Saturday, April 11, 2009

Happy Yuri's Night

Early in the morning of April 12, 1961, a Vostok spacecraft carrying Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) was launched from the secret Soviet base at Turyatam. Gagarin became the first human in space and the first man in orbit.

For nearly 30 years, the Soviets hid the fact that Gagarin ejected from his spacecraft about 23,000 ft above the ground. For the flight to have been officially declared a spaceflight under FAI rules, Gagarin would have had to land inside the capsule.

Whether this was an "official" flight or not, nothing can detract from Gagarin's heroism in taking this first flight into the unknown. "Yuri's Night" is now celebrated at parties all around the world.

This postcard from 1962 bears the pre-printed signature of Gagarin at bottom, as well as his hand signature along the right-hand side.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Launching Apollo 13

On April 11, 1970, the US launched what may be (in our day) the Apollo mission that more people have heard about than any others - Apollo 13. Thanks to Ron Howard's film, the words, "Houston, we have a problem" - even though a misquote of Jim Lovell - are just about as famous as Neil Armstrong's words on his first step onto the Moon.

Apollo 13 lifted off from Pad 39A at 13:13 Houston time. The ascent into orbit was far from ordinary. As the second stage pushed the craft toward orbit, violent "pogo" oscillations caused the center engine to cut out 2 minutes early. Had the engine not cut out, the entire vehicle might have been torn apart by vibrations that reached 68 times the force of gravity. The other four engines burned longer to compensate for the loss of thrust, and Apollo 13 eventually achieved a normal orbit.

The crew felt that this brush with danger was their major glitch for the flight. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and thought that things would go smoothly for Apollo 13 from there on out.

The first badge on this post was an access pass for official guests to view the launch. The other two badges gave access to the Firing Room, the headquarters at Kennedy Space Center which is responsible for overseeing the launch of a vehicle. Once the vehicle has "cleared the tower," responsibility for the mission is passed on to Mission Control in Houston.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Prepping for moonwalks that never happened

On April 9, 1970, the final map of the planned moonwalks for Apollo 13 was distributed for the planning team and crew. This map was based on Lunar Orbiter photography and showed a relatively detailed view of the Fra Mauro highlands, the landing site for Apollo 13.

The map included three sets of potential moonwalks. One was based on the LM touching down at the intended landing site (LM-1, visible near the intersection of the horizontal fold and the rightmost vertical fold). The EVA routes for this option included a visit to the rim of Cone Crater, the large crater at far right in this map. The second and third options were contingencies, in case Aquarius landed "long." Since the crew did not have a lunar rover, visiting Cone Crater would be too far for them to travel on foot. Consequently, there were additional sites for them to visit in the opposite direction, further downrange.

Of course, Apollo 13 never made its landing at Fra Mauro. The site was considered so geologically important, though, that Apollo 14 was targeted to the same landing site. Apollo 14's Antares landed very close to the spot originally chosen for Aquarius to land. Although the Apollo 14 moonwalk plans differed somewhat from those of Apollo 13, the general traverses and locations visited matched very closely with the plans for Apollo 13. Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell got within about 50 feet of the rim of Cone Crater, but the slopes were so gentle that they did not realize they were so close.

The original owner of this map had it postmarked at the Houston Post Office on April 17, 1970, the day Apollo 13 safely returned from its harrowing journey.

Monday, April 6, 2009

45 years since Gemini 1

On April 8, 1964, the unmanned Gemini 1 was launched. It was the first test of the Gemini-Titan spacecraft and launch vehicle combination. The Titan II was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that was being adapted for use with a manned spacecraft. Gemini 1 carried a load of instrumentation to measure performance and ballast to simulate the weight of two astronauts. There was no intent to recover the spacecraft. Indeed, the heat shield had holes drilled into it to ensure that the vehicle burned up on reentry.

This Mission Control Center badge was issued to G. Merritt Preston, who at the time was Chief of Preflight Operations for Gemini. Shown below are photos from President Kennedy's tour of the Cape in November 1963, one week before he was assassinated. These two photos were taken in front of the actual Gemini 1 spacecraft. The first photo shows, from left: George Low (Chief of Manned Spaceflight), President Kennedy, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, and Preston Merritt. The other photo shows a wider view of the dignitaries gathered around Gemini 1.