Daily Archives: April 13, 2017

13 April 1970, 03:07:53 UTC, T+55:54:53

Damage to Apollo 13's Service Module, photographed just after separation. (NASA)
Damage to Apollo 13’s Service Module, photographed just after separation 17 April 1970. (NASA Apollo 13 Image Library AS13-59-8500)

13 April 1970: At 10:07:53 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (mission elapsed time 55:54:53), while Apollo 13 and its crew, James A. Lovell, Jr., John L. Swigert and Fred W. Haise, were approximately 200,000 miles (322,000 kilometers) from Earth enroute to a landing at the Fra Mauro Highlands on The Moon, an internal explosion destroyed the Number 2 oxygen tank¹ in the spacecraft’s Service Module. The Number 1 tank was also damaged. Two of three fuel cells that supplied electrical power to the spacecraft failed.

Jack Swigert radioed Mission Control: “I believe we’ve had a problem here.” ²

Mission Control: “This is Houston. Say again, please.

Jim Lovell: “Houston, we’ve had a problem. Main B Bus undervolt.

With oxygen supplies depleted and power failing, the lunar landing mission had to be aborted, and the three-man crew evacuated the Command Module and took shelter in the Lunar Module.

This was a life-threatening event.

The story of Apollo 13 and its crew and their journey home is well known. The 1995 Ron Howard/Universal Pictures film, “Apollo 13,” takes some artistic license, but is generally accurate and realistic.

Mission Controller Gene Kranz is known for his statement, "Failure is not an option.) NASA Apollo 13 Image Library Image S70-35139)
Flight Director Gene Kranz (right of center, with his back to the camera) in Mission Control, Houston, Texas, a few minutes before the accident. (NASA Apollo 13 Image Library Image AP13-S70-35139)

Five years before Apollo 13 was launched, an engineering decision had been made to increase the spacecraft electrical system from 28 volts to 65 volts. This required that every electrical component on the vehicle had to be changed to accommodate the increased power. The after-accident investigation found that the team that designed the cooling fans for the oxygen tanks was never informed of the change.

During the actual flight, the wiring inside the tank heated to approximately 1,000 °F. (538 °C.), and in the pressurized pure oxygen, the insulation caught fire. The tank, originally installed on Apollo 10, had been dropped when it was removed for modification. It was repaired and later used on Apollo 13, however, it had been weakened by the damage. The extreme pressure caused by the heat of the burning electrical wiring in the containment caused the tank to rupture.

The damaged Service Module after being jettisoned from the Command Module, photographed from the Lunar Module. The Moon is visible between the two. (NASA)

¹ Serial number 10024X-TA0009

² The official mission transcript attributes this statement to Jim Lovell, however, in Lovell’s recollection, it was made by Swigert.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 April 1960

X-15 56-6670 with NB-52A 52-003, 13 April 1960. (NASA)
X-15 56-6670 with NB-52A 52-003, 13 April 1960. (NASA)

13 April 1960: Major Robert M. White, USAF, made the first flight of an X-15 by an Air Force test pilot.

Carried aloft by a Boeing NB-52A Stratofortress, serial number 52-003, the first of three X-15 hypersonic research aircraft, 56-6670, was airdropped at 0915 above Rosamond Dry Lake. Major White ignited the two Reaction Motors XLR-11 rocket engines and with a burn time of 4 minutes, 13.7 seconds, the X-15 accelerated to Mach 1.9 (1,254 miles per hour/2,018 kilometers per hour) and reached 48,000 feet (14,630 meters). Both numbers were slightly short of the planned Mach 2.0 (1,320 miles per hour/2,124 kilometers per hour) and 50,000 feet (15,240 meters).

After 8 minutes, 52.7 seconds, Bob White and the X-15 touched down at Edwards Air Force Base.

This photograph shows the second North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6671, flaring to land on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California The rear skids are just touching down. The white patches on the aircraft's belly is frost from residual cryogenic propellants remaining in its tanks. (U.S. Air Force)
This photograph shows the second North American Aviation X-15A, 56-6671, flaring to land on Rogers Dry Lake, Edwards Air Force Base, California The rear skids are just touching down. The white patches on the aircraft’s belly is frost from residual cryogenic propellants remaining in its tanks. (U.S. Air Force)

Over the next 32 months Bob White made 16 flights in the X-15. He was the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6. He flew it to Mach 6.04, 4,093 miles per hour (6,587  kilometers per hour) and set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) altitude record of 314,750 feet (95,936 meters), for an altitude gain of 82,190 meters (269,652 feet).¹

White was one of three pilots awarded astronaut wings for his flights in the X-15.

