Tag Archives: NASA

Feb. 20, 1962: First American Orbits Earth

Originally posted: 19 February 2008

WASHINGTON — By the end of 1961 the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union had heated up.

In August of that year, the Soviets sent up their second orbital flight, with Cosmonaut Gherman Titov aboard, while the United States had completed just two suborbital flights. Feeling the pressure, NASA decided to advance its flight schedule by dropping a third planned suborbital flight and instead accelerating its upcoming orbital mission.

That was good news for John Glenn, who had been disappointed to be picked to be the third U.S. astronaut in space behind Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom. Glenn may not have been the first U.S. astronaut in space, but the affable pilot became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth after his Mercury capsule, dubbed Friendship 7, launched Feb. 20, 1962, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard an Atlas rocket.

Glenn was a Marine fighter pilot who flew 59 combat missions during World War II and 63 combat missions during the Korean War. He also had served as a test pilot and as an advanced flight training instructor. In July 1957, Glenn achieved fame for setting a transcontinental flight time record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 34 minutes.
In April 1959, Glenn was among the seven U.S. astronauts selected to launch into space for Project Mercury. The “Mercury Seven” also included Shepard, Grissom, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Donald “Deke” Slayton and Gordon Cooper.

NASA’s original plan was to have an open call to select astronauts for Project Mercury, but U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to use military test pilots instead.

The Mercury Seven were assigned to the Space Task Group based in Hampton, Va.

Over the next few years the group received training in various simulations, parabolic flights, pressure suits, survival skills and communications. They also took academic courses including space science, engineering and physiology. The astronauts were assigned areas of specialty to help design the Mercury capsule.
Glenn was responsible for the layout of the cockpit.

“The astronauts’ specialty assignments had some direct affect on the redesign of the Mercury suit, cockpit layout and the capsule hatch and window systems,” the NASA History Web site said.

Glenn’s flight originally was scheduled for December 1961, but inclement weather and technical problems with the capsule resulted in a series of launch delays. Finally, his Friendship 7 capsule was launched into space the following February.

Aside from a minor error that kept the capsule out of its proper orbital attitude for 38 seconds, the launch and the early part of them flight were nominal.

Glenn noted a dust storm over Africa’s west coast, the electric lights of two cities – Perth and Rockingham, Australia – and the quick onset of sunrise and sunset.

But at the end of the first orbit, Glenn lost control of an attitude control jet, which meant the capsule became like a car with its wheel alignment out of balance, the NASA History Web site said.

Glenn was forced to override the automatic control system – the Mercury capsules were designed to be primarily automated spacecraft – for manual control. He was able to maintain control but could not complete some of his observational assignments, and piloting manually meant the rate of fuel consumption increased.

However, the next reported problem was more serious. A landing-system monitor signaled to the ground that the capsule’s heat shield was not locked into place, meaning it was only being held in place by the overlying retro-rocket package. Without Mercury’s heat shield, the capsule would disintegrate during re-entry – along with Glenn.

After weighing their options, officials at the control center decided that instead of ejecting the retro-rocket package after readying the landing gear as is typically done, they would keep it in place and thus maintain the heat shield, the NASA History Web site said.

Mercury chief designer Maxime Faget approved of that course of action, as long as the retro-rockets were exhausted; any leftover fuel probably would ignite upon re-entry, the NASA History Web site said.

Although not immediately informed of the perceived danger, Glenn became suspicious of a problem when tracking stations kept asking him if his landing-bay deploy switch was turned off, the NASA History Web site said.

“We are recommending that you leave the retro package on during the entire re-entry,” the control center said, according to the 1963 U.S. National Archives documentary film “The John Glenn Story.”

During re-entry Glenn saw the retro-pack breaking into pieces and thought it was the heat shield and that he would be next, according to the NASA History Web site.

Fortunately, he was wrong. Glenn splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean safely after the nearly five-hour flight.

The heat shield was later found to have been locked firmly into place – its sensor simply had malfunctioned.

Does ‘The Martian’ Point Out NASA’s Risk-Averse Culture?

