Science Sunday 05-28-18

A Brief History of Flight – The Space Age – Part 2

Apollo 11

On July 20th of 1969, an event of epic proportions took place.  Two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed their lunar excursion module (LEM) Eagle on the Moon, fulfilling the first part of President Kennedy’s challenge in 1961 that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely.”

A third astronaut, Michael Collins stayed in orbit around the Moon in the command module Columbia, their return ticket to Earth.

It had taken them a little over 4 days to get to the Moon, leaving on July 16th.  Armstrong and Aldrin would stay on the Moon less than a day.  They would return to Earth in less than 3 days, successfully splashing down in the Pacific Ocean about 800 miles southwest of Hawaii, thus fulfilling the second part of President Kennedy’s challenge.

Even now, 48 years later, it is hard to conceive of the courage these three men would have to summon up, to sit on top of the (still) world’s largest rocket, the Saturn V, and blast off to the Moon.  They were still attached to the final stage of the rocket when it ignited, sending them into the translunar injection orbit (TLI) they needed to rendezvous with the Moon 4 days later.

When they first orbited the Moon, and were out of radio communication with Earth, the entire world held its collective breath.  Would the astronauts make it around the Moon and return to radio communication, or would they die on the far side of the Moon, which never presents itself visually to Earth?

When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon, in the Sea of Tranquility, between 500 and 600 million people on Earth watched from every corner of our planet.  It was a truly mesmerizing moment.

Although their stay was quite short, Armstrong and Aldrin planted the American flag there, set up a “Moon quake” seismograph, and installed a mirror to reflect laser beams from Earth so as to measure the Earth-Moon distance to within a quarter of a millimeter.

Both the landing and the blastoff (from the Moon) of the LEM were not without difficulty.  On landing, Armstrong could see that the computer driven LEM landing was going to miss its ideal landing spot, and place the craft in a rock strewn area.  He took semiautomatic control of the craft and landed it safely.

On departure, one of the switches needed for the LEM blastoff was broken, but the astronauts fixed the problem with a pen.  The blastoff knocked over the flag they have carefully positioned on the Moon.

Once docked with Columbia, the LEM was detached.  It would orbit the Moon on its own for a few additional months.

Columbia splashed down upside down, but inflatable balloons quickly righted the capsule.  The Apollo 11 astronauts had managed to bring back a little less than 50 pounds of lunar rocks.

After being quarantined for a good three weeks, the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to civilization with great acclaim, enjoying ticker tape parades in New York and Chicago.

As of this writing, both Aldrin and Collins are still alive, but Armstrong died in 2012.

There were seven Apollo missions, resulting in six successful landings.  Only Apollo 13 had to turn back because of damage to the command module Odyssey.

All in all, 12 men landed on the Moon, all returning successfully to Earth.  Four survive, with Apollo 12’s Alan Bean just recently passing.

Science Sunday 11-26-17

A Brief History of Flight – The Rocket Age, Part 2

Telstar 1

On July 10, 1962, Bell Laboratories, in conjunction with NASA and other telecommunication organizations, launched the first true transatlantic telecommunication satellite from Cape Canaveral.

Launched from a Thor-Delta rocket, the satellite, known as Telstar 1, occupied a highly elliptical orbit, with perigee at 903 miles, and apogee at 3505 miles.  It weighed 170 pounds, was 3 feet in diameter, and ran on a mere 14 Watts of solar assisted power.

Telstar 1 was the first satellite to relay television images across the Atlantic Ocean.  The first image was that of the US transmission station in Andover, Maine.  Subsequent images included part of a Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, a press conference by then President John Kennedy, and a singing performance of the French legend Yves Montand.

Unfortunately, the satellite suffered irreparable radiation damage while travelling through the Van Allen Belts, radiation deposited there by a US high altitude nuclear bomb detonation.  It ceased functioning in November of 1962, a mere four months later.


Yuri Gargarin – First Man in Space

On April 12, 1961, a most remarkable event occurred.  Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.

It was not a routine journey.  Gargarin had only a 50 percent chance of returning safely to Earth.  He would orbit the Earth only once, travelling 25,000 miles, in 108 minutes, at an average speed of nearly 14,000 miles per hour.

Gargarin was chosen to be the first human in space in part because of his short stature, but also because he was athletic and a very level-headed person.  He had grown up in Nazi occupied Russia, and had to live for a while in a mud hut, while his older brothers were shipped off to a Nazi slave labor camp.

His capsule, the Vostok 1, did not fare as well as he did.  Part of the capsule was supposed to detach before reentry, but it failed to do so, causing his reentry to be virtually uncontrollable.

Fortunately, the unwanted part detached from his capsule because the tether connecting it burnt up in reentry.  Gargarin was able to eject from the Vostok 1, as planned, at 20,000  feet somewhere over Siberia.  The capsule, by contrast, crashed and burned up.

Unfortunately, Gargarin did not live very long after his successful orbiting of the Earth.  Just eight years later, on March 27, 1968, Gargarin died in a MIG-15 military jet aircraft training accident.

He was only 34 years old.


We Choose to Go to the Moon

On September 12, 1962, President John Kennedy gave a most extraordinary speech at Rice University in Houston, TX, where he challenged Congress, and the nation, to inspire the United States to become the preeminent agent in space travel, and all activities contingent to that goal.

Kennedy repeated the mantra “We choose to go to the Moon” three times, explaining that we, the United States will land on the Moon, in less of a decade, not because such a task is easy, but precisely because it is difficult.

As a result, the budget for NASA quadrupled, and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were set in motion, culminating in the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969, less than seven years later.