Tag Archives: Astronauts

Astronauts Without Borders

Once upon a time not so long ago, the United States and Russia had a high-profile meeting that was a top news story. Unlike today though, this was not a shady circumstance that cast doubt on the inner dealings of each respective government, but rather helped to improve the relationship between two nations that had been engaged in a constant and bitter show of one-upmanship with nuclear proliferation. I’m talking about the Cold War. Nevertheless, 42 years ago on this date, July 17, 1975, the United States and Russia, then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, set aside their differences, at least as far as the scientific community was concerned. As the preeminent superpowers of the world and the leaders in space exploration, the US and USSR arranged for an historic high five within the vacuum of space.

Contrary to what silly stories of moon crab monsters would tell you, there actually was an Apollo 18 mission. NASA had launched seven manned lunar landing missions with its Apollo program, successfully landing six of them (Apollo 13 had a bit of a snafu).  However, the final moon mission, Apollo 17, was not the last time a Saturn V rocket shot an Apollo craft into orbit. Apollo 18 was launched in conjunction with the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz 19.

After there establishment in orbit, the two craft were lined up and then linked up, marking the first time that two craft from different countries and space agencies docked. The mission was orchestrated to serve as practice for potential rescues in the future.

The ABC coverage is pretty good at explaining the mission, but here’s the link if you want to watch the docking without the newscaster speaking.

Leave it to the men and women who work in science and especially the students of space to show us how meaningless political squabbles can be. We are all one species on the same Earth, and it is missions like this one that help us to realize that no matter whether we are on opposite sides of the world, or floating above it, we are at our best when we work together to advance our mutual pursuit of greater understanding of our place in space.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, launch them into my inbox at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to orbit back here next week for more out of this world fun.

I’m sure I’ve written that before and I don’t care,

Alex

Godspeed John Glenn

The term “American Hero” is thrown around a lot in today’s society. This is not to say that the many police, firefighters, soldiers, survivors of serious medical ailments and inspirational figures who have contended with adversity of any sort are not heroes, but the great number of them can dilute the importance of the designation. However, some men and women are without question rightfully admired by all others. John Glenn was such a man. As a pilot and astronaut, Glenn literally rose above the Earth and often found himself in the wondrous gaze of all those looking on from below. A few men and women have also had this rare honor to be at the forefront of the zeitgeist, and it is what they do in these moments that determines how they are perceived over time. Some fail us, either unable to handle the pressure we put on them, or they are exposed as being someone much less worthy of our veneration. Occasionally though, some people set the bar far higher than we ever imagined it could go. John Glenn is a true American Hero because whether or not the spotlight was shined on him, he always did what he felt was right and best for his state, his country, and his world. John Glenn earned the respect of everyone with a kind heart, good morals, and the drive to succeed to help others. I am not the first to have revered John Glenn, and given his incredible legacy, I will surely not be the last, for his works will echo through the annals of human history.

The class act of a man that was John Glenn died last Thursday, December 8th at the age of 95. He was the last of the Mercury 7, NASA’s first group of astronauts, of which he is most well remembered, despite the fact that he was not the first of the team to go into space! Glenn was in fact the third, behind Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in the Mercury program, but his was the first orbital spaceflight for an American. Nevertheless, cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) and Gherman Titov each orbited the Earth prior to Glenn, so how did he achieve greater recognition in a world where not being first might as well be last? For one, Glenn outlived all of these men, but more importantly he kept active throughout the entirety of his life. His space-based popularity kept his activity nationally and occasionally internationally relevant even long after he was back on the ground (although that didn’t last forever as we’ll discuss later), and as I have already explained, his time in the limelight was spent trying to make the world a better place. Not to mention, Glenn was a lovable personality. He always had a smile on his face and was an excellent speaker who could win over most any crowd.

