Tag Archives: forgotten heroes

341. Air Force in Space, Almost

Regular readers will note that posts now come later in the day.

See if you can find anything wrong with this sentence:

Throughout 1943, U. S. Air Force  B-17 bombers carried out raids over Germany.

Give up? The place is right, the time is right, the B-17s are right, but the United States Air Force did not exist yet. The service in question was the United States Army Air Force, previously called the United States Army Air Corps. From the beginning of American military aviation, planes flying from ships belonged to the Navy and planes flying from air fields belonged to the Army.

That changed with post-war reorganization. The War Department became the Department of the Army, which then joined the Department of the Navy and the newly created Department of the Air Force to become the Department of Defense.

The Air Force was new and hungry, and it soon found plenty to feed on.

By dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the United States had changed the face of warfare. A bombs, and soon H bombs, became our first line of defense against expected Soviet aggression, and it was the Air Force’s job to deliver them if needed. Within a decade, missiles were ousting planes as the primary means of delivery, and the Air Force became the proprietor of such missiles as the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman.

But not of all missiles. The United States Army developed the Redstone IRBM which launched the first two American astronauts into space, if not orbit. The Redstone was later succeeded by the Pershing which was a cornerstone of the defense of Europe until the eighties. The Navy developed the Polaris and then the Poseidon submarine launched missiles, which were probably, due to their stealthy deployment, a greater deterrent than the missiles developed by the Air Force.

Meanwhile, the Army continued to maintain some aircraft for support missions, and with the onset of war in Korea and later Viet Nam, Army helicopters became a major force in the air. Naval jets launched form aircraft carriers were the equal of Air Force planes. Soon the Marine Corps came to maintain what amounts to a mini-air force all its own.

It looked like everybody has aircraft and everybody had missiles.

The Air Force had additional, more ambitious plans. They intended to launch manned Air Force vehicles into space, first on top of a Thor, then atop an Atlas. The project was called MISS, Man in Space Soonest. The Air Force announced its nine astronauts on June 25, 1958. They included X-15 pilots Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, John McKay, Robert Rushworth, Robert White — and Neil Armstrong.

A month later, MISS was cancelled.

Two months later a new government organization called NASA was formed and took up the concepts pioneered by the Air Force. MISS became Project Mercury.

The Air Force, however, was not through trying for space. More on that tomorrow.


325. Exploring Challenger Deep

300px-challenger   300px-bathyscaphe_trieste

HMS Challenger 1874 and bathyschaphe Trieste 1960

Challenger Deep is located in the western Pacific about 2000 kilometers east of the Philippines. It is the deepest part of the Mariana’s Trench, which makes it the deepest part of any ocean.

March 23, 1875, the British research ship H.M.S. Challenger rolled out a line with a weight on the end to measure the oceans depth, something it had been doing throughout its four year journey. It was quite a line. When the weight hit bottom, Challenger’s crew had paid out five miles of hemp — a depth of 4475 fathoms in the measurements of the day.

Although cruises like the Beagle and the Endeavour had set the stage for such exploration, the Challenger expedition was rigged out specifically to study the world’s oceans beneath their surface. It essentially initiated of the science of oceanography. Our space shuttle Challenger was named after H.M.S. Challenger, as was the ship H.M.S. Challenger II which returned to the spot in 1951 and remeasured the depth using an echo-sounder. This time the figure was seven miles, not five.

Reaching the bottom of Challenger Deep remained impossible until two world wars, submarines, frogmen, sonar, and the invention of the Aqualung wedded modern technology to oceanographic exploration. A new invention by Auguste Piccard, the bathyscaphe, finally made very deep dives possible.

In its essential function, a bathyscaphe is more like a dirigible than a submarine. The crew is suspended beneath the vessel in a steel sphere designed to withstand great pressure. The skin of this pressure sphere is so thick, five inches in the case of the Trieste, that it would sink immediately. To prevent this, it is suspended beneath a large, thin skinned, self-propelled float filled with gasoline. This provides buoyancy and, since gasoline is a liquid, is not affected by pressure. Air tanks allow the bathyscaphe to float on the surface as it is being prepared for use. Once the air tanks are emptied, the negatively buoyant bathyscaphe sinks to the bottom — seven miles down in the case of Challenger Deep. The pressures there are so great that it is impossible to refill the air tanks, so the bathyscaphe also carries several tons of steel shot in open bottom containers, held in place by powerful electromagnets. When it is time to return to the surface, the electromagnets are shut off, the steel shot is released, and the now positively buoyant craft returns to the surface. In case of a power failure, the shot would automatically fall away.

