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Reaching for the Stars: NASA’s 60th Anniversary

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On January 27th, 1967 Roger B. Chaffee went to Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida. He expected yet another test for the space program he was part of. Its title had initially been AS-204, before it was renamed Apollo 1.

In preparation for the Moon landing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, mostly known as NASA, wanted to send Chaffee and two of his colleagues, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and Ed White, on a low orbit test flight to space.

But first that test flight needed tests of its own, down on Earth. When Roger B. Chaffee drove to pad 34 of the base that Friday, half a century ago, he expected a launch rehearsal. Little did he know that he would never head to space and that he had only hours to live.

The three Air Force pilots turned astronauts entered the Apollo 1 Command Module at around 6 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time. Once they were inside, all so-called umbilical chords, meaning cables and other connections, were removed. NASA needed to know how the module would behave on its own.

Then, suddenly, a fire broke out. Roger B. Chaffee, Virgil I. Grissom and Ed White were burned alive.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Photo: NASA

 

After the deadly catastrophe, NASA, several commissions and even the U.S. Congress were determined to find answers quickly. They found out an electrical spark had caused the fire. The material used and the pure oxygen atmosphere in the module helped spread the fire quickly. A rescue was impossible since the module’s hatch could not be opened due to the high pressure inside.

Looking back today, it is clear that Chaffee, Grissom and White were not the only ones who gave their lives for space exploration. On January 28th, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, in front of the eyes of the world. Seventeen years later, on February 1st, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on the way back to Earth.

This is the sad side of the history of NASA, which started sixty years ago, in October of 1958. In spite of the tragedies, in which 17 astronauts died, it is safe to say that the American government organization has brought forward our knowledge of space and other planets more than any other entity in any other country.

“Holy S***, Man Walks on F***g Moon”, a headline by the American satire website The Onion read. Their extremely funny piece about alleged radio communications between NASA in Houston and the Apollo 11 astronauts gave readers paroxysms of laughter. Making fun of one of the most important space exploration moments ever? Why not?

The challenger astronauts. All crew members died in the Challenger explosion. Photo: NASA

 

The Moon landing, which everyone remembers watching live on TV, including those who had not even been conceived yet on July 20th, 1969, was as stunning as if aliens had landed in front of the Capitol in Washington D.C.. Humans stepping onto a celestial body other than Earth? This kind of news item is definitely hard to beat.

Not only thousands of NASA scientists and astronauts, but also the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his determination, and even the Soviet Union deserve credit. Without the Space Race which the latter led for a while, America might not have “put men on the Moon” that quickly.

Eugene Cernan was the last man on the Moon, the guy who switched off the lights on December 14th, 1972. He died in January of 2017. Many years ago, the author of these lines did an interview with him, in which Cernan demanded a continuation of NASA’S Moon exploration. He also said he did not always think of his Apollo 17 mission when he saw the Moon at night. But often he did.

The end of the Moon flights, 46 years ago, was not the end of excitement. Sure, once in a while Washington D.C. decreased NASA’s money supply. At times, those political decisions forced the Space Administration to think small. But even at those moments, the brilliance of NASA became evident.

Earth looks vulnerable from space. Photo: NASA

 

Talking about small: NASA even became likeable in a very different way when it named a tiny Mars robot after Sojourner Truth, a Black abolition activist and feminist who lived from 1797 to 1883. ‘Sojourner’, a remote-controlled vehicle with a weight of only 11 kilograms (or 25 lb) and some exciting functions, was deployed to Mars by a space rocket on July 5th, 1997.

Seven days was the lifespan NASA set for the robot and its batteries, but it actually worked for 85 days. Not only did ‘Sojourner’ conduct important experiments with the dust it found on Mars, but it delivered tons of more than fascinating photos of the Red Planet. It shot those with its two onboard cameras and sent them to Houston. Not bad for a small shoe box like ‘Sojourner’.

John Glenn went to space as a young man and later, at age 77. Photo: NASA

 

But NASA did spend truckloads of money for other projects, such as the Space Shuttle program. One single launch cost up to 1.5 billion Dollars. Apart from the two terrible losses with 14 deaths, the program was a big success.

In 1969, around the time of the first Moon landing, NASA developed a plan for a system of reusable spacecraft, which would not get lost in space every time, but return to Earth, in order to transport more astronauts and payload into space orbits or to the International Space Station (ISS).

Roger Moore starred in the best James Bond movie of all time in 1979. Who co-starred? The Space Shuttle. In that flick, they called it “Moonraker”. Bond had to fight the mean Mr. Drax, who intended to use the space vehicles to kill all humans on Earth.

