Category Archives: Space Flight

25 April 1990

Hubble Space Telescope after release from Discovery, STS-31, 25 April 1990. (NASA)
Hubble Space Telescope after release from Discovery, STS-31, 25 April 1990. (NASA)

25 April 1990: In orbit 380 miles (612 kilometers) above Earth, the crew of Discovery (STS-31) released the Hubble Space Telescope from the cargo bay. This satellite was designed to study the universe in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, with a clarity never before seen.

A recent Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula, NGC 7635 (NASA)
A recent Hubble image of the Bubble Nebula, NGC 7635, an emission nebula at a distance of 11,000 light years. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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24 April 1990, 12:33:51 UTC, T minus Zero

Discovery (STS-31) lifts off Pad 39B with the Hubble Space Telescope. Sister ship Columbia waits on Pad 39A. (NASA)
Discovery (STS-31) lifts off Pad 39B with the Hubble Space Telescope. Sister ship Columbia waits on Pad 39A. (NASA)

24 April 1990, 12:33:51 UTC: Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-31) lifted off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Florida, on a mission to place the Hubble Space Telescope in Earth Orbit.

The STS-31 flight crew were Loren J. Shriver, Commander; Charles F. Bolden, Jr., Pilot; Steven A. Hawley, Mission Specialist; Kathryn D. Sullivan, Mission Specialist; Bruce McCandless II, Mission Specialist.

Discovery (STS-31) flight crew: Seated, left to right: Colonel Charles F. Bolden, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps; Colonel Loren J. Shriver, U.S. Air Force; Lieutenant Commander Kathryn D. Sullivan, U.S. Navy. Standing, left to right: Captain Bruce McCandless II, U.S. Navy; Mr. Steven A. Hawley. (NASA)
Discovery (STS-31) flight crew: Seated, left to right: Colonel Charles F. Bolden, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps¹; Colonel Loren J. Shriver, U.S. Air Force; Lieutenant Commander Kathryn D. Sullivan, U.S. Navy.² Standing, left to right: Captain Bruce McCandless II, U.S. Navy; Mr. Steven A. Hawley. (NASA)

The Hubble Space Telescope is named after Edwin Hubble, an early 20th century astronomer who discovered galaxies beyond our own Milky Way galaxy. It is an optical Ritchey–Chrétien telescope (an improved Cassegrain reflector). Star light enters the telescope and is collected by a large 7 foot, 10.5 inch (2.400 meter) diameter hyperbolic mirror at the back end. The light is reflected forward to a smaller hyperbolic mirror, which focuses the light and projects it back through an opening in the main reflector. The light is then gathered by the electronic sensors of the space telescope. These mirrors are among the most precise object ever made, having been polished to an accuracy of 10 nanometers.

The Hubble Space Telescope being deployed from Disovery's cargo bay. (NASA)
The Hubble Space Telescope being deployed from Discovery’s cargo bay, 25 April 1990. (NASA)

The Hubble Space Telescope is 43.5 feet (13.259 meters long. The light tube has a diameter of 10 feet (3.048 meters) and the aft equipment section is 14 feet (4.267 meters) in diameter. The spacecraft weighs 27,000 pounds (12,247 kilograms).

The HST orbits the Earth every 97 minutes at an altitude of 320 nautical miles (593 kilometers). The telescope was last serviced in 2009. Originally designed to operate for 15 years, the HST is now in its 26th.

The Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit. (NASA)
The Hubble Space Telescope in Earth orbit. (NASA)

¹ Colonel Bolden reached the rank of Major General, United States Marine Corps, before retiring in 2003. He was served as Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration, 17 July 2009–20 January 2017.

² Lieutenant Commander Sullivan left NASA in 1993, and retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Captain, in 2006. She served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere/Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 28 February 2013–20 January 2017.

