John Glenn’s Orbital Journey

On this day in 1962, the Atlas rocket boosters that John Glenn, inside his Friendship 7 capsule, was strapped to the top of ignited. Millions of Americans watched as the resulting 350,000 pounds of thrust vibrated the vehicle that was about to take the first American into orbit around the Earth.

CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator): 3… 2… 1… 0.
John Glenn: Roger. The clock is operating. We’re underway.

Launch of Friendship 7

Launch of Friendship 7, the first American manned orbital space flight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the Mercury-Atlas rocket is launched from Pad 14. / Source: NASA

Minutes later, John Glenn became the fifth human in space and the first American to enter Earth orbit. Previously, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom became the first and second, respectively, Americans in space; however, John Glenn was the first American to reach the important milestone of completing orbits of the Earth.

For the next 4 hours and 55 minutes, John Glenn completed three orbits of the Earth, reaching speeds greater than 17,000 miles per hour. NASA was still concerned about the effects of spaceflight on humans and this was the longest one an American astronaut had been subjected to yet. John Glenn remarked a number of times during the mission that he felt just fine, and was rather enjoying himself.

Five minutes into the mission:

John Glenn: Oh, that view is tremendous!

View of Earth from Friendship 7

View of earth taken by Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. during his MA-6 spaceflight. / Source: NASA

John Glenn witnessed three sunsets from space during the flight.

John Glenn: The sky above is absolutely black, completely black. I can see stars though up above.

John Glenn: This is Friendship Seven. At this, MARK, at this present time, I still have some clouds visible below me, the sunset was beautiful. It went down very rapidly. I still have a brilliant blue band clear across the horizon almost covering my whole window. The redness of the sunset I can still see through some of the clouds way over to the left of my course. Over.

Sunset from Friendship 7

Orbital sunset photographed by Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. aboard the \”Friendship 7\” during his Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) flight. / Source: NASA

From his fantastic vantage point, he observed dust storms and fires in Africa and the lights of Perth, Australia.

And then there was his “fireflies”, which he first noticed at about 1 hour and 15 minutes into the flight:

John Glenn: This is Friendship Seven. I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little: they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by.

They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted. They probably average maybe 7 or 8 feet apart., but I can see them all down below me, also.

CAPCOM: Roger, Friendship Seven. Can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over.

John Glenn: Negative, negative. They’re very slow; they’re not going away from me more than maybe 3 or 4 miles per hour. They’re going at the same speed I am approximately. They’re only very slightly under my speed. Over.

They do, they do have a different motion, though, from me because they swirl around the capsule and then depart back the way I am looking.

Are you receiving? Over.

There are literally thousands of them.

These “fireflies”, as Glenn called them after the mission, were later determined to be ice crystals that would accumulate on the craft on the dark side of the Earth and then begin to break off of the capsule when the Sun’s heat returned. 1

Back on the ground, serious considerations were being made. A flight controller received a warning from a sensor on Friendship, indicating a loose heat shield. If the sensor was correct in its reading, the only thing holding the heat shield in place was the straps from the retrorocket package. After debate, a decision was made; Glenn was instructed to refrain from jettisoning the retropack — a normal procedure for re-entry — in hopes that it would hold the heat shield in place during re-entry; the alternative was the craft and Glenn disintegrating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Control offered no explanation for the procedure until after successful re-entry. Glenn suspected a problem with the heat shield, but remained focused on the parts of the craft he could control.

CAPCOM: This is Texas Cap Com, Friendship Seven. We are recommending that you leave the retropackage on through the entire reentry.

John Glenn: This is Friendship Seven. What is the reason for this? Do you have any reason? Over.

CAPCOM: Not at this time; this is the judgment of Cape Flight.

The sensor ultimately proved to be faulty and the heat shield remained securely attached to Friendship. 2

Aside from using more fuel than expected for attitude corrections, a hot spacesuit that had to be regularly adjusted for cooling, and excess cabin humidity, the rest of the flight was essentially flawless.

Glenn fired his retrorockets and descended back to Earth. He splashed down in the Atlantic, 40 miles downrange from the expected landing site. The USS Noa reached Friendship seventeen minutes later and hoisted it onto the ship. Glenn was supposed to exit the capsule from the top hatch, but instead decided to blow the side hatch instead. With a loud bang, the hatch blew open and Glenn emerged and jumped to the deck of the Noa. With a smile, his first words were: “It was hot in there.”