The bathyscaphe Trieste was built in Italy to a modification of a Belgian design by Swiss inventor Piccard for the French navy, who subsequently sold it to the American Navy, who rebuilt it with a new and stronger pressure sphere made in Germany. Globalization, anyone?

On the twenty-third of January, 1960, the Trieste was ready to plumb Challenger Deep. The crew consisted of Jacques Piccard, son of the designer, and Navy Lt. Don Walsh. They boarded the vessel, moved down to the seven foot diameter pressure sphere and sealed the hatch. The air tanks were allowed to fill with water and the descent began. It took nearly five hours to sink to the bottom of the Deep. Three quarters of the way down, one of the plexiglas windows cracked, but not enough to cause disaster.

As they cruised above the deep ocean floor, Piccard and Walsh reported a bottom of smooth ooze and saw bottom fish swimming, proving that vertebrate life could survive such high pressure and eternal darkness. They spent only twenty minutes at the bottom, in part because of the cracked viewport, and hours more returning to the surface.

No one would return to those depths for another half century.

Trivia for the faithful: Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: TNG seems to have been named after the Jacques Piccard, or after his father Auguste Piccard and his twin brother Jean Felix Piccard. Different sources credit different family members with the name origin. Also, in TNG episode “11001001” a small, slow starship named Trieste is mentioned.

297. Skylab (1)



The International Space Station has been continuously inhabited since November of 2000. if you are under twenty-five, you probably don’t remember a time when it didn’t exist. You also probably don’t know that scientists widely resisted it’s construction, feeling that far more could be learned by spending the equivalent amount in other ways. Whether or not they were right will probably never be known.

The space race that culminated in landing on the moon was fueled by the cold war. The construction of the International Space Station was fueled by the need to demonstrate that the cold war was over, and that Russia and America were now friends. How well that has turned out is also still in doubt.

There were space stations before the ISS, mostly Russian. Wikipedia has a nice list available. The US had an aborted space station project in the late sixties, the MOL (see 256. The Space Station That Never Was) and an actual one in the mid to late seventies. It came on the heels of the Apollo program and it was called Skylab.

Most Americans have forgotten it ever existed but for a few brief weeks in 1979, everyone in the world was looking at the sky and thinking about Skylab.

Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last men on the moon in 1972 (see 293. Last Man on the Moon) because of funding cuts. Twenty Apollo missions had originally been envisioned. Apollo 20 was the first to be cancelled in January of 1970 to allow its booster to be used for Skylab. Later that year, Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled.

If you think back only a few years, the last Space Shuttle flight brought rounds of congratulations for years of success, but at the same time the Cape, northeastern Florida, and NASA in general saw economic turmoil as thousands lost their jobs.

A similar thing happened at the height of the Apollo program. All the Saturn V boosters that were going to be built were in the pipeline, and the organization that produced them was in danger of disappearing. One of the schemes to keep the resource from disappearing was Skylab.

Space stations had always been envisioned. Early plans for reaching the moon called for building space station, then assembling the moon rockets there. It made good sense. Spacecraft have different design requirements from vehicles designed to cope with traveling through the atmosphere. Just look at the difference between the Lunar Lander and the Apollo Command Module. Now visualize a craft built in space for lunar or interplanetary travel; your vision will probably look a lot like the ISS looks today.

That plan to build a space station, then a moon rocket, made perfect sense, but it wasn’t going to happen fast enough to win a space race with the Russians. Hence the Apollo style moon missions, leading to victory in the space race, leading to an America that felt like a winner, but had no place to go next.

Enter, Skylab. more tomorrow

296. Space Walks (2)

gemini_spacecraftWe left Gene Cernan hanging onto to the side of Gemini 9, part way thorough a disastrous space walk. I’ve provided a drawing of the Gemini to orient you to what comes next.