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is receiving both critical praise and commercial success, and deservedly so. Not only does Matt Damon get to redeem himself from his cowardly actions after being stranded on another planet in the Christopher Nolan film “Interstellar,” but it presents an emotionally lifting epic embedded in nail-biting hard-science fiction.

While others will debate the obvious, “Is that scientifically possible or feasible?” I was also curious about questions concerning the political and policy machinations involved in a manned mission to Mars gone wrong.

Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Matt Damon in a scene from “The Martian.” Credit: 20th Century Fox

For those unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a brief summary with only mild spoilers beyond what’s seen in the trailers. Wind from a storm on Mars’ surface threatens to tip over the lander module of a manned NASA mission. The lander is the crew’s only way back to the orbiter, and therefore its only way back to Earth. The commander (Jessica Chastain) decides not to risk such a possibility and orders an evacuation. During the scramble back to the lander, the botanist (Damon) is hit by a communications antenna and then presumed dead. The commander orders to abandon the mission and leave Mars, not knowing that the botanist survived the incident and is now stranded.

NOTE: Before I get into the discussion, I feel the obligation to counter the narrative that NASA would do such a mission on its own. NASA is not able to sustain a station orbiting Earth without the help of the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and to a lesser extent the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. So to believe that the U.S. could muster the necessary funding and political will to send a manned multi-mission to Mars is Hollywood magic indeed.

Getting that out of the way, I can discuss the objective here: Would NASA act like it did in trying to save its astronauts? So I asked Roger Launius, associate director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, who has written several books about the history of the space program. I explained the movie scenario since he hadn’t yet seen it.

Roger thought the possibility of the lander tipping over during a storm seemed somewhat unrealistic considering how thoroughly NASA’s scientists and engineers consider environmental concerns when running through its mission scenarios. He thought the space agency would anticipate the dust storm’s plausible strength and then build a vehicle capable of withstanding it.

Although that was not one of my questions, it’s an excellent point. If the storm was not some freak occurrence, why would they not have been prepared for such a scenario? During the movie, the crew said the storm was bigger than they had anticipated, but is that likely? Even now, there are several probes orbiting the red planet, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. So, weather events on Mars shouldn’t be too surprising.

If such a surprisingly strong Martian storm did threaten to topple the lander, however, what is NASA’s view of astronaut safety versus mission completion? In other words, is NASA risk averse?  Surely, with a manned mission to Mars there is a great deal of intrinsic risk. “I don’t think NASA’s risk averse,” Roger said. “Space is inherently dangerous.”

Steven Jones
Steven Jones, the alleged shooter who killed one student and wounded three others at Northern Arizona University Oct. 9, 2015. Credit: Northern Arizona University photo

Actually, Roger believes it’s U.S. society that is risk averse, “almost schizophrenic” about astronaut safety, especially when compared to more blasé attitudes concerning all-too-common dangers like mass shootings, vehicular safety or heart attacks. These more mundane dangers are seen as almost routine and inevitable, he said. Certain dangers are tolerable but others are not, he continued.

Then Roger went on to point out the great risks NASA astronauts have already met in sending humans to space and even training them to go there.  There have been 18 fatalities involving the U.S. and Soviet/Russian space programs during space missions (although none in space itself) and another 14 deaths during training and preparation for such missions. There have also been many other non-fatal accidents, including the heroic and successful return of the Apollo 13 astronauts after an in-flight explosion of one of its oxygen tanks and the fire on board Russia’s Mir space station after a docking accident with a Progress resupply craft.

But Roger acknowledged that leaving an astronaut stranded would prove an especially agonizing tragedy for the public to tolerate. He pointed out the 1999 revelation that Nixon speechwriter William Safire had written a speech for the then-president to deliver in case the Apollo 11 astronauts had not been able to return from the moon’s surface as planned.

Indeed it would seem NASA is not risk averse, as Roger so astutely pointed out, but simply careful. It’s sending women and men into the void and it just wants to do so as safely as possible. That’s just smart.