• Exploring American History

Exploring the Last Frontier – Part 2 Tragedy & Triumph

Many years ago, world-renown physicist, Sir Isaac Newton, stated there were three laws of motion, one of which is, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In some respects, this law could also apply to luck – and it did so for NASA. While the vast majority of NASA’s luck leaned in the positive direction, the negative showed its ugly head a number of times as well.

Following Alan Shepard’s success as the first American in space, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. February 20, 1962, he took off in Friendship 7. Riding in an egg-shaped orbit between 141 and 162 miles above Earth, Glenn traveled five miles every second. On his second loop, the autopilot system developed problems, resulting in the control jets starting and stopping on their own, thereby slowing the speed of the capsule. Glenn was forced to disengage the autopilot and fly the craft himself. This would include steering the craft in such a way so that when the time came for reentry, it would be his responsibility to ensure the blunt end of the capsule faced downward.

No sooner had he begun to deal with this situation than Problem #2 arose. A flashing indicator light warned him a possibility existed for the heat shield to come loose. The heat shield was designed to come loose, but only AFTER doing its job. To do so ahead of time would expose Friendship 7 to the incinerating heat of reentry and thus spread Glenn’s ashes amongst the cosmos. Thankfully all turned out well. The flashing indicator light proved to be a false signal and Glenn returned safely to earth.

Gemini 8 experienced its own hair-raising moment for Astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott, plus the entire crew at NASA. This mission involved the first docking of two space crafts – Atlas-Agena and Gemini 8. Agena left the launch pad at 10 a.m. EST and was followed shortly by Gemini 8 at 11:41. All went well as Gemini began its rendezvous and docking with Agena, 6.5 hours into the mission. 27 minutes later, however, problems arose. The coupled crafts experienced a roll and awe motion that had not been written into the script. A stuck thruster on Gemini served to complicate the problem, creating a wild, high-speed gyration.

Prior to reaching structural limits and blacking out, Armstrong was finally able to disengage from Agena, but this did not solve all the problems. The yaw and roll commenced again at a rate too high to control, thus forcing the astronauts to activate both rings of the reentry control system. This process consumed 75% of the capsule's available fuel. Armstrong and Scott wanted to continue the mission, which included a spacewalk for Scott, but NASA ordered the pair home with an emergency splashdown.

Thankfully these challenging missions resulted in the safe return of the astronauts involved. Others, however, would not be so fortunate.

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On Friday, January 27, 1967, the first Apollo capsule was due to launch with Astronauts Virgil Grissom (former Mercury and Gemini astronaut), Edward White and Roger Chaffee aboard. As soon as Grissom hooked up his oxygen supply in the spacecraft, a ‘sour smell’ caught his attention. A test of the situation resulted in the decision to proceed. Then a high oxygen flow triggered the master alarm. Environmental control system personnel were consulted, who chalked it up to the movement of the crew within the capsule. This situation was never fully understood. The third time was not very charming when the crew developed communication problems. First Grissom was unable to make contact with the control room, so adjustments were made, but this did not totally resolve the issue. The problem was found to extend to the operations and checkout building, in addition to the blockhouse at Complex 34.

The communications problem put a hold on the countdown at 5:40 p.m. At 6:31 when the count resumed, an unexplained acceleration of oxygen flow into the spacesuits occurred. One of the astronauts changed his position slightly and four seconds later, a voice (thought to be Chaffee) was heard to state he smelled fire. Two seconds later, White intensely announced, "Fire in the cockpit!" Before help could arrive, flames and thick black smoke engulfed the capsule, resulting in the loss of all three astronauts.

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January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from the launchpad for its mission. 73 seconds later the mission abruptly ended when Challenger exploded, destroying the craft and killing all seven crew members. The cause was later linked to an O-ring seal on the right solid rocket booster. The disaster put the Shuttle program on hold for the next 32 months while the Rogers Commission, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, investigated the matter. Given the fact Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teacher in Space Project was on board; the launch garnered a huge viewing audience. As a result, over the course of the next hour, an estimated 85% of the American public was aware of the tragedy.

Once reestablished, the Shuttle program accomplished tremendous goals for the United States; nevertheless, tragedy would strike the program once more - this time on February 1, 2003. Unlike the Challenger mission, which ended moments after it began; Columbia had completed its mission and was headed home. During re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, something went wrong. Challenger disintegrated somewhere over Texas and Louisiana around 9:05 a.m. CST, at which time North Texas residents reported hearing a loud ‘Boom!’ Debris from the spacecraft littered the ground from Trophy Club to Tyler, Texas and into parts of Louisiana.

As with Challenger, Columbia’s loss was attributed to something which could be considered rather small and insignificant in some respects. During Columbia’s liftoff, a small piece of foam insulation, about the size of a small briefcase, broke off the craft’s external tank. It then struck the leading edge of the left wing which damaged Columbia’s thermal protection system. Engineers had suspicions about the damage at the time, but managers at NASA limited the investigations due to having the attitude little if anything could be done to resolve the issue were problems to be found.

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While weighing the positives against the negatives of American space exploration, the question arises – is it worth the cost – in respect to both dollars spent and the loss of human lives? When you take into consideration the vast number of science experiments which have been performed in space, offering results non-attainable on earth; and maintaining the Hubble telescope so the wonders of the universe may be explored in greater depth – those factors alone offer a valid reason for the cost.

It could also be said a number of these flights have been responsible for helping to ensure the security of the United States. Questioning those who lived to tell their space stories, and the families of those who did not, most likely would result in the larger percentage of answers being a resounding 'YES!'

The U. S. space program, for over 50 years, has exemplified American ingenuity and accomplishments when it comes to technology and plain old daring. Countless young Americans have been inspired to follow in like manner – either as astronauts, scientists or engineers – challenged to push the technology envelope as far as it will go. When these results are placed alongside the costs of the space program, they far outweigh the dollars spent.

On December 20, 2019, President Donald Trump announced the formation of the United States Space Force (USSF) when he signed the United States Space Force Act. The sixth member of the U. S. Armed Forces began on September 1, 1982, as the Air Force Space Command within the Department of the Air Force. The new department is headed by the Secretary of the Air Force.

That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.

Neil Armstrong

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