Saturday, April 18, 2009

Farewell Aquarius, and we thank you

April 17, 1970 saw the crew of Apollo 13 return to Earth after their harrowing journey.

This photo commemorates one of the heroes of Apollo 13, the Lunar Module Aquarius, which helped to bring the crew home safely. Aquarius provided shelter, oxygen, and water, which kept the crew alive, and an engine, which brought the crew home.

The inscriptions on this photo tell a little of Apollo 13's story. First, Jack Lousma, who was the CAPCOM at the time of the accident, communicated to the crew that the Command Module wouldn't be able to keep them alive, saying, "We're starting to think about the LM lifeboat." In the lower right corner, Joe Kerwin, who was CAPCOM at the end of the Apollo 13 voyage, has written what he spoke just after Aquarius was jettisoned and before the Command Module re-entered: "Farewell, Aquarius, and we thank you!"

Two of the crew members, Jim Lovell and Fred Haise, would have flown Aquarius to the lunar surface, also inscribed this photo. Lovell has written on this photo, "LM Aquarius, jettisoned 11:43 am EST, 4/17/1970 - She was a good ship!" and Fred Haise added, "Our lifeboat!"

Aquarius was a space vehicle that was pressed into service to do things it was never intended to do - keep 3 crew members alive for 4 days - and did them remarkably well.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Another first to celebrate

April 12 is a special date in the history of manned spaceflight. As noted in my previous post, it was the date of Yuri Gagarin's launch in 1962. Twenty years later to the day, the Space Shuttle took its first trip into space.

The launch of STS-1 was record setting in many regards - first launch of a winged manned spacecraft, first re-usable spacecraft, first time humans had flown on a booster powered by solid rocket motors, first time a spacecraft had been ridden by people before it had been tested unmanned. John Young, the STS-1 Commander and NASA's most experienced astronaut, was flying his fifth space mission. He was now the first person to have flown in four different types of space vehicles (Gemini, Apollo Command Module, Apollo Lunar Module, and Space Shuttle).

Since the Shuttle had never been launched into space before, there was a tremendous number of unknowns about how everything would work. After Columbia reached orbit, the crew discovered that several tiles from the heat shield were missing, and no one knew whether this would affect the ability of the craft to survive re-entry. After Columbia successfully returned, engineers discovered that the force of booster ignition had moved the Orbiter's body flap farther than it was designed to move. This could have rendered the craft unable to glide to a landing. Young said that had he been aware of the condition during launch, he probably would have aborted the mission, which would have destroyed Columbia and might well have been the end of the Space Shuttle program.

I watched Columbia's return from the Public Affairs auditorium at NASA Headquarters, which was just up the street from where I worked in Washington, DC. It was a nail-biting experience waiting for the Shuttle to emerge from radio blackout during re-entry! And of course, the crowd assembled in the auditorium erupted into tremendous applause after Columbia touched down at Edwards Air Force Base.