Friendship 7: Godspeed

Today is the anniversary of a milestone in space exploration, particularly for Americans. On this day in 1962, United States astronaut John Glenn was launched into space on a Mercury-Atlas rocket named Friendship 7. Over a period of just under five hours, Glenn circled the earth three times before splashing down in the North Atlantic.

The iconic phrase “Godspeed, John Glenn,” was said by fellow astronaut M. Scott Carpenter, immediately after launch.

The first human to make a complete orbit of the Earth had been Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Aboard his capsule Vostok 1, Gagarin made one complete orbit of the Earth before returning to earth. The longest manned mission thus far had been Vostok-2, where cosmonaut Gherman Titov made seventeen complete orbits, in August of 1961. The next human to fly in space would be M. Scott Carpenter on Aurora-7, in May of 1962.

John Glenn was a distinguished pilot in both World War II and Korea. After his time with NASA, he went on to serve for 24 years in the United States Senate. This included time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. His political interests included energy policy, nuclear non-proliferation, and environmental issues. He eventually became the oldest man to date to fly in space, when he flew on the space shuttle Discovery during mission STS-95.

He died on December 8, 2016. He he had received a heart valve replacement shortly before his death, and his health had been in general decline for much of that year. He was the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven. After laying in state at the Ohio Statehouse, he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Friendship-7 capsule is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Apollo 8: Christmas at the Moon

Apollo 8
A depection of Apollo 8’s insertion into lunar orbit, by artist Mark Karvon.

Humanity has staged, to date, nine manned missions to the moon. On six of these missions, people walked on the lunar surface. December 21 is the anniversary of the first trans-lunar launch, and the first manned mission to another celestial body, Apollo 8. Her crew was Frank F. Borman, James A. Lovell, and William A. Anders.

Apollo 8 crew portrait

Apollo 8 was, in many ways, a hardware test. Even as late as 1969, the nature of the lunar surface wasn’t totally understood. The moon was by then known to be covered with a very dusty soil that we now call regolith. There were still doubts about the possibility of landing a human on the moon, the fear being that any lander would sink into the regolith and become trapped as if in quicksand. This was one of the many questions that Apollo 8 was sent to answer. Was the hardware of the Apollo program suitable for the task of sending humans to the moon and back? Observations from the three astronauts, the first humans to get a good, clear view of the lunar surface, concluded that the existing lander design would work.

But as big a question as the lunar surface was, an even bigger question was the navigation of a trans-lunar flight path. Navigating in outer space is very difficult, even when you’re only in Earth orbit. But when you need to deal with not one celestial body, but two, the potential for problems gets very high, very fast. The flight calculations for Apollo 8 were extensive, and needed constant adjustment. But the crew of the spacecraft, and the ground support crew, handled everything in stride. It took Apollo 8 three days to reach the moon. The craft orbited the moon ten times over a roughly eighteen-hour period, then broke orbit for the three day journey home. The return flight began early on Christmas morning, shortly after 6 AM UTC. The craft splashed down on December 27.

The flight of Apollo 8 has been largely overshadowed by the later flight of Apollo 11. But it still had great historical significance. Some of the most famous photographs from the early space program, including the iconic Earthrise, were taken by Apollo 8. It was also the first time that humans had traveled beyond the gravitational influence of Earth. The year 1968 had been riddled with tragedies and turmoil all over the world, but many in the press felt that the success of Apollo 8 allowed the year to end on a relatively high note.

The mission also created some controversy when, during their final television broadcast before leaving lunar orbit, the three astronauts took turns reading the creation story from Genesis. This prompted atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair to sue NASA for having astronauts – government employees – pray on the job. This struck her as violating the separation of church and state. (O’Hair was notorious for doing stuff like that.) The suit was eventually thrown out of court, but NASA did tone down such actions on later flights, wanting to avoid more negative publicity.

The information gathered during the flight of Apollo 8, especially the computation of a trans-lunar round trip, proved vital in the success of the successive manned missions to the moon, including Apollo 11. The command module of Apollo 8 is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. Other artifacts from the flight are in museums and science centers around the world.

Venera Seven

An artist’s portrayal of Venera Seven on the Venusian surface.

Today is another anniversary in space exploration, though not one of the better known ones. This day in 1970 was the first time a vehicle from earth landed on another planet. That vehicle was Venera 7, and it was part of the Soviet Union’s program to explore the planet Venus. The Russians had attempted to send probes to Venus before, but Venera 7 was the first one to successfully reach the planet and send back data.

The craft was launched at Baikonur on August 17 of 1970, and entered a rapid trans-planetary course toward the second planet. It is believed to have reached Venus around December 10 of that year, and the lander portion of the probe entered the atmosphere on the 15th.

When the lander entered the atmosphere, the transmission suddenly became garbled, and receivers couldn’t tell what was going on. Their worst fears were that the probe had been destroyed on impact. But, they allowed the recording tapes to keep rolling, in hopes that something could be found.

As it turns out, the probe did reach the surface of the planet, and transmitted for almost 23 minutes. It is believed that either a malfunction in the parachute system, or the high Venusian winds, caused the probe to land on it’s side. This put the transmitter antenna in a very poor position, curtailing it’s functionality. But even so, Venera 7 sent back several temperature readings of both the surface and the atmosphere.

