Space Sunday special: Michael Collins

Michael Collins in his official NASA Apollo 11 photo. Credit: NASA

On Wednesday, April 28th, 2021. the news came that Michael Collins, the Command and Service Module pilot on Apollo 11 had passed away at the age of 90.

Collins was the unsung hero of Apollo 11. While Armstrong and Aldrin held the world’s attention, he quietly circled the Moon in the CSM on his own. A natural loner, he stated he never really felt lonely, and in the 48 minutes of each orbit when he was out of radio contact with the Earth as Columbia passed round the far side of the Moon, has was not afraid. Rather, he felt “awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation”.

Born on October 31st, 1930 in Rome, Italy, Collins, was the second son and forth child of James Lawton Collins and Virginia Collins ( née Stewart). The Collins family was steeped in military service, a fact that helped shaped Michael’s life.

Rising to the rank of of major-general, his father served in the 8th Cavalry during the Philippine–American War, and also saw deployments in both World Wars; he was also an aide-de-camp to General of the Armies John Joseph (Black Jack” Pershing. His brother – Michael’s uncle – was General J. Lawton Collins, the Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War. Collins’ elder brother, James Lawton Collins Jr., also served in US Army in World War II and rose to the rank of brigadier general, and served as the U.S. Army Chief of Military History from 1970 to 1982.

Given his father’s career, Collins spent the first 17 years of his life following his father to his various US and overseas posting. During this time – and possibly fuelled by his father’s tale of flying on a Wright Brother’s biplane in 1911 – he jumped at the chance to take the controls of a US Army Air Corp Widgeon being flown by a family friend, awakening a nascent talent for flying.

Graduating from college in 1948 Collins briefly toyed with the idea of entering the US diplomatic service,  but opted to follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother, entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, sharing his class with future fellow astronaut Ed White. Graduating from West Point in 1952 with a BSc in military science, Collins had the choice of pursuing an Army or Air Force career and decided on the latter in part because of his love of flying and the rate at which aeronautics were developing, and in part because given the careers of his father, uncle and brother, he was worried about accusations of nepotism should he enter the Army.

Collins aboard Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

It  turned out that Collins was a “natural” pilot who easily took to flying jets. After training, he was selected for advanced day fighter training – a highly dangerous activity at the time, with 11 of his classmates killed during the 22 weeks of the training course. He also trained with fighter-bombers and gained qualifications in nuclear weapons delivery as well as maintaining his edge as a fighter pilot, winning first prize in a 1956 gunnery competition.

During the late 1950s, Collins was awarded command of a Mobile Training Detachment allowing him to accumulate over 1,500 hours flying time, which in turn gained him admittance to the USAF Experimental Flight Test Pilot School. From 1960 through 1962, he flew numerous jet aircraft – although the test pilot’s life of hard flying and occasional ’bouts of hard drinking in celebration / commiseration encouraged him to quit smoking, with a four-hour flight as co-pilot of a B52 Stratofortress bomber getting him through the initial stages of nicotine withdrawal.

In 1962, like millions of others, Collins witnessed the flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. As s result, he applied to be a part of the second NASA astronaut intake, but his application was unsuccessful. However, as the Air Force was trying to enter space research via its own means, Collins applied for a new postgraduate course offered on the basics of space flight. He was accepted into the third class, studying alongside future astronauts: Charles Bassett, Edward Givens and Joe Engle.

In mid-1963 NASA started recruitment for their third astronaut intake – and Deke Slayton, the Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA, personally called both Collins and Bassett and offered them places in the astronaut training programme after reviewing their applications.

After completing his basic training, Collins opted to take pressure suits and extravehicular activities (EVAs, also known as spacewalks) as his specialised area of study. In writing his autobiography, he admitted that he was concerned at being excluded from the planning for the first American space walk – undertaken by Ed White in June 1965 – despite have the greatest expertise in the practical operation of space suits and in EVA protocols.

He was the first Group 3 astronaut to receive a crew assignment – back-up pilot for Gemini 7, which assigned him a flight seat on Gemini 10, alongside mission commander John “Jim” Young, who would go on to become NASA’s most experienced astronaut, flying Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle.

Collins (right) with John Young ahead of their Gemini 10 flight. Credit: NASA

Gemini 10 was one of the most ambitious of the Gemini programme. It carried fifteen scientific experiments – more than any other Gemini mission outside of Gemini 7; it also called for two EVAs, and multiple rendezvous and docking with two Agena target vehicles. The EVAs meant that Collins became the first person to complete two spacewalks in the same mission.

Following the success of the 3-day Gemini 10 mission, Collins was assigned to the backup crew for the second crewed Apollo flight (Apollo 2), serving as the lunar Module Pilot, with Frank Borman as Commander and Thomas P. Stafford the Command Module Pilot. The training exposed Collins to both piloting the lunar module and the command module, and allowed him to receive training as a helicopter pilot – helicopters being believed to be the best way to simulate the descent of the lunar module.

With the ending of the Gemini programme, NASA opted to reshuffle the Apollo mission line up, axing Apollo 2 as it was seen as largely a re-run of Apollo 1. This and alterations to the crew rosters resulted in Collins – with the benefit of his experience and vehicle exposure – being transferred from lunar module pilot to command module pilot. In his role, he was promoted to the prime crew for Apollo 8.

