The Corned Beef Sandwich Incident

Today marks the anniversary of one of NASA’s more “corny” moments. It was on this day in 1965 that… well, let me explain:

Project Gemini was the bridge between the Mercury and Apollo NASA space programs. Mercury proved NASA had the capability to put humans into Earth orbit, and Gemini set out with a new set of goals, including: putting multiple astronauts into orbit aboard the same craft, learning how to walk in space, practicing rendezvous and docking between crafts, and testing the influence of long-term spaceflights. All of these were necessary to begin the Apollo program with its goal to put a man on the Moon (and bring him back home safely!) before the end of the decade.

Gemini 3 Mission Patch

Gemini 3 Mission Patch / Source: NASA

Following two unmanned Gemini missions, Gemini III was the first manned mission in the program and carried Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and Pilot John W. Young. Gus Grissom became the first human to fly into space twice, while John Young took his rookie flight.

The Gemini III capsule1 orbited the Earth three times on March 23, 1965, over the course of just under five hours.

Then, at 1 hour, 52 minutes, and 26 seconds into the mission… it happened.


Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich.
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?
Grissom: Yes, it’s breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.
Young: Is it?
Young: It was a thought, anyway.
Grissom: Yep.
Young: Not a very good one.
Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.


John Young, through the aid of fellow astronaut Wally Schirra, had smuggled aboard a corned beef sandwich. Young and Grissom shared a few bites, but it began to crumble and little bits of it began to float around inside the capsule. It was quickly stowed away to prevent the pieces from shorting out any sensitive electronic equipment.

After Gemini III returned to Earth, Young, Grissom, and Schirra, and NASA caught flack for the incident from members of Congress that were looking for an excuse to cut agency funding.

Young elaborated in his 2012 memoir, Forever Young: “A couple of congressmen became upset, thinking that, by smuggling in the sandwich and eating part of it, Gus and I had ignored the actual space food that we were up there to evaluate, costing the country millions of dollars.”

A Congressional Committee even held a hearing over the ordeal.

According to CollectSpace.com: Congressman George Shipley of Illinois explained his concerns to NASA administrator James Webb, associate administer for manned spaceflight George Mueller and director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center) Robert Gilruth, during the hearings: “My thought is that … to have one of the astronauts slip a sandwich aboard the vehicle, frankly, is just a little bit disgusting.

The reply came from Mueller:

“We have taken steps … to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”

Gemini 3 Crew: John Young (L) and "Gus" Grissom (R)

Gemini 3 Crew: John Young (L) and “Gus” Grissom (R) / Source: NASA



And there you have it: the story of the first corned beef sandwich in space. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich, and other times it threatens humanity’s greatest space program.

(This post was originally published on March 23, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.)


  1. Nicknamed by Grissom, “Molly Brown”, after a popular Broadway musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. NASA PR was originally not impressed with the nickname, but backed off any attempts to ditch the moniker when they discovered Grissom’s back-up name for the capsule was “Titanic”.

MISSE: Testing Materials In Space

If you had a really, really, really good telescope and took a peep at the International Space Station (which would be quite a feat for as quickly as it moves across the sky), you might notice what looks like a make-up kit or a watercolor palette dangling from the side of the station.

MISSE-3 just prior to retrieval during an STS-118 spacewalk.

MISSE-3 just prior to retrieval during an STS-118 spacewalk. – Credit: NASA

While some astronauts have taken their makeup into space, and some have found time to create art in orbit, they don’t tend to leave their supplies attached to the outside of the ISS. Ruling those out, instead what you’d probably be looking at is a Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE).

MISSE project specimens are placed onto trays and inserted into Passive Experiment Containers (PECs).

MISSE project specimens are placed onto trays and inserted into Passive Experiment Containers (PECs). – Credit: NASA

MISSE projects serve as a laboratory to test and study various material samples as they’re exposed to a space environment. Attached on the outside of the ISS, the specimens are simultaneously exposed to a variety of conditions that would be very difficult, if even possible, to mimic on Earth, including exposure to: atomic oxygen, various levels of radiation, vacuum, extreme temperatures, and zero gravity. While MISSE wasn’t the first project of this type–similar experiments had been carried out on Skylab, Mir, and NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF)–it was the most formal and programmatic.

The first two MISSE projects were deployed in 2001, carried to the ISS via the Discovery crew of STS-105. They were originally planned to only be deployed for one year, but as a result of the grounding of the Shuttle program following the STS-107 Columbia disaster, they ended up staying in orbit for 3 years. There were a total of 8 MISSE experiments conducted by NASA, sometimes deployed in multiples and sometimes singly.

NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel swaps the MISSE PEC7A & 7B with PEC8

NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel swaps the MISSE PEC7A & 7B with PEC8 – Credit: NASA

The samples are loaded into trays and installed inside suitcase-like Passive Experiment Containers (PECs). When ready to be deployed, the PECs are carried outside the station during an EVA (extra vehicular activity), and fastened to the station’s exterior. The mounting location has changed throughout the program’s history.

Samples from MISSE 3 and 4 carried 8 million basil seeds that were then provided “to children for science experiments to stimulate interest in space science”. Other samples included paints, lubricants, fabrics, and solar cell technologies. In total, more than 4,000 samples have been tested through MISSE.

As part of NASA’s efforts to privatize routine space projects, MISSE was recently transferred to the private corporation Alpha Space:

MISSE is now a privatized, commercial facility owned and operated by Alpha Space with a permanent placement on the ISS. The facility and its first set of experiments have been manifested to fly to the International Space Station in September of 2017 on the SpaceX Dragon resupply vehicle’s flight SpaceX-13.





Now dubbed MISSE-FF (Material International Space Station Experiment Flight Facility), Alpha Space’s contract is good through at least June 30, 2024 (currently the authorized remaining lifetime of the station). Alpha Space’s plans call for a permanently-mounted tower that will hold multiple PECs at once. If the customers are there (some have already signed contracts), Alpha Space is ready to provide routine testing in the unparalleled environment of space. They expect to begin operations this year (2017).

Animation of Alpha Space's PEC deployment

Animation of Alpha Space’s PEC deployment – Source: Alpha Space

Cosmic Paparazzi: The Twin Jet Nebula

The Twin Jet Nebula, or PN M2-9

The Twin Jet Nebula, or PN M2-9 – Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

SpaceTelescope.org: The Twin Jet Nebula, or PN M2-9, is a striking example of a bipolar planetary nebula. Bipolar planetary nebulae are formed when the central object is not a single star, but a binary system, Studies have shown that the nebula’s size increases with time, and measurements of this rate of increase suggest that the stellar outburst that formed the lobes occurred just 1200 years ago.

Cygnus Loop and the Veil Nebula

Between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, a star many times more massive than our Sun met its end in a fantastic supernova explosion. The supernova remnant–the observable aftermath of that ancient star’s spectacular demise–is known as the Cygnus Loop. Not all of the radiation from the remnant is in the visual spectrum however–meaning our eyes can’t see the entire structure–but the portion that does fall within the visible spectrum is a popular target for professional and amateur astronomers and is commonly referred to as the Veil Nebula.

[Left] – This is a sky survey image of the Veil Nebula, a 110-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star that exploded about 8,000 years ago in the constellation Cygnus.

[Center] – This is a ground-based telescope image of a 15-light-year-long stretch of the eastern portion of the nebula.

[Right] – This image shows a two-light-year-wide segment of the remnant as photographed by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble resolves tangled rope-like filaments of glowing gases.

What I love about the Cygnus Loop, and most other features of the night sky, is how we can discover more than what just our eyes can see. We often forget, or maybe don’t even realize, that our eyes are only sensitive enough to see a small portion of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. We refer to this narrow band of electromagnetic radiation as visible light.

Comparison of wavelength, frequency and energy for the electromagnetic spectrum.

Comparison of wavelength, frequency and energy for the electromagnetic spectrum. (Credit: NASA’s Imagine the Universe)

The part of the Cygnus Loop that’s observable in visible light, which is referred to as the Veil Nebula, looks like this:

Now, if the range of electromagnetic radiation our eyes can sense were expanded just a bit into the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, we’d see the Cygnus Loop like this:

Cygnus Loop in ultraviolet

Cygnus Loop in ultraviolet – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In ultraviolet, otherwise invisible or very faint wisps of gas are much more pronounced and show that there’s much more to this stellar spectacle than meets the eye.

 

SpaceX Continues To Make History

SpaceX is no stranger to making commercial spaceflight history. They were the first private corporation to launch a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit, send a re-supply spacecraft to the International Space Station, and to land their first-stage rockets back on Earth (for potential re-use), among other milestones. They’re also on the cusp of providing transportation services for International Space Station crew members.

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017 – Source: SpaceX

On February 19, 2017, SpaceX accomplished another major feat: They became the first private company to launch from the historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Launch Pad 39A

SpaceX became the first commercial corporation to lease space and operate out of Kennedy Space Center when, in 2014, they signed a 20-year lease for the historic Launch Pad 39A. It was from this launch pad that Apollo 11 blasted off for the Moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on our lunar neighbor. It also hosted the first Space Shuttle mission, as well as some 90 others. Now, and for at least the next two decades, it’s in the hands of SpaceX, further cementing the foothold that the private sector has made in the space program.