Always rightfully associated with piloting planes and space capsules, it was John Glenn’s character and work outside of the realm of flight that truly helped him endure as a living legend. From his early days in his birthtown and hometown of Cambridge, Ohio and New Concord, Ohio respectively, Glenn exhibited the kind of devotion to family and country he would be praised for later. He was at Muskingum College when the attack on Pearl Harbor sent his nation to war, so he stepped out of school and into the the Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force), but they never called him up to service. Thus, he entered the Navy to become an aviation cadet where he further trained on flying planes, something that had started back college for him. Finally Glenn served in the Marine Corps as a pilot making bombing runs in the Pacific in WWII, and doing just about everything aerial in Korea. After his decorated war service he became a test pilot and worked with a variety of aircraft and continued to rack up achievements, including making the first supersonic transcontinental flight when he flew from Los Alamitos Army Air Field in California to New York in 3.5 hours while reaching speeds of up to 726 mph.

Nonetheless, John Glenn’s greatest success in this span of his life (and I’m sure he would say in the whole of his life) was marrying his high school sweetheart, Anna Castor. John and Annie Glenn were married in 1943 and had two children together. John was devoted to her despite teasing that she and he received due to her stutter, a condition she dealt with until she was 53. She easily could have been lost in the shuffle of his increasing fame over the years, or worse pushed to the front with too much focus placed on her condition, but the Glenns balanced their family life perfectly with his rise to the stars, even once refusing excessive attention from then-vice president Lyndon Johnson (this moment is hilariously represented in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, which also features an excellent portrayal of Glenn by the ever great Ed Harris). You’ll be hard pressed to find any image of the Glenns together without smiles on their faces. Together John and Annie left an indelible mark on their community, especially in their home state where The Ohio State University has named a street after the pair of them and had them both dot the “i” in “America” in a special ceremony put on by the marching band during a football game to honor John’s service to the state and the nation.

John Glenn’s most memorable service is his time in NASA where he was one of the Mercury 7, the pioneering team of astronauts for America. His orbital flight was a major victory for the blossoming program, even in the wake of continued success by the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut program, however the reentry of the historic flight was harrowing for NASA’s Mission Control. Glenn’s Mercury spacecraft, of course named Friendship 7 by him, indicated that the heat shield was damaged. This led NASA to order Glenn to keep the retrorocket that is normally jettisoned on his craft on landing approach so that the shield would stay on. His reentry appeared to be an excessively violent one with pieces of the craft tearing off and flying by his viewport. Glenn touched down all right, and later it was determined that there was no problem with the heat shield, but the indication system had malfunctioned in alerting a problem that was not there. The fiery debris Glenn saw was the remains of his retrorocket pack.

After his retirement from NASA, Glenn served as a senator for Ohio from 1974-1999. This was certainly not surprising to his fellow Mercury astronauts who, along with NASA, always perceived John as the most senatorial of their bunch. Hi gift for public relations clearly paid off. While in office, he pushed for big issues, key among them the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 which sought to discontinue the creation of nuclear explosives. This is also not surprising, given that many astronauts often return to Earth professing the need to work more peaceably with other nations and set aside tools of conflict. Glenn also tapped into his faith to keep his morals, but he did not let it blind him. He was religious but encouraged the study of evolution in schools, citing that belief in God and scientific fact are not mutually exclusive.

When you’ve lived as full of a life as John Glenn had through the mid-1990s, you probably do not think, “Hey, what if I did that space thing again? That’d be pretty cool.” Then again, you’re not John Glenn. Glenn went back into space on space shuttle Discovery in order to test the effects of space travel on seniors, and to get his orbital kicks again. He remains the oldest person to ever go into space, at 77 years old in 1998.

John Glenn lived a hell of a life, from being in the heart of the Space Race, to serving in the United States military and Senate, to remaining a devoted husband and father, and always a source of inspiration. He kept in the company of the likes of the Kennedys, Ted Williams, and a whole lot of astronauts and NASA personnel, including another Ohioan astronaut pioneer, Neil Armstrong, who is probably the only astronaut to exceed his fame.

Here is a compilation of photographs of Glenn through the years, as well as information on his memorial service from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

By his family, many friends, and admirers around the world he went around, John Glenn will be missed. Godspeed, Mr. Glenn.

