Star Wars Day Space History …

… from our little part of this galaxy, not that long ago.

Forty-five years ago today — May 4, 1967 — an Atlas Agena rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the Lunar Orbiter 4 on its mission to the Moon.

Because the previous three Lunar Orbiters had “completed the required needs for Apollo mapping and site selection,” NASA tasked this fourth orbiter to “perform a broad systematic photographic survey of lunar surface features in order to increase the scientific knowledge of their nature, origin, and processes, and to serve as a basis for selecting sites for more detailed scientific study by subsequent orbital and landing missions.”

Lunar Orbiter 4 developed problems with the camera door, however: it did not open and close correctly when commanded, and mission controllers feared that it might stick closed so they commanded it to remain open.

This required extra attitude control manuevers on each orbit to prevent light leakage into the camera which would ruin the film. On 13 May it was discovered that light leakage was damaging some of the film, and the door was tested and partially closed. Some fogging of the lens was then suspected due to condensation resulting from the lower temperatures. Changes in the attitude raised the temperature of the camera and generally eliminated the fogging. Continuing problems with the readout drive mechanism starting and stopping beginning on 20 May resulted in a decision to terminate the photographic portion of the mission on 26 May.

Even with those problems, the spacecraft was able to read and transmit “419 high resolution and 127 medium resolution frames were acquired covering 99% of the Moon’s near side at resolutions from 58 meters to 134 meters.”

And in more recent space history …

Just a decade ago, on this date in 2002, the remote sensing spacecraft Aqua was launched from Vandenberg AFB by a Delta-II rocket.


(A depiction of the “A-Train” formation of satellites in similar orbits. Aqua was the first vehicle in the A-Train. NASA image.)

Originally known as Earth Observation System Afternoon One (EOS-PM1) for the time of day it would cross the equator, the mission was renamed Aqua

for the large amount of information that the mission is collecting about the Earth’s water cycle, including evaporation from the oceans, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover on the land and ice. Additional variables also being measured by Aqua include radiative energy fluxes, aerosols, vegetation cover on the land, phytoplankton and dissolved organic matter in the oceans, and air, land, and water temperatures.

If I recall, one of the folks I worked with at the Defense Technology Security Administration came to us from the Aqua program. Pretty cool.

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Surveyor-3 — To the Moon and (Partly) Back Again

Forty-five years ago today — April 17, 1967 — an Atlas-Centaur rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, sending Surveyor-3 on its way to the Moon.


(Apollo-12 mission commander Pete Conrad retrieves parts from Surveyor-3. The lunar module “Intrepid” is visible in the distance. NASA image taken by lunar module pilot Alan Bean. A higher-resolution version is available here)

Surveyor-3 landed on the Moon on April 19th, the second of the Surveyor series to make a soft landing. Its other objectives were to transmit television images of the lunar surface, use its sampler to probe the surface materials, and test the surface’s load-bearing strength and other properties in advance of the Apollo missions.

In what I think of as a fulfillment of Surveyor-3’s destiny, two and a half years later — on November 19, 1969 — Apollo-12 landed within about 600 feet (180 meters) of Surveyor-3. As shown in the image above, astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean visited the spacecraft and examined it closely. They retrieved several parts, including the television camera, and returned them to Earth for analysis. Surveyor-3’s camera was put on display in the National Air and Space Museum.

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Apollo-16, and a Pioneer of Flight is Born

Forty years ago today — April 16, 1972 — astronauts John W. Young, Jr., Thomas K. Mattingly, and Charles M. Duke, Jr., blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center atop a Saturn-V booster, on their way to the Moon.


(Lunar Module “Orion” and the Lunar Roving Vehicle, with astronaut John Young in the background. NASA image.)

Apollo-16 was the fifth mission to land on the Moon, and the second in which astronauts drove the Lunar Rover to explore a wide area around their landing site. Young and Duke spent almost three days on the lunar surface, and made three separate excursions from the Lunar Module out onto the Descartes Highlands.

And for bonus “aerospace” history, on this date 145 years ago Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana. I find it interesting how quickly we went from Wilbur and Orville’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to landing on the Moon — and I wonder when it will become important to us to push outward from there.

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A Bleak Day in Space History: The Apollo-1 Tragedy

Some space history moments we might rather forget … but in some ways they’re more important to remember. Like this one.

Forty-five years ago today — January 27, 1967 — the Apollo-1 capsule caught fire during an on-pad test, killing astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee.


(The Apollo-1 crew. L-R: White, Grissom, Chaffee. NASA image.)