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches – Source: Public Domain and SpaceX

Launch and Landing

At 9:39am EST, on February 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited and thundered into the clouds. The rocket was topped with the Dragon capsule, carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg) worth of cargo destined for the International Space Station. Dragon arrived and successfully docked with the ISS a couple of days following launch.

Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA astrophysicist and contributor to myriad space documentary programs, was at Sunday’s launch and graciously shared her experience with me. “Launches are always wonderfully, viscerally exciting,” she said. “The Falcon 9 has a wonderful, big, booming sound, similar to an Atlas, and it puts on a great fireworks show.”

But that wasn’t the only show in store for the lucky spectators in Florida that day. After shoving Dragon into orbit, the Falcon first stage began its 100-kilometer return trip back to Earth. In fewer than 10 minutes following lift-off, the first stage rocket re-emerged through the clouds and landed at Landing Zone 1, just a few miles away from the launch pad. Thaller described the period of suspense in between the launch and the Falcon landing, and said that in some ways there was more anticipation for the landing than there was for the launch.

[N]othing quite prepares you for what happens 7 minutes later, just as the adrenaline is wearing off. Silently, at first, this 230-foot first stage turns around and comes down out of the sky. Smoothly, surreally, a tower the size of a 15 story building just comes and sets itself down. Only once it’s down do you hear the double pop of a sonic boom. It sort of turns your stomach. Things that big are not supposed to just come out of the sky and land. It’s awesome.

Awesome, indeed. See for yourself:

As a kid, I remember watching cartoons that showed rockets landing on various planets. The rockets would turn themselves around and gently land engine-side down. I would always exclaim, “That’s not how rockets work! They burn up, or have parachutes attached and they land in the ocean! How silly.”

Yet, here we are.

I’ve often been jealous about being born too late to experience the race to the Moon. I’ve been somewhat depressed since watching the last Shuttle mission touch down in 2011. But when I take a step back and look at what is occurring today and what we have to look forward to, I can’t help but recognize what a wonderful time it is to be alive.

You can watch the full webcast of the launch on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.

7 Earth-Sized Worlds Discovered Orbiting Nearby Star

Artist's concept of the surface of TRAPPIST1-f.

Artist’s concept of the surface of TRAPPIST1-f. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA held a press conference today, announcing an exciting new discovery: A record-breaking seven Earth-sized planets have been discovered orbiting a star located about 40 light years from Earth. Three of these planets are firmly located within what’s called the habitable zone–the area around a star that is likely to have rocky planets with liquid water.

The star is named TRAPPIST-1 (also known as 2MASS J23062928-0502285). It’s an ‘ultra-cool dwarf’ star, with approximately 8% of the mass and 11% of the radius of our Sun. Size-wise, this is approximately the difference between a basketball and a golfball.

The seven plants surrounding TRAPPIST-1 orbit much closer to their star than Earth does to the Sun. As well, these exoplanets are much closer to each other than the planets in our own system. You could stand on one of these planets and see the next closest one with a similar type of view that we have with the Moon here on Earth, and you could clearly make out the disc-shape of many of the other planets rather than mere points of light.

The discoveries were made using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in 2003. Although Spitzer wasn’t specifically designed to observe exoplanets, the suite of instruments it carries allows it to discover exoplanets in the same manner that the Kepler spacecraft uses. These observatories can discover exoplanets by precisely measuring dips in the light emitted from a star that coincides with a planet orbiting in-between that star and our vantage point and blocking a portion of the light that we can measure. Continued observations can determine orbital periods, distance from the star, and the number of exoplanets in a system. This data can be used to plot habitable zones.

During the press conference, the team stated that they had preliminary mass measurements for six of the planets, and they believe that one is likely to have a water-rich composition.

Artist's concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances.

Artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There currently isn’t a system for naming exoplanets in the way that bodies like asteroids are named, so they’re simply provided with alphabetic designations appended to their host stars’ name, with the designation ‘b’ being the closest to the star.

These planets orbit so close to their star that they’re likely tidally-locked in the same manner that the Moon is to the Earth. These planets would have permanent day and night sides.

One of the planets, Trappist-1c, is very similar in size to Earth and receives about the same amount of light as Earth receives from the Sun. It could very well have temperatures similar to those we have on Earth. Trappist-1f has a 9-day orbit and receives about as much light as Mars does. Trappist-1g is the largest planet in the system with an estimated radius 13% larger than Earth.

All of the planets are within a few times the distance between the Earth and the Moon of each other, and being so close to their star their orbits (their years) are about 1.5 Earth days for the closest planet and 20 days for the furthest.

Concept art for TRAPPIST-1 and its seven Earth-sized exoplanets.

