Saturday, January 10, 2009

Skylab 3 Beta cloth crew patch

On January 10, 1974, the Skylab 3 crew (also known as SLM-4) was in its 55th day on board the Skylab space station, with another month to go in their mission. The crew, Jerry Carr, Bill Pogue, and scientist/astronaut Ed Gibson, stayed on board for 84 days. This was the first all-rookie American space crew since Gemini 8 in 1966.

The patch shown in this picture is printed on fireproof Beta cloth, the material that all Apollo-era space suits were made out of, following the Apollo 1 fire. It is from the personal collection of ED Gibson. The inset shows Gibson signing the patch.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The last Surveyor en route to the Moon

Surveyor 7 was the last of the US's unmanned probes to soft-land on the Moon. It was launched on January 7, 1968, and landed three days later on the rim of the crater Tycho. It was a fitting and spectacular end to the Surveyor series.

The key question the Surveyors needed to answer was simply, "Is there a solid surface that will support the weight of a Lunar Module (and a man)?"

Before we sent the Surveyors, we literally had no idea what the surface of the Moon would be like. Would 4 billion years of impact by microscopic meteoroids create a layer of fine dust that was several feet or more deep? We did not know. We could make educated guesses, and while most scientists believed that there was a solid surface, there was not a consensus in the scientific community. We had to find out, or we risked our astronauts getting into a dangerous situation that they could not escape.

In yet another of their Space Firsts, the USSR beat the Americans to a soft landing on the Moon by about four months, landing Luna 9 on February 3, 1966. Luna 9 was the 12th attempt at a soft landing by the Soviets. The US's Surveyor 1 landed on June 2, 1966. At least the US could claim to have been successful on its first landing attempt.

The mid-1960's vintage tie tack depicted above represents the Surveyor lander. The image below is of a Surveyor engineering test article. I took this picture in the Smithsonian's Arts & Industries Building (first home of the Air and Space Museum) in July 1971.

Looking back on this some 38 years later, I can remember how exciting it was to have a relatively "new" spacecraft (less than 5 years old) so close at hand! This same Surveyor now hangs from the ceiling in the National Air and Space Museum, barely noticeable among all the other artifacts.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The birth of the Space Shuttle program

On January 5, 1972, President Nixon said that "The United States should proceed at once with development of an entirely new transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970's into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980's and 1990's." Thus, NASA announced the Space Shuttle as the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program.

Apollo 16 had yet to be launched at this time. In fact, it was on April 21, 1972, literally at the moment that John Young was on the surface of the Moon doing his famous "jump salute" to the flag, that the CAPCOM relayed the news that the House had passed NASA's budget, which included funds for development of the Space Shuttle. Young replied, "The country needs that Shuttle mighty bad. You'll see. "

The pictured 1972 Space Shuttle brochure included some hopeful selling points for the Space Shuttle, many of which seem almost laughable with the benefit of 36 years' hindsight:
  • "Launch vehicle and satellite failures...will become things of the past."
  • "The shuttle is the only meaningful new manned space program which can be accomplished on a modest budget."
  • "You don't have to be an astronaut to ride the Space Shuttle...Passengers such as scientists, engineers and others will be able to ride in ordinary clothing, as in an airliner."
Delays and cost overruns would move the Shuttle's planned debut from 1977 to 1981. Two major catastrophic failures would cause the deaths of 14 astronauts. Spiraling costs and reduced tolerance for risk have limited the Shuttle's mission for nearly the past decade almost exclusively to construction of the International Space Station.

Those of us who grew up in the Apollo age feel like the Shuttle has kept us stuck in low Earth orbit, its massive budget swallowing up funds for developing other technologies. NASA will have to ground the Shuttle in 2010 to free up funds for construction of the next generation of manned spacecraft, which is an even more frustrating situation.

Things may not have turned out as originally envisioned, but the Shuttle has performed admirably in over 120 missions. The Shuttle launched Ulysses, Galileo, Magellan, and the Hubble Space Telescope. It enabled the first retrieval and repair of malfunctioning satellites. And it kept us in space for another 25 years.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Lunar Module rolls out to the launch pad

Forty years ago this week, the "Year of Apollo" began as the Saturn V stack for Apollo 9 was rolled out to the launch pad. It was only 11 days since Apollo 8 had blasted off from that same launch pad for the Moon!

Following the completion of Project Gemini in 1966, the next scheduled launch was Apollo 204 (later called Apollo 1), which was to lift off in February 1967. The launch pad fire that killed the crew also delayed the first Apollo launch until October 1968. So, nearly two years passed between Gemini 12 and Apollo 7, which seemed an interminable time as the end of the decade neared and Kennedy's challenge had yet to be fulfilled. The Soviet manned program had been on hold nearly the same amount of time, after Vladimir Komarov was killed in Soyuz 1 in April 1967.

So, the world had gone for a long time without manned space launches. And now, both the USSR and the US were back in space again and launches were coming very frequently. The US was so intent on getting to the Moon in 1969 that launches were planned every two months until a successful landing was achieved.

We certainly felt the anticipation and excitement. Apollo 8 had focused the public's attention to the space program once again. The Moon was now within reach, and there was new and exotic hardware to test before we could attempt a landing.

Apollo 9 would see the first manned flight of the Lunar Module. Apollo 9's LM was designated LM-3, and was later given the call-sign "Spider." LM-1 was a legless test article that flew on the unmanned Apollo 5. LM-2 was originally scheduled for another unmanned test, but after the success of Apollo 5, LM-2 was set aside for ground testing and eventually donated to the National Air and Space Museum.

This badge was from a worker for Grumman Aerospace Engineering Company, which built the Lunar Modules for the Apollo Program at their plant in Bethpage, New York.