Tragedy and health then intervened: the first in the form of the Apollo 1 fired that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and which prompted a redesign of the Apollo Command Module and a reorganisation of the planned Apollo flights. The second came as a result of Collins suffering a cervical disc herniation in early 1968 that required surgery. As a result, Collins was initially moved from Apollo 8 to Apollo 9, and then removed from that mission to allow time to recuperate from his surgery.

As a result of all of this, Collins was selected with fellow Group 3 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and the exceptional Group 2 astronaut Neil Armstrong for the crew of Apollo 11, now earmarked to make the first crewed landing on the Moon – providing Apollo 9 and Apollo 10 missions completed successfully.

Collins (left) with Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in an engaging black and white portrait (later colourised). Credit: NASA

Given his role as Command Module Pilot, Collins often trained separately to Armstrong and Aldrin – and given they would be the two who would be the first humans to land on the Moon, they often took the lion’s share of media interest . Yet it was his role in the mission that perhaps carried the heaviest burden: if anything went wrong with the lunar module that left his colleagues stranded, Collins would be the one who would have to abandon them to their deaths and return to Earth alone.

Apollo 11 lifted-off from Kennedy Space Centre on July 16th, 1969. The mission has been documented to such a degree (including in these pages), that little need be said about the major elements. While Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface, Collins – who was also responsible for design the mission’s patch – kept himself busy with a range of tasks aboard the command and service module, which he came to regard as his personal space to the extent he wrote a dedication to the vehicle in the equipment bay:

Spacecraft 107 — alias Apollo 11 — alias Columbia. The best ship to come down the line. God Bless Her. Michael Collins, CMP

He also dealt with a potential malfunction in the vehicle’s coolant system which, if unchecked, might have resulted in parts of Columbia freezing.

Mission Control advised him to follow a complicated procedure for taking manual control of the system as he passed out of radio range around the far side of the Moon. When he regained radio contact, he reported the issue dealt with – although he did so by the simple expedient of ignoring Mission Control entirely and simply switching the system to manual control and then back to automatic!

I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.

– Michael Collins, recounting how he felt after Armstrong and Aldrin had departed for the lunar
surface, and he was passing around the Moon’s far side
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, 1974)

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Space Sunday: Al Worden remembered

Al Worden, Apollo 15, July 1971. Credit: NASA

The years 2019 through 2022 mark the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo lunar landings of the 1960s. At a time when those ambitious, pioneering mission, undertaken at what was still the early dawn of human space flight, serve as a background against the current US Artemis endeavour, it is sad to report on the passing of another of one of the 24 men who flew to the Moon as a part of those trailblazing missions has passed away.

Alfred Merrill “Al” Worden was one of those Apollo pioneers who is perhaps less well-known than others, as he was one of Command Module Pilots. These were the mean who remained in lunar orbit piloting the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) whilst their fellow crew members made the actual descent and landing on the Moon, and so – with perhaps the exceptions of Michael Collins (Apollo 11) and John Leonard (“Jack”) Swigert Jr. (Apollo13) – did not garner the same degree of media attention during their missions and their surface exploring crew mates.

Worden’s lunar flight aboard Apollo 15 (July 26th, 1971 through August 7th, 1971) was his only flight into space, thanks to actions he and his fellow crew, David R. Scott and James Irwin, took before, during and after the mission which saw all three removed from active flight status for the remainder of their careers at NASA.

Born in 1932, in Jackson, Michigan, Worden was the second of six children and the oldest of the four boys born into a low-income farming family. A keen learner, he opted to try to continue his education beyond high school by obtaining an scholarship, initially to the University of Michigan. But unable to secure funding for more than a year, he turned his attention to the military in order to continue his learning. Applying to both United States Military Academy at West Point (US Army) and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he found himself accepted by both, and after some deliberation, opted to go to West Point, enrolling there in 1951.

Al Worden at an Apollo 11 50th anniversary event. Credit: NASA

Whilst he enjoyed the army discipline at West Point, Worden found himself being encouraged by instructors to pursue a career in the nascent United States Air Force (formed out of the United States Army Air Force in 1947). At that time, the USAF was so young as an independent branch of the US military, it did not have its own training academy, so Worden was able to take advantage of an arrangement that allowed West Point and Annapolis graduates to transfer to the USAF for training, regardless of any possible lack of experience in flying.

As it turned out, Worden proved to be a natural flyer, moving swiftly from the propeller-driven T34 trainer to the jet-powered Lockheed T33. On completing his Air Defense Command training, he was posted to the 95th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, based at  Andrews Air Force Base near Washington D.C. , where he mostly flew the USAF’s first supersonic, swept-wing fighter, the F-102 Delta Dagger. Staying with the squadron as a pilot and armaments officer through until May 1961, Worden applied for, and received, permission to study aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1963 with Master of Science degrees in astronautical/aeronautical engineering and instrumentation engineering.

Returning to flight service, Worden increased his logged flying time to over 4,000 hours, 2,500 of which was flying jets. During this time he graduated from both the Instrument Pilots Instructor School in the US, and the Empire Test Pilots’ School, UK, one of the most high-regarded test pilots schools in the world. He then served as an instructor at the Aerospace Research Pilots School, then attended the USAF’s advanced flight training school for experimental aircraft, as both a pilot and as an instructor.

In 1966, he joined NASA as a part of the 19-strong Group 5 astronaut intake, alongside of his eventual crew mate, (“Jim”) Irwin. In 1968, they were selected to be the Apollo 12 back-up under the command of veteran astronaut David R. Scott, one of the most experienced Apollo astronauts, whoo had already flown on Gemini 8 and, more particularly, Apollo 9, the proving flight for all of the Apollo hardware – Saturn V rocket, Apollo Command and Service Modules, and the Lunar Module.