Concept art for TRAPPIST-1 and its seven Earth-sized exoplanets. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next step, which is already ongoing, is to study their atmospheres and to look for water. This can be accomplished using a technique called transmission spectroscopy. We have observatories that can do this now, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and the future James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to push these capabilities even further. JWST will be able to look for greenhouse gas content and determine the surface temperatures of these planets, as well as detect gases that are produced by life. It’s expected that the first cycle of observations of the JWST will include the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, referred to our moment in time as “the gold rush phase of exoplanet discovery.”  It was just in 1995 that the first exoplanet was discovered, he explained, and that thousands have been discovered since.

Following the announcement, the panel held a Q&A session. During the course of their answers, they explained that there was no indication of these planets having moons, but that if water was present there would be tidal activity resulting from the other planets. They said they expect substantial progress in determining the atmospheric composition of these exoplanets within the next 5 years, utilizing the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope after it begins operations in 2018. JWST’s transmission spectroscopy will cover the range needed to determine the potential for life.

One member asked if any attempts have been made to listen to the system with SETI-style instruments, to which there was a reply that SETI itself had listened to the system but hadn’t picked-up any signals.

One of the most interesting answers came from Zurbuchen, when he was asked when we could expect to construct a craft that could journey to this system. Rather than give an estimate in the number of years in the future we could expect such capabilities, he answered with the estimated “number of miracles” that are required before we get there. He explained that the JWST required 10 miracles to become possible. He likened the construction of a craft that could explore TRAPPIST-1 as requiring “100 miracles”, but that we shouldn’t be dissuaded, that to get there you have to “start inventing your way forward.” Some of the “miracles” require advancements in propulsion systems and radiation-protection, and that the good news was that substantial work is already being accomplished towards about 5-10 of these miracles. He said it’s about “leaning forward” and “not backing up”.

Discoveries like these are constant reminders of just how big and amazing our Universe is. We’re reminded that the night sky isn’t just full of points of light, but worlds, perhaps some of which might be very similar to our own.

A poster advertising a hypothetical planet-hopping trip in the Trappist-1 system

A poster advertising a hypothetical planet-hopping trip in the Trappist-1 system – Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

The Google Lunar XPRIZE

Be the first team to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, transmit HD images and video back to Earth, and you’ve won yourself $20 million. Oh, and you also have to do this 90%-funded by private investment and do it by the end of 2017. That’s the mission for the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

XPRIZE logo

The XPRIZE is the name of various competitions organized by the non-profit XPRIZE Foundation.

The XPRIZE mission is to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition. We foster high‐profile competitions that motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the grand challenges that restrict humanity’s progress.

One of the most famous XPRIZE competitions was the Ansari XPrize. In 2004, Mojave Aerospace Ventures took that $10 million prize with their SpaceShipOne, after they became the first team to “build a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks”. The prize was a major step forward for the development of a private space industry. A few other XPRIZEs have included developing super-efficient automobiles, solutions for cleaning the ocean after oil spills, improving sensor systems for health care services, and to improve our understanding of ocean acidification.

Google Lunar XPRIZE

The Google Lunar XPRIZE is the biggest competition yet, and sets-out to”ignite a new era of planetary exploration by lowering the cost to explore and capturing and inspiring the imagination of a new generation.” More than thirty teams initially registered for the lunar competition. Of those, sixteen participated in all of the required registration activities. But as of January 1st, 2017, the pool was reduced by another eleven. Five teams currently remain, all of which have active contracts to launch to the Moon this year. Those teams are:

SpaceIL (Israel)

SpaceIL was the first team to secure a launch contract. They plan to land their “hopper” craft on the Moon, then fly–in a single ‘hop’–the required 500 meters and land again to secure the prize.

Moon Express (United States)

Moon Express was the first country to secure their government’s authorization to operate on the lunar surface. They intend to launch their “hopper” craft from New Zealand in late 2017.

Synergy Moon (International)

Synergy Moon isn’t contracting with a launch provider for their launch, they’re doing it themselves thanks to Interorbital Systems being a part of the team. Their launch is expected to take place from the Pacific Ocean, off of the coast of California, in the second half of 2017.

Team Indus (India)

Team Indus is planning on launching their adorable 5kg rover, ECA, on December 28 of this year. ECA will include science instruments and cameras from the French national space agency: CNES.

Team Indus's ECA rover

Team Indus’s ECA rover – Source: Team Indus

Hakuto (Japan)

Hakuto’s rover is hitching a ride on the same lander as Team Indus, and boasts some big “partnerships, including au by KDDI, Suzuki, rock band Sakanaction, and a longterm Moon-resources-exploration plan with the Japanese space agency JAXA“.

