Tag Archives: spaceflight

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.

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550. CSM and Friends

The moon bound Apollo missions sent three things along, a LEM, a Command Module, and a Support Module. Apollo 8 was the only moon bound launch that didn’t carry a LEM, so we will save it for later. CSM was the common abbreviation for the linked Command Module and Support Module. The photo at the top of this post is a CSM.

In the original Mercury spacecraft, (shown here) the single occupant was in a closed space with all his supplies of air and, on longer flights, water and food. Flights were short and maneuverability was minimal. There was no need to store large quantities of fuel or oxygen. The retrorockets which burned to return the craft to earth were outside the vehicle and behind the heat shield; this was also true on the Gemini craft.

On Gemini flights, the ability to maneuver was critical. Gemini was the program in which astronauts learned how to rendezvous and dock and how to perform space walks. (EVAs; extra-vehicular activities) Gemini was also designed to test the effects of long term weightlessness. There was a need to store large quantities of fuel and oxygen, so a section was added between the crew cabin and the heat shield. It was not accessible from the crew space. You can see it in the silhouette of the Gemini spacecraft shown here.

Gemini could not contain both enough oxygen for very long missions and enough fuel for major maneuvering. Long missions were loaded up with oxygen, but little fuel. Rendezvous and docking missions were shorter and loaded up with fuel.

The trip to the moon would take plenty of breathing oxygen and maneuvering fuel, and a lot more besides. All this, and fuel cells for electricity, were crammed into the Support Module. It also had to act as another stage in the Saturn rocket. It had to have a large engine and fuel supply to use while entering lunar orbit, and when exiting lunar orbit to return to Earth. A comparison of the three photos will show that Mercury and Gemini had only retrorockets for return, strapped outside the heat shield, along with maneuvering thrusters you can’t see in the pictures. The bell of the CSM’s large rocket is clearly visible.

With Apollo, the heat shield was moved back to the base of the crew space. The Command and Support Modules were designed to be separated just before reentry. The Support Module burned up in the atmosphere while the Command Module was slowed by its heat shield before landing by parachutes.

This poster from NASA shows all three spacecraft side by side, at scale, with the LEM thrown in as a bonus.

We’ll look at the Apollo 8 mission itself on Wednesday.

549. The Saturn Rockets

Saturn V

This post is called The Saturn Rockets, plural, because there were two if you speak loosely, or three if you are picky. If we were looking at all of the rockets of the Apollo program, we would have to add Little Joe. Getting men to the moon was a complex operation.

The pre-Apollo manned missions used modified military missiles as launch vehicles. Atlas was designated for Mercury, but delays in achieving reliability caused the first two Mercury flights to be sub-orbital on Redstone missiles. Gemini used Titan II missiles throughout the program.

The Saturn rockets are often said to be designed from the start as space launch vehicles, not military missiles. That is a somewhat limited view. The program that eventually produced the Saturns began in 1956 and ran through an amazing number of paper iterations before anything ever left the ground. “Saturn” development was simultaneous with the developments of Atlas, Titan, and other military missiles, and kept changing as those other missiles refined rocket technology.

The same infighting family of scientists and engineers developed Saturn and all American military missiles, the same set of companies built them, and the same government paid for it all. Saturn was developed through NASA and was never planned to carry warheads, but the entire American manned space program was a child of the cold war. The civilian vs. military distinction is a bit of sleight of hand.

By 1959, the possible types of Saturn rockets had been reduced to eight configurations. Eventually three were built.

Saturn I was designed to put spacecraft into low Earth orbit. Saturn V was designed to put men on the moon, and later tasked with launching Skylab. See 297. Skylab 1 and 298. Skylab 2.

Remember Little Joe? That was an existing rocket that was used early to test out the Apollo capsule’s abort mechanism.

Ten Saturn I rockets flew;. Five were in Saturn development flights. Five others carried early, unmanned versions of Apollo spacecraft, as well as Pegasus micrometeorite satellites.

The Saturn I was replaced by the more powerful Saturn IB (shown at left) in 1966. Saturn IB became a workhorse for heavy, low Earth orbit launches.

The first Saturn IB topped by an unmanned CSM was launched in a mission then called Apollo 1. Later, after the deaths of three astronauts in the capsule fire, there was a mass renumbering of past flights in order to call their mission Apollo 1. It was an entirely understandable gesture, but it causes confusion to this day.

Two more Saturn IBs were launched in 1966, then the first Saturn V was launched. The next launch was to test an unmanned LEM in low Earth orbit. That flight fell to the Saturn IB which had been involved in the “Apollo One” disaster, since the capsule fire had not damaged the launch vehicle. Another Saturn V launch in 1968 completed the unmanned phase of Apollo.

On October 11, 1968, the first manned Apollo craft achieved orbit. Manned missions are what we all remember, but by that time there had been seven abort tests, sixteen launches of Saturn I, IB, and V vehicles, and twelve major ground simulation tests.

Apollo 7 was the only manned Apollo mission to use a Saturn IB. Apollo 9 was also a flight to low Earth orbit, but it used a Saturn V because it was  a full, close-in dress rehearsal and first launching of a manned LEM.

