January 21, 2023

FTV: That Was Close!


     The working title of this FTV started out as a take on Agent Maxwell Smart’s iconic line, “Missed it by that much” from the espionage comedy Get Smart.  Upon further inspection, it just didn’t seem to feel quite right.  The working premise here is close calls astronauts had before, during, and after their training.  Thinking a little more on the topic, there have been incidents where some actually lost their lives, so the Maxwell Smart line seemed a little too frivolous.  Before we get to the close calls that inspired this article, let me first pay tribute to all of the astronauts and cosmonauts who gave their all during our quest to explore the cosmos.  As a species, humans are driven to discover new things and explore the unknown.  Those daring men and women who ride rockets to space are the vanguards of our species on the cosmic frontier.  

     Some may feel the space program is a waste of time and resources, but I don’t see it that way. There are numerous examples, but I will limit myself to one technological sector.  When the Apollo Moon Landing program began with John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1963, computers were gigantic devices with less computing power than the phone you carry around in your pocket.  By the time the crafts to travel to the Moon were ready to fly, each carried several computers to aid in the complex tasks involved with space travel.  Unlike the computers that came before them, they were no longer room sized but the size of the first desktop computer tower you probably purchased sometime after 1990.  Developed for a civilian space program, the technology was made available and companies began designing and manufacturing smaller, faster, and cheaper computers for non-governmental uses.  Without the space program’s push, the devices you take for granted today would have taken longer to get to consumers and also would have been more expensive.  I am not sure what the current figures would be, but at one time, every billion dollars spent on the space program reportedly generated ten times that amount in industry and commerce in the United States.  If you love your electronic devices, thank NASA and JFK challenging us to go to the Moon. 

     Now that I have done my bit of cheerleading for space exploration, let us get back to the main topic.  We will begin our discussion of ‘near misses’ with perhaps the most famous Apollo astronaut of them all, the late Neil Armstrong.  If astronauts have nine near misses like cats have nine lives, Armstrong used up one third of his before he ever left for the Moon.  Near miss number one came when he was piloting an F9F Panther jet fighter in Korea on September 18, 1951.  While flying low down a long valley code named ‘Green Six’, a good eight feet of his right wing was sheared off by anti aircraft cables the North Korean army had strung across the landscape.  Neil’s only thought after the impact was to get his jet high enough so he could eject.  While doing so, he radioed his flight leader, John Carpenter:  “Hey, boss, I’ve lost about half of my starboard wing.  If I get too slow she is going to roll on me.  I’m regaining altitude slowly.”  Carpenter agreed with Neil’s assessment;  he would not be able to land the plane and the closer he could get to the sea, the less chance he would have of ejecting over enemy territory.  

     When he reached sufficient altitude, Neil triggered his ejection seat and parachuted into a rice paddy.  Armstrong was heading for cover when a jeep being driven by a familiar face bounced into sight.  He was close enough to the Marine’s K-3 base to be picked up by his roomate from flight school back in Texas, Goodell Warren.  Warren yelled, “Armstrong, what in the hell are you doing in my rice paddy?”  Goodie Warren told him the explosions they could hear at sea were from mines the North Koreans were laying.  Had the wind carried Neil’s parachute toward the sea instead of inland, he may very well have found himself floating in those same mine filled waters.

     As the command pilot on board the Gemini 8 mission in March of 1966 (along with pilot David Scott), Armstrong again found himself in a potentially deadly situation.  After making the first successful docking of a manned craft with a target vehicle in orbit, the Gemini 8 astronauts had little time to celebrate.  While still docked to the Agena target craft, they began to tumble.  When they undocked, the problem worsened – the spin was being caused by a thruster on the Gemini 8 capsule that had apparently shorted and was firing randomly.  They could not turn it off and when the spin rate neared one revolution per second, their vision began to blur.  The only recourse was to turn off the entire OAMS thruster system and engage the re-entry control system (or RCS) thrusters.  Armstrong used almost 75 percent of their RCS fuel so the mission was terminated.  They were able to land the craft in the secondary recovery zone some 650 miles south of Yokosuka, Japan.  Lesson learned.  NASA installed a master switching system on future flights so the astronauts could turn off individual elements of any malfunctioning system.

     Asrmstrong’s third brush with death occurred while he was practicing for the Apollo 11 Moon landing.  Astronauts could not test drive the real Lunar Excursion Module (LEM, later shortened to just LM) so they used a clunky looking device they nicknamed ‘the flying bed-stead’.  It had a jet engine mounted in the center that pointed downward.  The thrust of this engine helped simulate the Moon’s gravitational pull which is one sixth that of the Earth’s.  During one session, the simulator began to oscillate from side to side, forcing Neil to once again eject from a disabled ship.  The film shows him exiting the craft at the last second before it crashed to the ground.  Armstrong can be seen floating placidly to the ground a short distance away.