Apollo 15 crew: David Scott (l), James Irwin (r) and Al Worden (c). Credit: NASA

The crew were appointed as the prime crew for Apollo 15 at the start of 1970. From the start, Scott, as the mission commander, was determined that they would by the crew that gathered the most scientific data on and about the Moon – spurred in on part back the Apollo 15 back-up crew included Harrison Schmitt, the only actual scientist to participate in a lunar flight (Apollo 17). A first reason for wanting to be the best science crew on Apollo was that thanks to NASA cancelling two of the planned missions, Apollo 15 was raised to a “J-mission”, becoming the first such mission to feature an enhanced Lunar Module, capable of carrying more to the surface of the Moon, including the now famous lunar rover vehicle.

The J mission status of the flight also meant that Worden would have far more to do in lunar orbit than previous CM pilots, as the service module for the mission was the first to include a dedicated Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) bay. This was an equipment bay shielded by a protective panel during launch (and jettisoned once en route to the Moon), and carrying a range of science equipment – a high-resolution contained a panoramic camera, a gamma ray spectrometer, a mapping camera, a laser altimeter and mass spectrometer, all of which Worden had to manage and monitor. In addition, the bay contained a sub-satellite he was tasked with deploying before Apollo 15 left lunar orbit to return to Earth, and designed to study the plasma, particle, and magnetic field environment of the Moon and map the lunar gravity field.

A shot of the Apollo 15 Command Module Endeavour and its Service Module, as seen by from the Lunar Module Falcon, showing the exposed SIM bay and instruments, the cover having been jettisoned en route to the Moon. Credit: NASA

Worden’s sojourn about the Command Module Endeavour began after the Lunar Module carrying Scott and Irwin detached from his vehicle on July 30th, 1971 at an attitude of just 10.7 km above the lunar surface. Following separation, Worden fired the main engine on the Service Module to raise his orbit to 120.8 km x 101.5 km in order to commence his science work.

Over the next 4 days, he worked steadily on his assigned science duties, actually exceeding in some of them. Among his activities, he used the spy satellite quality camera system in the SIM bay to capture 1,529 usable high-resolution images of the lunar surface, and also carried out a regime of exercises using a bungee cord for research into muscle behaviour in micro-gravity environments. These exercises were supposed to mirror similar exercises performed by Scott and Irwin under the greater influence of lunar gravity, so that comparative data could be obtained between them. However, Worden was so enthusiastic about his work, he completed twice the amount of exercise he was required to do!

During those days on his own, Worden gained a citation from Guinness World Records as “the most isolated human being”, because as times during his flights around the Moon he would by up to 3,597 km away from the Lunar Module Falcon and Scott and Irwin – further than any human being had been from anyone else up until that point in time.

After the mission and when asked if he ever felt alone during this time, he would always reply in the negative, saying it suited his jet fighter pilot mentality, and he particularly enjoyed his times on the far side of the Moon when he’d be totally out of contact with any living soul, and would have something special to look forward to.

Every time I came around the Moon I went to a window and watched the Earth rise and that was pretty unique.

The thing that was most interesting to me was taking photographs of very faint objects with a special camera that I had on board. These objects reflect sunlight, but it’s very, very weak and you can’t see it from [Earth]. There are several places between the Earth and the moon that are stable equilibrium points. And if that’s the case, there has to be a dust cloud there. I got pictures of that.

– Al Worden discussing his time alone as the Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot

Following the rendezvous with, and recovery of, the Lunar Module ascent stage, Worden had another record-setting duty to complete: whilst en-route back to Earth, he had to perform an EVA – extra-vehiclular activity -, leaving the Apollo Command Module to make his way back to the SIM bay of the service module to collect the 25 kg cassette of images he’d captured during his time orbiting the Moon.

Worden during his historic deep space EVA, the round drum of the film cassette hanging from his harness. Credit: NASA

The space walk was completed with Jim Irwin standing in the Command Module’s hatch ready to provide assistance if needed, a camera watching over his shoulder. At the time, Apollo 15 was approximately 317,000 km from Earth, marking Worden’s space walk has the first “deep space” EVA in history. As of 2020, it remains one of only three such EVAs, all performed during  the last three Apollo lunar missions.

Despite the overwhelming success of Apollo 15 and the achievements made – first J-class mission, first use of the SIM bay, first use of the lunar rover vehicle, etc., – following the astronaut’s return to Earth, the mission would become the subject of the controversy that would see Scott, Irwin and Worden grounded by NASA for the rest of their careers.

Prior to the flight – and against NASA policy – all three men entered into a financial arrangement with a West German stamp dealer to fly 400 postal covers to the surface of the Moon and back.

Postmarked on the day of the launch at the Kennedy Space Centre post office and smuggled onto the Command Module, the covers flew to the Moon and then to the lunar surface with Scott and Irwin. On their return to Earth, the three men managed to get 398 of the covers – two were accidentally destroyed – cancelled and date-stamped on the day of their splash down at the post office aboard the recovery ship, USS Okinawa. Once back in the USA, the astronauts annotated and signed them, before sending 100 to the dealer, Hermann Sieger, whilst splitting the rest between themselves. The arrangement was for Sieger to pay the three men $7,000 each (approximately US $45,196 in today’s terms), and then give them a percentage each of the 100 in his possession, which he sold to dealers at $1,500 a cover.

