Tag Archives: forgotten heroes

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.

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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.

574. Learning Spaceflight

I learned how to fly in space before spaceflight existed, from science fiction writers who, in turn, learned it from pioneers like Robert Goddard, Willy Ley, Herman Oberth, and Wernher von Braun. Or Tsiolkovsky in Russia. The pioneers’ tool was mathematics. They speculated, then looked at those speculations through the unblinking eye of calculations. They taught everyone how to fly in space long before NASA existed. Later some of them worked for NASA.

When I was researching for a post on Apollo Eight, I encountered reference to the barbecue roll. I had known about that maneuver from science fiction, long before Apollo Eight.

The barbecue roll is needed because vehicle in deep space is surrounded by vacuum with sunlight impinging on one side and sub-polar cold on the other. In low Earth orbit, that condition only lasts 45 minutes of every 90 minute orbit followed by pure cold in the Earth’s shadow. Apollo Eight was the first manned vehicle to endure that temperature imbalance on a long term basis — roughly five days. That’s a lot of stress.

The solution, used on Apollo Eight, then Apollo’s Ten through Seventeen, was to spin the craft about it’s long axis. It was called the barbecue roll, as in a rotisserie. You can hear that phrase used in the movie Apollo 13, and it will probably appear on the movie First Man when it comes out in October.

Anyone who had read any science fiction knows about spinning ships to provide artificial gravity. That’s not what we are talking about. The barbecue roll was quite slow, the distance from center of craft to skin was small, and any pseudo-gravity produced was probably imperceptible. The entire purpose of the roll was to equalize heat distribution by exposing all parts of the skin to heat, then cold, in sequence.

Long before there were real spacecraft, I had read about this maneuver in early science fiction, probably multiple times. It made me want to know who thought it up, which scientist first wrote about it, and how many decades before it was needed was it speculated into existence.

It struck me as a prime example of the kind of thing the pioneers did while they were writing the rules of the game, long before the game was ever played.

I looked for answers and struck out. I spent far too many hours reading the same few references on the internet, usually repeated without credit, or reading technical articles. The papers scientists and engineers write are long on facts, but short on history.

Somewhere, somewhen, somebody was dreaming about his imagined spacecraft out in a long orbit between the planets, and figured out how to equalize temperature. It might have happened several times independently. I would love to have been there, in the dormitory lounge of some engineering department, or in a meeting of enthusiasts at some model rocket club, or in the bedroom of some kid like Asimov in America or Clarke in Great Britain or some kid whose name I can’t even guess in Russia. What fun to be there when some nerd (before the word existed) slapped his head and said, “Hey, listen to this!”

Of course that moment in inaccessible, but somewhere, sometime, somebody wrote down his speculations in a paper that only enthusiasts would ever read. That is what I could have reasonably hoped to find. If you have any clues where I could continue the search, please reply to this post.

What I finally did find was one partial reference in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones, quoted here:

The weather outside the orbit of Mars is a steady ‘clear but cold’; no longer would they need reflecting foil against the Sun’s rays. Instead one side of the ship was painted with carbon black and the capacity of the air-heating system was increased by two coils.

I clearly remember, from several sources, the notion of painting part of a vehicle black to better absorb solar energy as ships moved out further from the sun. One nagging memory has a ship painted with white and black stripes and spun. Heinlein did not spin his ship; he distributed heat to the cold side via refrigerant coils. In that particular novel, Heinlein had to maintain a non-spinning ship for plot reasons. In science fiction, physics start the ball rolling but plot determines where that ball ends up.

We’ll look closer at The Rolling Stones as a textbook for spaceflight within the solar system on Monday.

572. Apollo 9: Spacesuits

Left photo, the first American spacewalk using an umbilicus. Middle photo, the inner layer of a moon rated suit. Right photo, same suit with outer layer, visor, and backpack.

If you have not been following these Apollo posts, here is a quick summary: when three astronauts died on the launch pad, their scheduled flight was renamed Apollo 1. The flight which completed their mission, after much delay, was called Apollo 7 following the original sequence. Apollo’s “2 through 6” never existed.