© 2017,  Bryan R. Swopes

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23–24 April 1967

Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov (1927–1967)
Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov (1927–1967)

23–24 April 1967: At 00:35:00 UTC, 23 April, Soyuz-1, the first manned flight of the Soyuz 7K-OK spacecraft, was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome Pad 1/5 (Gagarin’s Start). On this first test flight, only one person was aboard the craft, which had been designed to carry three cosmonauts. Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov was the pilot. He had previously flown Voskhod-1, a 24-hour mission, in 1964.

A Soyuz 7K-OK space craft assembly. (Space Rocket History)
A Soyuz 7K-OK space craft assembly. (Space Rocket History)

The mission plan called for a second spacecraft, Soyuz-2, to be launched on the 24th, with a three-man crew. A rendezvous in orbit would be made.

Soyuz-1 was not ready to be flown. More than 200 faults were known, but the pressures brought about by politics required that the launch proceed.

On reaching orbit, two solar arrays were to deploy to provide electrical power for the spacecraft’s batteries. One panel did not deploy and this severely limited the power available.

The Soyuz stabilization system relied on sensors which would detect certain stars to provide orientation, but the failed solar panel covered them. Within a few orbits the system failed completely. Komarov used the ship’s thrusters to manually control stability, but this was only marginally effective.

There were also communications difficulties. With electrical power diminishing and reaction fuel being spent, the main goals of the mission could no longer be achieved. After 13 orbits it was decided to abort the mission.

An illustration of Soyuz-1
An illustration of Soyuz-1

Komarov had to manually align the Soyuz-1 during the daylight phase of orbit 18. Gyroscopic stabilizers were supposed to maintain that alignment as the spacecraft passed into darkness. Komarov would once again align the craft when it came around into light, and hold that alignment through the reentry deceleration.

For some reason, the braking engine was 2 minutes, 23.5 seconds late in firing. The deceleration burn was planned for 2 minutes, 30 seconds, but an automatic system, recognizing that the gyro system was not holding the proper alignment, cut off the engine 4 seconds early. This meant that the Soyuz would travel farther down range than intended, and would not have slowed quite as much, although it was enough for re-entry.

Soyuz-1 impacted the Earth at 03:22:52 UTC, 1.9 miles (3.06 kilometers) to the west of Karabutak, Orenburg Oblast, at speeds estimated at from 30–40 meters per second (67–89 miles per hour) to as high as 640 kilometers per hour (398 miles per hour). It is believed that Vladimir Komarov died from injuries sustained at this time.

He was the first person to die during a space flight.

A rescue helicopter quickly located the Soyuz reentry module which was lying on its side in an open field with its parachute alongside. The rescuers reportedly saw the soft-landing rockets fire, which they should have done just before the module’s impact.

The module was on fire and by the time rescuers reached it, it was fully involved and molten metal was spreading on the ground. After expending their fire extinguishers, the rescuers tried to put of the fire by shoveling dirt on to it, but the the capsule completely collapsed.

Doctors on the scene pronounced Vladamir Komarov dead, with injuries to his skull, spinal cord, and numerous broken bones resulting from the impact. His body was completely burned. A postmortem examination at Moscow confirmed that the cosmonaut had been killed by the capsule’s impact.

Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, Cosmonaut.
Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, Cosmonaut.

Several theories have been published as explanation for the failure of the spacecraft’s parachute to safely slow Komarov’s descent, though with the craft completely destroyed by fire, it is unlikely that there could be any certainty. The official finding is that the drogue parachute did not apply enough force to pull the main parachute free. A backup parachute was deployed manually by Komarov but it fouled in the drogue ‘chute and did not open sufficiently to brake the craft.

Another theory is that a pressure sensor malfunctioned which prevented the automatic deployment of the main parachute. The drogue ‘chute should have been released at that time, but was not, which resulted in the reserve parachute fouling.

Third is that during an autoclaving operation the parachutes may have been contaminated with an adhesive substance.