Space Sunday: the mathematician of NASA

Tribute to Katherine Johnson. Credit: Breen, San Diego Union-Tribune

So often, when we think of the early years of US space flight, we think of steely-eyed, square-jawed test pilots supported in their missions by male, bespectacled and white-shirted scientists and flight controllers, their breast pockets lined with pens of various colours, all with similar haircuts and staring earnestly at computer screens, headsets allowing them to talk in clipped, precise terms with one another in acronym-laden sentences.

While both were very much the public persona for NASA, even becoming something of a cliché in television and film, they were only in fact the tip of the iceberg of the multitude of talents that formed NASA and made its missions possible. In particular, the image of the “nerds” of mission control has tended to very much overshadow the role played by many women in getting America both into orbit and to the Moon.

One of the foremost of these women was Creola Katherine Coleman, better known as Katherine Johnson, who sadly passed away on February 24th, 2020 at the age of 101. As a mathematician who spent 35 years working for NASA and its precursor, her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first US flights into space during the Mercury programme, and her work also encompassed the Apollo programme and the space shuttle.

Katherine Johnson, circa 1960. Credit NASA

Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the youngest of four children born to Joylette Coleman, a teacher, and her husband Joshua Coleman, a lumberman, farmer, and handyman. She showed a natural ability with mathematics from an early age. However, as her home county of Greenbrier did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade (13-14 years of age), her parents enrolled her, at the age of 10, at the high school on the campus of West Virginia State College.

Following her graduation at 14, she attended West Virginia State, where she took every course in mathematics offered by the college and studied under chemist and mathematician Angie Turner King, and William Schieffelin Claytor, the third African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics In fact, Claytor was so impressed with Johnson, he added new courses just for Katherine. Graduating summa cum laude in 1937 at the age of 18 and with degrees in mathematics and French, Johnson took on a teaching job at a black public school in Marion, Virginia.

She returned to studying mathematics after marrying her first husband, James Goble in 1939, becoming the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University.

Johnson’s association with aerospace commenced in 1953 when she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), joining the Guidance and Navigation Department at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Virginia. Here, she initially worked in a team of women supervised by mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, carrying out a range of mathematical analyses of aircraft flight dynamics, wind handling and more. She was then reassigned to the Guidance and Control Division of Langley’s Flight Research Division.

At first she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing maths calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts”. Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool”. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.

– Oral history archive at by the US National Visionary Leadership Project

Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, Langley Research Centre, Virginia, inaugurated in 2019 and named in honour of Katherine Johnson. Credit: NASA

With the formation of NASA, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist, moving to the agency’s Spacecraft Controls Branch, a department in which she continued to work through until her retirement from the agency in 1986. Her first major project was calculating the launch window and flight trajectory for Freedom 7, the sub-orbital flight that made Alan Shepard the first American in space on May 5th, 1961. In particular, her trajectory calculations – manually produced – ensured the recovery teams were on hand when Shepherd splashed down. In addition, to her calculation for flights, Johnson plotted backup navigation charts for the astronauts in case of electronic failures aboard their craft.

Such was her reputation and prowess, Johnson was key to ensuring NASA could transition from human computers to electronic computers. In this role, when John Glenn was preparing to make NASA’s first orbital flight around the Earth, he refused to fly unless and until Johnson had personally verified all of the electronic flight calculations for the mission. Despite the greater complexity in orbital flight calculations, Johnson did so by comparing the electronically-produced calculations  with her own manual calculations that she produced over the course of a day and a half – a feat that passed almost unnoticed in the pages of history.

In this respect, Johnson – although living in a state where segregation on the basis of colour was still very real (despite NASA’s somewhat more relaxed view of things) – would later state that she found sexism in the workplace the bigger problem (Glenn, for example, called for her to review the data relating to his flight simply as “the girl”).

We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston … but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, “Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.” So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.

– Katherine Johnson quoted in Black Women Scientists in the United States, 1999.

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Katherine Johnson in 2015. Credit: UPI

As NASA shifted gears to achieve President Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”, Johnson threw herself into the task of making sure it could happen. She would arrive at the office early in the morning, work through until late in the afternoon, then go home to look after her three daughters – born to her late first husband, and living with her and her second husband, James Johnson – then returning to NASA after the children were in bed, maintaining a schedule of 14- to 16-hour days.

These hours enabled her to carry out a critical role in calculating Apollo 11’s flight to the Moon and back and – most crucially of all – she calculated the exact time that the lunar module ascent stage needed to lift-off from the lunar surface in order to successfully rendezvous with the Command and Service Module, a feat she would come to regard as her proudest accomplishment.

During this time, she also embarked on co-authoring a series of papers specifically for the Apollo programme (as part of some 26 science and mathematics papers she wrote while at the agency). These were intended to guide mission teams and astronauts alike through scenarios in which various computer systems on the spacecraft might fail. One of these papers, produced in 1967 with Al Hamer, detailed alternative methods of celestial navigation in the event of a failure with Apollo’s on-board navigation systems, and was pulled into use in the Apollo13 rescue in April 1970.

Everybody [in the Apollo programme] was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back.

– Katherine Johnson, 2010, discussing her co-authored approach to one-star navigation,
tested by Jim Lovell during Apollo 8 (1968), and which formed a part of the Apollo 13 recovery efforts (1970)

Following Apollo, Johnson moved to the space shuttle programme, again playing a key role in preparations for the 1981 first flight of the original space-capable orbiter vehicle, Columbia, and worked on orbital requirements for the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) project, which would later be renamed Landsat. Additionally, in leading up to her retirement in 1986, she turned her mind to plans for missions to Mars.