The next flight, originally Apollo 8, was to be a repeat of 7, but was changed to be the first launch of the complete Apollo package, Control Module, Support Module, and Lunar Module. However, delays in building the LM (or LEM as it was called in the early days) meant that flight could not happen by the scheduled date. The Apollo 8 which actually flew was a different Saturn, different CSM without an LM and different crew. They <flew around the moon>.

The first flight with all parts of the Apollo was pushed back, renumbered to Apollo 9, and flew fifty years ago yesterday, March 3, 1969. A full picture of the shuffling of missions and crews would take more words that even the geekiest reader could tolerate.

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Apollo 9 was the second manned flight atop a Saturn V, and the first to have both CSM and LM on board. Jim McDivitt was in command. David Scott was the CM pilot and Rusty Schweickart was the LM pilot. Don’t confuse him with Jack Swigert of Apollo 13.

There were two main objectives for the ten day mission. First was to test the ability of the astronauts to dock the CSM to the LM, to undock and fly the LM separately, both as a complete unit and the ascent stage alone, and to dock the ascent stage to the CSM once again. The second objective was to test out the first American space suit which was not tethered to its mother vehicle.

We will concentrate on the space suit today and look at the testing of the LM on Friday. That will be posted at 3 PM, PDT, fifty years to the minute from the first separation of the LM from its CSM.

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The space suits worn by both Americans and Russians had not allowed true freedom. Cooling, power, and life support gasses were never contained in the suits, but were sent to the suits by umbilical connections. As long as the crew was inside the vehicle, this posed no problem. The suits were deflated and for long periods of each mission, helmets and gloves were removed. During launch and return, the suits were again made air tight but were not inflated. There was no need. If the cabin had been breached during those maneuvers, the suits would have continued to provide life support.

I never seen it admitted, but clearly both NASA and the Russians were flirting with disaster through all those early flights. Let me explain.

When the first spacewalks (EVAs, extra vehicular activities) were made by Alexey Leonov and then Ed White, the space suits proved to massively restrict mobility. Leonov could barely get back into his vehicle because his suit had puffed up so much. Ed White only got back into Gemini IV with great difficulty and with the help of fellow astronaut Jim McDivitt.

You can imagine what would have happened on any early fight if there had been a hull breach during a reentry, and the pilot’s spacesuit had suddenly become stiff and unmanageable when every second was critical.

Small glitches kill pilots, as everyone in aeronautics knows.

Five missions after White’s EVA, Eugene Cernan nearly died during a spacewalk because his suit was so unmanageable. See  posts 295 and 296. It took three more EVAs on three missions by three additional astronauts until before spacewalks were brought under control.

All of these EVA’s, Russian and American, used umbilicals to provide life support and to tether astronauts to their vehicles. That was not going to work on the moon.

The development of a suit suitable for moonwalks took seven years. Pressurization, oxygen, and cooling were taken care of by an inner layer that rarely made it into photos. See the middle picture above. The outer layer was a laminate designed to resist abrasion, radiant heat, and micrometeorites. The backpack took the place of the umbilicus and provided power and oxygen.

Backpacks were first tested on Apollo 9 by McDivitt and Schweickart. David Scott performed a standup EVA — that is, he stood up in the open hatch of the CM — but he received life support through an umbilicus. This was the pattern for Apollos 9 through 17. The moon bound astronauts used backpacks, the CM pilot did not.

If the LM tested on Apollo 9 had worked, but the backpack hadn’t, Apollo 11 could still have landed on the moon, but Armstrong could not have left the Eagle to make “once small step . . .”

But it did work. The EVA was cut short by Schweickart’s space sickness, but the backpack worked fine.

more on Apollo 9 Friday

Running From President 2

Billy Joe Barker, newsman, regular contributor to the Tulsa World was a long time Republican. He had a dalliance with liberalism during the sixties when he thought he was a hippie. He had the hair for it back then, and it’s the only part of that era he misses. By the mid-seventies he was back to a buzz cut and back to being a Republican.

