Tag Archives: Atlas

John Glenn, last of the Mercury 7 – rest in peace

At the age of 95, John Glenn has passed away.

You almost certainly know his name; John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, a hard-working and principled man who already had an impressive career before NASA selected him for its first astronaut class, the Mercury Seven.  (The others were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepherd, and Deke Slayton.)  He’d flown fighter aircraft in WWII and Korea, then after that set a record as the first person to fly across North America at an average velocity above the speed of sound, proving that the aircraft was strong enough to tolerate that. He wasn’t just fast; he was a damned good fighter pilot as well, earning a reputation for flying dangerously low (to improve shooting accuracy on ground targets, a decision which improved his kill rate but caused him to often return home with holes in his airplane, a fact which earned him the nickname “Magnet Ass” for all the literal flak he took) and for killing a lot of MiGs.

When Glenn was selected for NASA’s initial astronaut corps, he only barely met their requirements, just barely squeaking in under their upper age limit of 40.  (It’s a little ironic he was the last of the Mercury Seven to pass, as he was also always the oldest of them.)  He watched Alan Shepherd and then Gus Grissom fly on suborbital hops, boosted by the little Redstone rocket.  And then, on February 20, 1962, Glenn flew the first manned flight aboard an Atlas rocket.  (Atlas boosted four more Mercury capsules, and then retired from human spaceflight.  Its much more modern descendent, the Atlas V, will return the line to crewed spaceflight in either 2017 or 2018 with the first flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.)  He remained active in the space program only through the Mercury program, resigning in 1964 to pursue a political career.  It took a while to get there, but Glenn was as persistent in politics as he had been in everything else, and attained the Senate as a Democrat from Ohio in 1980.  He served in this position until 1998, when he retired.  The election to replace him was held while he was away from home in a very fundamental way — in 1998, he made his second spaceflight, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-95 mission, becoming the oldest person in space at the age of 77.  After that, he retired, and enjoyed a long retirement — finally passing away at the age of 95.

With him, it feels as if an era has ended.  While about half of the Vostok cosmonauts are still living (mostly because Soviet-era astronaut recruiting favored much younger candidates), the Mercury Seven have all passed.  It falls upon us to remember them, and teach our children about them.  They were trailblazers, and we must not let that trail grow cold.

John Glenn’s first launch, on Friendship 7:

And his second, on Discovery’s STS-95 mission:

And now, he’ll fly higher than anyone of us here on Earth can conceive.  Godspeed, John Glenn.  Godspeed.


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Our New Robot Overlords Are Getting Better: Atlas Goes for a Walk

Boston Dynamics has made some major improvements to their latest Atlas model, which now carries its own battery and doesn’t need to be tethered.  It can pick objects up, it can find objects after some jerk human knocks them away with a hockey stick, it can catch its balance when shoved, it can open doors, and perhaps most remarkably, it can get up on its own after doing a faceplant.

This thing is pretty cool.  😉

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Spectacular Rocket Accidents

Since today is the traditional day of fireworks in America (happy Independence Day, USA!)…..

We’ve all been watching the various replays of the recent Proton accident, but of course that’s just the latest in a very long line of exploding rockets.  Spaceflight operates on extremely tight safety margins, so much so that no matter how careful people are, sooner or later it’s all gonna go up in smoke.  Here are some memorable rocket accidents enshrined on YouTube:

This was one of the worst disasters in terms of hazard to ground personnel at Cape Canaveral: a Delta II rocket launching the first GPS Block IIR satellite (hmm, are navigation satellites jinxed?) on January 17, 1997.  The fault was due to a huge crack in one of the solid rocket motors strapped to the first stage.  Thanks to strict adherence to safety rules, nobody was hurt, but there was considerable property damage due to the raining chunks of propellant.  Had range safety detonated the rocket, it would have been reduced to pieces too small to be hazardous, but this one blew spontaneously.  Several cars were destroyed, which has got to be interested on an insurance claim form…