Following her official retirement, Johnson spent her later years encouraging students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), talking about her work at NASA and remaining a strong advocate of human space flight. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, while in 2016 her work, and that of her fellow African-American women at NASA was charted in the 2016 biographical movie Hidden Figures. In that same year NASA dedicated a purpose-built unit, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Centre, in her honour. A second facility, also in Virginia, was renamed in her honour in 2019. The is responsible for developing and verifying software crucial to NASA missions. Both are fitting tributes to one of NASA’s pathfinders.

Katherine Johnson at 97. Credit: unknown

I found what I was looking for at Langley. This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say, “I don’t want to go to work.”

– Katherine Johnson, commenting on her time at NASA

Katherine Johnson died at a retirement home in Newport News on February 24, 2020, at age 101, she is survived by her three daughters, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Her legacy is one that has carried humans into space and to the Moon, and paved the way for modern human space flight.

Space Sunday: the man who first walked in space

Alexei Leonov’s self portrait of his (and the world’s) first space walk, 1965.

On Friday, October 11th came the news that Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, the first man to complete a space walk, and later the commander of the Russian side of the historic Apollo-Soyuz mission, had sadly passed away at the age of 85.

Leonov was born on May 30th, 1934, in the remote Siberian village of Listvyanka, Siberia, to which his father’s family had been exiled as a result of his grandfather’s involvement in the 1905 Russian Revolution. In 1936, his railway worker / miner father was falsely accused of “improper” political views during Stalin’s purges, and was imprisoned for several years, leaving Alexei’s mother to raise her children on her own.

Leonov was known as a quick leaner with a keen sense of fun and light-heartedness, as this 1960s shot – taken before his first space flight – with his cap jauntily cocked to one side shows. Credit: RIA Novosti

Creative from an early age, Alexei developed a talent for painting and drawing, going so far as being able to sell some of his pieces for extra money. However, he was determined to be a military aviator, and when his reunited family relocated to Kaliningrad in 1948, he was able to pursue more technical studies that enabled him to be accepted into flight training in the 1950s. Posted to the the Chuguev military pilots’ academy, he graduated in 1957 as both a qualified fighter pilot and parachute training instructor, and served three tours of duty in both roles, gaining 278 hours flight time in front-line fighters and completing 115 parachute jumps while training others.

His skills as a parachutist saw him accepted into the new cosmonaut training programme in 1960 – it had been decided that for early flights, rather than landing in their capsule, cosmonauts would be jettisoned from their Vostok craft using an ejector seat similar to jet fighters, allowing them to complete the last part of their return to Earth via parachute.

Alexei Leonov (back row, left), with some of his cosmonaut comrades, including Yuri Gagarin (first man in space), 2nd from the left, front row; Valentina Tereshkova (first woman in space), Gherman Titov (second cosmonaut in space, next to Leonov) and Pavel Belyayev (mission commander, Voskhod 2), right side, front row. This images was taken some time between April 1965 and March 1968 Credit: RIA Novosti archive

As a part of the original intake of 20 cosmonaut recruits, Leonov trained alongside Yuri Gagarin, the first human to fly in space and orbit the Earth, and Gherman Titov, the second Cosmonaut and third human in space. Like them, he was initially selected for Vostok flights, serving as back-up pilot to the 1963 Vostok 5 mission. However, before he could be rotated to a “prime” Vostok seat, he was one of five cosmonauts selected to fly the more ambitious Voskhod missions.

Voskhod was really a Vostok system but with the ejection seat and mechanism removed to make way for up to three crew seats, and with additional retro rockets attached to the descent stage to cushion the crew on landing instead of them being ejected. It was really an “interim” designed to bridge Vostok and the much more capable Soyuz (which wouldn’t fly until 1967), allowing Russia to match the America Gemini system in launching more than one man at a time. In particular, Leonov was selected with Pavel Belyayev (as mission commander) to fly the Voskhod 2 mission in which he would undertake the world’s first space walk.

This one-day mission was launched on March 18th, 1965 with the call-sign Almaz (“Diamond”). The design of the Vostok / Voskhod vehicle meant that the cabin could not be depressurised in order for a cosmonaut to egress the vehicle. Instead, a complicated airlock had to be fitted to the vehicle’s exterior. This comprised a metal mount surrounding the crew hatch, and to which was fitted an inflatable tube with a further hatch built on to it.

Alexei Leonov and avel Belyayev (r), pictured after their historic Voskhod 2 mission. Credit: unknown

Once in orbit, Belyayev helped Leonov add a backpack to his basic spacesuit that would supply him with 45 minutes of oxygen for breathing and cooling, pumped to him through an umbilical cord / pipe, and which included a second pipe and adjustable valve designed to vent small amounts of oxygen into space to carry away heat, moisture, and exhaled carbon dioxide. The airlock mechanism was then inflated and pressurised using air from the Voskhod’s supplies, extending it some 3 metres (9 ft) outward from the vehicle. After checking the integrity of the airlock tube, Belyayev opened the inward hinged crew hatch so Leonov could pull himself into the tube and the hatch re-secured behind him. Controls both inside the tube and the Voskhod allowed the airlock to be depressurised, allowing Leonov to open the inward-hinged “top” hatch.

