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Thursday, April 24, 2025
Thursday, November 16, 2023
The following is an excerpt from my book "Growing up with Spaceflight- Skylab/ASTP" the text is protected by Copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski and no portion of this may be republished in any manner.
Considering that my family had now moved to the country and I was now in a good school, it was pretty hard for me to come up with a reason for staying home from school to watch and record the Skylab 4 launch. Previously my Junior High school had been such den of chaos that my parents were certain that I was learning more sitting home watching spaceflight on TV than I would “…in that damned school…” as my mom often stated. Now, however, being in a good school, I was sure that such was no longer the attitude of my folks. Of course, I considered playing sick, but being a lifelong asthmatic and generally sickly kid, my folks would easily see the difference. And an asthma attack that just happened to coincide with a Skylab 4 launch would be just too obvious for my parents to buy. I could plead and make big eyes, but at age 16 that would just look pathetic. Then, just as I was watching the evening news and contemplating a short fall down the basement stairs as a reason to stay home from school tomorrow, my Mom heard Cronkite talking about the next day’s launch.
“Is that goin’ up tomorrow morning?” she casually said.
“Yep,” I half sighed in reply.
“I suppose,” she asked rhetorically, “yer’ gonna stay home and record it.”
“Yep,” I answered feigning confidence.
“Okay,” she softly sighed.
Dang! That was easy.
November 16th, 1973 Skylab 4 was set to launch at 09:01 and coverage of the Skylab 4 launch began with assorted spots on the TV network’s morning news shows. Continuous coverage of the launch started on CBS at 8:45 that morning and NBC started five minutes later. Living in a new location, I found that NBC’s WNEM Channel 5 had the best sound so I decided to record from there, but changed over to CBS later just before launch. Deploying my implements for capturing history, I took my normal space-buff position to watch the historic launch that most of America would ignore in spite of network attempts of the news media to trump up an air of impending danger surrounding the replacement of the launch vehicle’s fins due to the discovery of some minor cracks.
At the Kennedy Space Center the weather was perfect for a change as opposed to the string of previous Skylab launches. Skylab’s 1 and 2 had jumped from the pad and into the clouds in a matter of seconds, and likewise Skylab 3 had done nearly the same sort of departure. Now, however, clear skies and unlimited visibility were the backdrop for Skylab 4. For the first time since Apollo 7 the cameras would be able to follow the Saturn IB all the way up. Considering that I had been held hostage in my fifth grade classroom learning about the state bird of Iowa, or some such pointless thing, during the Apollo 7 launch, this would be my first chance to watch an entire Saturn IB boost live on TV.
I was as giddy by the clear weather as I was that it was a launch day. Also giddy that morning were the three rookies in the Command Module. Gerry Carr later said that once they were “closed out” with the hatch sealed and everything was quiet, he sat up a bit from his couch and looked across his two crewmates. They all looked back and they all “giggled like a bunch of schoolgirls,” because they had been waiting so long for that moment.
Much of the media focus on launch day involved the fin replacement efforts and the perception that they may fall off at Max-Q. The countdown was normal and I started my trusty tape recorder. At launch it seemed as if the flame was nearly as large as a Saturn V, but the Saturn IB was tiny in comparison. It is interesting to note that the thrust of all eight of the IB’s H-1 engines combined was roughly equal to just one of the Saturn V’s F-1 engines.
On prior Skylab IB launches the launch vehicle was not discernible in the haze, so this time it was fun to watch. Cronkite kept exclaiming that this was the best we had ever seen one of these (meaning a Saturn IB), and since I had not seen Apollo 7, I had to agree.
Cronkite alerted viewers prior to Max-Q, which came at 69.5 seconds after liftoff. The drama of the fins falling off had to be hyped up I guess. Of course, nothing at all happened, no fins were lost. Then staging took place at 141.29 seconds into the flight and we got a good view of the retro and ullage motors firing. Then, 29 seconds later, we saw the escape tower and boost protective cover jettison and tumble away. Thereafter, Skylab 4 simply became a dot on my TV screen. The ride on the S-IVB was described later by Gibson as being “like an elevator.”
“Smooth as glass, Houston,” Carr reported.
The S-IVB boosted the CSM to just over 86 miles in altitude, where it pitched slightly downward and flattened its trajectory to gain velocity. At 577.18 seconds into the boost the single J-2 engine of the S-IVB shutdown and Skylab 4’s rookie crewmembers were no longer space rookies.
The following Monday I showed up as usual for my first hour Earth Sciences class at Freeland High School. My teacher, Mrs. Warner, asked where I had been on Friday. Expecting the normal rolled eyes and shaking head from her as I had seen in my previous school, I simply said that I had stayed home to watch the Skylab 4 launch. Instead of disdain, she put down her role-book and her eyes got wide,
“Oh man,” she sighed, “I wish I could’ve done that.”
What a difference moving to the country makes.
