Monday, November 30, 2009

Spacecraft of the Week #12

Gemini VII was launched 44 years ago on December 4, 1965. Commanding the flight was Jim Lovell, with Frank Borman as Pilot. Two things made this flight unique: at the time, it was the longest US spaceflight and remained so until the Skylab missions, and it was part of the first dual-spacecraft mission conducted by NASA. Scheduled for a 14 day stay in space, the Gemini crew members were to investigate long term spaceflight. An added bonus came when Gemini VI's Agena target vehicle crashed into the ocean shortly after liftoff. Rather than cancel the mission, VII became VI's target for rendezvous. It provided immeasurable experience to the mission control teams in handling two spacecraft simultaneously, a needed skill for the upcoming Apollo missions with its separate command and lunar modules. Photographically, it provided the first good images of a manned spacecraft in orbit. We are so used to seeing the shuttle or the space station floating in space we forget these images used to be the exception rather than the rule.

For the rendezvous Gemini VII was the passive target, but the long duration flight provided the real challenges. Imagine spending two weeks with another person in an area the size of a bathroom stall and you'll get the idea. And you would have a toilet to use! For the crew of G-VII space was a premium. Packing enough food for the mission, and then where to place the trash, was a job for puzzle solvers. The crew practiced shoving trash behind their seats. They did not have the option of depressurizing their craft and opening a door to toss the stuff outside, as they wore a new long-duration spacesuit that was not made for such an event.

These new suits could be removed, even in the cramped quarters of the capsule, though mission rules only allowed one astronaut to doff his suit at a time. After five days, NASA relented and allowed both men to remove their pressure suits. Although much more comfortable, the chore to stash the suits so as not to interfere with spacecraft operation became a new challenge.

After a week, the novelty of spaceflight wore off. The crew was allowed free time, an unthinkable thing for previous flights. They took to reading books they packed for the time: Borman reading Roughing It by Mark Twain, and Lovell reading Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds.

Recovery came on the fourteenth day with a flawless use of the retro rockets, and found the spacecraft had landed in the Pacific just 11.8 kilometers from the recovery ship, the USS Wasp. The astronauts were a little week from their time in microgravity, but were able to stand and greet the naval crew that recovered them. The spacecraft spent time at Johnson Space Center under investigation for it's long term in space, and then was turned over to the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum. For several years it was suspended in the second floor hall of space exploration, but has since been moved to a new display area near the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center. There it is displayed without doors, enclosed in a plexiglas envelope to allow a good view of the interior.

For paving the way for future flights to the moon and our first long duration mission in space, Gemini VII is this week's Spacecraft of the Week.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Smithsonian Apollo Program Online Conference

Today, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum hosted a virtual conference about the Apollo Program. The six hour online conference covered the following topics: Session #1 – Placing Apollo in Historical Context Session; #2 – Getting to the Moon: Apollo Technology Session; #3 – Presidents, Politics, Social Climate; Session #4 – Apollo Artifacts Session; #5 – Apollo Imagery & its Place in Society Session; and #6 – Remembering Apollo. Among the presenters were friends of the Field Guide Roger Launius, Senior Curator, Michael Neufeld, Chair of Space History, and Allan Needell, Curator of Space History.

The conference seemed well attended, based on the chatter in the text box where participants were able to ask questions. Historical context of the Apollo Program was the theme, and the presentation gave great insight into the times and events. Due to a telecon conflict I was forced to miss the voice portions of sessions 4 and 5, but continued to monitor the presentation and chat.

I was already thoroughly pleased with the conference, when Allan Needell began the sixth session by showing the Field Guide home page and recommending it as a source to locate Apollo hardware. He then gave me a shout out for participating in the chat. Thanks, Allan! If any conference attendees have visited the Field Guide and found their way to this blog, welcome! Please leave a comment and let me know you are here! And thanks again to all those involved from the Air & Space Museum for a great conference!