Billy Joe hated Hillary, passionately. He was a Ted Cruz supporter, despite the hesitation Okies have for anything from Texas, but Cruz didn’t last. Billy Joe really tried to like Donald Trump, but he couldn’t. The last straw was watching Trump’s first interview with his new running mate Mike Pence. After that, Barker had a continuing  vision of Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy on his knee. He gave up on Trump even before Cruz said, “Vote your conscience.”

Barker couldn’t begin to support Hillary, couldn’t stand the Libs and Greenies, and knew there was no hope for a third party. He was flummoxed. That’s when he decided to use the Tulsa World to push a pseudo-candidacy. He didn’t care who he ran, it was just a joke in a political season that had lost any taste of humor. He needed someone like Pat Paulsen, back when Billy Joe was briefly a hippie.

On the same day that he came to that conclusion, he read about Leap Alan Hed in Reader’s Digest. The article told about Leap celebrating birthdays only on years with a leap day, and about his claim to be 16 even though he was born in 1952. Billy Joe Barker had found his candidate.

First he had to locate him; that took two days. Leap had moved to Dannebrog, Nebraska, a bustling metropolis of 307 people. Wiki says 306, but that was before Leap moved in. Billy Joe called him long distance. That took a day of phone tag since Leap didn’t have a phone, and had to take the call at a neighbor’s house.

Billy Joe explained his proposition. Leap almost fell off his chair laughing. He said, “You’ve got to be out of your damned mind. The second worst part of what you want me to do is the campaigning. The worst part is, if I lie well enough, I might win. The answer is no!”

Billy wrote up his weekly column for the Tulsa World, telling the story of his aborted search for a candidate. At the end, he said, “If only crazy people run for the office of President, then Leap Alan Hed is the sanest person in America. He really doesn’t want the job.”

Beware of what you ask for. Or what you don’t ask for. more tomorrow

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.

544. Apollo 7

We are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing.

Apollo One, the fire on the pad that caused the deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee, took place February 21, 1967, causing a long delay. About a year and a half later things were just getting back up to speed. Apollo 7, the first successful manned flight took place on October 11, 1968.

The fiftieth anniversary of that flight was about a month ago, and I missed posting about it. That’s hard for me to believe, since I have been following the space program since 1957.

Purchased today, foot to butt kit, for self-application, apply immediately.

Apollo 7 is too important to simply mention, and too controversial for someone out of the loop to cover with authority. Nevertheless, here is a thumbnail.

Mission Commander Wally Schirra’s attitude toward NASA after the Apollo one disaster was — not positive. The space program had grown into a massive source of funds for companies. Engineers and the builders in the trenches were fully committed to excellence, however top brass decisions were sometimes questionable. The choice of North American Aviation to build the Command Module was controversial. McDonnell Aircraft had built the Mercury and Gemini craft, and many pointed out that the shift to North American Aviation wasted the talent and experience that had made the space program a success so far.

To put it bluntly, the Apollo Command Module NAA originally turned out was a lemon, and everybody knew it.

During the year and a half from the disaster to the launch of Apollo 7, Wally Schirra made it his personal mission to see to it that the craft he and his fellow astronauts were to ride in was of top quality. He was abrasive and relentless, and when Apollo 7 flew successfully, it was largely because of his persistence.

The flight, which he considered an engineering test mission, was cluttered up with scientific and PR projects. When they interfered with testing out the craft, he refused to do them. In space, where nobody could override his decisions. His acerbic interchanges with ground control would have banned him from future missions, but he had already announced that he would retire at the end of the flight. What could NASA do?

Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, was an engineering success but a failure in personal politics. Eisele and Cunningham were never allowed to fly again, but the subsequent missions had a CSM that they could trust.

Wally Schirra became the only astronaut to fly on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

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I have recently worked out a series of posts covering events in the run-up to the moon landing. As I was doing so, I also became aware of another, less joyful anniversary. Since it took place on December first, which is a Saturday this year, I will skip Wednesday’s post and fill you in this Friday.