Monday, September 25, 2023
For most of the month of September 1973 Skylab 3 seemed to, again, nearly drop from the news completely. Personally for me, a huge transition took place in that same period of time. I was headed for high school and the high school that I had been headed for was one of the worst in mid-Michigan. Knowing that a smart ass like their son would quite likely get knifed within a week at that school, my parents did the only thing that they could; they sold our house in Sheridan Park and the entire family moved. Of course that up-rooting did not happen immediately. Instead, they bought a home that was under construction in the little farm town of Freeland, Michigan. I had an aunt and uncle who resided there and it was arranged that I could start high school in Freeland and live with my relatives until our new house was finished. Thus, I took up residence in the bedroom left behind by one of my grown cousins and started attending a school where actual learning took place and you could walk the halls in safety. We were on a “half-day” schedule and classes started at 6:50 in the morning, but got out at noon. That left plenty of time in the afternoons for space stuff. The only problem was actually finding the space stuff. Jack Lousma conducted a protracted TV tour of the Skylab in the closing days of the mission, but only small bits of that were broadcast by the national news media. It was almost as if Skylab was not aloft at all.
On September 25, 1973, the reentry and splashdown of Skylab 3 was scheduled for 7:19 p.m. Eastern Time. I had spent much of that Tuesday afternoon listening to the radio’s news reports of the progress of the returning crew.
I also had plenty of time to ponder the fact that my cousin had spent some effort scribing with a ballpoint pen little late 1960s hippie whimsies about “love” on the mortar joints between the bricks of his bedroom walls. “How little I know about love, but how much I wish I knew,” and crap such as that. Since I was not really a part of that stoned, flower child movement, I found the writing to be a bit odd. Of course, I was about to do something odd myself as I grabbed my tape recorder and set it up to catch the reentry and splashdown of Skylab 3 on TV.
As I was setting up the recording equipment my aunt came into the room and asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was getting ready to record the Skylab 3 splashdown.
“Well, what do you wanna do that for?” she asked condescendingly.
I explained that I recorded all of the splashdowns.
“I don’t see why you wanna do that,” she quipped, as if trying to motivate me to do something more “hip,” perhaps with a ballpoint pen.
I asked if she could please excuse me because the coverage was about to start. She left the room shaking her head and mumbling something about “nonsense.” Apparently she thought my time would be better spent down in that bedroom, stoned and scripting whimsies about “love” on the mortar joints between the bricks.
the Skylab 3 crew went as advertised. CBS News had the best coverage with
Morton Dean and Wally Schirra hosting the event. I managed to get nearly a
half-hour of the splashdown activity on tape in spite of my aunt’s disdain for
A few weeks later my folks moved into our new house in Freeland and I moved out of my older cousin’s old bedroom. Before leaving I could not resist taking a ballpoint pen and scribing a whimsy of my own on the mortar joints between the bricks on the wall; something that would really make my relatives scratch their heads if and when they ever read it.
“Houston,” I scrolled in tiny letters, “the Falcon is on the Plain at Hadley.”
Growing up with spaceflight in the 1970s, it was important to get the last laugh.
Tuesday, August 15, 2023
It was 60 years ago today that test pilot Milt Thompson piloted the world's first lifting body aircraft, the M2-F1 on its first flight.
Since the M2-F1 had to be very light weight it was constructed of plywood by sailplane maker Gus Briegleb.
So, on August 16, 1963 the M2-F1 was flying on its own. Although the steep "dive bomber" approach caught the observers on the ground, including Dale Reed, by surprise, Milt Thompson was fully in control. He did a simulated landing flair at 9,000 feet and then went right back into the descent profile. Landing exactly on his planned touchdown point he let the bird roll to a near stop before turning to roll clear of the desert runway.
When I was in high school in 1976 I designed my own lifting body "shape." It was a part of my 11th grade drafting class final project. While I was working on it- along with a model rocket booster and launch service tower with a retracting service structure (that I'm sure NASA stole from me), my drafting teacher the late Dan Craig came up and looked at the project.
"What's that wedge thing?" he asked.
"It's a lifting body," I replied as if he should know what I meant, "it's a wingless aircraft."
He simply shook his head and walked away. I go a "C" on the project mostly due to assorted tiny drafting errors, and on the lifting body he scrolled a message,
"Aircraft can't fly without wings- you should know that!"
Mine flew. Many years later my college roommate saw one of my lifting body balsa wood models and was so fascinated I gave him one. He went on to work as a NASA contractor at then Dryden, and Dale Reed's deck was just a short distance from his. So, he showed Mr. Reed my lifting body. The father of lifting bodies was impressed and said, "That would also make a great hypersonic shape."
But not constructed of balsa wood... of course
Saturday, May 13, 2023
The following is an excerpt from my book "Growing up with Spaceflight- Skylab/ASTP" the text is protected by Copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski and no portion of this may be republished in any manner.
THEY ALMOST LOST THE WHOLE DAMNED VEHICLE
Launch day was set for Monday, May 14, 1973, at 1:30 in the afternoon Eastern Time. Coverage of the launch on ABC and NBC began exactly ten minutes before liftoff, and CBS came on five minutes prior to liftoff. That fact alone was symbolic of the TV network’s attitude toward Skylab. Gone were the days when the launch of a Saturn V to begin a mission garnered more than a full hour of coverage. Oddly, the best coverage came in the way of segments presented on the morning news shows such as “The Today Show.” Seeing that I was in the last few weeks of attending what I considered to be one of the worst junior high schools in the galaxy, I had no trouble getting my parents to give me the day off from school to watch the launch.