The Prize

The first team to pull this amazing feat off will earn themselves the $20 million grand prize. In addition to the grand prize, the second place finisher will receive a respectable $5 million. Also, Google has handed out over $5 million in Milestone Prizes for teams (former and current) that have accomplished various important steps to make the mission possible.

Thanks to the Google Lunar XPRIZE, 2017 is set to be an exciting year for private space exploration–The New Space Race is on.

If you’d like to learn more about the Google Lunar XPRIZE, check out the excellent documentary series: Moonshot.

Which Star Is The Smallest?

Like most of my good blog posts, this started with a question from my daughter: What is the smallest star? As much as I love answering her space questions off the top of my head, sometimes it’s even more fun when I get to say, “I don’t know; let’s find out!”

There are many different types of stars, ranging from the smallest red dwarfs to the largest red super giants. Aside from diameter, stars vary tremendously in temperature, mass, brightness (or luminosity, depending on context), color and lifespan. The Universe is home to an amazing amount of stellar variety.

So back to the question: Which star is the smallest?

Before we answer that, I feel I do need to provide a sort of disclaimer: In the context that we’re going to answer the question, when we refer to “smallest”, we’re referring to the diameter of the star, as in the size of its shape. We’re not talking about how massive (think weight) the star is1, or how bright it appears to us on Earth, but how large it would be if you lined it up next to other stars and compared its size. We’re also going to exclude neutron stars (the remnants of supernova explosions of massive stars), white dwarfs  (the remnants of dead stars that are less massive than the ones that create neutron stars), and brown dwarfs (commonly referred to as ‘failed stars’). One more thing: The Universe is huge and there are trillions of stars in it that we’ve never observed. So, our answer is only going to be based on stars that have actually been observed.

Now, without further ado. The smallest star that we have currently observed is the prosaically-named: 2MASS J0523-1403.2 The size of 2Mass J0523-1403 was listed in a 2013 paper published in The Astronomical Journal. The researchers of that paper (Sergio B. Dieterich, Todd J. Henry, Wei-Chun Jao, Jennifer G. Winters, Altonio D. Hosey, Adric R. Riedel, John P. Subasavage) set out to determine the point when a body becomes a star rather than a brown dwarf (failed star). They took data from existing sky surveys and chose 63 nearby red and brown dwarfs to study. Armed with the luminosity and temperature of these bodies, they calculated their diameters using the Stefan-Boltzmann Law. They then plotted the calculated diameters against the temperatures and were able to discover a theoretical lower limit for the diameter of a star: .086 the diameter of the Sun (roughly the size of Saturn). At that point, sat 2MASS J0523-1403, located about 40 light years from here, in the constellation Lepus.

2MASS J0523-1403 identified in its starfield

2MASS J0523-1403 identified in its starfield – Adapted from Source: Strasbourg Astronomical Data Center

And as I said before, we don’t know that this star is the smallest star in the entire universe but because of this research we know that this star is the size that marks the smallest point a star could be.

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin

The relation between size and temperature at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin – Image credit: P. Marenfeld & NOAO/AURA/NSF.

The above graphic shows the relationship between size and temperature, at the point where stars end and brown dwarfs begin. Interesting to note is that there are brown dwarfs that are actually larger than some stars.

8.6% is a small fraction of the Sun’s size, but compared to the Earth our new little star friend is still pretty big. You could stack 9 Earths in a row and they still wouldn’t be quite as wide as 2MASS J0523-1403. 2MASS J0523-1403 is just slightly larger than Saturn, and could easily fit inside Jupiter.

Comparison graphic between the Sun, 2MASS J0523-1403, and Earth.

Comparison graphic between the Sun, 2MASS J0523-1403, and Earth. – Source: TheStarSplitter.com

And there you have it: The smallest star in the Universe (that we know of, but this is as small as they can be, but then again there are trillions of stars we have never seen so it’s likely there’s one slightly smaller, maybe by only a few meters, but this is close enough….).

  1. You might think that the size of the star would be relative to how massive a star is, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Just as a shotput is smaller than a basketball yet has more mass, many stars have a smaller diameter yet more mass than others.
  2. The star gets its name from the sky survey that cataloged it: the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS).

Luna 9 – The First Lunar Soft-Landing

The Soviets claimed many firsts in their space race with the United States. First person in space (and orbit), first woman in space, first satellite in orbit. Most would agree, however, that the United States accomplished the biggest first by being the first (and to this day, only) to land humans on the Moon. But the Soviet space program did claim a important lunar firsts of their own: the first lunar fly-by, the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, and the first soft-landing of a probe on the Moon’s surface.

