1967 – The Year of Sacrifices for Space   Leave a comment

 

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Apollo 1 Crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee – via NASA

Space is an unforgiving place. It shows no mercy to those who venture to its infinite realm. It is a vacuum, cold and dark, punctuated by points of lights from stars and planets. Exposure to radiation from the sun and galactic cosmic sources causes significant risk of contracting cancer. Your body reacts differently to an environment without gravity. Fluids move towards the head. Mineral loss to the bones occurs. Medicines work differently. And you’d better get along with your crewmates, because you’re going to be together in a cramped space with little privacy. And the further one travels from the Earth, the longer it takes for a signal to reach the spacecraft. Connecting with loved ones becomes more challenging.

There’s also a very real chance of becoming marooned or worse, die.

Yet the prospect of traveling to worlds unknown seems a risk worth taking. The ultimate dare. It’s how discoveries are made. For all of humankind’s history, people have ventured beyond their horizons to discover new ones. If there’s money to be made, so the better. Since most of the Earth’s been explored, it’s natural to want to see what else is out there.

Sometimes, though, the whole point is to do what no one else has done. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we chose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Anyone who ventures outside of our Earth’s atmosphere subjects themselves to violent forces to escape the Earth’s gravity. Take, for example, the Saturn V rocket. To get there, one has to sit atop a rocket with 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

The Saturn V was the rocket used to send Apollo 1 on its mission to test the capabilities the Apollo command and service module, necessary to send man to the moon.

On January 27, 1967, during a launch rehearsal test, its crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – experienced difficulties communicating with the Operations and Checkout Building and the Complex 34 Blockhouse control room. Grissom’s microphone was stuck open, causing him to say, “How are we going to get to the moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”

Shortly thereafter, as the astronauts were going through their checklist, one of the astronauts, thought to be Grissom, discovered a fire in the cabin. Within moments, it consumed the cabin. The men had been unable to unlatch its door, although it seems they attempted to. Five minutes passed before pad workers were able to open the hatch. Grissom and White were found out of their seats, while Chaffee remained strapped to his seat, as procedure dictated. Nylon had melted from their spacesuits. It took ninety minutes to free them from the capsule.

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The Charred Remains of the Apollo 1 Capsule – NASA image, Public Domain, 1967

Because of this disaster, changes were made to the entry hatch, enabling those inside to easily exit the vehicle, instead of relying on those outside to free the crew.

Over in the Soviet Union, Colonel Vladimir Komorov prepared for Soyuz 1. He, along with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and Alexei Leonov, the first man who accomplished extravehicular activity (EVA), made up the Soyuz team. On this particular mission, Gagarin was Komorov’s backup.

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Colonel Vladimir Komorov and Soyuz 1 (Image – NASA)

It has been said that there were issues with the construction of the spacecraft Komorov was to fly, and that a memo had been sent by Gagarin to Leonid Brezhnev detailing numerous engineering and technical deficiencies. But given the secrecy of the time, reliable information is difficult to come by, and it’s not certain such a memo was either sent or exists. It has also been said that on the day Komorov prepared to command the inaugural flight of the Soyuz program, Gagarin showed up at the launch site, insisting on taking Komorov’s place. The two were very close friends, and he worried about Komorov’s flight into space. But Gagarin was a national treasure. He would’ve never been given permission to substitute for his friend.

So on April 23, 1967, Komorov launched into space from Baikonor Cosmodrome to orbit the Earth. Once in orbit, one of the solar panels failed to fully open, thereby compromising the ability to generate the electricity needed in the cabin. The automatic stabilization system failed as well as the orientation detectors. By orbit 13, it was decided to abort the mission.

It wasn’t until the 19th orbit that Komorov gained the ability to properly orient his space vehicle towards the sun and managed to fire the retrorockets. He entered the Earth’s atmosphere safely and deployed the drogue parachute (a smaller parachute designed to slow the rapid pace of reentry), followed by the main chute. For some reason, the main chute failed to deploy. Komorov then manually activated the reserve main chute, only for it to become tangled with the drogue chute. He plummeted towards the Earth at 40 miles/second, until he crashed in Orenburg Oblast, in southeastern Russia.

His descent module immediately burst into flames and so hot was the fire, its metal shell melted. Rescuers threw dirt on it to extinguish the flames. Afterwards, there was little left of the entry vehicle. After the rescuers extinguished the fire, Komorov was discovered strapped inside, his burned body reduced to a horrible mass of blackened remains. It was determined he died of blunt force injuries.

NASA released the following statement:

“We are very saddened by the loss of Col. Komarov. We feel comradeship for this test pilot because we have met several of his fellow cosmonauts and we know that we are all involved in a pioneering flight effort that is not without hazard. We particularly want to express our deep sense of sympathy to Mrs. Komarov, their children and his fellow cosmonauts.”

Colonel Vladimir Komarov died on April 24, 1967. He was mourned as a national hero. And because of his death, critical technical changes were made to future Soyuz missions to ensure the safety of their crews.

 

 

 

 

 

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