Before exiting the tube, Leonov attached a video camera to a boom he then connected to the airlock rim, allowing live television pictures of his egress from the Voskhod to be captured and relayed to Earth. The sight of him exiting the vehicle reportedly caused consternation among some his family who didn’t understand the purpose of his mission!

When my four-year-old daughter, Vika, saw me take my first steps in space, I later learned, she hid her face in her hands and cried. “What is he doing? What is he doing?” she wailed. “Please tell Daddy to get back inside!”

My elderly father, too, was upset. Not understanding that the purpose of my mission was to show that man could survive in open space, he expressed his distress to journalists who had gathered at my parents’ home. “Why is he acting like a juvenile delinquent?” he shouted in frustration. “Everyone else can complete their mission properly, inside the spacecraft. What is he doing clambering about outside? Somebody must tell him to get back inside immediately. He must be punished for this!”

– Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon, written with U.S. Apollo astronaut David Scott.

Once clear of the airlock, Leonov encountered some difficulties. Not actually designed for the vacuum of space, his suit inflated and became semi-rigid, limiting his range of movements. He found he couldn’t reach a stills camera mounted on the front of his suit and intended to allow him to take photographs while outside the vehicle, for example. But worst was to come.

In training, Leonov had rehearsed sliding back into the airlock feet first, enabling him to easily swing the outer hatch back up into place to be secured and allow the interior of the tube to be re-pressurised so that Belyayev could then open the Voskhod’s hatch and guide him back into the spacecraft. However, he now realised he had a real problem.

With some reluctance I acknowledged that it was time to re-enter the spacecraft. Our orbit would soon take us away from the sun and into darkness. It was then I realized how deformed my stiff spacesuit had become, owing to the lack of atmospheric pressure [outside of it]. My feet had pulled away from my boots and my fingers from the gloves attached to my sleeves, making it impossible to re-enter the airlock feet first.

– Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon, written with U.S. Apollo astronaut David Scott,
describing his spacesuit issues

His only option was to enter the tube head-first and then work out how to turn himself around to close the hatch – except his suit had inflated such that it was too big to fit through the outer hatch ring. His only option was to use the oxygen relief valve to gently release pressure from the suit and deflate it. The problem? if he let out too much oxygen, he’d risk hypoxia and suffocation and if he let it out too quickly, he risked decompression sickness (or “the bends” as sea divers call it).

The first public indication that Leonov was in trouble came when the live video feed and radio broadcast were both cut and Russian state broadcasters switched to playing  Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor on repeat. Meanwhile, he cautiously went about releasing the pressure in his suit until he could wriggle his way into the airlock tube and, in a feat of contortion, turned himself around so he could secure the outer hatch. This effort proved almost too much for the suit’s primitive cooling system, and by the time Belyayev opened the Voskhod’s hatch and helped Leonov back into the capsule, he was in grave danger of passing out from heatstroke. However, their problems were far from over.

How it might have looked: a still from the 2017 Russian film Spacewalk, recreating Leonov’s historic 1965 space walk

Re-entry for the Voskhod was a three stage affair: eject the airlock, jettison the equipment module, then fire the retro-rockets on the descent module to drop the vehicle back into the denser part of Earth’s atmosphere. All of this was meant to be largely automated, but the guidance system failed due to an electrical fault taking out a number of systems, leaving Belyayev and an exhausted Leonov scrambling to handle things manually, literally clambering over one another to perform their assigned duties. As a result, the re-entry motors were fired 46 second late, enough to mean they would overshoot their planned landing site by over 380 km (241 mi).

However, this proved to be the least of their worries. No sooner had the rockets fired than the Voskhod went into a 10G spin, pinning the two men into their seats and rupturing blood vessels in their eyes. Through the observation port on his side of the vehicle, Leonov saw that the equipment module hadn’t fully separated from the descent module and lay connected to it via a communications cable. When the retro rockets fired to slow the decent capsule, the equipment module had shot past, causing the cable to snap taut and start the two modules tumbling around one another.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the man who first walked in space”

Space Sunday: a legend, TESS and a rocket flight

“Flight”: Christopher C. Kraft Jr. (February 1924 – July 2019), the man who created NASA’s mission control and the role of the flight director. Credit: NASA

During the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in July, came a note of sadness: the passing of Chris Kraft.

This is a name that may not be familiar to some, but Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., was one of the most influential figures of NASA’s pioneering early years of America’s human space flight, who joined the agency from its forebear, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

Born in Virginia in February 1924, to Bavarian immigrants, Kraft began his studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) studying aeronautical engineering. During this time he applied to join the US Navy, but was rejected due to an injury to his right hand that occurred during childhood. He graduated in December 1944 with a Bachelor of Science degree.

On graduation, he applied to both the Chance Vought aircraft company and NACA. On arrival at the former on his first day of work, he was told that he could not be hired without his birth certificate, which he had not brought with him. Annoyed, he returned home and accepted the offer from NACA instead.

At NACA he was assigned to the flight research division, working under Robert Gilruth, who was to become his mentor. Most of Kraft’s work was theoretical – although it did lead him to be the original discoverer of wingtip vortices causing the majority of turbulence behind an aircraft. While he enjoyed it, he also found it taxing to the point of considering leaving, when the NACA was subsumed by NASA.