Luna 9 model

Luna 9 model – Source: NASA.gov

On February 3, 1966, the Soviet spacecraft, Luna 9, completed its 3-day journey to the Moon and landed safely on the lunar surface. This ‘soft-landing’ (as in: not a crash-landing) marked the first time a human-made craft survived a landing on any body other than Earth. The successful landing was accomplished by a number of systems that all had to work flawlessly: inflation of an airbag system to cushion the impact, the retrorocket burn to slow the craft, and the deployment of a contact sensor to determine the precise altitude above the Moon. At an altitude of 5 meters, the contact sensor was triggered: engines were shut off and the landing capsule was ejected. Though the craft’s speed was reduced significantly, it still impacted the Moon at a velocity of 22 km/hr (13.7 miles per hour). The airbags allowed the capsule to safely bounce several times before it came to rest.

Following landing and an approximately four-minute pause, four petals that served as the craft’s shell unfolded and stabilized the probe the ground. Antennas were deployed and the craft’s television camera began recording the lunar landscape, capturing the first views ever seen from the surface of the Moon. In addition to the images and radiation readings, the landing also disproved models that suggested that the Moon was covered in a thick layer of dust that would cause any craft (and eventually, persons) who landed there to sink.

One of the first images taken from the Moon's surface

One of the first images taken from the Moon’s surface – Source: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Luna 9’s batteries lasted for three days after landing, during which the craft was able to record a number of panoramic images and beam them back to Earth.

Joddrell Bank, the British observatory located at the University of Manchester, had been paying close attention to the race between the Soviets and the United States. Scientists there not only tracked Luna 9’s progress, but they also recognized the type of signal that the craft was beaming back. They deployed the correct receiving equipment and were able to acquire the lunar images and publish them before the Soviets even managed to see them. There’s still debate as to whether the Soviet scientists let this happen on purpose or not.

While the Soviets soft-landed their craft first, the United States wasn’t far behind. Three months after Luna 9, the US landed Surveyor 1 on the Moon’s surface. Various robots continued to explore the Moon, paving the way for the humans that followed them. After the United States stopped sending astronauts to the Moon in 1972, the next soft-landing wouldn’t occur until 2013, when the Chinese lander Chang’e-3 brought the rover Yutu to explore our celestial neighbor.

How NASA’s Shuttle Numbering System Worked

Space Shuttle program patch

Space Shuttle program patch

It has been nearly six years since NASA’s final shuttle launch ended an era, but I’m still just not ready to let it go. As I’ve written previously, I’ve dubbed my generation ‘the space shuttle generation’. Today, I want to tell you how the shuttles were numbered and explore whether or not the number scheme changed due to one NASA administrator’s triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13).

Space Transportation System

The official name for the space shuttle program was Space Transportation System (abbreviated STS). The program was envisioned to be America’s routine link to orbit, designed to reuse many major components with the idea of a quick return to service and reduced costs. After a few unmanned test flights of the Enterprise prototype, shuttle Columbia became the first shuttle to complete an orbital mission with astronauts aboard (mission commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen). This milestone flight carried the simple designation: STS-1. Subsequent missions were given the numbers STS-2 – STS-9. The mission that would have been numbered STS-10 was cancelled due to payload delays. So, you’d expect the next flight to be designated STS-11, right? Wrong. Try STS-41-B.

Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour

Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – Public Domain

A New System

Beginning in 1984, NASA switched to a new flight numbering system. The change is credited to a growing complexity of the program’s launch manifest, as well as an anticipated increase in the number of flights and launch locations. The new system, while more complicated than the original system, isn’t that difficult to understand once you know the formula. The STS prefix was continued, followed by a two-digit number, followed by a letter.

Let’s break down STS-41-B:

The first number, 4, indicated which fiscal year the mission was to launch in (dropping the first three digits of the year). In this case, the year was 1984. The second digit, always a 1 or a 2, indicated the launch location: 1 for Kennedy Space Center and 2 for Vandenberg Air Force Base. Since STS-41-B launched from Kennedy Space Center, it carried that second digit of 1. (Note: Vandenberg was never used to launch shuttle missions, and therefore the ‘2’ digit was never utilized). The final part of the scheme, the letter, indicated which planned launch it was for that fiscal year. In our case, B, indicated it was the second intended launch for that year. Keep in mind, the letter designation was assigned for the planned sequence.

STS-41-B = Space Transport System – Fiscal Year 1984, launching from Kennedy Space Center – the second mission of the fiscal year.

Now let’s decode one to see if we got it:

STS-61-A. Using what we learned above, we know that this was the first mission planned for fiscal year 1986 and launching from Kennedy Space Center. Easy!