F**K me! It actually worked!

The Russians were understandably disappointed at the mediocre performance of Venera 7, but at the same time, the information they did receive proved invaluable. Theories about the nature of Venus had been floating around the scientific community for almost a century. Venera 7 sent back hard facts about what the second planet is like. The incredible atmospheric pressure and exceedingly high temperature (an average of 885° F) was a far cry from the “wet Venus” theory that was still popular as late as 1970. Earth’s twin proved not to be a moist, pastoral land, but a hellish hothouse.

In short, Venus is not a nice place. The unforgiving and corrosive atmosphere of the second planet eventually damaged the probe, causing it to break down. Venus has developed a reputation for destroying probes in this way. Of all the probes send to Venus, both American and Russian, none have managed to last more than a couple of hours.

Venus is still an object of study because it’s a casebook example of what runaway greenhouse gases can do to a planet. The full history of Venus’s atmosphere hasn’t been settled yet, but there is evidence to suggest that it wasn’t always so heavy on carbon dioxide, and may have been more Earth-like in the distant past.

Will humans ever visit Venus? I suspect in time they will, but the nature of their visit is likely to be pure science. Science fiction writers (myself included) like to imagine a terraformed Venus serving as a home for space faring humans, but empirically speaking the likelihood of that is very small. There is evidence to suggest that Venus holds enormous mineral wealth, which could be useful for many human endeavors. But the hellish climate of Venus pretty much renders such wealth inaccessible, unless a way is found to either clean up the atmosphere, or develop robots that can operate under the extreme conditions.

If humans want to colonize another planet, Mars would be much better candidate. But the strange allure of Venus, the Evening Star, persists.

Don P. Mitchell’s website has some good information about the exploration of Venus. One of his essays, entitled Plumbing the Atmosphere of Venus, has information specific to Venera 7.


Vanguard TV3

Today is the anniversary of a rather dubious event in the history of the American space program. It could be summed up with one word: oops.

On December 6, 1957, the United States prepared to launch an artificial satellite called Vanguard TV3, or simply Vanguard. It was going to the American response to the Sputnik launch of two months earlier. The launch had been hyped for weeks, and it was getting all kinds of media coverage. The launch of Sputnik had been a big surprise, and a major embarrassment for the United States. Theoretically the United States was the world leader in technological innovation. Why then wasn’t the first artificial satellite an American one?

OK, so the Soviet Union got the jump. However, Sputnik was never more than a proof of concept vehicle. Sputnik’s primary function was to transmit a series of signals from low earth orbit to see how satellite communications operated. It also had an experimental radio camera, which was a prototype for devices planned for future satellites. It wasn’t a spy satellite or weapon targeting system, as some of the urban legends of the time said. It was a test vehicle. But even so, it was a major political coup for the USSR. They caught the United States with their pants down!

Well, the USA wasn’t going to let this stand. So Vanguard was designed to actually do some important stuff. It had a test relay signal of it’s own, but it also had some experimental receivers and transmitters that would later be used in communications satellites. Also, it was going to travel to a higher orbit than Sputnik, where it could be kept operational for a longer period of time, and serve as a test for a variety of other ideas.

Perhaps Vanguard wouldn’t be the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, but it would be the first to do something truly important. And the USA was quick to point that out, and they were going to make sure the world knew it. Just about every news service in the world had someone at Cape Canaveral that morning to watch Vanguard rise into the sky, and outshine Sputnik.

Two seconds after liftoff, after reaching an altitude of roughly four feet, the rocket failed, and collapsed to the ground. As embarrassing as the Sputnik launch had been, this was a complete humiliation. Given that the United States had been touting Vanguard as proof of its technical prowess, the very public and very complete failure of the launch vehicle made the United States an international laughing stock.

Vanguard blows up

If Vanguard hadn’t had so much hype, the launch would have received little notice, and might have been written off as just another missile test. Several newspapers dubbed the launch “Kaputnik.” A short time later, as a cruel joke, the Soviet Union asked the United Nations to see if the United States qualified for international relief funds allocated to “underdeveloped nations.”

The United States did successfully launch an artificial satellite in January, called Explorer 1, and the laughing died down. Explorer was launched with little or no fanfare, and wasn’t given any until after it was successfully in orbit. Furthermore, Explorer achieved more than earlier satellites, by performing a series of scientific experiments. The Explorer program confirmed the existence of the Van Allen belt, for example.

In a humorous twist, the Vanguard TV3 satellite itself was blown clear of the exploding rocket and was later recovered, with its transponder still working. An analysis of the damaged satellite resulted in several design revisions to both the satellite and the launch vehicle. Other satellites from the Vanguard series were later launched successfully and generally had good results. One of them, Vanguard 1, is still aloft, having logged over 50 years in orbit. The damaged TV3 satellite couldn’t be repaired, but is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum.

If there is a moral in this story, it’s that hubris is generally not a good thing, and that caution, prudence, and patience usually get better results. This is something that both the United States and the Russians have needed to be reminded of over the years.