Astronaut John Glenn Jr. in his Mercury spacesuit

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in his Mercury spacesuit. / Source: NASA

Glenn returned to a hero’s welcome and a ecstatic ticker-tape parade in New York City. Americans were energized with the progress in the race with the Soviets. And with John Glenn’s help, America — and mankind itself — took another step forward into the uncharted heavens above.

*This post was originally published February 20, 2011. Small updates have been made since then.


  1. In fact, it was solved during the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, by Scott Carpenter. To test his theory, he banged on the side of the capsule and watched as they broke off of the exterior of the craft!
  2. And it provided a nice fireworks show for Glenn during re-entry. “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy. I had great chunks of that retropack breaking off all the way through.”

Space Tweets: @AstroKomrade’s ISS Pets

Chinese Space Station Expected To Crash In Early 2018

Artist's rendition of a Shenzou spacecraft preparing to dock with Tiangong-1

Artist’s rendition of a Shenzou spacecraft preparing to dock with Tiangong-1 – Credit: China Manned Space Engineering

In September of 2011, China launched its first prototype space station. Tiangong-1 (translated into English: “Heavenly Palace 1”), was in operation until March 2016. During its operational history, it received three of visits by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The unmanned Shenzou 8 docked with Tiangong-1 in November 2011, followed by two crewed missions: Shenzou 9 docked in June 2012, and Shenzou 10 in June 2013. China’s first two female astronauts participated in the crewed Shenzou missions to the space station: Liu Yang, China’s first woman in space, went up with Shnenzou 9, and Wang Yaping hitched a ride on Shenzou 10.

In March of 2016, CNSA announced that they had retired the station and included a vague comment about losing communications with Tiangong-1. Amateur astronomers observing the station began to suspect that CNSA had lost any ability to control the station; it had gone rogue. In September of 2016, CNSA admitted that they had no control over the space station and that they expected it to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere by the end of 2017.

Previous and calculated future altitude of Tiangong-1

Previous and calculated future altitude of Tiangong-1 – Source: Aerospace.org

The Aerospace Corporation, a California nonprofit corporation that provides technical guidance and advice on space missions, predicts that Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere between December 2017 and March 2018. In an interview with Newsweek, senior member of the technical staff for The Aerospace Corporation, Andrew Abraham stated that they track the “data closely and perform re-entry calculations on a regular basis to monitor any changes in the space station’s orbit or decay rate.”

The Aerospace Corporation has a webpage devoted to the Tiangong-1 re-entry, with a wealth of information, including a very informative FAQ.

STS-1 Columbia – The Shuttle Program’s First Flight

It happened exactly 20 years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. It was the first American manned spaceflight in six years, following the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It was the beginning of an era that ushered in a new generation of spaceflight technology.

STS-1 Mission Patch

STS-1 Mission Patch – Credit: NASA

It was STS-1, the first of more than 130 flights of the Space Shuttle program.

Shuttle Columbia was selected for the maiden voyage of the program. Not only was this the first crewed flight for the shuttle, it was the first flight period. Shuttle Enterprise had been utilized for flight (and landing) tests within the atmosphere, but wasn’t designed to be space-ready (including not having a heat shield for re-entry).

So Columbia was not only a mission, but a flight test in its own right. Her crew consisted of Commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. Young was already a veteran of the space program, having flown as pilot of the Gemini Program’s first manned flight (Gemini 3 – known around these parts as that time John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich into space), served as commander of Gemini 10, was the command module pilot of Apollo 10 (the “dress rehearsal” for Apollo 11), and also walked on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16. This, however, would be Crippen’s first spaceflight. Both of these men were qualified test pilots, and STS-1 was one heck of a test flight.

At 7:00am on April 12, 1981, after a two-day delay, STS-1 lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center–the same launch pad that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon, and is currently leased to SpaceX where it will serve to create a new type of spaceflight history. The launch was just as flawless as Launch Controller Chuck Hannon wished, when one minute and forty-five seconds prior to lift-off, he told the crew: “Smooth sailing, baby.”