Return

The new numbering scheme didn’t last for long. On January 28, 1986, STS-51-L, ended in tragedy, as the Challenger shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after take-off. There wouldn’t be another shuttle launch for 2 years and 8 months, while NASA rigorously reviewed every aspect of the shuttle program to determine the cause of the catastrophe and to greatly increase safety standards before a return to flight. In the interest of safety, fewer launches would be planned each year. As a result, plans to add Vandenberg as a launch site for the shuttle were abandoned. There was no longer a need for the more complex numbering system. When the shuttle returned to flight on September 29, 1988, that mission was designated STS-26. For the remainder of the program, the simplified numbering system was utilized.

Firing Room 1 configured for space shuttle launches - Source:

Firing Room 1 configured for space shuttle launches – Source: NASA

Rumors of Triskaidekaphobia

At the beginning, I mentioned that the fear of the number 13 might have played a part in the numbering system change. That fear has a name, and it’s a doozy: triskaidekaphobia (pronounce it like this: trice-kai-dek-aphobia). Some, including astronauts (like Paul Weitz) and other NASA employees, believe the numbering system changed, at least in some part, due to then-NASA Administrator James Beggs’s fear of the number 13. Not far from anyone within NASA’s mind was the perilous flight of Apollo 13. Apollo 13 launched at 13:13:00 Houston time, and suffered an oxygen tank explosion on April 13. While it’s possible this played into the numbering system change, NASA officials deny it.

This didn’t stop the crew of STS-41-C from having some fun. Had the numbering scheme not changed, their mission would have been designated STS-13. Coincidentally, it was originally scheduled to launch of Friday the 13th of April, 1984 (the launch date was ultimately changed to April 4, but it returned on that Friday the 13th).

“[The crew] created their own “Black Cat” mission patch. Former crewmember James “Ox” Van Hoften recalls, “We flew around with our STS-13 patch on, and that was a lot of fun. We ended up landing on Friday the 13th, so that was pretty cool.”

The 'alternative' patch designed to make light of the triskaidekaphobia surrounding this mission.

The ‘alternative’ patch designed to make light of the triskaidekaphobia surrounding this mission. Source: Wikipedia / CC

And there you have it. Just like so many things associated with the space program, even the most overlooked items often have fascinating stories behind them.

In Memoriam: Apollo 1

Today marks the sad anniversary of the day we lost the crew of Apollo 1.

On January 27, 1967, heroes Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee, were conducting a launch rehearsal test in an Apollo Command Module. Their mission was to be the first crewed mission of the Apollo program, which would ultimately put humans on the Moon. These three men paid the ultimate sacrifice so that humanity could spread its reach into the cosmos.

Apollo 1 Mission Patch

Apollo 1 Mission Patch – Credit: NASA

Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom

Virgil "Gus" Grissom

Virgil “Gus” Grissom – Source: NASA/Public Domain

Gus Grissom was born on April 3, 1926. He joined the United States Army straight out of high school, in the midst of Word War II. His early military career was spent as a clerk at Boca Raton Army Airfield. Grissom was discharged after the war ended, a few months after marrying his wife, Betty Moore. Utilizing his G.I. Bill, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University. Upon graduation, Grissom re-enlisted into the newly-formed United States Air Force, and began flight training. He received his pilot wings in 1951. Grissom flew 100 combat missions during the Korean War. He requested to fly another 25 flights in Korea, but his request was denied. For his service, he was promoted to First Lieutenant and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Grissom went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Aeromechanics from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, before enrolling at the USAF Test Pilot school. He was assigned as a test pilot of the fighter branch at Wright-Patterson AFB.

In 1958, Grissom received a “Top Secret”-classified letter, instructing him to report to an address in Washington D.C. in civilian clothing. He was ultimately one of 110 military test pilots who were invited to learn more about the space program and Project Mercury. Though he knew competition would be extremely fierce, he submitted to the program and began a rigorous set of physical and mental examinations. On April 13, 1959, Grissom received notice that he had been selected as one of the seven astronauts for Project Mercury.

Gus Grissom became the second American in space, when his ‘Liberty Bell 7’ capsule flew a 15 minute and 37 second sub-orbital flight. Grissom flew a second flight as a member of Project Gemini, in March of 1965, becoming the first NASA astronaut with two spaceflights under his belt.

His third flight would have him as commander of the Apollo 1 mission.

Roger Bruce Chaffee

Roger Chaffee

Roger Chaffee – Source: NASA/Public Domain

Roger Bruce Chaffee was born on February 15, 1935 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In his youth, he was the quintessential Boy Scout. He excelled in the program, earning many badges that typically weren’t earned by members as young as he was. He continued in the program as an Eagle Scout, earning ten more merit badges. His participation in the scouts was cited as a benefit to his astronaut training that he’d participate in years later–particularly during survival training missions.

