Archive for the ‘space’ Tag

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Moonstruck   Leave a comment

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The Moon, as photographed by Louis Daguerre, 1839

I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been moonstruck since childhood. That’s when my parents dragged me out of bed on one sultry July evening. Mom opened the bedroom door, shook me and said, “Wake up! You have to see this!” Grumpily, I dragged my sleepy self down the hall and into the living room, where my parents, grandparents, sister and brother sat, glued to the TV. My seven-year-old self stared at the screen, impatient. After a few moments, Neil Armstrong hopped out of the LM and into history, followed shortly thereafter by Buzz Aldrin.

The whole concept seemed so wild to me. That giant Saturn rocket shooting them into space. Three men jammed into what seemed not much larger than a Volkswagen Beetle. Being able to see and hear them from an ever increasing distance. And then, the landing. Walter Cronkite’s gushing on air wasn’t much different from everyone in my house. Or the world, for that matter.

I didn’t really think about all the technology, or the training, or the money, or even the space race that evening. Other NASA missions came and went, and my family followed them all. But somehow, this one stood out from the rest. Three guys achieved something no one else has ever done then and since (although that will change shortly).

All I knew was that I wanted to be an astronaut. Desperately.

As the years went by, I shifted my interests to astronomy and learning the constellations, and the shifting planets in the nighttime sky, plus the occasional comet and meteor showers. I never did well in math, so I gave up my dream of becoming an astronomer. But my love for the offworld never faded, and I kept my sweet spot for the moon.

There’s nothing more entrancing than watching the glow of a full moon on a white blanket of snow, as the whitened trees glisten from its brightness. Or how a summer night feels so romantic with the moon sailing over the ocean. How welcoming the moon can be when it peeps out from a clearing sky, or transform into a mysterious red when it eclipses. Or blots out the sun and turns black.

Lots of sci-fi novels and movies use the moon as a backdrop or a plot device. It has religious significance for many. One can be mooned, have a moonface, or eat a moon pie, or wear a moonstone. Or be like Cher and Nicholas Cage and be moonstruck.

If you’re lucky and under the right conditions, you can catch the new moon in the old moon’s arms, or the old moon’s arm around the new moon. That means right before and after a new moon, there’s a thin ribbon of light, the slenderest of crescents, holding the dark side. Through a telescope or good binoculars, you can make out some details of the dark side too. This phase doesn’t last long, as it’s right before sunrise or just after sunset, and the moon is very close to the sun in the sky and very near the horizon.

If you catch it just at the right time, you can see an occultation, or the moon appearing to hide a star or planet. It’s literally now you see it, now you don’t. The moon slides in front of a celestial body, for a matter of minutes or hours. Then the celestial body magically reappears. It’s fascinating to watch.

During daylight, a moonrise might seem as if it’s almost see-through and blue. Spotting a full moon rising from a mountaintop is downright spectacular. You’ll never see something so big in your entire life. Or catching it rising over the ocean – the glow on the horizon, then a tiny, shy peep, as it creeps higher into the sky, a ribbon of light shimmering over the ocean’s surface, until, for a moment, the entire orb appears to be balancing on the horizon itself. Way cool!

I’ve already spent much of last and this week reliving the moon landing and the entire NASA early space mission by watching programs on PBS, or reading articles, or posts on my Twitter feed. I still marvel at this accomplishment.

But most importantly, I remember how unifying this singular moment was for our planet. How we all came together to marvel at such an achievement. It was an accomplished started out of competition and ended in peace. We need, not only as a nation, but as ambassadors of this legacy, to remember what good can come of scientific achievements, and to put aside all that makes us angry and frustrated, in order to move forward to use our discoveries to better the fates of all humankind.

 

A Busy Day for Space Fans   Leave a comment

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Credits: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

So where does one begin on a day like today? I can’t honestly say what story could top seeing a photograph of an actual black hole. But the news certainly is fascinating. And check out the link. There’s a complete picture of Messier 87, a giant galaxy some 55 million light years away, located in Virgo.

Einstein theorized in a paper published in 1915 that star’s light rays curved around the sun during an eclipse. That meant the stars appeared about 1.75 second of arc away from their positions.

In May 29, 1919, when a six-minute total eclipse in Brazil caused British astronomer Arthur Eddington to determine that light rays from other stars bent when subjected to the gravitational field of our sun.  He proved this through the use of photographs, and others have proven it since.

Jump to 2016. MIT graduate student Katie Bouman created the algorithm that produced the first image of the black hole. Her contributions seem to be a bit underreported, but thanks to her work, we now see the image pictured above.

Falcon Heavy launching 400 x 600

Credit: Kennedy Space Center

The second big story (to me at least) is Falcon Heavy. It was supposed to launch today, but thanks to high winds aloft, we’re going to have to wait until tomorrow. But the cool thing about it is its three boosters, all expected to land perfectly. I’m always fascinated by this new generation of rockets. Elon Musk, for all his faults, is a genius. Not only did he create a better class of rockets, partly recyclable, he also made their capsules so sleekly modern.

And lastly, on April 11 NASA will host a teleconference on its study of its astronaut twins, Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly. This eagerly-awaited report will detail how Scott Kelly was affected by living in the ISS for 340 days, as compared to his twin brother, Mark Kelly, who remained on Earth. So far, these are the only twins who have both served on the ISS, and, as such, are uniquely qualified for this important study.

 

The Unexplainable Universe   Leave a comment

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The universe, as credited to Wikipedia

Ever lay on your back on a summer night, looking up at the sky and think to yourself, “Where does it all end?”

Or begin.

Or go.

Or…

Ask a person to explain the universe is and guaranteed you’ll receive an answer just as expansive.  Frustrating to conceive of an area that defies convention.  For that’s what it is: an enigma.

Sure, scientists the world over have struggled to define just exactly what it is that the Earth inhabits and how it came about to be.  Mathematical calculations summarize what is perceived to be forces governing its structure, but as soon as one explanation arises, another takes its place.

Take, for instance, the recent talk  about finding traces of waves of the original big bang isn’t all it seemed to be.  Could be interstellar dust, although optimism remains that perhaps evidence of the Big Bang is still present in the astronomer’s findings.  And not to discount their discovery, because if they truly do find remnants of all that is, ever was and will be, my God, that’s like touching the face of eternity.

Though I’m not a scientist, I do wonder how an event so enormous, so unfathomable to most mortals, could have left a trail of crumbs in its wake.  It has been determined that the universe began 13.798 ± 0.037 billion years ago, more or less.  That’s all calculation, the only tool available to determine its age.  It’s also calculated that the observable universe is 48 billion light years in size.  Nothing to sneeze at, of course.  These numbers are only the result of of the logic of numbers and not the result of a person who stood at the rim and said, “Well, then, here we are…at the end.”  Unless, of course, you’re a person named Doug who’s actually hitchhiked your way from one end to the other.  In my opinion, he’s in a place to know at present, but he’s not giving up his secrets anytime soon.

My mind shuts down when I contemplate the enormity of all there is.  It gets worse when I attempt to ponder what caused its creation.  That Big Bang came out of…what?  What was before it?  Could it be that there was a universe that lived, breathed and died before it?  Or perhaps time bent backwards and regenerated its youth to live in another incarnation?

Will we ever know the answer?

Only the eternal reaches of the universe and time can tell.

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