Originally known as AS-204 (Apollo-Saturn-204), the mission was scheduled to be launched on February 21st. The test being run was officially known as the Space Vehicle Plugs-Out Integrated Test, Operational Checkout Procedures (OCP) FO-K-0021-1, and was intended to “demonstrate all space vehicle systems and operational procedures in as near a flight configuration as is practical and to verify their capability in a simulated launch.” The specific objectives were:

  • To verify overall spacecraft/launch vehicle compatibility and demonstrate proper function of spacecraft systems with all umbilicals and Ground Support Equipment disconnected.
  • To verify no electrical interference at the time of umbilical disconnect.
  • To verify astronaut emergency egress procedures (unaided egress) at the conclusion of the test.

That last objective was actually added by the astronauts themselves, “because a subsequent test, Countdown Demonstration, would involve a fully fueled Launch Vehicle and this latter test was identified as hazardous.”

Unfortunately, few if any of the operators and engineers had considered how hazardous the Plugs-Out test conditions would turn out to be.

The Review Board’s Findings, Determinations And Recommendations found that power failed in the capsule momentarily, and several electrical arcs occurred but “no single ignition source of the fire was conclusively identified.”

The most probable initiator was an electrical arc in the sector between -Y and +Z spacecraft axes. The exact location best fitting the total available information is near the floor in the lower forward section of the left-hand equipment bay where Environmental Control System (ECS) instrumentation power wiring leads into the area between the Environmental Control Unit (ECU) and the oxygen panel.

What made the Command Module more dangerous than anticipated were “many types and classes of combustible material in areas contiguous to possible ignition sources,” and the test being conducted “with a 16.7 pounds per square inch absolute, 100-percent oxygen atmosphere.” With respect to the spacecraft itself, the investigators found “deficiencies [in] design, workmanship and quality control,” some of which were:

  • Components of the Environmental Control System installed in Command Module 012 had a history of many removals and of technical difficulties including regulator failures, line failures and Environmental Control Unit failures. The design and installation features of the Environmental Control Unit makes removal or repair difficult.
  • Coolant leakage at solder joints has been a chronic problem.
  • The coolant is both corrosive and combustible.
  • Deficiencies in design, manufacture, installation, rework and quality control existed in the electrical wiring.
  • No vibration test was made of a complete flight-configured spacecraft.
  • Spacecraft design and operating procedures currently require the disconnecting of electrical connections while powered.
  • No design features for fire protection were incorporated.

When the fire started during the Plugs-Out test, it spread rapidly and increased the pressure in the capsule, which sealed the inner hatch so tightly that the crew could not open it. Eventually the Command Module actually ruptured, spreading fire into the surrounding structure, but by that time the crew had died “from asphyxia due to inhalation of toxic gases due to fire.”

The investigation into the accident led to many significant improvements in the vehicle design, as well as better test and flight procedures that made the ensuing Apollo missions much safer. It’s unfortunate that the cost of those lessons was so high, but that seems to be the case with many of the important lessons we learn.

May we never forget.

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Iowans, the Choice is Clear … And Here's Some Space History

I suppose most Iowans who are disappointed with the field of potential Republican candidates — and let’s face it, the field as a whole has been pretty disappointing for the last several months — will just stay away from the caucuses, but here’s an alternative for the more daring: show up and support the Anti-Candidate!

As always, I’m available as your convenient throwaway write-in vote for any office, anywhere. I don’t make any promises, not even to show up for the job … that way I won’t be as much of a disappointment as your run-of-the-mill politicians.

And what other candidate offers you occasional space history items? None, I tell you!

Speaking of which: a half-century ago today — January 3, 1962 — NASA announced that its two-manned vehicle program, a major precursor to the eventual Apollo missions to the Moon, would be named “Gemini.” Up until that point it had been called Mercury Mark II, and NASA considered other names such as “Diana,” “Valiant,” and “Orpheus.” But Gemini it became.

For more on the names of NASA’s early missions, check out the “Origins of NASA Names”.

I’m the Anti-Candidate, and I approved this space history post.

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Space History: Apollo Enters the 'Hardware Phase'

Fifty years ago today — November 28, 1961 — North American Aviation won the prime contract to develop the Apollo Command & Service Module.


(Apollo-15 Command & Service Module, in lunar orbit. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

This NASA history page has an interesting run-down of the competition and the source selection. The contract was critical to the overall Apollo effort:

The prime spacecraft contractor would develop and build the command module, service propulsion module, adapter (to fit the spacecraft to a space laboratory for earth-orbital flights and to the lunar landing propulsion section for lunar missions), and ground support equipment.


(Diagram of the Command Module interior. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

While 14 companies received the request for proposal, in the final source selection North American Aviation competed against only General Dynamics Astronautics, General Electric, the Martin Company, and McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Each company submitted a detailed technical and program management package in October 1961, which “were scrutinized and evaluated by more than a hundred specialists.”

The Martin Company actually had the highest aggregate rating from the source evaluation board, but North American Aviation had scored highest in technical qualifications and had “the longest record of close association with NACA-NASA and the most straightforward advance into space flight.” That apparently won the day for them, although Martin employees had been told — erroneously, as it turned out — on the 27th that they had won the contract.