Cernan left the hatch and began to move back to the base of the Gemini, utilizing undersized hand holds. He was weightless, which makes this sound easy, but remember that bending your arm is like “bending and inflated life raft”. As he worked his way back, he had to thread his umbilical through undersized stand-offs to keep it from tangling. When he reached the base of the Gemini, he found it surrounded by a ring of torn metal, like razor wire, that was the result of separation from the Titan rocket that had put him into orbit. Just the thing a space suit does not need to make contact with.

Once Cernan made it past the turn to the very base of the Gemini, he faced new problems. He was exhausted and overheated; the inside of his visor was so fogged that he was nearly blind. Making visibility even worse, the light NASA had provided over the MMU was a dim bulb, completely inadequate to his needs. He began to attempt to fire up the MMU, a procedure that required about thirty switches to be thrown in sequence, but he could hardly see the switches, and every time he tried to turn a dial, his untethered body spun the opposite way.

Once the MMU powered up, he had to release and position the arms and get it strapped on. By now he was far overbudget for time, and out of contact with Stafford in the Gemini. His heart was beating at three times its normal speed, he couldn’t see for sweat and fog, and the Gemini was twenty minutes away from orbital night when the impossible becomes the unthinkable. Stafford terminated the mission. The MMU was abandoned, untested. Cernan made his painful way forward and returned, not without a final struggle, to the safety of the Gemini.

Let’s let Cernan speak for himself.

Why is floating in space and turning a few dials so difficult? Let me give you a couple of tests. Connect two garden hoses and turn on the water. Now, using only one hand, try to unscrew them. Or, hold a bottle of soda or beer at arm’s length, and using a single hand, remove the twist off top. For extra reality, run a mile before you start so you’re nice and tired, do it while wearing two pairs of extra-thick gloves and close your eyes to simulate being unable to see. Stand on your head while doing some of these things to resemble tumbling in space. You get the idea. 

* * * * * *

There is one kind of space walk that always works, called a stand-up EVA. If an astronaut simply stands up on his seat, with the hatch open, he has none of the problems Cernan had.

Gemini 10 began with a stand-up EVA. Later Michael Collins performed an umbilical EVA, successfully although not easily, using a hand held maneuvering unit similar to the one used by Ed White.

In Gemini 11, Richard Gordon performed an umbilical EVA to attach a tether to an Agena target vehicle. Like Cernan, he overheated, lost vision to a fogged visor, and had his EVA cut short.

In Gemini 12, Buzz Aldrin performed two stand-up EVAs, sandwiched around an umbilical EVA. For the first time, everything went right. Aldrin had use of larger hand and foot holds, a reduced workload, and tools designed to overcome the problems of weightlessness. The lesson learned by White, Cernan, Collins, and Gordon had finally made spacewalks practical.

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

293. The Last Man on the Moon

600px-nasa_apollo_17_lunar_roving_vehicleOn one side is cynicism.

On the other, political correctness, a stiff upper lip, wearing your game face, or whatever is the most current version of refusing to acknowledge defeat or failure even while it is kicking your ass.

Somewhere in between is the truth.

I’ve been reading astronaut biographies for the last decade. You don’t really understand the American space program that made my youth so exciting until you have seen the same events through many different – sometimes sharply disagreeing – viewpoints. All of the biographies have been in that truthful middle ground, but some suffered from too much emotional distance and some from too much optimism. They all share bitterness at some contractors whose spacecraft were substandard, and ultimately deadly.

Of all these biographies, two stand out, Grissom’s Gemini (see 87. Gemini) and Cernan’s The Last Man on the Moon. I have long planned a post on Cernan’s book, but the timing of his death caught me tangled up in other matters and delayed it these last two weeks.

Cernan flew on Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17. He flew within 10 miles of the lunar surface, without landing on May 22, 1969. He landed the Apollo 17 craft three and a half years later, on December 11, 1972. When he stepped back aboard for the final time, he became the last man to walk on the moon, making the title of his memoir inevitable.

Unlike Glenn, Shepard, and Armstrong, Cernan didn’t become a household name, but he should have.

Cernan’s first flight was Gemini 9. Their first task was rendezvous and docking, which had been a pain in NASA’s side. Gemini 6 had been scrubbed when it docking target failed, and had flown later, using Gemini 7 as a rendezvous target, but without docking. Then Gemini 8 achieved rendezvous and docking with a subsequent Agena, only to be nearly torn apart by a thruster failure in the Gemini. Only Neil Armstrong’s skill saved the day.