In his youth, he gained an early love of flying and had a natural affinity for mechanical and artistic skills. Chaffee graduated in the top fifth of his high school class and accepted a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, using it to enroll in the Illinois Institute of Technology. After his first year, he combined “his love of flying with his aptitude in science and mathematics in order to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering.” He applied for a transfer and was accepted into Purdue University, to enter its renowned aeronautical engineering program. As a junior at Purdue, he met his future wife, Martha Horn.

Chaffee earned his BS in aeronautical engineering in June, 1957, and completed his Naval training in August of the same year. He began military flight training and learned to fly the T-34, T-28, and F9F Cougar, advancing quickly through the programs. He earned his wings in 1959 and flew numerous missions including reconnaissance duties, among them taking aerial photography of the Cuban missile buildup. Chaffee continued to work hard towards advancement.

Ever since the first seven Mercury astronauts were named, I’ve been keeping my studies up… At the end of each year, the Navy asks its officers what type of duty they would aspire to. Each year, I indicated I wanted to train as a test pilot for astronaut status.” (On Course to the Stars – C. Chrysler/R. Chaffee)

When NASA began recruiting for Astronaut Group 3, Chaffee was included as one of the initial pool of 1,800 applicants. He continued to work on his Master’s in engineering, while undergoing the multitude of invasive tests conducted on astronaut candidates. On October 18, 1963, Chaffee was officially admitted to the astronaut corps along with 13 other pilots.

During the Gemini program, Chaffee served as capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for the Gemini 3 and 4 missions.

Apollo 1 would have been his first space mission.

Edward Higgins “Ed” White II

Edward Higgens White

Edward Higgens White – Source: Public Domain

Ed White was born on November 14, 1930 in San Antonio, Texas. Like Chaffee, White was also active in the Boy Scouts of America. His father was a major general in the Air Force, who nurtured his son’s interest in flying. After graduating high school in 1948, he was accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree. While at West Point, he met Patricia Finegan, whom he would marry in 1953. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force when he began his flight training. After earning his wings, he was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Day Squadron at Bitburg Air Base in West Germany. He spent three and a half years flying missions in defense of NATO.

White was an excellent athlete, and record-setting hurdler. He missed a chance to join the 1952 U.S. Olympic team by only the narrowest of margins.

White returned to the U.S. in 1958 and enrolled in the University of Michigan. There, he earned a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering, before entering test pilot training in 1959. After completing the program, he was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force base, where he served as an experimental test pilot and training captain in the Aeronautical Systems Division. During his military career, he flew more than 3,000 hours and earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

White was one of the nine men chosen for Astronaut Group 2, and was selected to fly into space on the Gemini 4 mission. That mission would have White and Command Pilot James McDivitt spending four days in Earth orbit, from June 3-7, 1965. During the mission, White became the first American to conduct a spacewalk, as he enjoyed 21 minutes outside of the Gemini capsule. White had to essentially be ordered back into the craft, remarking that re-entering the capsule was the “saddest moment of his life”.

Ed White, conducting America's first spacewalk

Ed White, conducting America’s first spacewalk – Source: NASA / James McDivitt

Upon Gemini 4’s return to Earth, “President Johnson promoted White to the rank of lieutenant colonel and presented him with the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the U.S. Air Force Senior Astronaut Wings.

Ed White’s next mission assignment was as senior pilot for Apollo 1.

Apollo 1

Apollo 1, initially designated AS-204, was slated to be the first crewed mission of the Apollo program which carried the ultimate goal of landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely back to Earth. Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White carried the honors of being assigned the first mission of the program. They were to spend up to 14 days in Earth orbit, while testing many systems implemented with the new program.

On January 27, 1967, the three crew members were conducting a rehearsal for their upcoming mission. An electric spark ignited the high pressure pure oxygen environment inside the capsule, and the flammable materials inside quickly caught fire. The hatch was sealed, and the pressure differential between the inside and outside of the capsule made it impossible for the crew to escape. The three heroes didn’t have a chance to make it out alive.

Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White gave their lives that day, becoming the first casualties of the U.S. space program. They gave them not only to their country, but to all of humanity. Their sacrifice made future flights safer and successful.

A plaque in their honor is affixed to the launch pedestal of Launch Complex 34, the site of the fire. It reads:

IN MEMORY

OF

THOSE WHO MADE THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE

SO OTHERS COULD REACH FOR THE STARS

 

AD ASTRA PER ASPERA

(A ROUGH ROAD LEADS TO THE STARS)

 

GOD SPEED TO THE CREW

OF

APOLLO 1

 

Apollo 1 Crew. Left to right: White, Grissom, Chaffee - Public Domain/NASA

Apollo 1 Crew. Left to right: White, Grissom, Chaffee – Public Domain/NASA