My first view of the Saturn IB booster that was to loft the crew up to the workshop came on the morning of Skylab 1’s launch. Scheduled to launch the day after the workshop had been placed into orbit, the Saturn IB was mounted on a tall pedestal called a “milk stool.” The reason for the milk stool was to allow the S-IVB stage and the Apollo spacecraft to use their regular swing arms and assorted umbilical connections on the launch tower. That tower had been built to service the Saturn V, which was 196 feet taller than the Saturn IB. So a stool was needed to elevate the vehicle. It was a unique and clever solution to allow the Saturn IB, which had not been launched since October of 1968, to utilize hardware and launch pads that had been leftover from the Apollo lunar missions. Originally, the milk stool had been called the “bar stool” until some wise person at NASA Headquarters pointed out there may be some problems with that name.
What stunned me about the Skylab Saturn IB was that, unlike every other Saturn IB that I had seen photos of, all eight tanks on the SA-206 first stage were painted white! All of the previous Saturn IBs had their RP-1 fuel tanks painted black with a white rectangle containing the words “UNITED STATES” painted in red. SA-206’s RP-1 tanks were all white with the red lettering. In fact, all of the future S-IB stages would be painted in the same manner. Why the heck had they done that? It was a question that bugged me for more than three decades. Then, while researching documents on the early Saturn IB’s, I found the answer. AS-206 through AS-210 had all of their S-IB fuel tanks painted white instead of black because on April 19, 1965, unexplained deformations had appeared in the black tanks on the very first Saturn IB’s S-IB stage. These deformations corrected themselves once the stage was taken indoors. Thus they were thought to be caused by simple sunlight heating the tank. Painting the tanks white was the fix that eliminated the deformations. Since the tanks for SA-206 were the next ones on the assembly line that had not yet been painted it was decided to make the change there and simply live with the deformations from SA-201 to 205.
As network coverage of the Skylab 1 launch began I was fully prepared with my trusty cassette recorder, a portable TV, the family TV set and naturally my models of a Skylab Saturn V and a Saturn IB; minus the all-white tanks, of course. Indeed I had my own launch control center all set up in the family living room.
The countdown was smooth, having started the previous Wednesday at two o’clock in the morning. That countdown ran in parallel with the Saturn IB’s countdown that began at eight o’clock that same morning. It was the first time since Gemini 12 in November of 1966 that a dual countdown had taken place in a NASA mission.
Overall the planning for Skylab 1’s trip up-hill was nearly identical to the previous Saturn V launches. There was, however, one planned difference and it involved the shutdown of the F-1 engines on the S-IC stage. Normally the center engine was shut down first at about 140 seconds into the boost and the four outboard engines were shut down together about 20 seconds later. In the case of AS-513 the center engine was planned to shut down at the normal time but the four outboard engines were scheduled to shut down in sets of two, 0.7 seconds apart, in order to soften the shock of staging. That shock, it was reasoned, could have damaged the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM).
Counting down, the final seconds were familiar to us space-buffs as the big Saturn V ignited at T-8.9 seconds and roared to life. As it lifted off I had two very clear thoughts. First, I thought, “I saw you in person,” and secondly I was somewhat saddened in the knowledge that what I was looking at was the last Saturn V that would ever fly. Just 49 seconds after liftoff, Skylab 1 was swallowed by a thick layer of clouds that blocked out any view from the ground. That was unfortunate because big problems were just seconds away.
Shortly after vanishing from sight, an “anomaly” occurred aboard the Saturn V that put the entire Skylab program in jeopardy. The events began about 63 seconds after liftoff. This anomaly can be found described in historical shorthand by both NASA publications and media presentations as being the moment when the workshop’s micro-meteoroid shield prematurely deployed, was caught by the slipstream, and torn off the Skylab.
The overall results were workshop overheating and a jammed solar panel wing. The second solar panel wing had been lost off the workshop completely. Although most accounts of the launch and the Skylab program normally leave it at that; a study of the overlooked details of the 63 second anomaly is far more interesting and far more frightening. AS-513, in fact, came within seconds of becoming the first Saturn V to be lost in flight.
At 62.807 seconds after liftoff the launch vehicle began to react to an external, abnormal aerodynamic force. This was 1.707 seconds after Mach 1 (the sound barrier) was passed and was the beginning of the anomaly that was the premature deployment and subsequent loss of the workshop’s micro meteoroid shield.
Most media and poorly researched accounts say that the event took place at “…the point of maximum vibration…” or they will also say it happened at “Max-Q,” or the point where the vehicle experiences maximum aerodynamic pressure. But, Max-Q was a full 10.63 seconds into the future and the meteoroid shield would be long gone by then. What really happened was that as the Mach 1 shock wave passed down the vehicle a reverse flow of air along the skin of the vehicle found its way up what was called the Auxiliary Tunnel (a conduit that ran the length of the workshop). Entering through two uncapped stringers at the base of the tunnel, the high pressure air moved up the tunnel and popped the rubber boot at the top. That airflow got up under the shield structure and propagated a bulge that was just enough to lift the shield more than 2 inches into the slipstream, which was now at Mach 1.05. By 63.289 seconds into the flight, less than one second after it had started, the damage was done and the shield had torn away and its departure loosened both Solar Array Assembly (“SAS”) wings as it went. The worst of the damage, however, was not done yet.