STS-1 Columbia at launch on April 12, 1981

STS-1 Columbia at launch on April 12, 1981 – Credit: NASA

SHUTTLE LAUNCH CONTROL: T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, we’ve gone for main engine start, we have main engine start. And we have lift off of America’s first space shuttle, and the shuttle has cleared the tower.

Minutes later, Columbia and her crew were beginning the first of 37 total orbits to take place over the course of just more than two days. A new era was born, as we became a world with reusable space planes.




The primary mission of STS-1 was to conduct a general check-out of the Space Shuttle system, reach orbit successfully, and land safely back on Earth. Despite a few anomalies, which were recorded and solved for future flights, STS-1 was a smashing success. Orbiter Columbia performed amazingly and would be used for the next four shuttle missions until STS-6, when Challenger became the second orbiter in the fleet.

STS-1 was the solid first step in the three decades-long adventure that was the Space Shuttle program.

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

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

 

NASA's Penguin Patch

How An Imaginary Constellation Ended Up On An Official NASA Mission Patch

There are some great stories behind the patches that NASA issues for each of its missions, and the latest one I have learned about is no exception. I picked the story up from former astronaut, Rhea Seddon, via her newsletter and blog. (Seddon was featured in this previous post about NASA’s first female astronauts.)

 

STS-41-D - The Penguin Patch

STS-41-D Mission Patch – Source: NASA

STS-41-D was Space Shuttle Discovery’s first mission. Flying that mission were: Commander Henry W. Hartsfield Jr., Michael L. Coats, Richard M. Mullane, Steven A. Hawley, Judy Resnik, and Charles D. Walker. The launch was originally scheduled for June 26, 1984, but had to be aborted six seconds prior to launch. The mission finally launched two months later on August 30.

The patch bears the icon of the ship Discovery, one of the three ships in the fleet that founded Jamestown, Virginia. Around the outer edge are the last names of the crew members. Shuttle Discovery is shown with a large solar array rising from the payload bay. This array was part of the OAST-1 payload, a project to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale solar arrays in space. In the background is a field containing twelve stars: symbolic of STS-41-D being NASA’s twelfth Shuttle flight.

But there’s a bit more to the story of those twelve stars. According to Seddon, Shuttle program patches had to be approved by the Director of Flight Crew Operations, a post held at that time by George Abbey. As the story goes, her husband, Robert “Hoot” Gibson (also an astronaut), had something to do with the design of the patch for STS-41-D. He presented it to Abbey, only to have it denied. Why? Because, Mr. Abbey said:

“There isn’t a penguin on it.”  

Hoot replied, “Why a penguin?”  

“Because there has never been one.”  

So, Hoot hurried back to the office in dismay to see what the crew could create.  He returned a few days later with a modified patch.  

“Where is the penguin?”  

“Here it is.  Those stars at the top are from the constellation Penguinus Australis.”  

Whether Abbey was convinced or not, the design was approved. The constellation, Penguinius Australis, of course, was a complete fabrication. 

STS-41-D Crew

The STS-41D mission crew: (seated left to right) Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, mission specialist; Steven A. Hawley, mission specialist; Henry W. Hartsfield, commander; and Michael L. (Mike) Coats, pilot. Standing in the rear are Charles D. Walker, payload specialist; and Judith A. (Judy) Resnik, mission specialist. – Source: NASA

The Penguin Patch joins a long list of interesting stories about some of NASA’s most overlooked gems. 

Yuri Gagarin – Hero of the Soviet Union and First Ambassador to the Cosmos

Gagarin - 1964

Yuri Gagarin – 1964


Today marks the anniversary of one of the most historic moments in human history. It was on this day in 1961, that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to take a journey into outer space. Aboard his Vostok spacecraft, not only did Gagarin become the first person in space, he also was the first to orbit the Earth — something NASA didn’t accomplish until its third manned Mercury mission, some nine months later.

While strapped to the top of a Soviet Vostok-K rocket, Gagarin hummed and whistled “Lilies of the Valley”, cracked jokes, and found plenty of time to laugh, all the while waiting for the ignition below to send him where no man had gone before.

Gagarin : Thank you. Goodbye. See you soon, dear friends. Goodbye, see you soon.

“Poyekhali! (Off we go!)”

