April 12, 1961 Space Race

“When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’ – Yuri Gagarin

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Most of us who lived through the period feel the same way.

In the wake of WW2, irreconcilable differences between the two great super powers split the alliance which had once defeated Nazi Germany. The most destructive war in history had barely come to a close in 1946, when the Soviet state set itself to gobbling up the non-communist states of eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered the most famous oration of the era on March 5, declaring “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

The 1950s were a time of escalating tensions and sometimes, calamity.  The war in Korea. The beginning of American intervention in Vietnam. The Cuban Revolution of 1959.  The exodus from Soviet-controlled East Germany to the west resulted in a “brain drain” of some 20% of the population, culminating in the “Berlin Crisis” of 1961. First it was barbed wire and then a wall, complete with guard towers and mine fields. Nobody else, was getting out.

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The Cold War took on inter-stellar proportions on July 31, 1956, when the United States declared its intention to launch an artificial satellite into space. The Soviet Union announced it would do the same and then stunned the world, launching the first inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) on August 27, 1957 and then beating the US to its own goal with the launch of Sputnik 1, on October 4.

Soviet propagandists enjoyed another victory on November 3 when “Laika” launched aboard Sputnik 2.  Meanwhile, the American space program couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.

Three days later and half a world away, the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported the capsule’s appearance over Boston:

Laika and capsule
Laika

“Pupnick–the dog-bearing satellite–will be visible to early risers Thursday morning at about 5:09, Dr. Fred L. Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, announced last night. Whipple added that Boston, where the rocket will be directly overhead, will be “one of the best places” from which to view the Russians’ latest satellite”.

Soviet propaganda portrayed heroic images of “the first traveler in the cosmos” printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.  There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  The real story was far more depressing.  Tightly harnessed, stressed by the forces of launch and overheated, Laika died within the first seven hours of her flight.

Belka and Strelka became the first animals to enter space and return safely to earth aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 followed closely by the American chimpanzee Ham, whose smiling visage appears at the top of this page.

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Belka and Strelka

On this day in 1961, 27-year-old Soviet Air Force Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space aboard the Vostok 1  capsule, returning to earth after an hour and 48 minutes’ orbit.  Major Gagarin’s  “Poyekhali! (Let’s go!) would become the catch phrase for the entire eastern bloc, for the following half century.

Soviet capsules were parachuted onto dry land in the early days of the space program, while the Americans preferred to “splash down”.  Gagarin ejected from the craft and parachuted to earth in Kazakhstan, much to the fear and dismay of local villagers:

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Gagarin Capsule

When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.’

During the flight, Gagarin is supposed to have said “I don’t see any God up here.”

No such words appear in any of the transcripts. It’s unlikely he said such a thing.    Gagarin and his family celebrated Christmas and Easter, and kept Orthodox icons in the house.  He had baptized his daughter Elena, shortly before the historic flight.  The phrase more likely originated with Nikita Khrushchev, who  attributed the quote to Gagarin during a speech about the Soviet state’s anti-religion campaign.

220px-Yuri-Gagarin-1961-Helsinki-cropGagarin’s flight gave fresh life to the “Space Race” between the cold war rivals.  President John F. Kennedy announced the intention to put a man on the moon, before the end of the decade.

Today, the accomplishments of the space program seem foreordained, the massive complexities of the undertaking, forgotten.

In the modern era, the most powerful supercomputers on earth put the $2.5 Billion Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, with defective “vision” and literally requiring “glasses”.

In the early days, these guys were sending human beings tens to hundreds of thousands of miles into space, on less computing “horsepower” than contained in your modern cell phone.

 

On a lighter note
After that Laika story, this tale needs a happy ending.
In 1960, “Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5, before returning to Earth.  Aside from a few plants, these were the first creatures to enter the void of space and return, alive.
Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew.   During a thaw  in relations, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave one of those puppies,”Pushinka”, to President John F. Kennedy.
Pushinka and a Kennedy family dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies, pups JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka and Charlie are long gone but their descendants are still around, to this day.
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Mama Pushinka with JFK’s “Pupniks”: Butterfly, White Tips, Blackie, and Streaker
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April 11, 1970 Houston, we Have a Problem

 Fifteen years before Angus “Mac” MacGyver hit your television screen, mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to “MacGyver” life support, navigational and propulsion systems. For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only a day and one-half.

Apollo 13 liftoffThe seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program was scheduled to be the third moon landing, launching at 13:13 Central Standard Time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Jack Swigert was the backup pilot for the Command Module (CM), officially joining the Apollo 13 mission only 48 hours earlier, when prime crew member Ken Mattingly was grounded, following exposure to German measles.

Jim Lovell was the most seasoned astronaut in the world at that time, a veteran of two Gemini missions and Apollo 8.  By launch day, April 11, 1970, Lovell had racked up 572 space flight hours. For Fred Haise, backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11, this would be his first spaceflight.

