2019 through 2022 mark the fiftieth anniversaries of the Apollo Moon landings, and I’ve previously covered the flights of Apollo 11 (in three parts: part 1, part 2 and part 3) and the flight of Apollo 12. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the only Apollo mission to take place in 1970, and perhaps the second most famous of them all: the flight of Apollo 13.
On Friday, March 13th, in the run-up to marking the 50th anniversary of that dramatic mission (which I’ll be covering nearer the time), NASA has released Apollo 13: The Third Lunar Landing Attempt, the third in its web-based Apollo in Real Time.
Developed and produced by NASA software engineer and historian Ben Feist, Apollo in Real Time is a series of in-depth on-line resources that allow people to relive Apollo missions 11, 17 and now 13 by presenting all of the space-to-ground and on board audio from the missions; all of the mission control film footage, news pool television transmissions and press conferences audio; and all of the flight photography synced to a timeline for each mission covering when every word was spoken, scene was filmed and image was taken. Together they represent the most complete records of the three missions.
Putting these sites together has been a labour of love and a technical challenge for Feist. While almost all of the original audio recordings for the missions had been archived, they had been made using a tape format for which only one playback machine remained, requiring they be re-recorded digitally.
For Apollo 13, however, there was a particular problem: the five most important tapes from the mission – those recording the events leading up to, during and immediately following the explosion that crippled both the Service and Command modules – were missing, having been removed to be used in the post-accident investigations. These took time to locate, and proved to be in as poor condition as the rest.
Fortunately, Feist was able to enlist the help of Jeremy Cooper, a software audio specialist, who wrote an algorithm that allowed the distortions in all of the tapes to be eliminated during the re-recording process, providing a complete, high-quality audio record of all three missions.
Most poignantly, perhaps with the Apollo 13 mission, are not the exchanges between mission team members or with mission control and the spacecraft (many of which run concurrently with one another, hence the sheer volume of audio available), but the recordings of telephone conversations between the wives of the astronauts aboard the stricken space craft, and astronaut Ken Mattingly (who had been due to fly the mission, before he was exposed to a risk of contracting German measles and was replaced by Jack Swigert) at mission control.
My kids aren’t up yet and they don’t even know what is going on. They went to sleep before all this came up last night. And I was wondering what I could tell them as far as… um, um, in other words, are we really pretty safe right now?
, following the explosion aboard the
These exchanges, filled with angst and concern, yet delivered in an eerie calmness, really bring home the situation faced by all involved in the unfolding situation.
As well as recovering the audio from the missions, Feist and his team had to also painstakingly match it to footage recorded within Mission control throughout each mission – much of it without sound. All of this took considerable time and effort by Feist and his small team; in the case of Apollo 13, a total of eight months of continuous work went into putting together a complete history of the mission’s exact timeline of event from launch to splashdown.
Currently, you can join Apollo 13 in the moments leading up to launch or while it is “in progress.” However, from April 10th, and for the period of the mission from pre-flight through to recovery, you’ll be able to join in “right now” exactly to the hour in the mission, 50 years later and witness it unfolding.
Apollo 13 In Real Time, together with Apollo 11 and Apollo 17, provides a remarkable insight into these historic flights of exploration and discovery.
ESA Delays Rosalind Franklin’s Flight to Mars
Rosalind Franklin, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover, together with its Russian-built lander, has had its July launch date pushed back by two years. The British-built rover, which has had far more than its fair share of woes over the 10+ years of its development (including having to be entirely re-designed after NASA welched on an agreement to launch the rover), will now not launch until the August / September 2022 opposition launch opportunity.
The primary reason for the launch delay is related to the mission’s complex parachute system intended to slow the combined lander / rover as they pass through the Martian atmosphere and to a soft landing on the planet’s surface.
In all, the mission utilises three parachute systems: a high-altitude pilot parachute, designed to steady the vehicles after entry into the Martian atmosphere; an initial “first stage” supersonic parachute, designed to act as a speed brake and slow the lander and rover to subsonic speeds; and finally a much larger “second stage” parachute designed to manage the descent through the atmosphere. As late as August 2019, both of these latter parachutes were failing test deployments in simulated Martian conditions.
With the assistance of expertise from NASA – who have the greatest experience in the use of parachute landing systems on Mars – the cause of the failures was eventually traced to the containment bags for the parachutes, which were damaging both on their deployment. This forced a complete redesign of the bags, which was due to be tested at a high-altitude test range in Oregon, USA this month to confirm their readiness for use. However, the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus strain means that the testing is not now possible. Nor is the testing the only aspect of the mission impacted by the virus: the primary control and management centre for the rover mission is located in Turn, Italy, and is under lock-down, severely hampering mission management and coordination work.
However, it was the inability to carry out the parachute deployment tests that prompted the decision to postpone the mission’s launch date.
We agreed together it’s better to go for success than just to go for launch at this time. Although we are close to launch readiness we cannot cut corners. Launching this year would mean sacrificing essential remaining tests. We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars.
– ESA Director General Jan Wörner, announcing the ExoMars mission delay