The other ten Apollo mission used the Saturn V, cementing a picture of that rocket into everyone’s mind.

After the end of Apollo, a Saturn V launched Skylab. Three subsequent launches of Saturn IBs took up the astronauts who manned it.

The last manned use of Saturn IB was to carry an Apollo CSM to rendezvous with a Soyuz vehicle in 1975.

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.

522. First Black Astronauts

Dr. Ronald McNair, Guion Bulford, Frederick Gregory

I recently saw Leland Melvin’s new book Chasing Space and got a chance to look it over. It’s a good book, although in full disclosure I won’t finish it. I read and write for a living. so my time is limited. Additionally, I have already read more than dozen astronaut bios, so this one lacks newness for me, even though it might be just what you are looking for.

It got me thinking about the first black astronaut, if there were such a thing. We all know who the first woman astronaut was — Sally Ride. That is, if we continue our cold war prejudice against the Russians and ignore Valentina Tereshkova.

It would be neat and tidy if there were a first black astronaut, but it isn’t that simple. If you type the question into Google, it will return Guion Bluford. We’ll talk about him in a second, but there were others that came before him.

Ed Dwight was chosen by John F. Kennedy to join the astronaut corps. He was an Air Force test pilot with a degree in aeronautical engineering. While in training, he was the target of racism. When Kennedy was assassinated, Dwight withdrew from the astronaut program. A few years later, continued harassment led him to retire from the Air Force altogether. He became a noted sculptor in a second career.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the next African-American astronaut. At Edwards Air Force Base, Lawrence investigated unpowered glide return characteristics using an F-104 Starfighter, contributing greatly to knowledge necessary to the Space Shuttle program. He was assigned to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but before he flew in space, he was killed in a crash landing while acting as a pilot instructor to a trainee. When the MOL project was abandoned, many of it’s astronauts transferred to NASA, where they became the backbone of the early Space Shuttle missions. Lawrence would almost certainly have been among them.

The “first black astronaut” falls out this way.

Ed Dwight was the first black astronaut trainee.

Robert Lawrence Jr. was the first black working astronaut. Remember that most of any astronaut’s time is spent in training and on-the-ground research. Actual flight in space makes up a tiny fraction of an astronaut’s career. Lawrence was as much a real astronaut as Roger Chaffee who died in the Apollo One fire just before his first flight.

Guion Bluford was the first black astronaut to actually fly in space in 1983 aboard the Challenger. He participated in four shuttle flights.

We also have to add Ronald McNair to the list of firsts. He was the first black astronaut to die on a space mission, when Challenger exploded. It was his second space shuttle mission.

Before 1978, there had been fifty-some American Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts and an additional few dozen assigned to other missions. Of, these only Lawrence had been black and there had been no women.

An up-to-date list of black astronauts can be found here. There are fourteen: Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Charles Bolden, Mae Jemison, Bernard Harris Jr., Winston Scott, Robert Curbeam, Michael Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Alvin Drew, Leland Melvin (whose book started this post), and Robert Satcher.

There are an additional eight who, for various reasons, never flew is space. Lawrence and Dwight are on that list.

514. Space Force

As a die-hard space fan you might think I would like Trump’s Space Force idea, but I’m too much wedded to reality. This is just another publicity stunt, although there is a real history behind it.

The Russians had an independent Space Force from 1992 to 1997, and again from 2001 to 2011. Then they gave it up and made it a sub-set of the Russian air force. That’s not as sexy, but it makes more sense. It is also the way we have things organized here in the United States.

The poor Air Force! They have made a career out of trying to make space their domain, only to be slapped in the face by bureaucracy. Do you remember project MISS? No? Nobody else does either. MISS (Man In Space Soonest) was a plan to put a man in a capsule and shoot him into space on top of a converted ICBM. Now does it sound familiar? It was an Air Force project that was handed over to NASA and became Project Mercury.

The Air Force followed up with project Dyna Soar, which would have put a winged vehicle on top of a rocket. It was cancelled because the money was needed for NASA. At the top of the post that is an artist’s impression of Dyna Soar landing at Edwards AFB after a mission.

Then the Air Force designed the Manned Orbital Laboratory, a black program which would have been America’s first space station. Cancelled; this time not by bureaucracy, but because of unexpected advances in unmanned satellites which made it obsolete before it flew.

The Air Force did provide input into the design of the Space Shuttle, and got to do some black missions. What were they? Beats me; they were secret.

The Air Force had a hand in several post-shuttle projects which never went to completion and finally got their own space ship in the X-37b. Sadly, it was unmanned.

As you can see, I’ve been writing a lot about all this. If you click on these four links, you will have a thumbnail history of NASA vs. the Air Force in a battle for space.

Now Trump wants to take space away from the Air Force altogether, but don’t blame him. He probably knows less about this than I do, and I am just an amateur enthusiast. Maybe he should click four times.

Enough of the latest publicity stunt. In Cyan, my explorers coming back from the Procyon system also faced a conflict that had been going on between NASA and a military space force while they were away. Here’s a quote:

All seemed well, on the surface, but something profound was happening to the people of Earth. They were waking up to reality. When interstellar exploration had begun, few had taken it seriously. Now the process was flushed with success, and that success carried the seeds of its own downfall.

