Thursday, February 5, 2009

Antares on the Moon

Apollo 14's LM, Antares, landed at Fra Mauro on February 5, 1971. It seemed doubtful for a while that the landing would happen. A loose piece of solder in a switch kept signaling an 'abort' condition. Even though everyone knew it was a small and intermittent hardware problem, there was concern that the flight computer would get the erroneous signal during powered descent and abort the landing. MIT software engineers hastily wrote a patch to work around the condition. They radioed it up and Ed Mitchell, LM Pilot, entered the changed software by hand on the DSKY keypad.

Unfortunately, the software patch contained a bug which caused the landing radar not to lock on. Flight rules called for an abort if the radar did not lock on. Mitchell reset the circuit breaker, and that did the trick. There was a lot of speculation later on as to whether Shepard, intent on making a Moon landing, would have proceeded with the landing even without the radar. As it was, he made the closest landing to the designated landing spot of any of the Apollo commanders.

So, this was yet another nail-biter to listen to as we followed the TV coverage. Pete Conrad and Al Bean in Apollo 12 had the only trouble-free touchdown to this point.

I'm looking forward to meeting Ed Mitchell at Spacefest in San Diego in two weeks! I can't wait to hear from him what it was like to work with Al Shepard in such close quarters. I can only imagine that one would have to give Shepard plenty of leeway.

This booklet, "Science at Fra Mauro," was put out by NASA shortly after the mission ended. I picked up this copy at NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs in June 1971.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Beep Beep, My Ass!

Less than a year after the Apollo 13 near-disaster, NASA was sending another crew on its way to the Moon. Apollo 14 launched on January 31, 1971 and headed toward Fra Mauro, which was Apollo 13's intended target.

The official crew patch designates the NASA Astronaut Pin headed toward the Moon, and lists the name of its three crewmen. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, commanded the flight. He had been grounded for an inner-ear disease since the early 1960's, and following an operation that cured the problems, he demanded to be put back into the flight rotation. Some say that he stole command of Apollo 14 from Gordon Cooper, although the semi-official word was that NASA management pulled Cooper for his somewhat lackadaisical approach to training.

In any case, Shepard was at 47 the "old man" of the program, the oldest astronaut on flight status. The backup crew of Gene Cernan, Joe Engle, and Ron Evans, secretly had a patch made for themselves. They stowed the patches in every compartment of the Command Module, so that one would drift out every time someone opened a locker. The patch depicts an aged Wile E. Coyote heading toward the Moon, to which the Roadrunner 'B Team' has already beaten him.

Whenever Shepard encountered one of these patches on the flight, he is reported to have radioed to the ground, "Tell Cernan, 'Beep beep, my ass!'"

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Missing Columbia

Six years ago today, Space Shuttle Columbia was lost as it re-entered the atmosphere following a 15-day research mission. It disintegrated over Texas less than 20 minutes from its scheduled landing at Kennedy Space Center.

I was leaving a church choir rehearsal that Saturday morning when I turned on the car radio and heard the heartbreaking news. I raced home to turn on the TV. The video of Columbia breaking apart into multiple streaks was devastating to watch. Debris rained down across Texas and Louisiana, and people were recovering pieces of the spacecraft for weeks afterward.

I couldn't believe that we had lost a Shuttle during re-entry; that part of flight seemed almost routine at this point. However, it made me recall Columbia's maiden flight, the very first Space Shuttle mission in 1981. When the payload bay doors opened and the cameras pointed aft, we saw to our horror that several thermal tiles were missing from the left OMS pod. There was serious concern about if and how the loss of this thermal protection might impact re-entry. Fortunately, she made it home safely that mission. Unfortunately, that helped start the perception that the Shuttles were able to take punishment to their thermal protection system and still make it back home okay.

Columbia's loss grounded the Shuttle for a year and a half until safety could be improved. Although the Shuttle is flying again, next year is scheduled to mark the end of its missions.

I've lived to see three fatal accidents on US spacecraft as well as several on Soviet capsules. I know that there will be more someday...but I hope not for a long, long time.