In reality, the Space Shuttle was a far more peaceful tool. In 1981, the first orbit test flights took place. The program lasted until 2011. During that period, Space Shuttles were up in space for a total of 1322 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes and 23 seconds, or some four years in total.

“Houston, we have a problem.” The Apollo 13 space vehicle got damaged. Photo: NASA

 

But NASA did bring its prototype Space Shuttle, the ‘Enterprise’, up in the air, within the Earth’s atmosphere, even before the program officially started. From 1977, the ‘Enterprise’ was taken for several spins.

‘Columbia’, ‘Challenger’, ‘Discovery’, ‘Atlantis’ and ‘Endeavour’: These were the names of the four Space Shuttles which were part of program. Original plans to turn the ‘Enterprise’ into a work horse as well, after those early experimental flights, was scrapped for financial reasons.

The Space Shuttles were designed in very intelligent ways. They had huge payload doors which were used to deploy satellites into space, enough space for their seven-member crews and the most expensive toilets ever designed, built and installed by man.

Depending on the weather, Space Shuttles returning from space sometimes had to divert. When storms hit the Florida coast, they would land at Edwards Air Force Base in California. NASA had a reconfigured Boeing 747 aircraft which actually carried Space Shuttles on its back.

The largest space station ever, the ISS, was originally supposed to be a purely American program entitled ‘Freedom’. But NASA quickly noticed the project cost money. Tons of it. That is one reason why the ISS, a multi-national project was created, in cooperation with the the European Space Agency, the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Even though the world does not really seem to notice it anymore, the International Space Station is alive and kicking, meaning it is still operational today. The experiments conducted up there help humanity down on Earth in many areas.

By the way: NASA did not only create space craft, part of the ISS and all of that, but also stars. Apart from Armstrong and Cernan, the late John Glenn was one of them. In 1962, he was the first American to circle Earth in a space ship. It was a program called ‘Friendship 7’ which was designed in preparation of the Apollo Moon flights. Much later, in 1998, when he was 77 years old and a senator of the Democratic Party, he took part in a Space Shuttle mission.

That way, NASA sent a veteran to space and tested the effects of space travel on elderly people. John Glenn did very well up there. He died in 2016, aged 95.

NASA launched so many missions. Listing them all would create the biggest paper pile ever. One of its countless unmanned endeavors is Voyager 1, launched On September 5th, 1977. One day, this probe might prove to be the most important one ever sent to space.

Voyager 1 had a big mission, and still does. The space probe flew by Jupiter, Saturn and Titan. It delivered countless stunning images. It studied magnetic fields, planet rings and the weather up there. Only some seven years ago, Voyager 1 was the first spacecraft ever to enter interstellar space. At this stage, the probe is located 138 Astronomical Units (AU) from the sun. Therefore, it is the farthest man-made object of all time. And it contains a message for potential aliens.

While NASA is getting ready to celebrate its 60th anniversary, it is planning even more missions. ‘New Horizons’, a probe designed to fly by the Kuiper Belt, is to be launched in January of 2019. ‘Osiris-Rex’ a project which will supposedly return asteroid samples to Earth, is scheduled for 2023.

Another Mars rover, similar to ‘Sojourner’ and its successors, will be shot into space, the final frontier, in 2020. And these are just some of NASA’s planned projects.

One of the most important aspects about exploration beyond Earth is actually Earth. When the Apollo astronauts looked at their home planet from the Moon, it looked beautiful, but also vulnerable. Space flight changed the way we looked at our own planet.

NASA is working on many big questions, including the one about big asteroids and meteors. Will another big chunk of rock hit Earth in the foreseeable future? NASA’s NEO (Near Earth Object) project was created in order to answer that question and to do something for the protection of our small planet.

Organizations similar to NASA, such as the European Space Agency (ESA) are quite active too, and they cooperate with the Americans. Also there are privately owned players such as SpaceX. But because of NASA’s more than exciting history, and due to its size, the Europeans and private firms are looking rather pale, in comparison.

NASA’s main website can be accessed here.

The photo of the Challenger crew members, all of whom died in the explosion in 1986, shows (back row from left to right) Ellison Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis and Judy Resnik, as well as (front row from left to right) Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.

1 Comment
  1. Yaakov L Bright says

    Thank you sooo much! My family is having a reunion in Huntsville next July. I am 71, with a degree in Chemistry, but spent my career on computers. Guess where I’ll be next July! Of all my ambitions, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Still do!

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