Suddenly, all over Earth, people who had been indifferent to space travel, except to mutter about a waste of resources, became truly aware of what was happening. And they didn’t like it. In the vague common mind of the beast, numbers began to move in slow, painful calculations.

A few thousand colonists; billions of the rest of us.

They — the rich, the powerful, the smart, the educated, the lucky — they will go to the stars and walk the green valleys of paradise. We — the downtrodden, the ordinary, the workers, the plodders, the ones who really make things happen, the ones who always get screwed — in short, you and me. We will stay behind.

In the general elections of 2103, and in a hundred scattered elections and revolutions in 2104, the people of Earth turned on their leaders and said with a loud voice that the spacers who brought in the ore from the belt, and the workers of L-5, and especially those who were finding new worlds, were no longer heroic friends but dangerous enemies. They would no longer be given freedom to do as they pleased, but would be harnessed to the common good.

This was the Earth Darwin returned to in 2105. When Tasmeen signaled Ganymede Station, she received a taped reply.

“Welcome home, Darwin. You will find the language of this year somewhat different from when you left. When the Dog Star returned in 2088, we found that it would be best to train comtechs in the jargon of your departure year, and that is the reason for this tape.

“The biggest change you will have to be ready for is that NASA no longer exists … because after the general elections of 2103 the people of North America decided to combine all space efforts into one military organization. You are all now members of the Federated Space Service.”

Tasmeen said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Yeah, Tasmeen. Me, too.

505. Heinlein and the Hippies

I have come to realize the value of a post title in finding readers, but I try to avoid bait and switch. To provide a balancing bit of honesty, this isn’t about the effect Stranger in a Strange Land had on the Free Love generation, but on the relationship between Heinlein and one particular group of hippies, the Jefferson Airplane, aka the Jefferson Starship.

For the relationship of hippies to Stranger, see 160. Stranger in a Strange Land. That way I don’t have to tell you again that I read it early and found it to be a dud.

As for me, I was a half-way hippie. I opposed the war, grew a beard, let my hair go long, and dressed in rumpled casual. The wild, multi-colored garb of TV hippies was largely a media invention. Real hippies wore Army surplus because it was cheap, which was also one of my sartorial motivations.

However, I didn’t do drugs and I was in the wrong place in the wrong time. My college roommate spent the Summer of Love in California; I spent it looking for archaeological sites in the backwoods of Michigan. He told me all about it when he came back in the fall; I had been out of touch and didn’t even know it had happened.

The only thing I understood as it happened in 1967 was the music, blaring out of the car radio as our survey crew drove around looking for archeology sites. I particularly liked that new group the Jefferson Airplane.

Which brings me to the heart of the post. In 1969, Paul Kantner wrote Heinlein a letter asking permission to quote from his work. I knew this, after a fashion, from contemporary gossip, and it was evident in the lyrics soon after, but I didn’t get confirmation until the second volume of Heinlein’s biography came out (see below). I’ll quote some of Heinlein’s reply:

I am pleased by your courtesy . . . Bits and pieces from my stories have been used by many people . . . and it is rare indeed for anyone to bother to ask my permission.

Heinlein gave permission and went on to ask for some autographed albums in return, since he was a fan of their work. Who knew?

The album Blows Against the Empire came out about a year later, by Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship. Despite the title. it was actually a compendium band filling in the time between the breakup of Jefferson Airplane and its later rebirth as Jefferson Starship.

It would be impossible to overstate how much music from this era was fueled by LSD. If you seek out the full lyrics, you’ll see how many drug references I have left out of what follows:

from the cut Hijack

You know – a starship circling in the sky – it ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be building it up in the air ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
And hijack the starship
Carry 7000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru the cities of the universe

7000 Gypsies swirling together
Offering to the sun in the name of the weather
Gonna hijack – hijack the starship

from the cut Starship

Out – the one remaining way to go
Free – the only way to fall
The light in the night is the sun
And it can carry you around the planetary ground
And the planetary whip of the sun

Mankind gone from the cage
All the years gone from your age

If you are at all familiar with Heinlein, you will recognize that this imagery is from the novel Methuselah’s Children, originally serialized in 1941, which was also the first appearance of Lazarus Long. Of course Kantner reworked it. The hijackers are not Howards fleeing for their lives, but drug-fired hippies whose faith in everything turning out well is a bit laughable in hindsight.

Like all the first half dozen Jefferson Airplane or Starship albums, I loved it. If you are younger than old, there is an excellent change that you’ve never heard music that shows the spirit of innovation and experimentation that was the hallmark of the 60’s. The music that appears on TV flashback programming is fine stuff, but it is also the tame stuff. The raw stuff doesn’t get replayed.

If you are curious, give this album an online listen, although you may not care for it.

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Robert A. Heinlein, vol. 2, The Man Who Learned Better by William H. Patterson, Jr, p. 312. FYI, the subtitle does not refer to a change of heart by Heinlein, but is RAH’s idea of one of the three or four basic plots in fiction, and one he often used.