Sunday, January 7, 2018

How John Young Got The U.S. To Apollo Before Apollo Flew

NASA photo, July 18, 1966: "Agena Target Docking Vehicle 5005 is photographed from the Gemini 10 spacecraft during rendezvous in space. The docking adapter is turning towards the spacecraft. Both vehicles are about 24 feet apart."

 Columbus was right. The world is round.” - John Young following Gemini 10

After Project High Jump and well before he traveled to the Moon twice and commanded Columbia twice, the late John Young, who died January 5th, was one of the astronauts who bridged the gap between the one-man Mercury missions and the much more ambitious Apollo lunar missions. While many tributes and obituaries focus on his status as a moonwalker and/or STS-1’s commander, it’s my opinion that his achievements during 1966’s Gemini 10 mission are almost criminally underrated. Here’s why:

Gemini, “The Bridge”

Michael Collins’ 1988 book Liftoff characterized the Gemini program as “The Bridge.” That’s a good way to describe it: this two-man program functioned as a series of sequential steps to get the United States from the simpler Mercury missions to the rendezvous-heavy Apollo lunar missions that were still under development. While rendezvous had been accomplished between two spacecraft in December 1965 (Gemini 6A/7), another key objective, docking, hadn’t yet taken place by year’s end. Gemini 8’s mission objectives changed dramatically from successfully docking to merely survival. In a sense, so did Gemini 9A’s, with Gene Cernan’s wild, truncated spacewalk (see the chapter “The Spacewalk From Hell,” in his book The Last Man On The Moon). In addition, the prospects of docking with an Augmented Target Docking Adaptor (after the mission’s Agena Target Vehicle was lost due to an Atlas launch vehicle failure) were thwarted by an errant payload fairing that was famously called “The Angry Alligator.”

That left Gemini 10, which would be characterized as the “Everything But The Kitchen Sink” mission. The objectives: rendezvous with not only one, but two, spacecraft. The Gemini spacecraft would “visit” the dead Gemini 8 Agena Target Vehicle, and dock successfully with a live Agena. The command pilot in the driver’s seat would be John Young, who at age 35 was already a spaceflight veteran, having flown alongside Gus Grissom in March 1965 during Gemini 3. Young and pilot Collins were underway aboard a Titan II launch vehicle on July 18, 1966. 

NASA photo, July 18, 1966: "Astronauts John W. Young (right), command pilot, and Michael Collins (left), pilot, prime crew for the Gemini 10 spaceflight, undergo suiting up operations in the Launch Complex 16 suiting trailer."
Young In The Driver’s Seat

Collins’ Liftoff sheds a little light into Young’s personality, which could be best characterized as inscrutable (Collins called him “mysterious” in his 1973 book Carrying The Fire). One notices when Young gets nervous (especially with Collins outside of the spacecraft), he uses the nickname “babe” a lot (“Well, babe, if I don’t translate down soon, we’re going to run into that buzzard” is a classic Young-ism). Collins also related that when Houston asked Young for a propellant reading “while I am cranking the hatch locking handle,” after his second EVA, Young doesn’t like that at all and growls, “Get serious.”

The road to rendezvous and docking isn’t an easy one, either. Collins wrote:

John is flying and I am alternating peering out of the window and reading numbers from our computer. At a mile out, we are closing at 25 mph, which is about right. But then things start to go wrong. We have gotten off to one side somehow and our closing rate has dribbled off to zero. We have to thrust toward the Agena again and now we are swinging around it in a tightening arc. We have done this in the simulator and we don’t like it a bit. “Woah, woah, woah, you bum!” John yells.

The two crewmen, Collins revealed, called this maneuver a “whifferdill” in the simulator. By the time the two spaceships were docked, fuel had dwindled to 36% instead of an expected 60%. Collins later added at bedtime, “John is morose because of our excessive fuel usage...[we] are not in a happy mood after our first day in space...I have failed my Magellan test.” (Young had nicknamed Collins “Magellan” for his navigational skills.) The fuel issue was later determined not to be Young’s fault. He was later quoted in 1996 as relating, “The primary rendezvous was characterized, I think, by a large out-of-plane error. When we realized this was taking place, we could no longer let orbital mechanics work for us...We were working for it. We had to use what I call a brute force method of rendezvous, and it takes a lot of fuel.”

On mission day three, the crew separated from the Agena and went to “visit” Gemini 8’s Agena, which Young flew alongside in formation, approximately 10 feet away.

While Collins still had an EVA to perform and multiple experiments to undertake, and despite their mixed feelings about fuel consumption, Young and Collins had performed a historic achievement: Gemini 10 would be the first time ever that a spacecraft had rendezvoused with two separate spacecraft. They had docked with a space vehicle as well, this time with no life-threatening complications. These milestones were useful not only for Young’s later Apollo missions (10 and 16), but also were key for Apollo in general, and future space station missions.

The Legacy

I’m sure in the coming weeks, much more will be written about John Young’s missions and legacy in general, but it more than bears mention that well before he conquered the Moon and mastered the Shuttle, Young must also be remembered for helping us pioneer and perfect the techniques that got us to the Moon and to the ISS.

