Saturday, December 6, 2008

Race for the Moon

Forty years ago today, Time magazine's cover story was about the final sprint to the Moon, as the US and USSR raced to be the first country to send people there. The cover art accurately portrayed the feeling of the time, that this was indeed a high-stakes race. We had been beaten by the Russians in so many 'firsts' that we were constantly wondering what they would and could do to trump us, always unexpectedly.

The US had publicly announced plans to send Apollo 8 to orbit the Moon in December. The earliest we could send a mission was to launch on December 21, 1968. The launch window was dictated by the need to get to the Moon when it was at the same phase for the planned landing attempts in 1969, and also to time the mission so that splashdown back on Earth would be in 'friendly' waters.

We did not know what the Russian plans were, but we could guess. The Soviet launch window was earlier in the month, and there was a real fear that the Russians would send men to the Moon before us. Indeed, the Russians had sent up circumlunar spacecraft in September and November that year. It wasn't publicly known in the US at the time, but these two spacecraft were not just Moon probes - they could have carried a manned crew. Had the USSR been willing to take the risk, they could have beaten us to the Moon by at least a month. They could not have made a landing in 1969, but their having sent men to the Moon before the US would certainly have lessened our feeling of accomplishment.

As it turned out, the decision not to send men on the November flight was the correct one. The 'crew' of biological specimens perished when a faulty O-ring gasket caused the cabin to depressurize before reentry, and a parachute deployed early, causing the capsule to crash. Either failure would have killed a human crew. The Soviets were not able to fix the design faults in time to make an early December launch, which enabled the US to be the first to send men around the Moon.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Gemini VII in orbit

The Gemini program concentrated on answering some basic questions that needed to be resolved before the moon landing missions could be attempted. One of these was, can people live in space for 14 days, the maximum length for a moon mission? To find out, Gemini VII was launched on December 4, 1965 for a 14-day mission.

Command Pilot Frank Borman and Pilot Jim Lovell lived for two weeks in an enclosure the size of the front seat of a Volkswagen Beetle - most of the time wearing pressure suits! This is another one of those scenarios that's difficult for me to imagine. Lovell said that he could either stretch his legs or straighten his back, but not at the same time. I just can't picture how they could remove their suits, and where they could put them once they had come off. To top off the ordeal, a urine sample bag ruptured the first day of the mission, which made the capsule smell like a public restroom for the remainder of the two weeks.

When the crew emerged on December 18, the crew jokingly remarked that they were now engaged to be married.

I recently took this photo of the Gemini VII capsule at the NASM Udvar-Hazy Center. You can see the headrest and part of Borman's seat in the foreground, and the bottom of Lovell's seat on the other side of the flight control grip.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mars Pathfinder begins its journey

On December 4, 1996, Mars Pathfinder was launched toward the Red Planet. This mission included the first roving vehicle to be sent to another world since Lunokhod 2 in 1973. It was also the first probe to use airbag technology for landing on another world. It was also the first landing on Mars since the Vikings in 1976.

Pathfinder made a brilliant, prime-time landing on July 4, 1977. Our imaginations were captured by the rover "Sojourner" when she rolled off of the lander and began exploring the immediate vicinity. Even the most die-hard engineers found themselves anthropomorphizing this plucky little adventurer as she bumped into rocks and drove around. We all died a little inside when Pathfinder stopped calling home in September, after its batteries died. Many people imagined poor little Sojourner circling around her "mother," waiting for her to wake up and talk to her again.

This Hot Wheels Action Pack featured the Pathfinder lander, the Sojourner rover, and the package inside its aeroshell, all in vastly different scales!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Apollo 17 rollout

This is not the anniversary of the Apollo 17 rollout from the VAB to the launch pad - that was on August 28. However, we're approaching the anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission, so that's why I pulled out this badge. Save for the Skylab Orbital Workshop, this was the last rollout of a Saturn V, and it was the beginning of the end of the lunar exploration program in the 20th century.

Since so much of my life and dreams revolved around the space program, I was deeply depressed (and I don't use the term lightly) to think that the Government could just let it end. What seems an incredible waste now is that we actually had built all the hardware we needed for more lunar exploration missions...the Government was just unwilling to commit the funds for the support costs for Apollos 18 and 19. The incremental cost of flying those missions would have been much less than what we spend on a Space Shuttle launch, in 'real dollar' terms.

It wasn't just the money. NASA was becoming gun-shy after the near miss of Apollo 13. Many in NASA were happy just to have the program end without loss of life.

But this one last time, we were rolling out a manned moon rocket to the launch pad. It would have been glorious to be there!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Apollo mission challenge coins

The challenge coin tradition goes back at least as far as the forerunners of the Air Force, depending on whose legend you listen to. The basic idea is that everyone in a military unit carries the unit's challenge coin as a way of demonstrating membership in the unit.

Challenge coins have also been minted as souvenirs for servicemen participating in major events (task forces, special operations, etc.). One such series of special events was the US Navy's support of the rescue and recovery operations for the Apollo missions. This set of commemorative coins was made available to crewmen of the USS Ticonderoga, the last carrier to recover a Command Module from a Moon landing mission.