who Gherman Titov was and you will either get a blank stare or be told that he was the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia. (And if you’ve forgotten him, it was Josip Broz Tito.)

*****

Okay, let’s not be sexist. True or false: in 1928 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly a plane across the Atlantic.

False. She was only a passenger on that flight; the pilot was Wilmer Stultz and the copilot was Louis Gordon. The flight was a bit of a stunt, and a successful one. On arrival in England, Earhart became instantly famous. There was a ticker tape parade and a reception at the White House when she returned to America. The press called her Lady Lindy. She wrote a book, went on tour, designed luggage and clothing, and generally became rich and famous – essentially before she had done anything.

But that’s not the whole story. Earhart later came to deserve the fame she had already gained. She became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent, participated in the Santa Monica to Cleveland Woman’s Air Derby, and in 1932 she became the first woman to fly nonstop alone across the Atlantic, finally earning the fame she had received four years earlier.

It is a final irony in the fame-for-the-wrong-reasons game that Earhart is best remembered today for the flight in which she died, while failing to finish.

131. Chasing Cosmonauts

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post First into Space.

I had the great good fortune of being born with the space age, less than two months after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. I was thirteen when Alan Shepard took his first sub-orbital flight and just coming back from my honeymoon when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. (see 27. That Was My Childhood)

I followed the American manned space programs closely, but the Russians were a mystery. They gleefully announced their victories – first satellite in orbit, first living creature in orbit, first man in orbit, first woman in orbit, first space walk, first space station – but there were no details. I developed a curiosity that never went away.

Time marched on. The race to the moon was won – by us, after a painfully slow start. The cold war ended. The pioneers of space drifted mostly out of public consciousness. Everybody remembers Armstrong, but Buzz Aldrin morphed into Buzz Lightyear, and Jim Lovell came to wear the face of Tom Hanks in public memory. And who remembers Gordo, or Deke, or Ed White?

Well, I do, actually. I also remember the Russians, who were pioneers just like we were, and often got there first.

In 1987, Douglas Hart produced The Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft which has been my go-to source for decades. I recommend it highly for information preceding its publication date.

Another book that I recently hacked my way through, like a noxious jungle, is Russians in Space by Evgeny Riabchikov. I found it at the *** Library, my favorite impoverished institution, a public library filed with seventy year old books and few new ones. Russians in Space was written in Russia, for Russians, during the sixties. It’s translation copyright is 1971 and I doubt if this copy has been read ten times in all those years.

Do you remember Chekov from the original Star Trek, who was always telling everyone that Russia invented everything? He was a comic version of late sixties reality, when Russian bombast made everything in Pravda sound like it was written by Donald Trump. Russians in Space is of that type.

I fought my way through the bombast and bad writing in search of the details I had not found elsewhere. No such luck. I took as my touchstone, the chapter on the Voskhod 2 flight, which I had recently researched (see 116. Spacecraft Threatened by Bears). Everything that made the flight memorable was missing. Riabchikov made it seem routine, when in fact, it was the planning and mechanical failures on the mission that spotlighted the incredible courage and skill of the cosmonauts.

Our brave, valiant, plucky boys in space – that could have been the subtitle of Riabchikov’s book. It reminded me of an alternate reality prequel to the Lensmen series. Kimbal Kinnison would have fit in well with the square jawed, sturdy, blue eyed, strong but gentle supermen who made up Riabchikov’s version of the cosmonaut corps. They were comrades who always helped each other, never fought among themselves, and were ready like all good workers to do their part for the USSR. The cosmonauts who welcomed the female cosmonaut group were courteous and supportive, always ready to help them overcome any hurdle. Like big brothers who blushed when their hands touched. That is from a quotation I wrote down, then lost. You should thank me for the lapse.

So why bother telling you about a book so bad? Because something else came through, despite its manifold failings. There was a sense of pride in the Soviet space program, and particularly in its cosmonauts, that was felt throughout Soviet society. Without glossing over any of the failings of the Soviet system, an American reader can see that the Russian people admired Yuri Gagarin in exactly the same way Americans admired John Glenn. It is clear that they felt a pride in Soviet successes that mirror-matched the frustration we felt at American failings during the same era.

The story of the Soviet manned space program deserves better than Riabchikov, and I am still searching for the book that tells that story succinctly and well.

I have some leads. I’ll tell you soon how they pan out.