Spacecraft of the Week #11

Gemini XII was launched with astronauts Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin on November 11 (Veterans Day) in 1966. The spacecraft in question was home to the astronauts for 4 days, during which Buzz Aldrin conducted three spacewalks. After an almost disastrous EVA on Gemini XI, Buzz helped engineer handholds and foot restraints and barely broke a sweat on his walk, indicating astronauts would be able to work outside the spacecraft landing on the moon. As the finale of the Gemini program it was a resounding success.

The spacecraft was checked out after recovery at Johnson Space Center, and transported for display at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Aukland, New Zealand. After many years it returned to the states and was then placed for display at the Goddard Space Flight Center. It was paired at the Visitor Center there nose to nose with a sit-in model. Looking out the window while sitting in the model always reminded me of the Gemini VII - Gemini VI rendezvous in space. In 2005, the Smithsonian was asked to relocate the spacecraft.

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago had undergone a major renovation and wanted a 'capstone' to highlight man's relationship with space. Chicago native Jim Lovell was instrumental in bringing his old spacecraft to his hometown. No longer enclosed in a plexiglas cocoon, the capsule was placed in climate controlled display case designed and built by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. This new case is a prototype for future displays. Although it may somewhat restrict viewing and photography by boxing in the capsule, the importance of protecting the aging craft become paramount. Similar cases have been constructed for Gemini 3 , Gemini VI and Gemini X, Liberty Bell 7, and Apollo 13.

So to honor its history and for trailblazing a new way to preserve and display these important artificers, Gemini XII is our Spacecraft of the Week.

Friday, November 6, 2009

X-38 On the Move

The Field Guide welcomes the X-38 to its data base. The X-38 would have been the precursor for the Crew Return Vehicle, a stubby winged spacecraft that would have been parked at the International Space Station and used as an orbital lifeboat in case of an emergency. Based on the earlier X-24 lifting body created by the US Air Force (even including the bulbous cockpit canopy - it was easier to use the same wind tunnel data as the X-24), it would carry seven crew members back into the atmosphere, then deploy the largest canopy parachute ever tested to land on skids at a predetermined location.

Though cancelled in April of 2002, three test vehicles were created: two for drop tests and one for an orbital reentry test. The one pictured above, V-132, was dropped from a B-52 for several tests at Edwards Air Force Base. This past week it made its way to the Strategic Air Command Museum, Ashland, NE, for display. It is a reminder of what could have been - a safe elegant way to protect astronauts in an emergency.

Check out the the rest of the fleet on the Field Guide.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Spacecraft of the Week #10

A little over nine years ago a remarkable event took place. On a list of technological achievements it would rank among the top, perhaps superseded only by the lunar landings. On October 30, 2000, human beings went to space - and stayed there. The spacecraft that made this possible was the International Space Station, our Spacecraft of the Week.

Let me take you back to another time a little over a hundred years ago to give you perspective. Two brothers experimenting produced a series of gliders to engineer the technology to achieve flight. The would run down a sand hill and let the glider lift them up in the air, only to settle back to earth a few seconds later. Their prowess and skills led them to more advanced designs, finally incorporating an engine. Now they could launch from the level field. A first attempt was made, and an 12 second flight was the result - significant for its historicity but not much more than their unassisted glides. A second and third were made only slightly increasing duration and length of flight. But imagine how Orville felt as he watched Wilbur take of on the fourth and ultimately final flight: He's up. 12 seconds - still going. 20 seconds - he's looking smooth! 30 seconds - he's not coming down!

That just under a minute fourth flight of a controllable powered flying machine proved that we as a people could call the sky our home. Every plane eventually lands, but many individuals call the sky their place of work. Nine years ago, that mindset shifted further, beyond the atmosphere. The International Space Station allows people to go to space to work, to call home. They go up, and stay up.

Or think about his way: Second grade classrooms across the country are filled with students who have not been alive a single day that a person has not called space home. They and their younger classmates, brothers and sisters represent the true space age generation. The sky is no longer the limit. Space awaits them.