Saturday, May 23, 2009

Aurora 7 and Scott Carpenter

On May 24, 1962, Scott Carpenter became the second American to orbit the Earth, riding Mercury-Atlas 7, which he dubbed Aurora 7. This capsule and launch vehicle were originally intended to be flown by Deke Slayton. However, he was diagnosed with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation - a heart irregularity which I share - and was barred from flight status. (Had Slayton flown, MA-7 would have been designated Delta 7.)

Carpenter's three-orbit mission was dedicated to scientific experimentation. He concentrated so much of his attention to science and observation that some people (particularly Chris Kraft in Mission Control) felt that he was neglecting flying his spacecraft. A malfunction in the attitude control system caused the spacecraft to expend much more fuel than planned, requiring Carpenter to go into free-drift mode. He had to align the capsule manually for retro fire. Again, some say that Carpenter was overly distracted by Earth observation, which caused him to mis-time retro fire and subsequently land hundreds of miles off target. Others say that the malfunctioning system required Carpenter to intervene manually, which made the retros fire later than the sequencer should have fired them, and also which caused them to fire in a less than ideal sequence.

Aurora 7's flight was considered a technical and scientific success. It paved the way for Wally Schirra to attempt a six-orbit flight in the next Mercury mission. However, Kraft was so furious about the missed landing and other glitches that Carpenter was essentially blacklisted from flying again. Carpenter permanently injured his arm in a motorcycle accident several years later, which made him unqualified to fly as an astronaut.

Carpenter, who was a Navy pilot before joining NASA, returned to the sea as an "aquanaut" in the Navy's Sealab program. He made a 28-day extended underwater mission in 1965 in Sealab II. There is a hilarious recording available of a call from President Johnson to Carpenter in Sealab. Unbeknownst to Johnson, Carpenter was in a decompression chamber, breathing an atmosphere in which nitrogen was replaced with helium, to prevent the bends. Carpenter's voice therefore sounds as high-pitched as would be the case for anyone inhaling helium from a balloon. In this recording, you can vividly picture the look of bewilderment that must have been on Johnson's face as he read his prepared remarks to Carpenter.

Pictured at left is a photo I took of Carpenter in February 2009 at Spacefest, talking to Jim McDivitt.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Joe Engle and the X-15

I had the pleasure of attending Joe Engle's lecture at the National Air and Space Museum last night. Engle spoke on the X-15's role in expanding our understanding of hypersonic and high-altitude flight.

I was fascinated by the X-15 when I was a kid and the program was in full swing in the early 1960's. For my money, there was never another aircraft or spacecraft that embodied pure speed. Sure, it was technically an aircraft, but let's face it - this was a rocket with wings!

As a kid, I focused on the X-15's altitude and speed records. What I was not aware of was how important a role the X-15 played in the evolution of the Space Shuttle in unpowered flight. Engle put up a chart that showed how similarly the X-15 and the Space Shuttle behaved in their approach and landing characteristics, without engine power. One of the key lessons from the X-15 program was energy management - how to bleed off speed while the aircraft drops like a rock, set up an approach, and make a precision landing at about 200 mph.

Engle had some great stories, too. My favorite was his discussion about how the cockpit windows would occasionally "glaze" - the expansion of the airframe from frictional heating would sometimes shatter one of the two windows. In such a situation, the pilot would set up an approach where he would look out the other window. If both windows were to glaze, the planned procedure was that the chase plane would talk the pilot down to a safe altitude, at which time he would jettison the canopy. Engle said he lived in hope of this happening to him on one of the flights. He even carried a silk scarf in his pocket to tie around his neck. He thought it would be great to come back from a hypersonic flight in an open cockpit, wearing his silver space suit with a scarf blowing in the wind!

Engle graciously signed autographs after the lecture. I was able to complete my crew signatures on the 2TV-1 Beta cloth patch shown in the previous post about Vance Brand. I can't imagine a starker contrast than what Engle must have felt between the short hypersonic X-15 flights and being Earthbound for 8 days sealed in a vacuum chamber!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Apollo 10 Flight Dynamics

The Flight Dynamics Officer - called the FDO or more commonly "FIDO" - is the person in Mission Control charged with determining the appropriate flight paths and maneuvers for a space vehicle, in orbit and to and from the Moon. FIDO was one of the four positions in "The Trench," the first row of consoles in Mission Control.

Ed Pavelka, whose Apollo 10 Mission Control Access badge is shown at left, was a FIDO during the Gemini era, then moved up to a supervisory position during the Apollo program. He trained and oversaw the FIDOs who manned the station during the Apollo trips to the Moon. Pavelka was also responsible for "Captain REFSMMAT" - whose story will be told another time.

People who didn't have the luxury (or pressure) of being in The Trench during the mission could also follow the key guidance and trajectory events with devices such as the Raytheon "Mission Analyzer." This multi-wheeled slide rule allowed one to see the events happening at a given point in the mission by dialing in the date and time in question.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Apollo 10 to the Moon!!

On May 18, 1969, Apollo 10 lifted off for the Moon, on what was the final "all-up" test of the Apollo mission hardware and flight procedures prior to the first attempt at a lunar landing. Given the critical importance of this mission, NASA selected an all-veteran crew to fly Apollo 10. Tom Stafford commanded the mission, John Young piloted the Command Module, and Gene Cernan was the LM Pilot.

Apollo 10 was an extremely exciting mission. This was America's second trip to the Moon, and we keenly experienced a sense of anticipation for this flight. The LM had performed flawlessly in Earth orbit on Apollo 9, but the risks seemed exponentially higher on this mission. What if something happened when the two craft were separated on the far side of the Moon?

There was also endless speculation in the press as to whether Stafford and Cernan would violate orders and try to fly the last 50,000 feet to the lunar surface. The press said that NASA had given the LM less fuel than it needed for the landing in order to preclude such a possibility. That of course was nonsense. Stafford would never have done anything that he hadn't trained for or that was outside of the flight plan. And the actual reason that the LM didn't have enough fuel to land was because this LM was overweight and couldn't have possibly carried enough fuel to support a landing. But it all made for great "What if?" conversation. That the crew dubbed the Command Module "Charlie Brown" and the LM "Snoopy" also added to the mission's popular appeal. We all knew that the success of this flight meant that we would try for a lunar landing in the summer.

The document at right is an official invitation to the Apollo 10 launch, extended to Mae Burke. Ms. Burke, call sign W3CUL, of Seminole, Florida, was a renowned amateur radio operator who provided invaluable service in establishing radio contact between servicemen overseas and their families back in America. At the time she earned an Edison Award, she had handled some 312,000 messages between 1949 and 1957. She earned a historic record of traffic handling honors over her lifetime handling overseas traffic for US service personnel, MARS, Red Cross and other emergency messages during the Korean, Vietnam and Cold War eras.

Also shown at left is a VIP guest badge for the viewing stands.