Kraft (l) and mentor Robert Gilruth (r) celebrate the first orbital rendezvous between two crewed vehicles, Gemini 6 and 7, December 1965. Astronaut L. Gordon Cooper Jr stands behind them, centre, with arms folded. Credit: NASA

Gilruth then invited Kraft to join a new project he was heading – the Space Task Group – charged with putting a man in orbit. As a result, Kraft became one of the original thirty-five engineers to be assigned to Project Mercury. In his new role, he was assigned to the flight operations division at NASA, charged with determining how the Mercury missions would be managed and operated from the ground. He was reporting in to Chuck Matthews, who essentially passed off the division’s requirements to Kraft in a throwaway comment:

Chris, you come up with a basic mission plan. You know, the bottom-line stuff on how we fly a man from a launch pad into space and back again. It would be good if you kept him alive.

Kraft realised that just like test pilots, whom he had supported through the X-1 flight programmes, astronauts would need a system of communications and support back on Earth during critical phases of the mission. He also knew they would also require a ground-based tracking system and instrumentation for the telemetry of data from the spacecraft. Through this, he came up with the idea of a single control centre to monitor and operate missions in real-time; a concept never before tried.

I saw a team of highly skilled engineers, each one an expert on a different piece of the Mercury capsule. We’d have a flow of accurate telemetry data so the experts could monitor their systems, see and even predict problems, and pass along instructions to the astronaut.

– Chris Kraft, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, 2001

Within this structure, Kraft particularly identified the need for a single individual who would have overall control and coordination over the flight centre engineers, and make the real-time decisions about the conduct of the mission. He called that role the Flight Director, and nominated himself as the man for the role.

The first iteration of the mission control concept was the Mercury Control Centre at Cape Canaveral. During this time, Kraft continued to define and refine the role of the flight director, gaining the singular title Flight as a mark of respect, although his own stubbornness that could make him something of a controversial figure in the eyes of management – but not enough to prevent him being awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal on the recommendation of the NASA Administrator, and awarded by President John F. Kennedy.

During Mercury, Kraft selected and trained three engineers to become the first generation of flight directors with him:  Glynn Lunney, John Hodge and man who also grew into a legend as he followed Kraft, Gene Kranz. As the more intensive Gemini missions took place, Kraft took on a new role: head of mission operations, but remained  entirely hands-on with the flight director programme, continuing to select and train other flight directors and continuing a flight director in his own right.

Kraft, lower right, with his hand-picked team of original NASA flight directors, Gene Krantz (bottom left), Glynn Lunney, (top left) and John hodge (top right). Credit: NASA

Mid-way through the Gemini programme, Kraft was asked to oversee the design and implementation of the brand-new mission control centre that would form a part of the new Manned Spacecraft Centre, near Houston, Texas (now the Johnson Space Centre), which would become the nerve centre for all of NASA’s human spaceflight operations.

Kraft, Lunney and Kranz worked directly on the requirements for the new mission control centre, located at Building 30 at the new space centre, liaising with contractors and determining the design of the two primary Mission Operations Control Rooms (each referred to as MOCR, or “moe-ker”).

By the mid-1960s, Kraft was made Director of Flight Operations, and closely involved in planning the Apollo programme. He joined with Gilruth, now the head of the Manned Spacecraft Centre and possibly the most powerful man in NASA next to the agency’s administrator, George Low, the manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Programme Office and Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton, the head of the Astronaut Office, to take on an entirely unofficial, but essential role:

The four of us … had become an unofficial committee that got together often in Bob’s [Gilruth’s] office to discuss problems, plans and off-the-wall ideas. Not much happened in Gemini or Apollo that didn’t either originate with us or with our input.

– Chris Kraft, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, 2001

Kraft at the flight director’s console during Gemini IV, June 1965, despite having been promoted to Director of Flight Operations. Credit: NASA

In 1969, Kraft officially became Gilruth’s deputy in running the Manned Spacecraft Centre, and succeeded him as overall facility director in January 1972. He remained in that role past his due retirement in 1980, remaining firmly embedded in the space shuttle programme. However, his stubborn and outspoken nature in matters relating to that programme brought him into conflict with NASA Administrator James M. Beggs and others, and he suddenly announced his belated retirement at the end of 1982.

Kraft indirectly returned to the shuttle programme in 1994, when he was appointed chairman of an independent review committee with the remit to investigate ways in which NASA could make that programme more cost effective. His report, published in February 1995, recommended NASA’s should outsource shuttle operations to a single private contractor.

Christopher J. Kraft Jr., February 1924-July 2019 in his official NASA portrait, 1979. Credit: NASA

More contentiously, it was sharply critical of the post-Challenger accident safety regime at NASA, claiming it was “duplicative and expensive”, while claiming the shuttle had become “a mature and reliable system”.

NASA’s own Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel responded that, “the assumption that the Space Shuttle systems are now ‘mature’ smacks of a complacency which may lead to serious mishaps.” Nonetheless, responsibility for shuttle operations was turned over to United Space Alliance.

In 2003, the investigation into the Columbia accident, directly cited the recommendations made by Kraft’s committee as potentially contributing to that accident, by encouraging NASA to view the shuttle as an operational, rather than experimental vehicle and distracting attention from continuing engineering anomalies. In typical form, Kraft  defended his report, insisting the space shuttle was “the safest space vehicle ever built”.

Kraft received numerous awards throughout his career, and in on April 4th, 2011, he was guest of honour at a ceremony at Johnson Space Centre’s Building 30 Mission Control Centre when it was renamed the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., Mission Control Centre, in recognition of the facility’s 50 years managing US human space flight, and Kraft’s unique place in both NASA’s and the building’s histories.