Thanks for reading. Please send any questions or comments to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Take care, and swing around back here next week for another appreciation of a man who saw our place in the stars, but from a different vantage point.

Fly on,

Alex

Ad astra per aspera

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and CompetentTough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities… Competent means we will never take anything for granted… Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

-Gene Kranz, former NASA Flight Director, after the Apollo I tragedy

So begins the saddest week in American space history.

Since the formation of a space committee and later program in the late 1950s, American forays into the unknowns of outer space have only resulted in three major fatal accidents where the entire crew has perished in the mission spacecraft, however, they all eerily occurred during the same calendar week.

Space travel has always been a tricky business. It takes a lot, and I mean a lot, of energy to exit the confines of this planet and enter into the realm of outer space, internationally defined by the Karman line (100km/62 miles above sea level). Not to mention it’s expensive. However, some have paid the highest price in training, and at the start and end of missions. Altogether, 32 men and women have lost their lives in space-based missions.

The three most well known of these were missions for NASA that occurred in different eras of space operation. The first happened on January 27, 1967, when a fire burned in the cabin of Apollo I during a rehearsal for the launch that was slated almost a month later. 19 years and one day later on January 28, 1986, the Challenger shuttle exploded shortly after its launch. 17 years and four days after this tragedy on February 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry. There have been other accidents for NASA and other agencies throughout their time, but these were the largest and led to the deaths of the entire crews.

Apollo I was the first manned lunar mission. Its intent was to take the new Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) up into low Earth orbit. Gus Grissom, the second American in space, was the command pilot. Along with Edward H White II and Roger B. Chaffee, Grissom was slated to make even more contributions to history. Many assumed he was the prime candidate to be the first man on the moon when the Apollo program was ready to make a manned landing. Obviously, he never got the chance. While performing a rehearsal trial at Cape Canaveral, Florida, a fire started as a result of an electrical issue. The cabin was filled with pure oxygen, which is highly flammable, and almost instantly after the fire ignited it consumed the entire capsule. The pressure from the fire forced the already problematic hatch door closed and trapped the astronauts inside, literally sealing their doom. Hatch doors were not kind to Grissom; he nearly drowned following his historic sub-orbital flight aboard Liberty Bell 7 when the hatch malfunctioned and blew open causing water to flood the spacecraft, eventually sinking it. The aftermath forced NASA to slow their pace in their lunar program in order to ensure their astronauts’ safety. The next five Apollo missions were unmanned, until Apollo VII completed the mission originally intended for Apollo I, 20 months later in October of 1968.

The Challenger space shuttle was first flown in April of 1983. The second of the orbiter fleet of shuttles (meaning it was actually sent into orbit unlike the first shuttle, Enterprise), Challenger successfully completed nine flight missions before its demise in 1986. Its final flight was not heavily publicized, but did receive a fair amount of interest thanks the inclusion of a civilian, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, as a member of the seven person crew. Her involvement in the mission prompted many schools across America to tune in to the live broadcast to show to children during class.

The cause of the craft’s explosion was an O-ring on the right solid rocket booster (SRB) that became unsealed during liftoff and allowed flammable gas to escape. Later that day, President Ronald Reagan gave a memorable and touching speech to explain the state of mourning, as well as the continued resolve to not pull back but keep pushing on with space exploration. I particularly like his address to the children who saw the disaster unfold in their schools. It does well to present a sad, yet strong reflection of how sometimes we fail and sometimes those failures result in deaths. He presents it in a manner that is not condescending and reminds me of how Mister Rogers would speak to children about concepts and events that even adult minds have trouble grasping the reasons for.

The first shuttle flown into space, Columbia was the vehicle which marked the beginning of a new era of space travel and study. This era was put on hold briefly in the wake of the aforementioned tragedy surrounding the second of Columbia‘s fleet, but Columbia was integral in literally getting the shuttle program back off the ground and into the cosmos. For 22 years, it was an invaluable asset for NASA and carried crews to and from Earth on 27 missions. During takeoff of its 28th, Columbia lost a piece of foam from its external tank (ET) that damaged its left wing. The damage dealt was not visible enough to be detected, but proved to be significant enough to destroy the ship during reentry as hot gases from the atmosphere disintegrated the left wing and eventually the entire ship as it made its landing approach.