As the two-and-a-half story tall, 22-foot-wide hunk of meteoroid shield fell, it struck the Saturn V at least twice. The first impact was on the S-IVB to S-II adapter, where the debris punched a hole in the adapter’s skin. This showed up in post flight data as the pressure in the adapter area was shown to drop at an abnormal rate. The potentially fatal blow, however, came when the shield’s remains struck the Saturn V for the second time. The impact area included the second plane separation point where the linear shaped charge was located that pyrotechnically blows the parts of the airframe apart so that the “skirt” ring can be dropped after first stage separation. This “skirt sep” often seen in videos, normally took place about 30 seconds after first stage separation. It is a critical event and, in manned Apollo flights, if the skirt failed to separate from the S-II, it was an abort situation requiring use of the escape tower.
The reason why this “skirt sep” is so critical is not one of weight, but rather it is thermal in nature. A back-flow of hot gasses from the five J-2 engines would become trapped in the confines of the skirt and the issue would become critical at center engine cut off. With the four outboard engines still firing in the near vacuum of space, and no center engine to provide its flow, the back-flow of heat would intensify. The temperatures imposed on the base of the stage along the thrust structure would quickly spike and go into the range where a “thermally induced failure” of the stage would take place. In that scenario the thrust structure melts and the burning engines push up into the LOX tank. On AS-513, that is what began to take place and the vehicle was within seconds of failure when S-II’s outboard engines finally shutdown. Had there been the loss of one engine, and the stage had been forced to burn a bit longer to compensate, they would have lost the entire vehicle. Even with the S-II engines burning normally, the estimates are that the Skylab 1 vehicle came within a very few seconds of that disaster.
So, why did the skirt fail to separate and, worse yet, why did the ground controllers not get an indication of failed separation?
Here is why: When the separation signal was sent by the Saturn V’s Instrument Unit (IU), two Exploding Bridge Wire units would fire at opposite ends of the Linear Shaped Charge (LSC) loop that passed completely around the vehicle at the separation plane. The LSC would then blow apart 199 tension straps holding the two sections together, and the skirt would thus be freed to drop away from the S-II stage. A back-up charge would fire if an electrical plug between the two sections did not disconnect, indicating that the two sections were less than ¼ inch apart. On AS-513, the meteoroid shield impacted the seam where the LSC for the skirt was located and it broke the loop. When the LSC fired, the explosion only propagated 165 degrees around the separation plane (about 89 tension straps). But that was enough to pull out the electrical plug used to indicate a separation of more than ¼ inch, so no back-up charge firing was commanded and the signal sent to the ground said that separation had taken place when in fact it had not. Because of the cloud cover, no ground cameras could be used to back up the faulty telemetry, so no one in Mission Control knew that the skirt was still attached. It was calculated that the huge meteoroid shield impacted the S-II skirt at between 200 and 1,000 feet per second. It was a close one; they almost lost the whole damned vehicle.
A second anomaly, which also is often misreported, involved the loss of SAS wing number 2. Most accounts say that it was lost with the meteoroid shield, but in fact it was not! Although loosened by the shield’s departure, SAS wings number 1 and 2 stayed connected to the work shop all the way up. At S-II shutdown, however, four solid fuel retro rockets mounted at 90 degree intervals around S-IVB / S-II forward adapter skirt fired to aid in separation of the S-II from the upper stage. SAS wing number 2 was centered just 16.8 degrees off of one of the retro rockets. The plume from that retro’s firing hit the already loose SAS wing and blew it “…completely off the bird,” as Pete Conrad later observed. SAS wing number 1 was held down by debris from the meteoroid shield which was enough to hold it against its associated retro’s plume.
Although you may see the anomaly sequences misreported in “documentaries” and even in some NASA films, the facts are as stated here. It simply shows that accounts of spaceflight history are normally written by persons too lazy to dig into the post-flight analysis. It also is important to keep in mind that normally NASA films are produced by outside contractors who know little or nothing about the subject, yet were able to make the lowest bid in order to get the project. For those of you still not convinced, perhaps because Wiki something says different, don't take my word for it. Simply find NASA report MPR-SAT-FE-73-4, August 1, 1973, Saturn V Vehicle Flight Evaluation; SA-513 Skylab 1 Saturn V... and READ IT.
Friday, May 5, 2023
Flying aboard his Mercury capsule, christened “FREEDOM 7,” Alan Shepard made a sub-orbital hop down the Atlantic Missile Range. Officially the flight was designated Mercury Redstone Three or, more commonly, MR-3. His flight lasted just 15 minutes and 22 seconds. On the ground the news media on both radio and TV really did not quite know how to actually broadcast a spaceflight. After all, they were used to broadcasting political conventions and ball games and this was nothing like that. In fact, considering that the Soviets did their launches in secret, it was like nothing that had ever been broadcast before.
Shepard rode the Redstone for 142 seconds. At that point the engine cut off exactly as planned and the escape tower jettisoned itself simultaneously. Although Shepard heard the event, he did not see any part of it other than the green light that indicated tower jettison. Next, he heard the clamp-ring that held the capsule to the booster blow apart and saw the green light that indicated the event. He also felt what he described as “a little kick in the tail” when the posigrade separation motors fired and separated the spacecraft from the booster.
Now Alan Shepard was flying in space.