Christopher Kraft passed away on July 22nd, 2019 at the age of 95 and leaving his wife of 69 years, Betty Anne, and son and daughter Gordon and Kristi-Anne, and their families.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a legend, TESS and a rocket flight”

Space Sunday: the Moonwalker and the artist

Astronaut and painter, Alan Bean in his Studio in Texas. Credit: unknown

The pool of men who flew to the Moon, and those who walked on its surface, as a part of NASA’s Apollo programme is sadly shrinking. And on Saturday May 26th, 2018, it became even smaller with the news that Alan Bean, the fourth man to set foot on the Moon had passed away.

His passing was unexpected. Although 86 years of age, he was in good health and was travelling with his family when he suddenly fell ill while in Indiana two weeks ago. He was taken to the Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, to receive treatment, but passed away whilst at the hospital.

Born on March 15th, 1932 in Wheeler County, Texas, Alan LaVern Bean received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Texas, Austin in 1955. While at the UT Austin, he accepted a commission as a U.S. Navy Ensign  in the university’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps and attended flight training.

Alan Bean in 1969 in a NASA publicity photograph ahead of the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

Qualifying as a pilot in 1956, he served four years  based in Florida flying attack aircraft. He was then posted to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) at Patuxent River, Maryland, where his instructor was the irrepressible Charles “Pete” Conrad. The two stuck up an enduring friendship which was to eventually take them to the Moon.

As a naval test pilot, Bean flew numerous aircraft prior to transferring back to fighter operations in 1962, again serving in Florida for a year. In 1963, he was accepted into NASA as a part of the Group 3 astronaut intake.

He had originally applied as a part of the Group 2 intake in 1962 alongside Conrad, but failed to make the cut. Coincidentally, Conrad’s Group 2 application  – which was successful – was also his second attempt to join NASA. He’d actually been part of the Group 1 intake, but  – always rebellious – he walked away for being subject to what he felt were demeaning and unnecessary medical and psychological tests.

Bean’s flight career at NASA was initially choppy: he was selected as a back-up astronaut with the Gemini programme but did not secure a flight seat. He then initially failed to gain an Apollo primary or back-up flight assignment. Instead he was assigned to the Apollo Applications Programme testing systems and facilities to be used in both lunar missions and training for flights to the Moon. In this capacity he was the first astronaut to use the original Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF). This is a gigantic pool in which astronauts may perform tasks wearing suits designed to provide neutral buoyancy, simulating the microgravity they will experience during space flight. He became a champion for the use of the facility in astronaut training, which was used through until the 1980s, when is was superseded by the larger Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) used in space station training.

On October 5th, 1967, Apollo 9 back-up Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) pilot Clifton Williams was tragically killed in an air accident. As a result, “Pete” Conrad, the back-up crew commander specifically requested Bean be promoted to the position of his LEM pilot. This placed the two of them, together with Command Module (CM) pilot Richard F. Gordon Jr on course to fly as the prime crew for Apollo 12, the second mission intended to land on the Moon.

Bean and Conrad approached their lunar mission with huge enthusiasm and commitment. In contrast to some of their comrades, who at times found the intense geological training the Apollo astronauts went through a little tiresome, they became extremely engaged in the training – which resulted in them gathering what Harrison Schmitt – the only true geologist to walk on the Moon thus far – later called, “a fantastic suite of lunar samples, a scientific gift that keeps on giving today.”

The Apollo 12 crew (l to r): Charles “Pete” Conrad, Commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr , Command Module pilot; and Alan Bean, Lunar Excursion Module pilot. Credit: NASA

In particular, Bean and Conrad became deeply involved in one of the primary aspects of their mission – a visit to the Surveyor 3 space craft.

The Surveyor programme was a series of seven robotic landers NASA sent to the Moon between June 1966 and January 1968, primarily to demonstrate the feasibility of soft landings on the Moon in advance of Apollo. Scientists were particularly keen that Conrad and Bean land close enough the probe so they could collect elements from it for analysis on Earth to see what exposure to the radiative environment around the Moon had treated them.

However, Bean had his own plans for the trip to the Surveyor vehicle: with Conrad, he conspired to smuggle self-timer for his Hasselblad camera in their equipment. The pair planned to secretly set-up the camera and use the timer to capture a photograph the pair of them standing side-by-side on the Moon – and confuse the mission control team as to how they had managed the feat! Unfortunately, Bean couldn’t locate the timer in their equipment tote bag until it was too late for the picture to be taken. Instead, he later immortalised the scene in his painting The Fabulous Photo We Never Took.

“The Fabulous Photo We Never Took” by Alan Bean. Courtesy of

Apollo 12 launched on schedule from Kennedy Space Centre on November 14th, 1969, during a rainstorm. Thirty-six-and-a-half seconds after lift-off, the vehicle triggered a lightning discharge through itself and down to the Earth through the Saturn’s ionized plume. Protective circuits on the Service Module falsely detected electrical overloads and took all three fuel cells off-line, along with much of the Command/Service Module (CSM) instrumentation.

A second strike then occurred 15.5 seconds later, resulting in further power supply problems, illuminating nearly every warning light on the control panel as it caused a massive instrumentation malfunction. In particular, the “8-ball” attitude indicator was knocked out and the telemetry feed to Mission Control became garbled. However, the vehicle continued to fly correctly, the lightning not having disrupted the Saturn V’s own instrumentation unit.

Left: Apollo 12 is struck by lightning, the discharge passing down the vehicle into its exhaust plume. Right: the launch complex tower is also struck by lightning after the departure of the Saturn V rocket. Credit; NASA

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the Moonwalker and the artist”