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.

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.

Flight of the Buran

An artist’s portrayal of the Buran launch of November 15, 1988.

November 15 is the anniversary of one of the biggest “what if” stories in the history of space development. The exploits of the United States Columbia class space shuttle are well documented, but on this day in 1988, another contender appeared.

Under a veil of secrecy, the Soviet Union launched a re-useable launch vehicle of their own, called Buran (Snowstorm). On the surface, the resemblance to the United States counterpart is obvious, but the engineering was a bit different. For example, Buran did not have an on-board launch engine. Whereas the American shuttle carried a trio of heavy rocket engines that fed off an external fuel tank, the Buran orbiter was designed to ride as a side-mounted payload on a specially configured Energia booster. This would have given Buran a larger payload capacity than the Columbia class shuttle, but at the same time, Buran wouldn’t have had the orbital range of a Columbia. Buran would have been limited to low-earth orbit, which would have been fine for visiting Mir, or later the International Space Station. But something like the Hubble telescope, or any of the high orbiting communication or research satellites, places that the Columbia series did visit, would have been beyond Buran’s reach.

Another major difference with Buran was that the ship could be flown entirely by remote control. In fact, her one and only flight was handled entirely by ground control crew, and the flight was almost flawless. The idea was that Buran could be used both as a personnel transport module, and as a recoverable excursion module. There were some scientific and military missions planned for Buran, mostly in the area of materials engineering, where the orbiter would remain in orbit for several months while on-board computers conducted experiments on various materials. At the conclusion of the experiments, the orbiter would return to earth, loaded with samples.

The biggest difference with Buran was its overall modular design. The Columbia series had some modularity, but not to the same extent. The Buran program had specialized modules and components that could perform a wide variety of applications. All of the components used the same core specifications, making it possible to piece together a targeted spacecraft for almost any type of mission imaginable. It was a wonderful design, with a lot of potential.

Unfortunately, this versatile and modular design was perhaps it’s downfall. Many people have criticized the Columbia series for its extreme cost and sometimes unreliable performance. The big irony here is that the Columbia series had been optimized for cost efficiency! At one time, the Space Shuttle program was as extensive and ambitious as Buran, if not more so. But over time almost every optional feature was removed in the interest cost cutting. And even with all of the cost cutting measures, the Space Shuttle was never as cost effective as the designers had hoped. Many people have looked at the original specs and determined that given the available technology, the Shuttle would never have been economically viable.

Buran had the same problem, only more so. The Soviet Union, having a command driven economy, wasn’t as concerned with cost effectiveness as the United States, so it designed it’s shuttle program to full spec. When Buran made her first test flight in 1988, the system was taking shape at various facilities around the USSR. But the infrastructure, manpower, and supply requirements were turning out to be enormous! Even the most liberal of estimates were falling far short of what was actually going to be required. But the Russians soldiered on.

Sadly, by 1990 the shortfalls of the Soviet economy had become impossible to ignore, and Buran’s future looked bleak. Just about everyone in the USSR knew that things could not continue as they had been since the 1920’s, but no one yet knew what would emerge to replace the old system. There was hope that with proper planning the Buran program would continue, but it didn’t.

The USSR imploded in 1991, and the Russian Space Agency officially cancelled the Buran program in 1993. There are some who theorize that the extreme cost and breadth of the Buran program was a key cause in the Soviet Union’s collapse. I don’t know about that, but it certainly didn’t help.

Here is the most bitter pill of all. The USSR built their space shuttle program to full spec, and it proved too large and too expensive to maintain. The United States, meanwhile, built their program for cost efficiency, and ultimately it was still too large and expensive to maintain! Aerospace designers on both sides of the world have since concluded that the “reusable shuttle” concept was an unwise path from the beginning.

What makes Buran a big “what if” scenario are the events that followed. The orbiter itself was placed in a hanger near the Baikonur in Kazakhstan. At some point in the late 1990’s, when the space faring nations were planning what eventually became the International Space Station, there was a lot of exchange of ideas between the Russian and American aerospace designers. At one point, a handful of engineers from the Space Shuttle program examined the Buran orbiter, still languishing in its dusty hanger. They concluded that with a mechanical overhaul and an upgrade to the electrical system, the Buran could be made space worthy again. Given that heavy rockets capable of lifting the orbiter were still being built and used by the Russians, and the Americans had groups of technicians available to service shuttles of a very similar design, the necessary infrastructure and manpower was available. It would have taken some tinkering, but Buran could have been made operational for the building of the International Space Station.

It’s likely that the program would have eventually become unmanageable and out of date, much like the Space Shuttle program did. But it could have been made operational for a time, and during that time it would have been a boon. If the space faring community had access to another shuttle, the station could have been completed as much as three years earlier. Had that happened, many other options might now be available in the area of space development. If nothing else, the aerospace community would now have more experience with heavy lifting boosters and computer-based navigation. I suspect the cost of getting Buran operational again was too much for the coalition of nations to seriously consider, especially since (in theory) four space shuttles were already available.

When the fleet of operational shuttles went from four to three in February of 2003, it was too late. Buran’s life ended with a sad whimper. Poor maintenance of the hanger where she was stored caused it to collapse during a storm in 2002. Eight workers were killed, and the orbiter itself was destroyed.

The Russians are currently designing a new generation of Soyuz capsules for future applications, and some of the technologies developed for Buran are being re-visited. This is not unlike the Orion program, which incorporates many technologies from both the Space Shuttle program and the earlier Apollo program.

The legacy of Buran is still being written.


SSM module: Isadora


I have made a few modules for Space Station Manager, though it would be more accurate to call them hacks than modules. I wanted to experiment with different configurations of station, so I made up modules that handle resources differently than the standard ones.

One such module is the Isadora artisan studio. This module is based on an actual proposal by Brazilian artist and engineer, Ricky Seabra.

The basic idea is that Isadora is an art studio in outer space. It provides space for artisans in much the same way science modules provide space for scientists. Seabra is reported to have once asked “Why should scientists have all the fun?”

Why indeed?

Within the confines of this simulator, Isadora generates income from the production of high quality astronomy photographs and holograms, motion pictures, recordings of micro-gravity dance and gymnastics, and the production of micro-gravity sculpture. When artisans aren’t using the studio, it can also serve as a lounge for crew members, or as a destination for space tourists. It doesn’t generate as much income as a science module. But by the same token it doesn’t require as many resources to operate and maintain as a science module.

Within the simulation, Isadora looks like a standard module with sky-blue portals.

Requires: 2 energy, 1 cooling, 1 life support
Provides: 1 lab space, 4 credits

Isadora (Class: Commercial)

48 KB, ZIP Gaming Isadora module for Space Station Manager.