Automatically the Mercury spacecraft rotated around to what was known as the “blunt end forward” attitude needed for reentry. From that position Shepard exercised FREEDOM 7’s manual controls in the pitch, roll, and yaw attitudes and reported periscope observations for all of two minutes. Then, at five minutes and 14 seconds into the flight it was time for the retro sequence. The retros fired on time and one minute later the retro package was jettisoned. Shepard heard what sounded like the pack letting go and saw some small bits of debris out the porthole, as well as part of one of the restraining straps, but he did not get an event light indicating the jettison. Instinctively he hit the manual “JETT RETRO” override switch and the green event light illuminated. After years of preparation to fly in space and months of preparation for this specific flight, all of which involved countless problems that could occur, this single little glitch with the retro package jettison light was the only thing on Shepard’s flight that did not go as planned.
FREEDOM 7’s reentry carried a high “G” load and Shepard momentarily soaked up 11 G's – 11 times the force of what a person experiences in normal gravity, or 1 G. The high G loading lasted only a few seconds, after that Shepard simply sat there and dropped into the atmosphere. At nine minutes and 38 seconds into the flight, FREEDOM 7’s drogue parachute deployed and shortly thereafter the main chute deployed normally. FREEDOM 7 splashed down so close to the recovery helicopters that even before Shepard could get a good start at reading his instruments and switch positions as required during the post flight process, the recovery “helo” had already hooked onto the capsule. Concerned that the capsule may be a bit too low in the water, Shepard radioed up and asked the recovery helo to lift FREEDOM 7 a bit higher. As soon as that happened, he took off his helmet, hung it on the hand-controller, reached over his right shoulder and cranked the lever that opened the hatch. He then sat on the hatch sill and grabbed the horse collar that was lowered from the helicopter. Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space was safely landed aboard the carrier USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN, and thus brought the Free World to a standing ovation.
MYTHS AND FACTS:
A number of myths and legends have grown around Shepard's historic first flight. From a Hollywood movie that played VERY loosely with the facts, to poorly produced documentaries, to sanitized accounts published by NASA and “LIFE Magazine,” to personal accounts drafted from memories with plenty of wear on them – it is often hard to drum out something close to the actual events. Since my personal account of FREEDOM 7 ranges no farther than my grandma’s TV set and watching the launch at age 4, I figured it would be fun to denote a few of those odds and ends of the mission here.
One commonly held myth is that Shepard reported aspects of his condition and those of his capsule as being “A-ok.”
In fact, Shepard never used the term “A-ok” during the mission. The term “A-ok” was actually popularized by NASA Public Affairs Officer (PAO) John “Shorty” Powers who announced the flight. Yet the term “A-ok” was instantly integrated into the general public’s spaceflight vocabulary. In the early 1960s my parents bought me a little blue jumpsuit with astro-insignias all over it. The one on the right chest was a round white logo that had a red “A-ok” on it.
Many people think that during Shepard’s flight, the public heard his voice calling out readings and making observations as it happened.
In fact, not a single word that Shepard spoke during the mission was allowed to be heard live by the public. Only those who were inside NASA working the mission and had a “need-to-know” were allowed to hear the live air-to-ground transmissions. This may seem amazing today when nearly every word of a spaceflight is broadcast live. Yet, although NASA was far less risk averse in the Mercury days, they were far more image aware. All of the air-to-ground transmissions that the Mercury astronauts broadcast were filtered through PAO Shorty Powers, who then repeated to the public a “NASA-correct” version of what was being said. Later, shortly after the flight, films of the mission had the edited recorded voice track of the astronaut dubbed in and from there on that became the “official version” of the mission. As the Gemini program came into being, the voices of the crew on orbit were allowed to be broadcast- but were normally done so by NASA on a time delay. Reentry and launch air-to-ground was not allowed to be heard live by the public until, believe it or not, Apollo 10. Prior to that, since the live broadcasts were quickly forgotten by the general public, those official films and clips that were later fed to the public soon developed the illusion that everything was always heard live. This became especially engrained in the public after Apollo 10, when all future launches and reentries carried live air-to-ground voice.
The Soviets plotted to liquidate the first American astronaut
Fact- Exactly who would be the astronaut to fly aboard the first Mercury spacecraft was kept a close secret within NASA.
All that was released to the public were the names of the top three choices: Glenn, Grissom and Shepard. It was not until after the scrub of Shepard’s original launch date on May 2 that NASA decided to actually make public his identity as the first United States astronaut to fly. There were very elevated concerns that if the Soviets found out which of the seven Mercury astronauts were actually slated to make the first flight, the Soviets might assign agents to do harm to that individual. This, however was a myth. Historians digging into the KGB archives years later found no such inclination at all by the Soviets.
Fact- Shepard’s FREEDOM 7 spacecraft was unique because it had a manually opened hatch.
The hatch itself was closed with 70 bolts, but was released from the inside by way of a mechanical handle located over Shepard's right shoulder. Spacecraft 7 was the only manned Mercury capsule equipped with this hatch, which weighed 82.23 pounds. The other manned Mercury spacecraft all saved weight by having a pyrotechnically removed hatch, which weighed just 22.9 pounds.
Myth- “What a beautiful view”
His spacecraft also differed from the other manned Mercury vehicles because it was equipped with two portholes rather than a forward forward-facing window. That forward facing window, however, ate up a large part of the weight saved in the use of the light weight pyrotechnically opened hatch.
