Saturday, September 24, 2016

In Search Of...Skylab’s Lost Robotic Arm

HAVE YOU SEEN ME LATELY? Development Model of Skylab Serpentuator Arm, dated Jan. 3, 1969. Found at:
Sometimes curiosity can be sparked by a single image. Last week, a member of Space Hipsters posted a black and white, grainy, late 1960s photo of something called the “Serpentuator,” which I’d never heard of before in my life. But apparently, I needed it in my life. The photo, dated Jan. 3, 1969, added by user Ke4roh on Wikimedia Commons, has a caption that states: 
The Serpentuator is a 40-foot long articulated arm to aid astronauts on extravehicular activities with moving equipment and astronauts to particular locations outside Skylab. The Canadarm serves a similar purpose on the Shuttle, though it is not as dexterous. This photograph shows the Serpentuator at Marshall Space Flight Center flat floor facility of building 4711 set to be tested in two dimensions on air bearings in a manner similar to air hockey. At the near end of the Serpentuator is a 5 degrees of freedom (5DF) chair which allows a person strapped in to translate freely in two dimensions as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. The switch bank to the right of the chair controls the Serpentuator. Things that look in this picture like jellyfish provide air bearing support along the length of the Serpentuator. NASA caption: Serpentuator … straight, tip control out for viewing, inboard view. Photographer Moss.” (This image is sourced to the book/DVD Wernher von Braun, The Rocket Man: His Weekly Notes, 1961-1969, edited and researched by Ed Buckbee, released in 2010).
Naturally, I started scratching my head, wondering more about the thing that resembled a school of jellyfish rather than the sleek “robotic arm” we’re used to seeing on the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Turns out, the “Serpentuator” (comes from the words “serpent” - the device resembled a snake – and “actuator”) was a part of Skylab before Skylab even became Skylab, if that even makes sense.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Space Myths Busted: How Skylab Nearly Was Lost

Just seconds before chaos ensues, Skylab's Saturn V climbs into the skies on May 14th, 1973. NASA photo.
With rising internal temperatures and a trickle of electrical power, it became apparent shortly after Skylab’s launch on May 14th, 1973 that America’s first space station was in serious trouble. During the Skylab panel at Spacefest VII conducted on June 10th, 2016, astronauts Rusty Schweickart (Skylab 2’s backup commander) and Paul Weitz (Skylab 2’s pilot) discussed the fixes that were required to restore Skylab back to health after it had been severely crippled by several launch anomalies. Schweickart (along with backup crew members Dr. Story Musgrave and Bruce McCandless) devised many of the repairs on Earth, while Weitz valiantly attempted to fix Skylab’s jammed SAS-1 solar wing during a stand-up EVA using a special pair of “bolt cutters” at the beginning of his crew’s mission.

Indeed, the fact that Skylab was able to be salvaged after suffering several disabling blows – the loss of its micrometeroid shield (MS), the complete loss of one solar wing, and the jamming of another – was nothing short of incredible. But how did Skylab acquire these near-fatal wounds? And was there another strange anomaly that could have killed the whole mission? Read further…

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Brief History of Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, Part Two: Guest Post by Jay Chladek

A Buran wind tunnel model. Photo by author Kobel, from Wikimedia Commons.
Here is part two of space historian Jay Chladek's series about the real history of the Buran orbiter and its launch system, Energia. Enjoy!

So Why Is It Called Buran?

So why is the program called Buran, which means "Snowstorm" in Russian? That has to do with Soviet naming traditions in regards to space programs. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Brief History of the Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, Part One: Guest Post by Jay Chladek

Occasionally this blog features writing by other space historians and figures. During the next two weeks, I am proud and honored to present a history of the Soviet Buran space shuttle by someone who knows an awful lot about it. Here's the dirt on everybody's favorite shuttle, by space historian Jay Chladek:
A Brief History of Soviet Space Shuttle Buran, Part One (CLICK FOR MORE AFTER THE JUMP!) 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Viking Vibes and Mars Memories: Viking Forty Years Later, Part Three

NASA image: "Mariner 4 image, the first close-up image ever taken of Mars. This shows an area about 330 km across by 1200 km from limb to bottom of frame, centered at 37 N, 187 W. The area is near the boundary of Elysium Planitia to the west and Arcadia Planitia to the east. The hazy area barely visible above the limb on the left side of the image may be clouds. This portion of the feature has been enhanced in image m04_01h to bring out more of the haze-like features. The resolution of this image is roughly 5 km and north is up. (Mariner 4, frame 01D)"
More Space Myths Busted: There Were Mars Missions Years Before Viking

I was reading an online article recently (source redacted) that characterized the Vikings as the first robotic missions to visit Mars. While the Vikings made the first successful landings (read: returning useful data) upon the Red Planet, they were far from the first spacecraft to explore our planetary neighbor.

Several efforts to investigate Mars had been made by both the United States and the Soviet Union well over a decade before Viking 1 sent back its first image (of its foot!) on July 20th, 1976. This blog post seeks to survey these missions, and their results (successful, or not). 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Viking Vibes and Mars Memories: Viking Forty Years Later, Part Two - Did Viking Discover Life On Mars?

Viking 1 surveys the "Big Joe" rock at Chryse Planitia. NASA image.
You should go there, it is so nice, Mars.
You should be there, it's out of sight, Mars.
You should see it, it ain't so high, Mars.
You should be there, up in the sky, Mars.
- Title track from Dexter Wansel’s Life On Mars LP, 1976

Throughout the 1970s, pop culture references to “life on Mars” were inescapable. The late David Bowie sang about it on his album Hunky Dory, and musician Dexter Wansel even made a sci-fi funk album called Life On Mars, released in 1976 (the year of Viking). Science fiction, of course, had bandied about the possibility of “little green men” on our neighboring planet for decades.

But did Viking really discover life on Mars, in any way, shape, or form? Did the “little green men” exist on a microbial level? This debate continues to this day. Read on, and make your decision:

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Viking Vibes and Mars Memories: Viking Forty Years Later, Part One

From NASA: "Taken by the Viking 1 lander shortly after it touched down on Mars, this image is the first photograph ever taken from the surface of Mars. It was taken on July 20, 1976." Image Credit: NASA 
“Time and time again I repeat, ‘It’s incredible.’ And it truly is. Nothing before or after can compare. It is transparent, brilliant, boundless. An explorer would understand. We have stood on the surface of Mars.” - The late Thomas A. “Tim” Mutch, leader of the Viking Lander Imaging Team, discussing his reaction upon seeing Viking 1’s first image
I can’t speak for others, but for me, the Viking program had the biggest cultural impact on how I viewed planetary spaceflight. While the Viking landers weren’t able to rove beyond their landing sites, and couldn’t take cool “selfies” upon the Martian surface, the images from school science books and the January 1977 issue of National Geographic forever made an impact on my mind: something from Earth had made it to a neighboring planet, landed successfully, and made its home there permanently. Along with the two Voyagers and ESA’s Giotto, the Vikings fired my imagination, making it seem as if the Solar System was wholly explorable.