Friday, June 5, 2009

Happy birthday, Dave Scott

Dave Scott, American astronaut, turns 77 on June 6.

Dave's first mission was the ill-fated Gemini VIII mission, which he flew alongside Neil Armstrong. After piloting the world's first on-orbit docking with an unmanned Agena rocket, the spacecraft began to tumble violently. The Gemini capsule undocked and then went into an even faster spin, exceeding one revolution per second. Almost at the point of blacking out, the crew regained control but was forced to make an emergency splashdown near Okinawa.

My family and I lived on Okinawa at the time. I was in 4th grade at an elementary school on the Air Force base in Naha, the port where the crew returned from their journey. Feigning illness, I stayed home from school so I could watch them on TV as they came into port. Unfortunately, the crew were whisked away immediately and I didn't get to see them.

Scott flew next as the Command Module Pilot on Apollo 9, the first test of the Lunar Module. It was as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of that flight that I got to meet Scott and the rest of the crew at Spacefest in San Diego this year.

Scott's finest hours were as Commander of Apollo 15, in July and August 1971. It was the first extended-stay lunar mission and the first to use the Lunar Rover. I followed that mission intensely, because it was a true adventure - landing in the middle of mountains and a deep valley, and exploring far from the safety of "home base." They broadcast some of the most spectacular TV images I have ever seen.

Just prior to Spacefest, I picked up an interesting "Apollo 15 Descent/Ascent Summary" chart, which detailed the ground track of the Lunar Module Falcon just prior to landing and after liftoff. It also included profiles of the flight, a map of the landing site, and a simulated view out of the Commander's (Scott's) window. I asked Scott to sign it at Spacefest, and he spent a good 5 minutes looking it over and remarking that he had never seen it before. Just above the view from the cockpit, he signed "Flight of the Falcon."

The next night, at the reception prior to the Spacefest banquet, Scott got into line behind me at the bar. I got a chance to buy a drink for one of my boyhood heroes. It doesn't get any better than that!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

America catches up with the Russians

June 3, 1965 was the date on which the Americans caught up with the Soviet Union, in terms of proving the nation's capabilities in manned spaceflight. Ed White II became the first American to "walk" in space, less than 3 months after Alexei Leonov performed a similar feat.

The Soviets trumped the Americans in many important "firsts" during the early years of the space race. It was frustrating for me as a kid - of course I knew that we Americans were superior but we always seemed to be getting beat. I can only imagine how infuriating it was to America's adults, and to the Government, Department of Defense, and NASA in particular.

Ed White's EVA in Gemini IV brought us up to par on all of the important technical capabilities that the Russians had demonstrated. From that date forward, the US clearly became the leader in the race to the Moon, as we publicly tried out complex techniques in orbit change, rendezvous, docking, and performing useful construction tasks outside of the spacecraft that would be needed to execute a successful lunar mission.

There were no cameras on board the Gemini IV capsule, so we couldn't watch the spacewalk live. I clearly remember listening to it on TV. I don't recall if it was being broadcast live, or if I listened to a replay at a later time. I do remember that this was on an afternoon when we lived in North Carolina, and the spacewalk did occur in the afternoon Eastern Daylight Time, so perhaps it may have been a live news broadcast.

The photos that we saw in Life magazine a week later, after Gemini IV returned from orbit, were incredible. Unaccustomed to the strange sight of someone outside of a space capsule, it was sometimes hard for me to tell exactly what I was looking at. The tether and nitrogen jet gun were strangely alien. I remember being particularly intrigued by the blackness of space as reflected in Ed White's eerie! Where was his face? But I knew from these photos that my concept of spaceflight would never be the same again.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"If you can't be good, be colorful"

Charles "Pete" Conrad, astronaut extraordinaire, would have been 79 years old today. The title of today's blog was Pete's personal motto. He was nothing if not colorful -- and he was very good, too.

I first heard of Pete when he flew Gemini V with Gordon Cooper in August 1965. Gemini V had an ambitious goal of "eight days or bust" in Earth orbit. That mission, the equivalent time for a trip to the Moon and back, nearly doubled the cumulative total of America's total time in space to date. Pete later commanded the Gemini XI mission with Dick Gordon as Pilot.

Pete and Dick flew together on Apollo 12, joined by Alan Bean. They had the most harrowing launch of the Apollo program, when their Saturn V was struck by lightning just after liftoff. The lightning strike scrambled all of the Apollo capsule's instruments. Luckily, the rocket - which was still accelerating - had its own guidance system which was unaffected by the power surge. Conrad had nerves of steel and was not about to abort the mission unless things became hopeless. A quick-thinking technician in Mission Control suggested a fix that enabled the mission to continue. I remember watching the liftoff from a small TV in my 8th grade shop (industrial arts) class when I was in middle school. I couldn't believe they let the mission continue after that lightning strike!

Pete flew his Lunar Module Intrepid to a pinpoint landing 3 days later. Pete's first words upon becoming the third man to walk on the Moon were, "Whoopee!! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that was a long one for me!" We were disappointed that the Apollo TV picture tube burned out, but I enjoyed listening to the audio broadcast of both moonwalks nonetheless. Pete's and Al's descriptions were very vivid ("colorful" comes back to mind again as the perfect word), and they seemed to be having an incredibly good time as they went about their tasks. I dearly wished I could have seen them working at the Surveyor 3 lander in the last half of their second spacewalk.

Pete's outstanding work as commander of the first Skylab crew was noted in my post last week. After retiring from NASA in 1973, Pete worked for several NASA contractors, including McDonnell Douglas and Martin Marietta. At Martin, Pete was a consultant on the "Large Space Telescope" project, which eventually became known as The Hubble Space Telescope.

Pete was motorcycling with friends in Ojai, California, in July 1999 when his motorcycle skidded off the road. He seemed to be fine after the crash, but he died of internal bleeding 6 hours later. His death was a real shock to all of us who had followed his exploits over the years. I deeply regret that I never had a chance to meet him and thank him for all the good times he gave me.