Shepard can be heard during the flight describing the “Beautiful view” seen through his periscope. That was a myth concocted by Shepard himself. Remember, FREEDOM 7 was the only manned Mercury spacecraft that did not have a “pilot’s” window. Instead, the spacecraft had two portholes located approximately where the astronaut’s elbows would be. It was nearly impossible for a pressure-suited astronaut with a helmet on to see much of anything through those portholes. Like most of the manned Mercury spacecraft, however, Shepard’s had a periscope. The periscope was a handy tool, and the Mercury crews liked it. As Shepard waited through a series of pre-launch holds, he had nothing to do other than look out through the periscope. At sunrise, as the vehicle sat on the pad, the sun shined directly into the periscope, so Shepard put in a dark gray filter to cut down the glare. Unfortunately, when he remembered to remove the filter prior to launch, as he reached out for it the pressure gage on his wrist contacted the “Abort” button. Shepard immediately decided that he was not going to monkey with those filters anymore because initiating a pad abort, with the escape tower pulling the capsule away from a perfectly good booster because you were messing with periscope filters, would be hard to explain in the debriefing. During his flight, there was a specified point where he was supposed to look through the periscope and make a report. Dutifully, he deployed the periscope and discovered that the dark filter heavily obscured what he could see.
“I really couldn’t see a damned thing through it,” he confided to Gus Grissom after the flight, “so I just gave the same weather report that I’d been given in the preflight briefing and called out some known landmarks.”
In fact, if you read the actual weather briefing given to Shepard before the launch and compare it to what he broadcast back to the ground it is almost word-for-word the same – with a few well-known landmarks thrown in. In the transcript of his recorded debriefing, Shepard is evasive about this part of the flight and finally resorts to answering questions about his ability to see landmarks by simply saying “I don’t remember” repeatedly. In that same debriefing he does, however, remember every other tiny detail about the flight. Hummmmm.
Myth: The pre-launch thumbs up
In that near-fictional movie titled “The Right Stuff,” Shepard is shown stepping from the transfer van at the launch pad, stopping and looking up at the booster then giving a big “Thumbs Up.” He did stop and look the booster over, but he never did the thumbs-up. Additionally, the movie shows him stepping from the recovery helicopter onto the carrier deck and having his first footprints on the deck outlined in yellow paint. That never happened either. Of course, those are just two of a large number of errors in that movie.
Facts- Oil derrick and Surfside 5
The service gantry used on Shepard’s Mercury Redstone was a former oil derrick that was disassembled and trucked to Cape Canaveral during the early 1950s. It was set up at the newly established Launch Complex 3 & 4 to service the Army’s first Redstone tests. The gantry was moved on common railroad rails in order to clear the rocket. Sometime between March of 1955 and April 1955 the tower was lowered, and the gantry was moved to the Army’s new Vertical Launch Facility. It was there that the gantry serviced FREEDOM 7’s launch vehicle.
|Early image of Redstone IRBM and the service tower used for Freedom 7 several years later.|
It is also true that Shepard peed in his spacesuit while on the launch pad. The flight had been planned for just 15 minutes, so there would be just over four hours between the time Shepard was zipped into his space suit and zipped out of his space suit; and a good pilot can hold his water for that long. Unfortunately, assorted launch delays lengthened that time and the astronaut’s bladder began to send signals insisting on being de-tanked. After some discussion, it was decided to cut the power to his bio-medical equipment and allow Shepard to wet his pants. On the next flight a sort of diaper arrangement was improvised.
So, although the flight of FREEDOM 7 was a historic event that was planned to the smallest detail, there were still some odd aspects to it. The legends and myths about the flight grew on their own, unfortunately aided by TV and movie producers who knew and cared nothing about spaceflight.
Although Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called the flight of FREEDOM 7 “a flea’s jump,” Shepard’s flight was 100% successful. To many Americans it was a grand-slam home run scored in a game of spaceflight with the Soviets where we had previously been hitting foul balls and striking out. The flight helped influence President Kennedy to set the nation’s course toward a landing on the moon. Additionally, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs political disaster the previous month, the FREEDOM 7 mission was the first major positive political event in the Kennedy administration. Overall, May 5, 1961, was a very good day in the free world… oddities, myths and legends aside.
|For detailed accounts of all of the Mercury flights, check out Wes' book HERE|
Tuesday, February 7, 2023
THE TYPE OF KID TOUR BUS DRIVERS HATE
50 years ago, February 7, 1973 was a day that I’ll take to my space-buff grave and never forget it.
It was just three months prior to the first Skylab flight and it was, to that point, THE most exciting day of my 15 years of life. It was the day that I made my first journey to the Mecca of space-buffs; known to me then simply as "The Cape." It was a name that, to space-buffs, encompassed all of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. Sure, there is a difference between the two places, but to a wide-eyed, space-crazed 15-year-old that place was just “The Cape.”
For nearly a year my folks had been planning and saving as they looked ahead toward a mid-winter vacation in Florida. Thanks to selling a lot of programs at events at the Saginaw Civic Center as well as working there as a Zamboni driver for his second job, plus Mom’s employment in the concession stands and a windfall of life insurance from the passing of my paternal grandfather, we were able to buy a brand new 1973 Ford LTD station wagon and take our first family vacation since 1968. Florida was the destination, but to me the only target on the map was The Cape.
To people raised and residing in the north central and Great Lakes states, the word “Florida” invokes a sort of magic as well as images of basking in the warmth of the bright sunshine- escaping the cold and gray gloom… and that is in September, it is even more so in the dark depths of February. Thus, it was that on the fourth day of February, 1973, with our station wagon heavily packed we departed our driveway in Sheridan Park at 10:22 am headed for The Cape! Okay, so the rest of the state just happened to also be Florida… that was up to the rest of the family to keep in their minds; I was focused on spaceflight.