With this contract, the Command & Service Module was the first part of the Apollo system to enter the “hardware phase.”

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Last Gemini Launch

Forty-five years ago today — November 11, 1966 — Gemini XII launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Titan-II rocket.


(Gemini-12 astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin outside the capsule during an EVA. NASA image.)

Gemini-12 astronauts James A. Lovell, Jr. and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., spent 4 busy days in space, completing three extra-vehicular activities (EVA) — including one full-up “spacewalk” — as well as docking with a target vehicle, an Agena that was launched less than 2 hours earlier.

During one of the spacecraft’s orbits on November 12th, the crew were able to take pictures of a total eclipse that was visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

With the completion of the Gemini program, the U.S. space program turned its full attention to Apollo and the Moon.

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First Saturn Suborbital Test Flight

Fifty years ago today — October 27, 1961 — Saturn-I launched from Cape Canaveral. This launch was, as the title stated, the first test flight of the Saturn family of rockets that were intended to propel the Apollo astronauts to the Moon.


(Saturn SA-1 launch. NASA image.)

Also known as SA-1, the upper stages of the Saturn-I were filled with water ballast. The vehicle reached 84.8 miles altitude and flew 214.7 miles downrange into the Atlantic Ocean, achieving its mission objective of “verifying the aerodynamical and structural design of the Saturn 1 booster.”

Oh, to have been a part of that program! But at least I have a small collection of Saturn-related relics I salvaged during my time at the Rocket Lab.

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Suborbital Apollo-Saturn Test Flight, and Bill Dana Goes Supersonic

Forty-five years ago today — August 25, 1966 — NASA launched another suborbital Apollo-Saturn vehicle to test Command & Service Module systems in advance of manned Apollo launches.


(AS-202 launch. NASA image.)

AS-202‘s flight objectives were to verify the Saturn 1B launch vehicle’s integrity, loads, and performance, and to evaluate the separation system, emergency detection, and heatshield of the Apollo spacecraft.

Mission controllers fired the CSM’s engines multiple times to test their rapid restart capabilities, accelerating the capsule for reentry to test the heatshield. It performed very well: “Maximum temperature of the spacecraft exterior was calculated at about 1500 deg. C, temperature inside the cabin was 21 deg. C (70 F).”

Jump ahead five years in time …

On this date in 1971, NASA pilot William “Bill” Dana made the first supersonic flight in the M2-F3 lifting body.


(NASA lifting body pilots with M2-F3 in the background. NASA image.)

Last November, I blogged about Dana making the first flight in the M2-F3. I likely will continue posting occasional references to Dana’s flights, because he’s one of the most interesting people I ever met (during my first USAF assignment, we were both on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for the very first launch of the Pegasus system). If you want to know more about him, check out his Wikipedia page.

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Double Dose of Space History: Lunar Photos Station Shuttle

Forty-five years ago today — August 10, 1966 — Lunar Orbiter 1 was launched atop an Atlas Agena rocket out of Cape Canaveral.


(Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. NASA image.)

Lunar Orbiter 1 was the first of five spacecraft that took photographs of predominantly smooth areas of the Moon so landing sites for Surveyor and Apollo missions could be selected. Mission controllers got the opportunity to deal with some real-time problems during the spacecraft’s flight to the Moon:

The spacecraft experienced a temporary failure of the Canopus star tracker (probably due to stray sunlight) and overheating during its cruise to the Moon. The star tracker problem was resolved by navigating using the Moon as a reference and the overheating was abated by orienting the spacecraft 36 degrees off-Sun to lower the temperature.

Although some of the first orbiter’s photographs were smeared, the mission was an overall success, including taking the first two images of the Earth from the vicinity of the moon.

And on this date 10 years ago, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-105. Astronauts Scott J. Horowitz, Frederick “Rick” W. Sturckow, Daniel T. Barry, and Patrick G. Forrester transported 7,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. They also ferried the ISS Expedition 3 crew — Frank L. Culbertson, Jr. (see below), Vladimir N. Dezhurov, and Mikhail Tyurin — to the station and returned the Expedition 2 crew — Yury V. Usachev, James S. Voss, and Susan J. Helms — to Earth.

Eight years after his return to earth, I sat next to Captain (USN, Retired) Culbertson at the NASA Industry-Education Forum in Washington, DC. He was a very nice fellow, despite having graduated from a rival high school down in Charleston.

Many years ago I gave up my dream of being an astronaut (I’d already worked Shuttle landings at Edwards AFB, but failed to be accepted as a Flight Test Engineer candidate), but it’s cool to have met and worked for some. Thankfully, I can still take imaginary voyages through my own and others’ fiction.

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