Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flight of the Seagull

Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. Vostok 6, with the call sign Seagull, carried Tereshkova for 48 orbits of the Earth over the course of 3 days.

It was only recently revealed (in the last 5 years) that Tereshkova experienced some serious problems during her flight. An error in the onboard computer programming caused her ship to go into a higher orbit rather than descending as intended. She was able to reprogram the computer with data called up from the ground, and she re-entered safely. After she ejected from the capsule just before landing (as the early cosmonauts did), high winds nearly blew her into a nearby lake.

Her flight was another propaganda victory for the USSR in the early space race, ostensibly illustrating the equality of the sexes in Soviet society. However, it would be more than 19 years before the Soviets launched another woman into space. Only three female cosmonauts have flown in the entire history of the Russian space program, while the US has flown more than 40 female astronauts during the Space Shuttle era.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Remembering Deke Slayton

Donald K. "Deke" Slayton died 16 years ago this past week. He was, to me, the least familiar of the original Mercury astronauts. As mentioned in a prior post, his paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, which was discovered after he was named to the Mercury program, grounded him for more than a decade. He was in line to fly next after John Glenn but was taken off the rolls once his heart condition became apparent.

Deke was a fighter, first and foremost. Even after he was grounded, he vowed to stay involved in the space program however he could, hoping that someday he would be allowed to go into space. He volunteered to head the Astronaut Office at the Manned Spaceflight Center, and as such, he was the person who made the recommendations about who would fly and who would not. He is generally credited with establishing the crew rotation system, where a crew would act as backup on one mission, and then be assigned as the prime crew three missions later.

According to the book "Moon Shot," by Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict (although ostensibly written by Alan Shepard and Slayton, who actually died before the book was published), Slayton took megadoses of vitamins and was somehow able to eliminate all symptoms of his atril fibrillation. [I haven't tried that for my symptoms - maybe it's worth a shot!] The NASA flight surgeons certified him as fit to fly, and he pushed for a spot on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Trying to pull seniority, he insisted on commanding the mission, but higher authority ruled in favor of the much more experienced Tom Stafford to be Commander. Slayton decided not to press the issue, deciding to be satisfied with having a seat on the mission at all. The pin shown at left was one of Slayton's commemorative lapel pins from the mission.

This last item is one of the more unusual in my collection. It's Slayton's International Certificate of Vaccination from 1982. I picked it up -- accidentally -- at the first live online auction in which I participated.

One wonders how the thread of US manned spaceflight would have spun out in Gemini and Apollo had Slayton not been so influential behind the scenes. He was a tough boss, but generally fair. He would also fight for his fellow astronauts against political pressure - not always successfully, but the astronaut corps knew he was on their side.