Following two days on the road and one day in Daytona Beach my parents probably grew tired of me scratching at the window and panting toward the south. At mid-day on February 7th, we set out from Daytona for “The Cape.” I staked out a seat in the tailgate of the car so that I would have windows on three sides… just in case. That was probably a good position for me, because upon seeing the VAB in the distance across the Indian River from the 528 causeway, I was bouncing around like a Superball in a paint-shaker. I could not wait to get to “The Cape.” Of course the rest of the family wanted to do nonsense such as eating and finding a hotel.
By the time that we were finally headed down the 405 toward the KSC visitor’s center I was wound up so tight that the seat cushion was close to becoming a permanent part of my butt. Before crossing the river we approached the building for press credentials and standing there was a full-scale mockup of a Mercury Redstone. My Dad decided to pull over and stop. Looking back to tell me to get out and take a look, Dad found that it was too late, I had bailed out before the car came to a complete stop. After some photos we were on our way once again and in short order we had parked at the visitor’s center. Again, I bailed out nearly before the car had stopped.The visitor’s center at KSC was a far cry from what it is today. In 1973 the parking lot was fairly small and there were only a couple of small pole-barn sized buildings. There was also no charge for admission. Of course, I blew directly into the first building… whoa! There on display sat the Apollo 7 command module and the Gemini 9 spacecraft! I was standing there in a daze when my mom rushed past and nabbed me by the sleeve.
“Come on,” she urged, “the last bus tour’s about to leave!”
We were the last persons on the last bus that day and before I knew it we were wheeling through the security gate and into my version of wonderland. The bus tours in 1973 were not divided up into different tours of different areas of “The Cape.” Instead, it was a Grand Slam sort of tour that simply went everyplace. We cruised past the O&C building and office buildings. Me, the know-it-all kid informed my mom that,
“This is where the astronauts stay and then walk out.”
A moment later, the bus driver said the same thing over the P.A. Then it was onto the NASA Parkway- and there, across the river, out of my window I could see the ITL!
“Ma! There’s the Titan IIIC facility!” I half shouted, rapidly turning into the kind of kid that the tour bus drivers all hate.
A second later, the bus driver announced that if everyone looked to their left, they would see the Titan IIIC facility… the people seated near me were already looking as I explained how the vehicles were assembled, what they boosted on and that the core was similar to a Titan II, only it was called a Titan IIIA. The bus driver didn’t go into that much detail.
I had been there a thousand times in my mind, and I knew what was where.
By the time we got onto the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, I was a bit ahead of the tour and those folks in the back of the bus near me already knew that famed Project Mercury Hangar “S” was coming up. Then came the old Mercury Mission Control building and soon our first stop- which would be the place where the Mercury Redstones were fired, or as I put it more simply to my mom; the place where Alan Shepard was launched. Although the bus driver called it Launch Complex 5 and 6, the blockhouse and museum that we toured was actually Complex 26, A and B. In the “rocket garden” associated with the museum were all of the rockets that I knew so well. Mace, Bomarc, Polaris, Corporal, Snark- they were all there and they were real- not just tiny white plastic models. My mind boggled, yet too soon it was time to get back on the tour.
Now we proceeded down the famed “ICBM Row.” The launch complexes for all of my favorite missions, Atlas Complex 14, Gemini Titan Complex 19 and finally Launch Complex 34 where all there. Complex 19 had its erector lowered, but its service tower was still standing; I snapped an out of focus photo. Finally we stopped at Complex 34 where we again were allowed off the bus.
I don’t think my mouth had stopped for one second. My Mom noticed that the people seated near me in the back of the were no longer listening to the bus driver, they were listening to me, the 15-year-old space geek. Not because I was loud, but because I actually knew what I was talking about. As we walked from the bus into the LC-34 blockhouse, I went from broadcast mode to record mode; because the driver was talking all about the blockhouse, and I did not know much about them. I soaked up every word. Once outside again, the driver talked about the Apollo 1 fire and told everyone that it had happened here. Then as we filed back toward the bus, I told everyone about SA-1, 2, 3 and 4 as well as AS-201 and 202, which had also taken place at LC-34 and in my mind were pretty important as well. As we filed aboard the bus I tried to imagine what the launch tower and service tower must have appeared. They had been reduced to scrap and removed just months earlier. Looking down at me feet I spotted a rusting bolt and washer- which went immediately into my pocket.
Pressing on we headed for Launch Complex 39A. I pointed out the press site and the Mobile Service Structure, which was in its parking place next to the crawler way. Suddenly, I saw something along the roadside that I recognized, but no one else had apparently noticed; lunar rover tracks in the sand! Excitedly I pointed them out to my mom and, of course everyone seated nearby,
“Look! Those are rover tracks! That’s where the Apollo 17 astronauts practiced driving the rover!”
Mom was suddenly doubtful,
“No…” she groaned, “I don’t think so.”
“I’d know ‘em anywhere,” I shot back, “those are rover tracks!”
Once again, the bus driver came over the P.A. and confirmed my sighting. Mom never doubted me again when it came to spaceflight.