And another story is this: During the design of Soyuz-1, the thickness of the heat shield was increased, and so the weight of the spacecraft went up. Engineers increased the size of the main parachute accordingly. But the compartment that it was to be stored in remained the same size. The fit was so tight that when the parachute was being installed, technicians had to hammer it into place with wooden mallets.

 Burning wreckage of Soyuz-1, 24 April 1967. (RosCosmos)
Burning wreckage of Soyuz-1, 24 April 1967. (Russian Federal Space Agency)

Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov was born at Moscow, Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR), 16 March 1927. His father was killed early in The Great Patriotic War (World War II). At the age of 15 years, he entered the 1st Moscow Special Air Force School and graduated in 1945. He then went to Sasovskoye for initial pilot training, and then to the Borisoglebsk Air Force Pilot School. In 1946 he was transferred to the A.K. Serov Bataisk Military Aviation School. He received his pilot’s wings and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force, 10 December 1949.

Lieutenant Komarov served as a fighter pilot of the 383rd Fighter Aviation Regiment at Grozny. The regiment was transitioning from the Mikoyan-Guervich MiG-9 turbojet-powered fighter to the new swept-wing MiG-15. While there, he met his future wife, Valentina Yakovlevna Kiselyova, a recent graduate of the Grozny Teachers’ Training Institute. They were married in 1950. They had two children, Yevgeny and Irina.

In 1952, Senior Lieutenant Komarov was assigned as senior pilot of the 486th Fighter Aviation Regiment, flying the MiG-15 and MiG-17. In 1954 he applied to attend the N.E. Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy, from which he graduated in 1959. Promoted to Senior Lieutenant-Engineer, he was assigned as a test pilot at the Central Scientific Research Institute.

Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov
Colonel Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin and Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov at Star City, 1964. (Europress/AFP)

After promotion to captain-engineer, 3 September 1960, Komarov was selected for the first group of Soviet cosmonauts. He was older than most of the group, but was well liked and respected.

Colonel-Engineer Vladimir Mihailovich Komarov, Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR, was twice named Hero of the Soviet Union. He had also been awarded the Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Star, as well as several other decorations.

Following a state funeral, the cosmonaut’s ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall at Red Square.

Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, Pilot-Cosmonaut, Hero of the Soviet Union.
Colonel Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, Pilot-Cosmonaut, Hero of the Soviet Union. “Whoever has flown once, whoever has piloted an airplane once, will never want to part with either an aircraft or the sky.”

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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21 April 1972, 02:23:35 UTC, T + 104:29:35

Apollo 16 Lunar Module Orion at the Descartes Highlands.
Apollo 16 Lunar Module Orion at the Descartes Highlands.

21 April 1972, 02:23:35 UTC: Lunar Module Orion (LM-11) touched down on the surface of the Moon at the Descartes Highlands. On board were the Mission Commander, Captain John Watts Young, United States Navy, and Lunar Module Pilot Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Duke, Jr., United States Air Force. They were the ninth and tenth humans to stand on the Moon.

Technical problems delayed Orion‘s descent for three orbits. Lieutenant Commander Thomas K. (Ken) Mattingly II, U.S.N., the Command Module Pilot, remained in lunar orbit aboard Casper (CSM-113).

As they neared the surface they started to see dust blowing at about 80 feet (24 meters). The lunar module hovered briefly before continued downward.

104:29:22 Duke: Okay, 2 down. Stand by for contact. Come on, let her down. You leveled off. (Pause) Let her on down. Okay, 7. . . 6 percent [fuel remaining]. Plenty fat.

104:29:36 Duke: Contact! Stop. (Pause while they drop to the surface) Boom.

During a debriefing, John Young said, “When we got the Contact light, I counted ‘one-potato’ and shut the engine down. The thing fell out of the sky the last three feet. I know it did. I don’t know how much we were coming down, maybe a foot a second.”

