First Shuttle Captive-Carry Test

Thirty-five years ago today — February 18, 1977 — NASA conducted the first captive-carry flight test of the Space Shuttle program, with the prototype orbiter Enterprise atop the 747 carrier aircraft.

(Shuttle prototype Enterprise during one of the captive-carry tests. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

After a series of taxi tests on the 15th, this was the first “inert” flight test of the approach and landing test program. The orbiter was powered down and no astronauts flew during this and the next four flights. The first “active” captive-carry flight took place on June 18, 1977, commanded by Apollo-13 lunar module pilot Fred Haise and piloted by Gordon Fullerton. Haise and Fullerton later flew the first glide test as well.

All of the shuttle flight tests took place at the Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards AFB. It was always cool to drive past Dryden on my way to and from the Rocket Lab, when we were stationed at Edwards in the late 80s.

If you want to see the Enterprise flight test vehicle, which has been on display for the last few years at the Udvar-Hazy annex to the National Air and Space Museum, it is supposed to be moved later this year to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in New York.

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Last Titan-IIIB Launch … and the Latest Asimov's

Twenty-five years ago today — February 12, 1987 — a Titan-IIIB launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying a Satellite Data System (SDS) spacecraft.

(Undated Titan-IIIB [34B] launch. Image from Lee Brandon-Cremer via Wikimedia Commons. Almost certainly this was originally a USAF photograph.)

According to the National Space Science Data Cnter, SDS satellites operated in highly elliptical orbits and

served as a communications link between the Air Force Satellite Control Facility at Sunnyvale, CA, and 7 remote tracking stations located at Vandenberg AFB, Hawaii, Guam, Nahe Island, Greenland, the UK, and Boston.

This is significant to me because I know the tracking station in Greenland well. Many years later I commanded it: callsign POGO, the Thule Tracking Station.

According to this Wikipedia page, this was the last launch of the Titan-IIIB series. This particular vehicle was one of the -34B variants.

At the time of that launch, I was stationed at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB, helping prepare for a static test of a full-scale solid rocket motor in support of the Titan-34D “recovery” program. But that’s another story.

And speaking of stories: yesterday my contributor’s copies of the April/May issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction arrived, and there on page 72 is my story, “Sensitive, Compartmented.”

So … space history that relates in part to my own USAF experience, and a new short story. That makes for a pretty good weekend.

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HL-10 Heavy Lifting Body, First Flight

Forty-five years ago today — December 22, 1966 — the HL-10 made its first flight at the Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards AFB.

(The HL-10 coming in for its first landing. NASA image.)

The HL-10

was built by the Northrop Corporation as a “heavy” lifting body. “HL” stands for horizontal landing, and “10” refers to the tenth design studied by engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.

NASA research pilot Bruce Peterson made the first flight, which uncovered serious control problems in the craft. Solving those and similar problems on the various lifting body designs eventually made the Space Shuttle possible.

On a personal note, I love the fact that I got to live and work where all of this took place. Many years after the fact, of course, but it still had a high coefficient of “awesomosity.”

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Second Shuttle Shakedown

Thirty years ago today — November 12, 1981 — astronauts Joe H. Engle and Richard H. Truly launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.

(STS-2 launch. NASA image.)

Mission STS-2 began at 10:10 a.m. EST at Kennedy Space Center, and ended a little over 48 hours later — having been cut short by three days — when Engle and Truly landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Mission controllers ended the flight early because one of the shuttle’s fuel cells failed, reducing the amount of electricity and fresh water available; nevertheless, the crew achieved most of the mission objectives.

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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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My First Air Force Orders

Pawing around in the filing cabinet, I found my Extended Active Duty Order, dated 25 years ago today: August 12, 1986.

(US Air Force seal. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The orders assigned me to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (Air Force Systems Command), Edwards AFB, California.

In officialspeak, Block 12 of the orders told me exactly what to do:

Effective date of duty is on or after 9 Sep 86. On or after this date, individual will proceed and report not earlier than 0800 and not later than 2400 hours on 15 Sep 86 to the 24 hour arrival point, Edwards AFB CA.

And thus, the stage was set for the adventure …

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From Liberty Bell to Atlantis

In other blog posts, I’ve catalogued the Space Shuttle landings I worked as part of the AF Flight Test Center team at Edwards AFB — I worked four landings, and saw quite a few more — and with that experience in mind I watched with proud sorrow the shuttle Atlantis glide in for its landing this morning at the Kennedy Space Center.

When the shuttle era began, we had high hopes for it, and though it was exciting to be even a small part of it the program never lived up to our expectations. But as we close the books on this phase of the U.S. space program, and especially as we look forward with hopeful anticipation to some new phase, let’s not forget to look back as well to the pioneers who braved the hazards of the earliest days of space exploration.

Because 50 years ago today — July 21, 1961 — Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom became the second U.S. man in space. His Liberty Bell 7 capsule launched into a suborbital trajectory atop a Redstone rocket, in a mission appropriately labeled Mercury-Redstone-4.

(View of earth from Mercury-Redstone-4. NASA image.)

