Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Houston, We Have a Problem"

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, and suddenly, the United States was behind their Cold War rival in space exploration. In reaction to the embarrassment, the country mandated that every high school student enroll in physics courses to help close the science gap between the United States and the USSR. Also, one year later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to get America into space.

The first space flight program called Project Mercury (1958-1963) and according to NASA, its three primary goals were to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, to investigate man's ability to function in space, and to recover both man and spacecraft safely. The most famous astronaut was Alan Shepherd who became the first American to orbit the Earth. The program flew six manned missions before the next program took over.

The second space flight program called Project Gemini (1965-1966) and it flew ten manned flights. The goals according to NASA were to subject man and equipment to space flight up to two weeks in duration; to rendezvous and dock with orbiting vehicles and to maneuver the docked combination by using the target vehicle's propulsion system; to perfect methods of entering the atmosphere and landing at a preselected point on land. Its goals were also met, with the exception of a land landing, which was cancelled in 1964. Also, many of the astronauts who flew during this mission went on to NASA's famous Apollo program including Wisconsin's very own James Lovell who was part of the Gemini VII and XII missions.

With the success of both the Mercury and Gemini programs, the United States believed that it could achieve the unthinkable, to be the first country to land on the Moon and return home safely. President John F. Kennedy made it the nation's priority of landing on the Moon before the end of the 1960s concluded in his speech before a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_JlSdRCg7g&feature=related   You can see how it received bipartisan support. 

The Apollo program began shortly after Kennedy's speech and the early missions leading up to the Moon landing focused primarily on studying the its outer-surface. Also, it was a test to see if the astronauts were able to handle the confines of outer space for extended periods of time. Then, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11, commanded by Neal Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collings, launched and four days later Armstrong became the first American to land on the Moon, finally beating the Russians. Here is the link of CBS News' live coverage of the moon landing anchored by Walter Cronkite. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJv5_y2l5as  The video is very remarkable for that time and you can tell how Walter was enjoying every moment of the landing.

For some humans, the number 13 is portrayed as a bad luck number especially the occasional Friday the 13th. The number even provided a bad curse for the Apollo 13 crewmembers (James Lovell, Jack Siwgert who replaced Ken Mattingly after being exposed to the German measles, and Fred Haise), as they would try to be the third spacecraft to land on the moon. The mission started on Saturday, April 11, 1970 with a beautiful afternoon launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida at 2:13 (EST). Things went well for the astronauts and after a prime time show to the nation on Monday, April 13, Jack Swigert did a routine procedure that unfortunately caused a massive explosion of the oxygen tank in the Service Module that had a ripple affect into the Command Module Odyssey. This link is a breaking news bulletin by ABC News and now the nation turned to their TV sets for the next couple of days to see if NASA could somehow pull out of this disaster. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCHOxY5RYps&feature=PlayList&p=508B3EE3083D9225&playnext_from=PL&playnext=1&index=1

Anxiety began to set in with both the crewmembers and Mission Control in Houston. Obviously, the mission turned from landing on the Moon to bringing back the astronauts home alive, a daunting task. Since the Service Module was inoperable, and the Command Module (CM) crippled with limited power, the only thing that the crew had left to survive was the Lunar Module Aquarius (specifically design to land on the moon and nothing else). They used it as a lifeboat and for the next couple of days, did numerous course trajectory corrections around the Moon and able to aim it back at Earth. Finally, on the last day of the mission, Friday, April 17, the astronauts transferred to the CM and jettisoned the Aquarius. The whole World watched to see if the crippled Command Module would hold up the intense heat through re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Then, after several minutes of blackout, longer than normal, a miracle happened, the crew landed in the South Pacific at 1:08PM. Thanks to the talented Mission Control led by Gene Kranz and the NASA agency, they were able to bring back the crew alive when many doubted that could have been possible.

The Apollo 13 mission was called a “successful failure” because even though they did not land on the Moon but were able to return home safely after that near fatal disaster. For NASA, this mission became the most memorable one in its history and even turned into a movie starring Tom Hanks as James Lovell. It is appropriate to honor these heroic men and all of our astronauts who risk their lives for humankind. Finally, next time when you drive down Lovell Street in downtown Milwaukee, just remember who it was named after and made not just Wisconsin proud but the whole World, too.

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