WillyLogan.com

Technology, History, and Place

Category: Space (Page 2 of 5)

The mystique of space relics

Sixty years ago today, on July 21, 1961, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom became the second American to fly into space. Like Alan Shepard in May, Grissom flew a suborbital trajectory, because the Mercury-Redstone booster that he was riding on was not powerful enough to put his capsule, Liberty Bell 7, into orbit. Grissom took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 7:20 in the morning and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean fifteen minutes later.

When Grissom was waiting for the recovery helicopter to come pick him up, the explosive hatch on the side of the capsule blew off. Grissom dove into the ocean as the capsule filled with water, and he nearly drowned as water entered his spacesuit. The recovery helicopter was unable to lift the waterlogged capsule, and the winch operator had to cut the capsule loose. Liberty Bell 7 disappeared beneath the waves and sank to the ocean bottom, more than 15,000 feet below.

That could be the end of the story for Liberty Bell 7, but it isn’t. In 1999, a team led by underwater salvage expert Curt Newport, in the culmination of fourteen years of effort, found Gus Grissom’s capsule on the ocean floor. The team raised the capsule from the depths and whisked it off to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center for conservation by the museum’s division Spaceworks. After conservation—and much media coverage—the Liberty Bell 7 went on a tour of science museums around the United States.

Some views of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule when it stopped in Denver in early 2003. I was lucky enough to see it twice on its first tour.

Some views of the Liberty Bell 7 on tour in Denver in early 2003. I was lucky enough to see it twice on its first tour.

The recovery of Liberty Bell 7 had cost millions of dollars, bankrolled by the Discovery Channel. Conservation cost another quarter-million. What was the point? Why go to the effort? There were a couple of reasons. One of them was that the recovery of Liberty Bell 7 presented a unique opportunity for a museum displaying American space artifacts. Because of an agreement between NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, all flown Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft belong to the National Air and Space Museum. A few of them are displayed in Air and Space’s two museums in the Washington, DC area, and the rest are on loan to other museums around the country. But since Liberty Bell 7 had been lost at sea, Air and Space had no claim on the capsule. Just like for any shipwreck, Liberty Bell 7 belonged to whoever wanted to go to the effort of retrieving it.

Another reason to recover Liberty Bell 7 was rarity. Between 1961 and 1975, American astronauts flew into space aboard a total of 31 Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini spacecraft. That might seem like a lot, but it isn’t when you consider how many cities and science and aerospace museums there are in the United States alone, not to mention the rest of the world. Every science museum would love to have a flown Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo capsule, but not every one can get one. Those that can’t have to make do with dressed-up boilerplates or replicas.

A third reason for going to such great lengths to recover Liberty Bell 7 has to do with how flight, and especially spaceflight, is understood as something magical in American culture. As Joseph Corn explains in The Winged Gospel, the early decades of the twentieth century were a period of widespread enthusiasm for flying in American culture. Americans believed that flight would usher in a technological utopia or millennium. Enthusiasm for flight declined after World War II when airplanes brought death and destruction rather than utopia, and when commercial flying became commonplace and banal.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for aircraft, as well as spacecraft, persisted among some sub-cultures in the United States. To these people—generally pilot, aviation museum, and airshow types—aircraft made before a certain time (generally, World War II or earlier) were inherently historic, regardless of whether they had had anything to do with any great events. Museum restorationists obsessively preserved every last rivet and cotter pin of an aircraft while refurbishing it for display. Adventurers traveled to the ends of the earth (including the jungles of New Guinea and the ice cap of Greenland) to salvage World War II plane wrecks for restoration, sometimes even to flying condition.

If airplanes were magical and deserved this level of investment into their recovery, then spacecraft were doubly so, because they had flown higher and faster than planes, and were much rarer. Hence the recovery of Liberty Bell 7 at great expense. More recently, Amazon.com CEO and Wernher von Braun wannabe Jeff Bezos commissioned the recovery of the F-1 engines from the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon, for much the same reasons as the recovery of Liberty Bell 7.

In a sad irony, while Liberty Bell 7 was recovered at great expense from the ocean depths for restoration and display, another of Gus Grissom’s spacecraft has never been put on display and maybe never will be. Grissom and two crewmates, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were scheduled to fly the AS-204 spacecraft, an Apollo Block I capsule, in early 1967. On January 27 of that year, during a simulation on the launch pad, a fire broke out in the capsule, killing Grissom, White, and Chaffee before the pad crew could get the spacecraft’s hatch open. The disaster prompted the redesign of the Apollo spacecraft into the safer Block II model. The Apollo 1 capsule (as AS-204 is retroactively known) remains in storage at NASA-Langley in Virginia.

The Apollo 1 capsule before the fire.

The Apollo 1 capsule before the fire. (NASA photo)

The prime crew of Apollo 1 posing with a model of their capsule (L-r): Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. (NASA photo)

The prime crew of Apollo 1 posing with a model of their capsule (L-R): Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. (NASA photo)

The original hatch of the AS-204 capsule was displayed at Kennedy Space Center in 2017, alongside an example of the redesigned and easier-to-open Apollo Block II hatch. This was the first time that any part of the capsule had been displayed publicly. (NASA photo)

The original hatch of the AS-204 capsule was displayed at Kennedy Space Center in 2017, alongside an example of the redesigned and easier-to-open Apollo Block II hatch. This was the first time that any part of the capsule had been displayed publicly. (NASA photo)

STS-118 launch video

Today is the tenth anniversary of the last launch of a space shuttle, Atlantis on STS-135. I remember watching the launch on NASA TV with my dad, and thinking that this was the end of an era. My dad said that he had watched the bookends of the Space Shuttle program: TV coverage of the first glide flight of the Enterprise in 1977, and then the final launch in 2011.