The MR-4 capsule differed from Alan Shepard’s “Freedom-7” capsule in that it had an enlarged window and a new type of hatch:

The explosively actuated side hatch was used for the first time on the MR-4 flight. The mechanically operated side hatch on the MR-3 spacecraft was in the same location and of the same size but was considerably heavier (69 pounds rather than 23 pounds). The explosively actuated hatch utilizes an explosive charge to fracture the attaching bolts and thus separate the hatch from the spacecraft. Seventy 1/4-inch titanium bolts secure the hatch to the doorsill. A 0.06-inch diameter hole is drilled in each bolt to provide a weak point. A mild detonating fuse (MDF) is installed in a channel between an inner and outer seal around the periphery of the hatch. When the MDF is ignited, the resulting gas pressure between the inner and outer seal causes the bolts to fail in tension. The MDF is ignited by a manually operated igniter that requires an actuation force of around 5 pounds, after the removal of a safety pin. The igniter can be operated externally by an attached lanyard, in which case a force of at least 40 pounds is required in order to shear the safety pin.

However, “After splash-down, the explosive hatch activated prematurely while Grissom awaited helicopter pickup.” The capsule sank, but was ultimately recovered from its 15,000-foot-deep resting place.

Liberty Bell 7 was finally raised from its resting place on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, some 4.8 km below the surface and 830 km northwest of Grand Grand Turk Island, in 1999 after a number of expeditions. Two expeditions to the area, in 1992 and 1993, were unsuccessful in locating the capsule. The next expedition succeeded in locating the capsule on May 2, 1999, but the cable which linked the surface ship to the submersible (which would have towed the capsule to the surface) broke, resulting in the loss of the submersible and temporarily dashing the hopes of those who intended to retrieve a piece of history. A final expedition, to recover both the submersible and the capsule, succeeded on July 20, 1999, in raising the capsule to the surface. Still attached to the capsule was the recovery line from the helicopter which tried to save it from going under in 1961. Also among the artifacts found inside were some of Grissom’s gear and some Mercury dimes which had been taken into space as souvenirs.

Grissom, about whom you can read more in this expanded NASA biography, traveled into space once more, as commander of the first Gemini mission, and died in the Apollo-1 launch pad fire.

It seems somehow poignant for the last Space Shuttle to return to earth on the 50th anniversary of the first spaceflight of one of our country’s space pioneers.

May the time come soon when the U.S. once again launches our brave pioneers into orbit … and beyond.

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Space History, Today: Final Shuttle Flight Begins

The Space Shuttle Atlantis launched today on its final mission, and the final flight of the Space Transportation System program, STS-135.

My involvement in the Shuttle program was tangential — four shuttle landings at Edwards AFB — but still the end of the program is pretty bitter. It would at least be bittersweet if we had another system waiting in the wings.

Here’s where it all began, a little over 30 years ago, in a previous space history blog post and a picture:

(First shuttle launch: STS-1, April 12, 1981. NASA image.)

Meanwhile, in other space history: 35 years ago today — July 8, 1976 — Indonesia got its first telecommunications satellite with the launch of Palapa-1.

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Blowups Happen

Having nothing to do with the short story of the same name, and with apologies therefore to Robert A. Heinlein …

Twenty-five years ago today — April 18, 1986 — Titan-34D-9 blew up during launch at Vandenberg AFB.

(Titan-34D-9 exploding. USAF image from the linked Space Review article.)

This Space Review article shows several close-up images of the explosion, including the one above, while this Photobucket page shows several photos taken from farther away.

I found it interesting to peruse the accident investigation report. I recognized several names of people on the investigation board.

This doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should make the space history files, except for this personal connection: as a direct result of this mishap, the Air Force chose to conduct a full-scale nozzle-down test firing of a Titan-34D solid rocket motor at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB. My first assignment was to the AFRPL as a bioenvironmental engineer, and that test program — the “return to flight” for the Titan-34D — was one of the biggest projects I worked on while I was there.

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Two Human Spaceflight Firsts, Two Decades Apart

A half-century ago today — April 12, 1961 — the era of human spaceflight began.

On that historic date, Vostok-1 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, then known mostly as Tyuratam, carrying Yuri Gagarin to triumph as the first man in space. After one orbit, his spherical capsule returned him to earth, but in a most unusual manner: he ejected from it and rode a parachute back to Earth.

Twenty years later, on this date in 1981, the U.S. scored a space first with STS-1, the first flight of a Space Shuttle.

(STS-1 launch. NASA image. Click here for high-resolution image.)

Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen rode the shuttle Columbia as it launched from the Kennedy Space Center, and spent two days in space checking out its systems before landing at Edwards AFB.

One of the best commemorations of that first shuttle launch is the song “Countdown” by Rush. The image below calls to mind these lines:*

Floodlit in the hazy distance,
The star of this unearthly show
Venting vapors, like the breath
Of a sleeping white dragon

(STS-1 on the pad, prior to launch. NASA image. Click here for high-resolution image.)

It’s sad to see the Space Shuttle era coming to an end, but I hope to see another era of human spaceflight begin.

*Copied from the lyric sheet in my head. Used, admittedly, without official permission.

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