Apollo I lost all three of its crew, and Challenger and Columbia lost all seven of their respective crews also, but these were not the only instances of astronauts dying on a mission. The first fatality was Valentin Bondarenko, a cosmonaut in the Soviet Union who was burned in a training altitude chamber and later succumbed to his severe wounds back in March 1961. Since we have been venturing into space and training to do so, there have been casualties of this pioneering science. Most occurred during training flights, including the death of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who along with flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin crashed in a MiG-15 while attempting to avoid a weather balloon. The most recent space mission gone wrong was on Halloween, October 31, 2014. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed when VSS Enterprise, one of Virgin Galactic’s experimental spaceplane, crashed into the Mojave Desert in California. Fortunately, pilot Peter Siebold, who was badly hurt, survived and recovered.

On November 15, 1967, test pilot Michael J. Adams was killed when the X-15 he was flying lost control and spun out before falling in an inverted dive and snapping apart around 20km above the ground. Those who read my post about the SR-71 Blackbird may recall I identified that plane as “the fastest flyer in the sky that stays in this confines of this world” and that it reached speeds of Mach 3.3. The X-15 was a hypersonic rocket propelled aircraft that skirted over the edge of space (at least as defined by the United States mark of 80.5km/50 miles above the ground) and clocked speeds over 7200km/h (about 4500mph) or Mach 6.72. Adams’ X-15 spun at Mach 5 and fell at Mach 4.7. Even though he did not cross the Karman line, as Adams had passed beyond the U.S. recognized line of space he was, as were other X-15 pilots who achieved the same feat, awarded astronaut wings. Sadly, his were presented posthumously.

Most spacefarers have come from the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, yet others have hailed from nations around the world. Still, the only one not from either of these countries to die in the line of duty was Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who was onboard the Columbia.

This is the complete list of all astronauts and cosmonauts who died in service to their countries and the endeavor to learn more of the universe:

Valentin Bondarenko

Theodore Freeman

Elliot See

Charles Bassett

Virgil “Gus” Grissom

Edward H. White II

Roger Chaffee

Vladimir Komarov

Clifton C. Williams

Michael J. Adams

Robert Lawrence

Yuri Gagarin

Vladimir Seryogin

Georgi Dobrovolski

Viktor Patsayev

Vladislav Volkov

Gregory Jarvis

Christa McAuliffe

Ronald McNair

Ellison Onizuka

Judith Resnik

Michael J. Smith

Dick Scobee

Sergei Vozovikov

Rick D. Husband

William McCool

Michael P. Anderson

David M. Brown

Kalpana Chawla

Laurel B. Clark

Ilan Ramon

Michael Alsbury

Despite these tragedies, space research is always moving forward. Learning from the mistakes of the past, NASA and other space agencies have improved their technology in the wake of their courageous crew members’ ultimate sacrifice. Given the incredible progress in craft development and space exploration made in such a short span of time, not to mention the inherent risks of the missions, it is amazing that there have been so few accidents resulting in human harm. Nevertheless, we must always remember those unfortunate few who gave all to further the pursuit of knowledge and progress. Everything we have now, in the field of space research, as well as in all other ventures, we owe a credit to others before us. Just as our astronauts stand on the shoulders (or perhaps fly on the wings) of those pilots who preceded them, we have much to be thankful for to all involved in increasing our scientific know-how, from the computer I’m writing this on, to the device your reading it on, to everything involved in the making of the coffee at your side. Space experiments and exploration do more than put people in zero-g, they make our world a better place to live, and hopefully in the future will allow us to do the same with other worlds.

Thanks for reading. If you are interested about more information regarding NASA and space research then check out their underfunded, yet excellent website. Be sure to return here next week for the sixth State of the Season quarterly recap. Please send any comments or questions to monotrememadness@gmail.com.

For the Benefit of All,

Alex