Earlier, in 2007, I made a trip down to Florida to watch another shuttle launch, Endeavour on STS-118. Here is my video of the launch, which I edited and uploaded shortly after shooting it. I watched the launch from Titusville, across the Indian River from Merritt Island and Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t until the shuttle actually took off that I realized I had my camera trained on the wrong launch pad!

Endeavour now resides at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The museum plans to display the orbiter in its configuration for the STS-118 mission, although the permanent display space has yet to be built.

70815-wind-tunnel-model-side_1810px

The Silicon Valley Space Shuttle

MOFFETT FIELD, California, USA – Just inside the front gate of Moffett Field in Northern California, a large model of the Space Shuttle Orbiter stands on three pylons. The model’s nose is high as if it is flaring for a landing on the street leading into the government airfield.

The Moffett Field Space Shuttle model.

The Moffett Field Space Shuttle model.

Although there are no plaques or historical markers anywhere to attest to this fact, the model is in fact a relic of the Space Shuttle program, like the orbiter Endeavour in Los Angeles. Unlike Endeavour, the Moffett Field model never flew into space; but as a precision engineering model, it had its own important role to play in the Space Shuttle program. During the development of the Space Shuttle in the 1970s, NASA tested the model extensively in the large 40-by 80-foot wind tunnel at Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.

The Moffett Field model was the largest of several Space Shuttle models tested in the wind tunnels at NASA Ames from the early 1970s until the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Some of the models represented the entire shuttle stack, with External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters; these models simulated the launch of the shuttle into orbit. Other models, like the Moffett Field model, represented only the Orbiter, as it returned from space and slowed from hypersonic speeds to a gliding landing on a runway.

One of the purposes of the Moffett Field model was to simulate the flow of air over the thermal protection tiles on the underside of the orbiter. The tiles were installed with small gaps in between them, to allow the aluminum body of the shuttle to expand and flex as it heated or cooled during flight. The thermal protection tiles are thus all individually modeled on this model. This is why the model is so large: 0.36-scale, or just over one-third the size of a real Space Shuttle Orbiter.

The 0.36-scale shuttle model during testing in the 40x80-ft wind tunnel at NASA Ames, February 27, 1976. (Source: NASA)

The 0.36-scale shuttle model during testing in the 40×80-ft wind tunnel at NASA Ames, February 27, 1976. (Source: NASA)

Rear view of the 0.36-scale model during testing, May 20, 1975. (Source: NASA)

Rear view of the 0.36-scale model during testing, May 20, 1975. (Source: NASA)

The Moffett Field model has been outside for quite some time, and it is a little the worse for wear. Back in the seventies, it was painted a canary-yellow color over its entire surface. Now it is painted like a real shuttle orbiter, with white on the top and black on the bottom. The after-the-fact coat of paint is thick, and in some places it has been stained by the Northern California rain.

Rear three-quarters view of the 0.36-scale wind tunnel model.

Rear three-quarters view of the 0.36-scale wind tunnel model.

Detail of the engines on the model.

Detail of the engines on the model.

Your blogger’s hand touching the underside of the wind tunnel model, with the individual tiles visible.

Your blogger’s hand touching the underside of the wind tunnel model, with the individual tiles visible.

The paint on the nose of the wind tunnel model, not in great shape after years outdoors.

The paint on the nose of the wind tunnel model, not in great shape after years outdoors.

Moffett Field is located in Silicon Valley, where Apple, Google, Facebook, and other titans of Information Technology have their headquarters or major offices. But long before IT, Moffett Field was a center for another type of technology. Starting with its role as the West Coast base for the Navy’s airship program in the mid-1930s, and continuing with the establishment of NACA Ames Aeronautical Laboratory (now NASA Ames) in 1939, Moffett Field has long been a center for aviation and aerospace. In the twenty-first century, the wind tunnels at NASA Ames continue to do research for Orion and other programs.

I’m glad that the 0.36-scale wind tunnel model has been preserved, but it needs to be better-taken care of and better-interpreted. Big Tech tends to take up all the air in the room in the Bay Area, but Moffett Field and NASA Ames are as much a part of the history of Bay Area technology as Apple, Google, and Facebook.

Further reading

I learned about the Moffett Field shuttle model in Development of the Space Shuttle, by T.A. Heppenheimer, a terrific book about the engineering that went into the shuttle between the program’s initial approval by President Nixon in 1972 and the first flight in 1981. An evocative NASA photo of the model in the 40-by 80-foot wind tunnel appears on the front cover of the book. Development of the Space Shuttle is the sequel to The Space Shuttle Decision, another excellent book by the same author, which is available for free from the NASA History Office.

By the way, the South Bay has another link to the Space Shuttle program: Lockheed Missiles and Space Systems, just to the east of Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, is where the thermal protection tiles were manufactured—an incredibly exacting process.

Page 2 of 5

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén