Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Last of the First

MA-9. the final Mercury flight

Last year, my erudite buddy Brian Fies and I were discussing (via blogs) that the next few years were going to be chock-a-bloc with 50th anniversaries of the Space Age. May 15th, 2013 marks yet another golden anniversary - - this time an ending, rather than a beginning.

Mandatory image of all manned Mercury launches
The Mercury 7 astronauts were the trailblazers of the American space program. In just six flights (Deke Slayton was sidelined with a heart murmur), the Mercury astronauts tested their vehicles, their navigation skills, and even their own bodies as lone pilots in space.  Although NASA moved ahead with construction of the Gemini two-man vehicle and the Apollo moonship, the results of the Mercury program's flight data would shape all manned space programs to come.

Alan Shepard rode his Mercury craft in a parabolic suborbital flight lasting just fifteen minutes. John Glenn's first orbital flight lasted just a little over four hours. As the Mercury mission continued, the flight durations lengthened.

By May of 1963, NASA felt ready to attempt a 24-hour flight in space. Preparations for such a long-duration mission required the removal of the ship's periscope to provide room for extra oxygen tanks and batteries to power the instruments.  To offset the weight of the extra batteries, redundant attitude thrusters were removed from the nose of the ship.  NASA engineers decided that since the primary thrusters had proven reliable, backup thrusters were no longer necessary.

Cooper was the first American astronaut to be seen
on video, live from space.

Just after 8:04am on May 15, 2013, astronaut Gordon Cooper's MA-9 spacecraft Faith 7 lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Cooper had a full plate of experiments to run through in this mission: tracking a blinking ball that was jettisoned overboard during the first orbit, examining atmospheric drag effects on a tethered balloon trailing the spaceship, collecting blood and urine samples after trying a variety of foodstuffs to see if there were any problems metabolizing things like powdered roast beef or chocolate brownies. The experiments resulted in varied levels of success: Cooper spotted the blinking ball, the balloon never deployed, Cooper didn't open the brownies out of fear that floating crumbs would damage the instruments.

The astronaut managed to doze off for several orbits as the first day in space drew to a close. With his ship powered down to conserve fuel and electricity, Faith 7 drifted lazily along its prescribed path. On the 30th orbit, the first signs of trouble with the ship popped up - - a small panel light indicated that the ship detected a minute change in the g-forces that would signal the beginning of reentry.

Cooper believed the signal was an instrumentation flaw, and ground controllers confirmed that there had been no change to the orbit. During the next orbit, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. The main circuit buss for the instrument panel shorted out, knocking all navigation controls offline. Cooper was left with a radio, his wristwatch, and his eyeballs to navigate his 17,500 mph ship.
Mission accomplished
Fortunately, NASA had trained Cooper for just such an emergency. In contact with John Glenn at the Mercury Control Center, Cooper twisted manual thrust knobs on the sole attitude control system and aligned his retrorockets using a visual gauge on the ship's porthole aimed at the horizon of the Earth. With his stopwatch, Cooper called out a countdown that matched the calculations Glenn had passed up to him from ground controllers. Cooper opened a manual valve as the countdown reached zero, and his three retrorockets fired. Less than twenty minutes later, Faith 7 was bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean, only 4.4 miles from the recovery ship Kearsarge,  -- the closest landing of any Mecury spacecraft to its intended target.

Gordon Cooper would be the last American to launch into orbit by himself, and, until Dave Scott became Command Module Pilot of Apollo 9 in April of 1969, the last American to pilot his own spacecraft in orbit by himself. Project Mercury ended, and was soon eclipsed by the greater challenges of the Gemini missions. May 15th, 1963, though, was the end of America's first tentative steps into space.

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