Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Apollo +50: Little Joe 1A

I am spending some of my space on this blog covering a topic that (1) I enjoy, and (2) I think has a great deal of value for those concerned with preventing the extinction of the human race (or its biological/technological descendents).

That is the issue of colonizing space so that we do not have all of our genetic seeds in one (planetary) basket. Creating a viable off-planet civilization is vital to preserving the human species and its descendents for billions of years to come.

So, I am covering the birth of that project – the Apollo program and its ancestor, starting with the Mercury program.

50 years ago today, on November 4, 1959, the United States was a mere 9 years, 8 months, and 12 days away from launching a crew of astronauts to land on the moon.

What had been accomplished so far?

On the first launch attempt, an escape rocket fired 30 minutes early, ripping an unmanned Mercury capsule off its test rocket and sending it into the nearby ocean.

On the next launch in this project, the Atlas rocket malfunctioned and did not stage correctly. This launch aimed to test whether an ablation heat shield would work on re-entry. The problem did not prevent the test from proving the usefulness of an ablation shield.

For the third attempt, NASA simply tested a rocket that would later be used to test the aerodynamics of the mercury capsule. The test rocket was successfully tested.

That was it, so far.

But in 9 years, 8 months, and 12 days, these people would launch astronauts to land on the moon.

This day’s mission was a second attempt to collect the data that NASA had tried for on the first launch attempt. Little Joe 1A was launched to determine how the escape system would function under conditions known as Max Q - maximum dynamic pressure. That thought was that if the system worked under the worst possible circumstances then it will work under less stressful portions of the launch.

Once again, the test failed.

This test at least looked nice. The rocket went up, the escape tower fired, and the capsule parachuted down to the ocean where it was recovered.

NASA officials knew that the escape tower fired 10 seconds too late. Instead of firing during Max Q, it fired under conditions that were a mere 10% of the dynamic pressure experienced at Max Q. The mission failed to accomplish its primary objective.

The fact that the capsule parachuted safely to the ocean and was recovered meant that the mission accomplished secondary objectives. An astronaut would have survived those aspects of am abort. However, NASA would have to try again to get data on how the abort system would function under Max Q. They scheduled that third attempt for early January, 1960.

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