Much more about Gemini 10 can be found in Young’s book Forever Young, Collins’ Carrying The Fire, and the NASA History book On The Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Ed Gibson’s Dances With The Sun: Skylab 4, 1973 – 1974

NASA photo, Feb. 1974: "Scientist-astronaut Edward G. Gibson, science pilot for the Skylab 4 mission, demonstrates the effects of zero-gravity as he sails through airlock module hatch." 
There's another world behind the sun / He used to shine on everyone / And lately I'm amazed at the way it's grown / It moves in at midnight when I'm all alone. - Duncan Browne, “My Only Son”

On January 21, 1974, Dr. Ed Gibson was hard at work in orbit aboard Skylab, viewing what he characterized as a “moderately active” Sun. He’d been advised what to spot by the previous mission’s science pilot. Gibson wrote in the 1979 NASA publication A New Sun, [Skylab 3 science pilot] Owen Garriott...had suggested that when a tiny bright point appears on the extreme ultraviolet image of the Sun, it may be an early signal that a flare is beginning.”

Monday, December 18, 2017

I Finally Read “A House In Space,” And Damn, It Is A Big Ol’ Mess

Square-jawed shitstirrer Dr. Ed Gibson gets ready to upset some space journalists, NASA photo, Sept. 10, 1973: "Scientist-astronaut Edward G. Gibson, science pilot for the third manned Skylab mission (Skylab 4), enters a notation in a manual while seated at the control and display panel for the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) during simulations inside the one-G trainer for the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC)."
A good friend sent over a copy of A House In Space, published in 1976 and written by Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., with a caveat stating there were parts within it I probably wouldn’t like, and boy, he was right! My personal feelings aside, from a space history standpoint, this book is a total mess and I’m not sure how or why it was published. I guess I’ll start first with the few things I enjoyed about the book.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

This Space Available's Best of 2017: The Top Five

This year, the space community lost many notables, including Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and Paul Weitz (pictured aboard Skylab). NASA photo, June 1973: "Astronaut Paul J. Weitz, Skylab 2 pilot, mans the control and display console of the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) in this onboard view photographed in Earth orbit. The ATM C&D console is located in the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) of the Skylab 1/2 space station." 
2017 was, in many ways, a difficult year for the space community, as it suffered losses of notables including (but not limited to) Gene Cernan (Gemini 9A, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17), Dick Gordon (Gemini 11, and Apollo 12), and Paul Weitz (Skylab 2, and STS-6). However, the year was also punctuated with many triumphs, including Cassini's last glimpses at the Saturnian system, Spacefest VIII, and many fun times on the Space Coast. Authors such as Gerald Brennan, Rod Pyle, and Lauren Baratz-Logsted wowed readers with stories that were alternately touching, gripping, and sometimes hilarious. Update: Sadly, on Dec. 21, the space world also lost astronaut Bruce McCandless.

Here is a sampling of some of my articles from 2017; hope you enjoyed them, and I hope you keep reading my work in 2018! In the next year, I intend to seriously chisel out my upcoming book for publication, among other activities. You're all invited to come along for the ride!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Frank Kelly Freas, Sci-Fi Pulp Art, and His Lasting Skylab Legacy

Dr. Joseph Kerwin, Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., and Paul Weitz, each sporting the mission patch designed by artist Frank Kelly Freas. 1973 NASA photo.
A grand, spider-like space station, stark and monolithic, silhouetted against the seas of a blue and green Earth, all against the backdrop of a fiery, violent Sun flaring away: this was one of the first images associated with Skylab iconography in the early 1970s, and was courtesy of someone who may have seemed to be an unlikely space mission patch designer. The artist was called “the dean of science fiction artists” and was perhaps more well-known for his magazine and book covers, which adorned science-fiction pulp magazines with pithy names such as Weird Tales and Astounding Science Fiction. How did someone commonly associated with buxom space divas become the originator of one of the (in my estimation) best space mission patches?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In Which We See Paul Weitz Claim A Dubious Spaceflight Record, And Then We See It Promptly Snatched Away By His Former Boss: 1974 AvWeek Edition

The Skylab 2 crew in happier times, NASA photo: "The three members of the prime crew of the first manned Skylab mission discuss their scheduled flight before a gathering of news media representatives, in building 1 auditorium, April 17, 1973. They are (left to right) astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Paul J. Weitz, pilot; and scientist Joseph P. Kerwin, science-pilot." 
One of the most curious spaceflight "feuds" emerged in the spring of 1974, and it played out in the pages of Aviation Week & Space Technology. Unearthed by Mike Poliszuk in the Facebook group Apollo Spacecraft History, we see a tense dynamic emerge between a quiet, yet determined mission pilot and a salty veteran commander keen to defend his space "record" at any cost. 

I will let the screenshots from AvWeek explain themselves; please click on the images to enlarge as needed. Here we see a short vignette from the magazine's Washington staff in the March 18th issue, entitled "Star Streak": 

Sadly, Weitz was only able to hold on to his record for two months, perhaps even less. He was unceremoniously thrown under the bus by his Skylab 2 commander, Pete Conrad, in a letter to the editor published in the May 27th edition: 

My favorite part is the end of the letter, in which Conrad appeals to the editors asking them if they required further clarification, "please let me know." I have a sick image of them ordering a junior reporter to cold call Pete, and ask him for more information about this whole nudity in space thing. 

This may be the greatest thing I've seen shared on Facebook in a very long time.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

This Space Available’s Corrections Section: Félicette, not Félix

From Matthew Serge Guy's Kickstarter, "The Meow-cury 14": "The cats in training harnesses. Félicette on bottom right."
On November 7, 2010, over seven years ago, I published an (admittedly not very good) blog post about the story of France’s first space cat, Félix. The problem is...there was never a space cat named Félix. Read more about how I messed up, contributed to a falsehood concerning animals in space, and how a Kickstarter begun by Matthew Serge Guy intends to right these wrongs and honor the first real kitty who went to space.