And of course, we have to mention the Nedelin Catastrophe, the worst space accident ever, at least in terms of what is officially acknowledged (though the Soviet Union did not acknowledge it until 1989).  On October 24, 1960, there was enormous pressure to get the R-16 ICBM flown.  Air Marshall Mitrofan Nedelin personally went to Baikonur to apply pressure; when an error caused the rocket to enter a hazardous condition (by allowing hypergolic propellant to flow), he did not permit personnel to drain the rocket before fixing some issues on the pad because this would definitely push the flight back at least 24 hours.  As a result, the second stage ended up igniting while hundreds of people swarmed around the pad — including Nedelin himself, who was killed instantly in the resulting fireball.  The exact deathtoll is unclear, but it is generally agreed to have been at least 140, some dying over the next few weeks as they succumbed to their injuries and poisoning from the toxic fuel (hydrazine) and oxidizer (nitrogen tetroxide).  This film was taken by an automated launchpad camera that was activated automatically when the spurious launch signal came through and lit the second stage.

As bad as the Nedelin Catastrophe was, this one may actually have been worse — China does not officially acknowledge the death toll, but the rocket came down on a town, at night.  This video suggests over 500 dead, but other sources suggest it may have been much higher.

For something a bit lighter, here is probably the most humorous launch failure of all time: “The Day We Launched the Tower”.  The US had taken a series of stinging blows as the Soviets kept making firsts, but were plugging away towards a suborbital manned flight aboard the Mercury-Redstone.  This was to be the first test flight of the two.  But the engine shut down almost immediately, and the rocket settled back onto the pad.  The spacecraft, detecting that it had launched and that it was no longer accelerating, concluded that it was time for the post-launch sequence.  The result is amusingly anticlimactic.  It’s probably a lot funnier now than it was at the time, of course, but nobody got hurt and the program went on beautifully.

Of course, about this same time, the Atlas was being perfected (i.e. gotten to where it could actually leave the ground in one piece), and this is what the Mercury Seven got to watch the first time they came to Cape Canaveral.  Enjoy your new career, guys!

By Gemini, the Americans started to seize some firsts, and then Saturn V and Apollo came along, and although they didn’t know it yet, the Americans were very close to winning the moon race.  The Soviets had been delayed by political bickering, with the manned space program as a football, and their N-1 super rocket was perhaps a little too ambitious.  Immensely clever, and unlike any other rocket, but they were never able to get it to orbit.  Here are its four flights:

February 21, 1969, exploded at T+69 seconds due to a fire in the first stage’s engine compartment:

July 3, 1969, uncontained turbopump failure brought it directly down onto the launch pad, destroying the pad in the biggest conventional explosion recorded to date:

Two more test flights weren’t any more successful, but at least didn’t destroy any more pads.

Getting back to America, here’s how well the last of the KH-9 “Hexagon” spy satellites did (which means oh my goodness that’s a lot of tax dollars burning up there):

Other counties have had explosions too, of course; they do say that any given rocket family either has blown up or eventually will.  India’s GSLV has had a difficult history.  Here’s the loss of GSAT-4 aboard GSLV on April 15, 2010:

Of course, the first production liquid fuel rockets were the V-2s, built by the Nazis as a ballistic missile.  They had their own fair share of  accidents too, as you might expect:

And we might as well mention the French.  Ariane V is a massively successful heavy lift workhorse these days, but it had a rough start (which honestly isn’t unusual in rocketry): here’s the first flight.

Commercial providers have experienced their fair share of heartbreak too. The Sea Launch Consortium filed for bankruptcy after this one, which eventually led to Boeing selling most of their shares to RSC Energia, whcih is now the majority owner.  The heavily damaged Odyssey launch platform was repaired and returned to service after this Zenit 3SL rocket exploded on it.

And just so you don’t feel all morose after all of those, here’s a successful launch — if you’ve got subwoofers, now’s the time to plug them in and crank up the volume.  This video (which mixes footage of several launches) gives me goosebumps.  😉

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