When Cernan and Stafford on Gemini 9 rendezvoused with their Agena target vehicle they found that the shroud covering the docking target had only partially retracted. Docking was once again impossible. They succeeded in making three separate rendezvouses then set out to perform an ambitious EVA, or, as Cernan titled chapter 13 of his book, “The Spacewalk From Hell”.

I’ll save that story for later, when I give a full post of the trials of early spacewalks.

Three years later Stafford and Cernan were together again, along with John Young, on Apollo 10. When I taught the space program to eighth graders, I called this the most frustrating mission in the history of exploration. Leaving Young in the Command Module, Stafford and Cernan took their Lunar Lander down to about ten miles above the moon’s surface, did not land, and returned to lunar orbit to rendezvous with Young and return to Earth. Aside from de Sade level cruelty, it all seems so pointless from our perspective.

Of course, it was neither cruel nor pointless. It was necessary to calibrate the instruments which would calculate the vectors necessary to land accurately. It would be impossible to overemphasize how crude instruments were in 1969. Even with the help of Apollo 10, Apollo 11 did not land exactly where it was supposed to and nearly crashed in a rubble field.

By one number Stafford and Cernan missed being first on the moon. Stafford did not fly another mission until the Apollo-Soyusz mission of 1975. Cernan became commander of Apollo 17 which, because of funding cuts, became the last Apollo flight to land on the moon.

Back in Indiana, Purdue University holds bragging rights to having produced the first (Armstrong) and last (Cernan) astronauts to land on the moon.

256. The Space Station That Never Was

 275px-mol_usafI love conspiracy theories. I don’t believe them, but they’re fun.

We do know that much is hidden from us. The SR-71 Blackbird was a myth, sworn not to exist, for most of it’s operational life, so why not believe in the Aurora, or at least wish it were real and dream up stories that use it.

The problem with actually believing in conspiracies is that most conspirators are too dumb to pull them off. Still, occasionally . . .

In 2005 two spacesuits of unknown origin were found in a locked room in a NASA museum. They were not connected with any known program, and presented a mystery to be solved. The story of chasing that mystery was well told by NOVA in its 2008 episode Astrospies. A decade after the discovery, and seven years after the NOVA program, files and photos were declassified and the secrets of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory were fully revealed.

The Air Force has long had a hand in spaceflight. As early as 1957, it funded development of a spaceplane, the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Ultimately that project was scrapped because of the success of the Mercury and Gemini programs, but USAF shifted goals to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and continued.

The existence Manned Orbiting Laboratory project was not secret. It was announced in 1963 but most of what went on was not revealed to the public. Essentially, it was an orbiting spy station designed to take pictures of military interest. MOL was a single use vehicle. It was designed to be launched, used for a forty day mission, then abandoned. At that time the crew would return via a Gemini B capsule which was launched with the MOL.

MOL was designed for a stacked launch. The launch vehicle was to carry the MOL with the manned Gemini B in place at the top. Once in polar orbit, the Gemini B would be powered down and the two astronauts would move into the MOL where they would spend their mission taking pictures of the Earth through advanced camera system called KH-10. At the end of the mission, the astronauts would reactivate the Gemini B and return to Earth in it, abandoning the MOL.220px-titan-3c_mol-gemini-b-test_3

The Gemini B was virtually identical to the Gemini used by NASA, except for a hatch through the heat shield that allowed astronauts to move between it and the MOL.

The initial launch took place on Nov. 3, 1966 from Cape Canaveral. The MOL launched was a boilerplate mockup made from a Titan propellant tank, and the Gemini B was the prototype, and unmanned. The capsule returned to Earth safely, proving the modified heat shield, and is on display today at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum.

In June 1969, the project was cancelled. No manned and functioning flight was made. By the time of its cancellation, progress had outrun the program, and unmanned reconnaissance satellites had proved that they could do the job more cheaply than the MOL.

In all seventeen astronauts trained to fly MOL missions. One was Robert Lawrence, the first black astronaut, who died in training in 1967. (see 167. On the Brink of Glory) When the program was cancelled, all the astronauts who were under 35 years old were offered jobs at NASA. The seven who were eligible all accepted and became NASA Astronaut Group 7. All flew on the space shuttle.