Gagarin spent 108 minutes from launch to landing, completing a single orbit of the Earth. It took 25 minutes for ground controllers to be sure he had successfully reached orbit. Gagarin remained calm through the whole ordeal 1 and seemed to rather enjoy himself. He described weightlessness as an unusual, yet enjoyable, experience and radioed back the things he could see out of the windows in his capsule.

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

Gagarin’s Vostok 3KA Capsule

A 42-second retrofire burn took place over Angola, approximately 5,000 miles from his landing site. When the commands were initiated to separate the service module from the reentry module, a bundle of wires unexpectedly kept them attached. The two components began reentry together, but finally separated following some extreme gyrations. The gyrations continued after separation, but Gagarin radioed that “Everything is OK”, reasoning that the gyrations could be expected from the spherical shape of the craft and didn’t want to “make noise” about it. At 7km above the ground, Gagarin was ejected — as planned 2 — from the Vostok and his parachute immediately deployed. Vostok fell until about 2.5km (8,200 feet) before its main parachute deployed. A couple of schoolgirls witnessed Vostok’s landing and described the situation: “It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.”




Gagarin landed on the ground as a world hero. The Soviets were emboldened by their great accomplishment, and you could be certain that the early American space program had to pick their collective jaws off the floor and wonder how they would catch up.

We tip our hats to Yuri Gagarin and the bold first step he took to get us to where we are now–more than half a century later.

Yuri Gagarin's Signature

Gagarin’s signature

To learn more about Yuri Gagarin and his historic flight, check out: YuriGagarin50.org

*This post originally published April 12, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.


  1. Just prior to launch, Gagarin’s pulse was at a mere 64 beats per minute.
  2. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Soviets acknowledged that he didn’t land with his craft. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale regulations required that a person land with their craft for it to count as a successful spaceflight. The Soviet government forced Gagarin to lie in press conferences to get the FAI to certify his flight, which they did.

Tour the International Space Station

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation. – Source: NASA

Have you ever wanted to visit the International Space Station? Without a whole lot of education, extreme determination, and a fair helping of luck, chances are you won’t be visiting it in-person anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a virtual tour of humanity’s only off-planet home. With the multimedia below, get a feel for what life aboard the International Space Station is like. No spacesuit required.

ESA Panoramas

The European Space Agency (ESA) put together the following 360° panorama of the ISS’s Russian Zvezda module. Notice how there are work surfaces that could only function in a weightless environment. For example, pan straight up towards the ‘ceiling’. (Note: After you hit play, you’ll want to click the full-screen button in the bottom right corner of the video.)

This 360° panorama allows you to explore the International Space Station’s third module, Zvezda. Launched on 12 July 2000, the Russian module supplies life support for the Station and crewquarters. All five of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles docked with the module.

The images to create this view were taken by ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti during her Futura mission in 2015; the cosmonaut in the picture is Gennady Padalka.

Two other views like this are also available on YouTube thanks to the ESA. Check out the Zarya and Unity modules as well.

ESA Interactive Tour

Next up, we have an interactive presentation that you’re going to have to go see for yourself. Check out this interactive tour of nearly the entire ISS. Turn on the map overlay and you can jump to individual sections of the station, or just tour it manually by clicking on the blue arrows. (I managed to get myself lost!) Video clips are interspersed throughout the tour for a more-detailed look.

Just before ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti left the International Space Station after 199 days, she took up to 15 pictures inside each module. Now, the images have been stitched together to create this interactive panorama.

These panoramas offer a snapshot of the International Space Station as it was in June 2015, after moving the Leonardo storage module to a new location.

Wasn’t that cool?

Commander Sunita Williams Tour

One more for today. While not interactive like the other two, this video is one of my favorite tours of the ISS.

In her final days as Commander of the International Space Station, Sunita Williams of NASA recorded an extensive tour of the orbital laboratory and downlinked the video on Nov. 18, just hours before she, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Flight Engineer Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency departed in their Soyuz TMA-25A spacecraft for a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan. The tour includes scenes of each of the station’s modules and research facilities with a running narrative by Williams of the work that has taken place and which is ongoing aboard the orbital outpost.

 

The 2012 video is somewhat long, 25 minutes, but by the end of it you find yourself wishing it would go on longer. Commander Sunita Williams takes us all throughout the space station while demonstrating various features and functions. I especially enjoyed her taking us inside the docked Soyuz capsule that she would be dropping back to Earth in, mere hours after creating this video.