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Monday, October 27, 2008

Space Savvy

As part of my ongoing research for a current SciFiRom project, I've been studying the early space program. What I've uncovered is a wealth of valuable information and fascinating trivia. This fundamental and historical knowledge is important to my project, but it's also a great foundation for anyone writing science fiction or futuristic stories.

It occured to me this is something I could share on my blog. That's my inspiration for this week's series of articles: Space Savvy.

The Mercury Program: In The Beginning

The X-15, a rocket plane, played an integral part in research for the space program. It had enough power to take a pilot to the fringes of Earth's atmosphere where they could experience brief moments of weightlessness and look out into the blackness of space. Even so, a vehicle was needed to fly four times its top speed to put a man into orbit. How much horsepower did the X-15 have?

1. 30,000 hp
2. 400,00 hp
3. 6o0,000 hp
4. 900,000 hp
5. 1,000,000 hp

Answer: 3. 600,000 hp, but only rockets had enough speed--over 17,000 mph--and power to boost a space vehicle into orbit, so military rockets were converted for the early space program. These missions were very dangerous because the rockets had been designed to deliver warheads to a target--not human beings into space.

Because of the risks, even stunt men were considered as recruits for the first astronauts. President Eisenhower wanted test pilots. How many of the military's top pilots qualified for positions as the first astronauts?

1. 7
2. 57
3. 110
4. 307
5. 502

Answer: 3. A bit of a trick question--110 qualified, but only seven were selected. There were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Walter Schirra, and Deke Slayton. Each brought specific qualities and experience to the program and they became instant celebrities with the media. Scott Carpenter, first scientist astronaut. Gordon Cooper, an exceptional pilot, often considered "the best." John Glenn, a popular Marine pilot. Gus Grissom, contributed engineering savvy and quiet intellect. Alan Shepard was extremely bright. Walter Schirra was very detail-oriented Naval pilot. Deke Slayton, an Air Force pilot "nobody messed with." They were known as the Mercury Seven.

Most of the early mission control crew came from aircraft flight desks, scientists and engineers who knew nothing about rockets or the challenges of launching a man into space. No man had ever survived a vertical blastoff on top of a rocket.

The Mercury Program was extremely challenging because familiar tools and equipment had to be invented or adapted, and all procedures rewritten or invented. Many concepts associated with space travel were foreign, such as:

1. Gravity and G-forces
2. Trajectory and retro-rockets
3. Yaw and pitch
4. G-forces and centrifugal force
5. Ignition and separation

Answer: 2. Trajectory and retrorockets. These concepts are unique to space flight and were new concepts to be grasped in order for experts to plan early missions. Gene Krantz (popular figure from the Apollo 13 movie) developed many of the early mission control procedures.

The first capsule replaced a nuclear warhead on top of a:

1. Redstone missile
2. Titan missile
3. Gemini rocket
4. Mercury booster
5. Solid fuel boosters

Answer: 1. Redstone missiles, which were developed by the Army (not the Navy). Many of the earlier test rockets blew up, flew out of control or had to be destroyed before they could fly or fall back to Earth and cause damage, injuries or death upon impact. The Redstone, known as the Army's "Old Reliable" was the rocket for the first American manned mission into space, and a forerunner for the more powerful Jupiter missile used in later flights.

Who was the first in space?

1. John Glenn
2. Ham
3. Alan Shepard
4. Yuri Gagarin
5. Laika

Answer(s): It depends on your criteria of first what? 5. Laika, a female dog who was sent aboard Sputnik II was the first living being in space, but didn't survive. The first to return alive was 2. Ham, a chimpanzee on an American mission. If you selected 3. Alan Shepard, as the first human in space, sorry, but you're wrong. It was 4. Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who beat Shepard by 20 days. Alan Shepard was the first American in space on May 5, 1961, however his flight only lasted about 20 minutes and reached a sub-orbital height of 116 miles over Earth. 1. John Glenn was the first man to achieve orbit during the next Mercury mission.

How many Americans watched the first launch of Shepard's spacecraft and what was the craft called?

1. 4 million and Friendship 1
2. 15 million and Freedom 1
3. 45 million and Freedom 7
4. 100 million and Friendship 2
5. No one had television back then and Gemini 1

Answer: 3. 45 million and Freedom 7.

