Friday, August 21, 2009

Apollo + 50: Little Joe 1

I am adding this post to this blog because the subject interests me.

We recently passed the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which means that we are now looking forward to the 50th anniversary. In that light, today is the 50th anniversary of the first launch in NASA's manned space program.

Little Joe 1, launched on August 21, 1959, was intended to test the capsule that would be used on the Mercury missions. Scientists had done all sorts of work in wind tunnels and the like trying to determine if the capsule can keep an astronaut alive while delivering him into space, and while returning him to earth.

Yes, this means that the Apollo mission from the launch of the first capsule in a manned space program to landing on the moon and returning him to earth took 1 month less than 10 years.

The Little Joe rocket was built for just that task. It was a cheap little rocket that could lob a Mercury capsule up to about 100 miles (60 miles is considered the edge of space) then let go of it to see what happens during the return mission.

This rocket also provided a way of testing abort procedures – particularly what would happen if there was an abort during that part of the launch called 'max q'. Max q is the part of the launch when the stresses on the capsule would be the greatest. The idea was that if a mission could be safely aborted during max q it could be safely aborted at any time.

That was the purpose of this mission. It was to test the escape rockets. The question to be answered was whether they would do the job they were intended to do when the mercury-atlas configuration (the configuration that would be used to put Americans into orbit) was under its greatest stress.

To put this into context, no human had gone into space yet, but the Soviet Union and the United States were in a race to be first. This race meant a great deal. The same technology for putting humans into space was the technology with which the Cold War was being fought – rockets. Space was seen as the "high ground" in any future conflict, and military-minded Americans wanted to make sure that Americans held the high ground.

Many Americans did not like the idea of looking up and thinking of the area up there as Soviet controlled territory. They wanted the high ground to be firmly under American control. They wanted the security of knowing that if war ever broke out, that American forces could take total control of the space above the heavens.

The United States government had already announced the Mercury manned space program. They introduced the seven astronauts that were selected for that program back in April. During the same months in which they were narrowing down a list of perspective astronauts to the seven they would eventually choose, they were also designing and building a capsule that they would fly these people in, the rockets that would put them into orbit, and the various systems that were considered essential such as an escape rocket.

The purpose of the escape rocket was to pull the capsule (containing the astronaut) away from the malfunctioning rocket. While the rocket might blow up, the hope was that the emergency tower would pull the astronaut away from the explosion and let him come safely back down to Earth.

But, could we trust the escape rocket to behave as expected if it should be needed?

At t minus 30 minutes the escape rocket unexpectedly fired, ripping the capsule up off of the Little Joe rocket up to a height of about 2000 feet. On the way down, the drogue parachute deployed, but not the main parachute, so the capsule ended up hitting the water pretty hard.

Fortunately, the signal to clear the field had been given just a few moments before this mishap took place. The area around the rocket had been evacuated, so nobody had been hurt.

This, then, was the start of the NASA manned space program. A failed launch that pulled a Mercury capsule off of the rocket it was sitting on up to a height of less than half a mile and dropped it rather heavily into the ocean. There was nothing left for NASA to do but to pick up the pieces, study them for evidence of what went wrong, make whatever changes were necessary, and continue on.

By the way, you know these 'materialist' assumptions that some people complain about having at the root of all science – where people looked for a natural cause rather than shrugging their shoulders and saying, “God must have done it?”

Well, that was how NASA operated. Clearly, NASA researchers could have said that God fired the emergency rocket prematurely and ruined the launch. If people had asked questions as to why God would do such a thing, one could answer that God works in mysterious ways and we mere mortals cannot hope to understand the motivations of an infinite mind. Furthermore, there is no way to prove that God did not launch the rocket.

However, the accident investigation found the culprit to be, effectively, an energy leak – a short circuit, of sorts, that set off the rockets. When they found the material cause, they made material changes to the rocket design to prevent this type of problem from happening in the future. As a result of this kind of thinking, in less than 10 years after this false start, two humans had gone to the moon and returned safely to earth.


Tommykey said...

Uh, actually we just passed the 40the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ooops. Typographical error. Now fixed.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the short circuit was caused by God. Or elves. Y'know, rocket elves. But rocket elves work for God, so ...