Teh surface of the Moon as seen through the window of the Lunar Module, shortly after landing. (NASA)
The surface of the Moon as seen through the window of the Lunar Module, shortly after landing. (NASA)

Young and Duke remained on the surface for 2 days, 23 hours, 2 minutes, 12 seconds. During that time, they performed three EVAs totaling 20 hours, 14 minutes, 20 seconds. They drove their Lunar Roving Vehicle 16.6 miles (26.7 kilometers).

Looking northeast at John Young with the LRV, 22 April 1972. (Charles M. Duke, Jr./NASA)
Looking northeast at John Young with the LRV, 22 April 1972. (Charles M. Duke, Jr./NASA)

A remote television camera was placed on the surface and captured color images of the Lunar Module Ascent Stage departing the Moon for lunar orbit at 01:25:47 UTC, 24 April 1972.

Ascent Stage launch, 01;25:47 UTC, 24 April 1972. (NASA)
Ascent Stage launch, 01:25:47 UTC, 24 April 1972. (NASA)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 April 1962

E-334220 April 1962: “Neil’s Cross-Country.” NASA Research Test Pilot Neil Alden Armstrong conducts a flight to test the MH-96 flight control system installed in the third North American Aviation X-15, serial number 56-6672. The new system combined both aerodynamic and reaction thruster flight controls in one hand controller rather than the two used in X-15s -670 and -671, simplifying the tasks for the pilot.

On its fourth flight, -672 was air-dropped from the Boeing NB-52B Stratofortress “mothership,” Balls 8, over Mud Lake, Nevada. Armstrong fired the XLR-99 engine and let it burn for 82.4 seconds. The X-15 accelerated to Mach 5.31 (3,789 miles per hour/6,098 kilometers per hour). After the engine was shut down, the rocketplane continued to its peak altitude on a ballistic trajectory, reaching 207,500 feet (63,246 meters) before going over the top and beginning its descent back toward the atmosphere. The test of the new flight control system went well.

E63-9834Neil Armstrong began to pull out of the descent at about 100,000 feet (30,480 meters), but the X-15 “bounced” off the top of the atmosphere and climbed back to 115,000 feet (35,052 meters) where the aerodynamic control surfaces could not function. He used the reaction thrusters to turn toward the dry lake landing area at Edwards AFB, but although the X-15 rolled into a left bank, it would not change direction, and still in ballistic flight, went zooming by Edwards at Mach 3 and 100,000 feet in a 90° left bank.

As the X-15 dropped back into the atmosphere, Armstrong was finally able to get it slowed down, but he was far south of his planned landing site. By the time he got -672 turned around, he was 45 miles (72.4 kilometers) to the south, over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and gliding through 45,000 feet (13,716 meters). There was real doubt that he would be able to make the X-15 stretch its glide to reach the dry lake.

E-7469In a masterful display of airmanship, Neil Armstrong was able to get the X-15 to reach the south end of the dry lake, 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) from the planned landing spot to the north. But it was a very close call. In debriefing, the pilots of the four F-104 chase planes were asked how much clearance Armstrong had as he crossed over the Joshua trees at the edge of the lake bed. One of them answered, “Oh, at least 100 feet—on either side.”

At 12 minutes, 28.7 seconds, this was the longest flight of the entire X-15 program. It is called “Neil’s cross-country flight.”

North American Aviation X-15 56-6670 with Neil A. Armstrong, Jr., NASA Research Test Pilot, Edwards AFB, 1960A U.S. Navy fighter pilot who flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War, Neil Armstrong became a civilian test pilot at NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA) in 1955. He made 7 flights in the X-15 before transferring to NASA’s Project Gemini in 1962.

Armstrong was command pilot for Gemini 8 and Gemini 11, commander of the backup flight crew of the Apollo 8 mission, and was commander of Apollo 11.

On 20 July 1969, Neil Alden Armstrong was the First Man To Stand on the Surface of The Moon.

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© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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