What was Alan Shepard's aggravated demand to launch, after several countdown holds?

1. "Drop your coffee and press that ignition button."
2. "Light a fire, boys, and send me up!"
3. "Belay that delay and let's go!"
4. "What's it going to be? Up...or down?"
5. "Let's light this candle!"

Answer: 5. "Let's light this candle!" which was a popular phrase among pilots and flight crew at the time. (It was also prophetic, since rocket fuel developed from candle wax was a later development--see link above.) Alan Shepard's flight answered the question if people would be able to do basic things like swallow or breathe during weightless conditions, and proved man could perform almost any task in space. The excitement of the Freedom 7 flight has never been matched as Alan Shepard answered questions that were complete unknowns at the time.

The astronauts worked in specialty areas as the spacecraft were developed and redesigned. John Glenn worked on control panel design. Gus Grissom championed the explosive bolts that would quickly open the hatch. Ironically, the bolts caused problems later on his flight when they malfunctioned and his space capsule, Liberty Bell 7 with a lot of invaluable data, was sunk and lost. Grissom almost drowned, but was successfully rescued. It was the only craft Grissom ever lost prior to his death in the Apollo program.

After Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7, what was the next capsule, named by astronaut John Glenn?

1. Endeavor 3
2. Historic 1
3. Freedom 8
4. Intrepid 8
5. Friendship 7

Answer: 5. Friendship 7. John Glenn was a fighter pilot during the Korean war who had three aircraft nearly shot out from under him, but managed to get them back safely. A lot of confidence was put in his talent as a cool-headed pilot to get his craft home safely from the first orbital flight. His Friendship 7 spacecraft was launched by the larger Atlas rocket and his historic orbital flight was considered the greatest adventure of the 21st century, and helped America catch up in race with Russia.

John Glenn said "the view is tremendous" and nothing could compare to seeing the curvature of the Earth or entire nations at a glance. He also proved swallowing and breathing would not present a problem during extended Zero G (weightless) conditions. Mission Control dealt with its first possible crisis in space when indicators reported his heat shield was loose and his capsule might burn up in re-entry. They recommended he leave his retrorocket pack in place during re-entry hoping the straps would hold the heat shield in place, however the straps burned off during firing of the retros. Glenn wasn't informed of the possible condition of his craft, because there was nothing he could do about it. The heat shield, however, was not loose and it was later learned the micro-switch indicator reporting the problem was defective. His mission was a resounding success.

What causes radio blackout during re-entry?

1. Excessive heat
2. Extreme velocity
3. The sound barrier
4. Ionized plasma
5. Flames

Answer: 4. Ionized plasma generated by the velocity of the craft during re-entry builds up around the craft which causes the blackout of communications.

President Kennedy was a major supporter of the space program and reaching the Moon. What words completed his quote regarding the space program? "We have a long way to go in the space race...but this is _____________."

1. the most important goal...
2. the new ocean...
3. the future of America...
4. the next great challenge...
5. not worth the cost...

Answer: 2. President Kennedy described the exploration of space as "the new ocean." In a speech in 1962, he said, "We have a long way to go in the space race. We started late. But this is the new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none."

It was also President Kennedy who set the monumental goal to have an American walk on the Moon before the end of the decade--1970, only eight years in the future. The goal seemed an impossibility at the time that was--to the astonishment of many including those involved in the program--achieved in July 1969. President Kennedy was set on winning the space race.

Next post: More on the Mercury Program


  1. Laurie have you watched the miniseries that Tom Hanks developed on the early American Space program? It was wonderful . I think it was called From the Earth to the Moon... but don't quote me.

  2. Hi Natalie. No, I haven't seen that one yet, but I'll definitely look for it. It sounds great. I viewed The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, When We Left Earth and several of the History Channel documentaries as part of my research.

  3. Laurie, that is an awesome post. My mind decided that it would replay all of the TV footage that it saw fifty years ago. Thank you Lady!

  4. Frances, I have dim memories of many of these missions, but I never realized what a challenge each and every one of them presented until I started doing my research. Each flight had its little dramas or mishaps. Several came very close to disaster. It's been fascinating stirring up old memories and learning all these new facts, too.


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