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Apollo 13, original crew photo, Left to right: Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., CM pilot Ken Mattingly, LM pilot, Fred W. Haise Jr.

Two separate vessels were joined to form the Apollo spacecraft, separated by an airtight hatch. The crew lived in a Command/Service module called “Odyssey”.  The Landing Module (LM) dubbed “Aquarius”, would perform the actual moon landing.

56 hours into the mission and 5½ hours from the Moon’s sphere of gravitational influence, Apollo crew members had just finished a live TV broadcast.  Haise was powering the LM down while Lovell stowed the TV camera.  Mission Control asked Swigert to activate stirring fans in the Service Module’s hydrogen and oxygen tank. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a “loud bang”.

Apollo 13 Schematic

Manufacturing and testing of the vessel had both missed an exposed wire in an oxygen tank.  Swigert had flipped the switch for a routine procedure, causing a spark to set the oxygen tank on fire. Alarm lights lit up all over Odyssey and in Mission Control.  The entire spacecraft shuddered as one oxygen tank tore itself apart and damaged another.  Power began to fluctuate.  Attitude control thrusters fired, and communications temporarily went dark.

The crew could not have known at the time.  The entire Sector 4 panel had just blown off.

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The movie takes creative license with Commander James Lovell saying “Houston, we have a problem”.  On board the real Apollo 13 it was Jack Swigert who spoke:  “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.

205,000 miles into deep space with life support systems shutting down, the Lunar Module became the only means of survival.  There was no telling if the explosion had damaged Odyssey’s heat shields.  It didn’t matter. For now, the challenge was to remain alive.  Haise and Lovell frantically worked to boot up Aquarius, while Swigert shut down systems aboard Odyssey.   Power needed to be preserved for splashdown.

The situation had been suggested during an earlier training simulation, but considered unlikely. As it happened, the accident would have been fatal without access to the Lunar Module.

annexe6 A13-S70-34986 Fifteen years before Angus “Mac” MacGyver hit your television screen, mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to “MacGyver” life support, navigational and propulsion systems. For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only a day and one-half.

With heat plummeting to near freezing food inedible and an acute shortage of water, this tiny, claustrophobic “lifeboat” would have to do what it was never intended to do.

Atmospheric re-entry alone presented near-insurmountable challenges. The earth’s atmosphere is a dense fluid medium. If you reenter at too steep an angle, you may as well be jumping off a high bridge. As it is, the human frame can withstand deceleration forces no higher than 12 Gs, equivalent to 12 individuals identical to yourself, piled on top of you.  Even at that, you’re only going to survive a few minutes, at best.

We all know what it is to skip a stone off the surface of a pond.  If you hit the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, the result is identical to that stone. There is no coming down a second time. You get one bounce and then there is nothing but the black void of space.

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Apollo XIII timeline

Most of the country and much of the world held its breath for seventy-eight hours, waiting for the latest update from newspaper and television news.  With communications impossible, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  On board Odyssey, power was so low that voice-only transmissions became difficult. Visual communications with Mission Control were as impossible as the idea that the stranded astronauts could get out and walk home.

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“Astronaut John L. Swigert, at right, with the “mailbox” rig improvised to adapt the command module’s square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the lunar module, which took a round cartridge”. /T Wikipedia

As Odyssey neared earth, engineers and crew jury-rigged a means of jettisoning the spent Service Module, to create enough separation for safe re-entry.

One last problem to be solved, was the crew’s final transfer from Lunar Module back to Command Module, prior to re-entry.  With the “reaction control system” dead, University of Toronto engineers had only slide rules and six hours in which to devise a way to “blow” the LM, by pressurizing the tunnel connecting it with the CM.  Too much pressure might damage the hatch and seal.  Too little wouldn’t provide enough separation between the two bodies.  Either failure would result in one of those “shooting stars” you see at night, as the searing heat of re-entry incinerated the Command Module and everything in it.

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Shooting star as seen by night, H/T contentbuket.com

By this time, the Command Module had been in “cold soak” for days.  No one knew for certain, if the thing would come back to life.

Crashing into the atmosphere at over 24,000mph, the capsule had 14 minutes in which to come to a full stop, splashing down in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. External temperatures on the Command Module reached 2,691° Fahrenheit, as the kinetic energy of re-entry converted to heat.

Apollo 13 after it came back to Earth.
Apollo 13 landing

The Apollo 13 mission ended safely with splashdown southeast of American Samoa on April 17, 1970, at 18:07:41 local time.  Exhausted and hungry, the entire crew had lost weight.  Haise had developed a kidney infection.  Total duration was 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.

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A Trivial Matter
“In 1992, Lovell…decided to write a book-length account of the incident titled Lost Moon. He and co-writer Jeff Kluger finished one chapter and a proposal, which was in turn sent to publishers and production houses. A bidding war was sparked, and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment wound up winning film rights. The movie actually began shooting in 1994 before Lovell’s book was even released. (It was later re-titled Apollo 13.)” Hat Tip MentalFloss.com