Major Robert M. White exits the cockpit of an X-15 at Edwards AFB. White is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force)
Major Robert M. White exits the cockpit of an X-15 at Edwards AFB. White is wearing a David Clark Co. MC-2 full-pressure suit. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ FAI Record File Number 9604

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 April 1931

Ruth Nichols with her Lockheed Vega. Her records are painted on the engine cowling. (FAI)
Ruth Nichols with the Lockheed Vega. Her records are painted on the engine cowling. (FAI)

13 April 1931: Ruth Rowland Nichols set a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Speed Record of 338.99 kilometers per hour (210.64 miles per hour) over a 3 kilometer course at Carlton, Minnesota.¹

Nichols’ airplane was a 1928 Lockheed Model 5 Vega Special, serial number 619, registered NR496M, and owned by Powell Crosley, Jr. He had named the airplane The New Cincinnati.

Built by the Lockheed Aircraft Company, Burbank, California, the Vega was a single-engine high-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. It was flown by a single pilot in an open cockpit and could be configured to carry four to six passengers.

The Lockheed Vega was a very state-of-the-art aircraft for its time. The prototype flew for the first time 4 July 1927 at Mines Field, Los Angeles, California. It used a streamlined monocoque fuselage made of molded plywood. The wing and tail surfaces were fully cantilevered, requiring no bracing wires or struts to support them. The fuselage was molded laminated plywood monocoque construction and the wing was cantilevered wood.

The Model 5 Vega is 27 feet, 6 inches (8.382 meters) long with a wingspan of 41 feet (12.497 meters) and overall height of 8 feet, 2 inches (2.489 meters). Its empty weight is 2,595 pounds (1,177 kilograms) and gross weight is 4,500 pounds (2,041 kilograms).

Nichols’ airplane was powered by an air-cooled, supercharged 1,343.804-cubic-inch-displacement (22.021 liter) Pratt & Whitney Wasp C nine-cylinder radial engine with a compression ratio of 5.25:1. It was rated at 420 horsepower at 2,000 r.p.m. at Sea Level, burning 58-octane gasoline. The engine drove a two-bladed controllable-pitch Hamilton Standard propeller through direct drive. The Wasp C was 3 feet, 6.63 inches (1.083 meters) long, 4 feet, 3.44 inches (1.3-7 meters) in diameter and weighed 745 pounds (338 kilograms).

“Ruth Nichols was the only woman to hold simultaneously the women’s world speed, altitude, and distance records for heavy landplanes. She soloed in a flying boat and received her pilot’s license after graduating from Wellesley College in 1924, becoming the first woman in New York to do so. Defying her parents wishes to follow the proper life of a young woman, in January 1928 she flew nonstop from New York City to Miami with Harry Rogers in a Fairchild FC-2. The publicity stunt brought Nichols fame as “The Flying Debutante” and provided headlines for Rogers’ airline too. Sherman Fairchild took note and hired Nichols as a northeast sales manager for Fairchild Aircraft and Engine Corporation. She helped to found the Long Island Aviation Country Club, an exclusive flying club and participated in the 19,312-meter (12,000-mile) Sportsman Air Tour to promote the establishment of clubs around the country. She was also a founder of Sportsman Pilot magazine. Nichols set several women’s records in 1931, among them a speed record of 339.0952 kph (210.704 mph), an altitude record of 8,760 meters (28,743 feet), and a nonstop distance record of 3182.638 kilometers (1,977.6 miles). Her hopes to become the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean were dashed by two crashes of a Lockheed Vega in 1931, in which she was severely injured, and again in 1932. In 1940, Nichols founded Relief Wings, a humanitarian air service for disaster relief that quickly became an adjunct relief service of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) during World War II. Nichols became a lieutenant colonel in the CAP. After the war she organized a mission in support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and became an advisor to the CAP on air ambulance missions. In 1958, she flew a Delta Dagger at 1,609 kph (1,000 mph) at an altitude of 15,544 meters (51,000 feet). A Hamilton variable pitch propeller (which allowed a pilot to select a climb or cruise position for the blades), from her Lockheed Vega is displayed in the Golden Age of Flight gallery. Nichols’ autobiography is titled Wings for Life.”

— Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, Women In Aviation and Space History, The Golden Age of Flight.

Ruth Nichols' records are painted on the engine cowling of her Lockheed Vega. (FAI)
Ruth Nichols’ records are painted on the engine cowling of her Lockheed Vega. (FAI)

¹ FAI Record File Number 12282

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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