At the foot of Pad 39A was a sign listing all of the Saturn V launches that had taken place there thus far. Only one was yet to come- Skylab 1. Mom wanted me to pose in front of the sigh as she shot a picture of her child who was growing up with spaceflight. I posed reluctantly, but 42 years later that photo would be on the cover of my book on Skylab and ASTP.
Our final stop was the legendary VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building. For any space-buff, the VAB is pretty much the monolith that marks the center of the American spaceflight universe. Now, I was finally going to not only see it, but actually go inside! Getting off the bus we all did what every first-time visitor does; we craned our necks until we nearly fell over backward and looked straight up the side. As we entered the transfer isle through the standard doorway on the north side, I found that the VAB is so huge that it plays a trick on your brain. Your mind shrinks it down into proportions that you can handle. As a result, the massive openings into the high bays through which the launch vehicle stages are passed seem big, but not as large as they actually are. When the tour guide told us that those openings are as tall as a football field is wide- it simply boggled my mind. Another unexpected aspect of the inner VAB is the lattice of crossing I-beams and girders. I had always imagined it as being far more open and hangar-like, but the only real open space is the transfer aisle. The high bays are so filled with platforms and access workings that they completely hide the big launch vehicles until it is time to roll them out.
In fact, as we stood in the transfer aisle, directly to our right, at the other end of the VAB the fully stacked Skylab 2 Saturn IB was being prepared on its “milk stool” launch pedestal in high bay 1. Across the aisle from it, in high bay 2 was the fully stacked Skylab 1 Saturn V on its mobile launcher. Additionally, there were two Saturn V S-II second stages in storage in the other high bays and as many as four S-IVB stages in storage in the low bays. We could not see a hint of any of them.
Leaving the VAB we headed back to the visitor’s center. As we passed the VAB on our way out I saw that they had the lower doors open on high bay 2 and you could see the base of the mobile launcher for Skylab 1! For a moment the white and silver of the SA-513 booster glinted at me! Grabbing my Instamatic camera, I snapped a picture. It was one of the only photos that I took that day that came out in focus.
It was not until decades later that I discovered that my visit to the VAB had come at the worst time. You see, just five days earlier the Skylab 2 vehicle had been rolled back to the VAB after having resided at Pad 39B since the 8th of September. The vehicle was rolled back to the pad again just 19 days after I left! Additionally, the Skylab 1 Saturn V was rolled out to LC-39A on April 16th. So, over an eight-month period, between September of 1972 and May of 1973 there had been a Saturn launch vehicle on one of the pads at LC-39, but I happened to visit there on one of the 24 days where there was nothing on the pads.
Just my luck.
We got back to the visitor’s center with just five minutes remaining before the gift shop closed. My Dad gave me a pat on the shoulder and pointed to all of the space stuff for sale and simply said,
This was my part of that two-week vacation and now I had a mountain of space goodies and only 300 seconds to figure out what I wanted. My hands were not big enough. I nabbed books, patches, stickers, post cards and a Cashulette Saturn V model with its LUT and dumped the whole pile at the cash register.
That night, in the hotel, I lay on the floor looking over my “stuff” smiling gleefully with my head still spinning. I even took the time to put the decals on my new Saturn V, the rest of the construction would have to wait until I got home and found my glue. The following day, my dad said that I had been cheated a bit in that we got to KSC so late that I did not have the chance to see the rocket garden at the visitor’s center and I had not really had time to “shop” in the gift store. So, before heading out to Disney World, we returned to the KSC visitor’s center once again and I gave my dad the guided tour of the rockets before I hit the gift shop once more. My Dad warned on the way out,
“That’s it- do not expect to buy a lot of souvenirs at Disney.”
“Like what?” I frowned and replied.
Indeed, I had all I wanted.
Forty years later- almost to the day, I was once again on the KSC tour bus on my way to the VAB. For more than 30 years the VAB had been off-limits to tours because Shuttle SRB segments were being stored there. Now, with the end of the Shuttle program, tours were once again allowed- but only until the SRB segments for the new SLS launch vehicle begin arriving. Thus, on that year’s annual family outing to Disney, I requested that we should take our kids and do the VAB tour. Much has changed since 1973, of course. Now the cost of a single ticket on the tour is more than the cost of taking the entire family back then. Of course, gas cost just 32 cents a gallon back in 1973 too. In 2013 the launch vehicle that was being readied to be the Skylab rescue vehicle back in 1973 now rested in the rocket garden, badly in need of a paint job. And the VAB, stood empty- devoid of flight vehicles of any sort and having no firm idea as to when another launch vehicle will be stacked within it. It was somewhat sad to see it that way. As we left, I snapped a single photo of the VAB to match the one I had taken four decades earlier.
When we got to the visitor’s center gift shop that Sunday night, we had just 10 minutes left before they closed. I thought of my dad, pointed my daughters toward all the space stuff and said,
So, they did, but not nearly with the zeal of their father four decades earlier. In short order my youngest one took me by the hand and led me over to a series of shelves with boxed space toys on it.
“I want that Daddy,” she said, pointing her tiny finger toward a Saturn V, nearly the same size as my Cashulette model.
Looking around at all of the stuffed toys and sparkly doo-dads and gizmos designed and packaged to catch a kid’s attention, I asked skeptically,
“You want that?”
“Yes,” she replied firmly, “it’s a Saturn V.”
Well I’ll be…
It must be genetic.