     If the first man to walk on the Moon had his share of troubles, the last man to leave the lunar surface, Eugene Cernan, would have a smoother ride, right?  Cernan’s first brush with space gremlins happened while practicing Extravehicular Activities (aka, EVAs or space walks) on the Gemini 9A flight.  The EVAs were more difficult than anticipated and it was an exhausted Cernan who finally climbed back into his spacecraft.  The final step of the EVA, strapping on a self-contained environmental / propulsion unit, was scrapped because Cernan’s overheated body was fogging the visor on his helmet.  While in no imminent danger, the briefing he and his mission mate Tom Stafford had prior to launch came to mind.  The NASA planners reminded them that if for some reason he was incapacitated and could not reenter the capsule, Stafford was instructed to cut the umbilical and close the hatch, leaving Cernan behind.  Both men agreed that A) it wasn’t going to happen no matter what and B) even if Stafford cut Gene loose, there was little chance he would be able to close the hatch himself.  In other words, if the EVA went south, both men would be doomed.  Fortunately, it never came to that.

     Cernan faced a true near death experience during the Apollo 10 mission.  Apollo 10 was the final dress rehearsal before the actual Moon landing took place with Apollo 11.  Cernan and Stafford would do everything on this mission short of landing on the surface.  They had a LM but this model was still too heavy to land.  Their mission plan called for them to descend to an altitude of 8 miles, then jettison the lower half of their craft (which would on later flights act as the launch pad) and ride the upper portion of the LM back to the Command Module.  They had practiced this maneuver in the simulators hundreds of times, yet one small slip nearly cost them their lives.  Cernan had reached over and toggled the switch to engage their second navigational guidance system prior to firing their motor to get back to orbit.  Stafford had not seen him perform this routine act so when he reached over to flip the same switch, he did not realize he had put the guidance system back to the mode they did not want to use at this time. 

     When Cernan blew the bolts to separate the two sections of the LM Snoopy, “All hell broke loose: ‘GIMBAL LOCK,’ Tom screamed.  We were suddenly bouncing, diving, and spinning all over the place as we blazed along at 3,000 miles per hour, less than 47,000 feet above the rocks and craters – much closer if you consider those (expletive deleted) mountains that seemed to be grinning around us like gigantic decayed teeth.”  Not realizing they had caused the problem by switching the navigation program, they flipped the switch again.  By now, Snoopy’s radar was totally confused and instead of locking on the CM Charlie Brown, it fixed itself on the Moon and was trying to fly their ship in that direction instead of up.  They radioed to Houston, “We’re in trouble,” but by then the whole mission control team was reading multiple warnings on their computer screens.  

     Cernan and Stafford were literally seconds from a disaster that could have ended the Apollo program right then and there.  Cernan recalled, “That old devil Moon whipped past my window again, this time from left to right, and looked awfully close.  I stole a glance at the eight ball, which spun crazily as it hunted a nonexistent horizon.  Again the lunar surface dodged by, now bottom to top.  Thinking we might have an open thruster, similar to what had happened to Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott on Gemini 8, Tom overrode the computers and grabbed manual control of the spacecraft.  Then, as swiftly as it had started, the horrifying little episode ended, a fifteen-second lifetime during which we made about eight cartwheels above the Moon, and Tom jerked Snoopy back onto a tight leash.  Old Mumbles (Stafford’s nickname) do know how to fly. After analyzing the the data, experts later surmised that had we continued spinning for only two more seconds, Tom and I would have crashed.”

     He probably was not trying to catch up with Armstrong by having a third near miss, but Cernan did just that while training as part of the backup crew for the Apollo 14 landing.  One of the aircraft they used was a tiny H-13 Bell helicopter with a glass bubble canopy similar to the ones seen flying in the wounded on the TV show M.A.S.H.  On January 23, 1971, he was in Florida waiting for the launch date when he took the H-13 Bell out to practice Moon landings.  With the fuel tanks full, the chopper was a little sluggish so he embarked on a little joy ride to burn off some of the extra weight before he did his practice runs.  The doors were not attached to the canopy he was enjoying a breezy ride until he made a classic mistake that seaplane pilots often make.  The surface of the Indian River was clear and ripple free and without realizing it, he lost sight of the water’s surface.  He thought all was well, until the left skid dug into the water.

     Cernan described the aftermath of his little ‘oops’:  “It was as if a mighty, molasses-sticky hand reached up and grabbed the H-13, yanking the helicopter out of the air.  The ever-present-gremlin of flight was punishing me for letting my guard down for an instant.”  The chopper disintegrated, one of the fuel tanks exploded, and he found himself sitting on the bottom of the river still strapped in the now canopy-less H-13.  His helmet was filled with air and trying to strangle him, so he released it and watched it head for the surface.  Gene unstrapped himself and likewise headed for air, only to surface surrounded by burning fuel.  With his lungs aching, he kept diving and surfacing until he cleared the flames.  He wouldn’t die from the inferno, but he now faced being pulled under by the weight of his water filled flight suit and boots.  Fortunately, a woman fishing nearby pulled Cernan into her small boat.

     Upon returning to the crew quarters, he called his wife back in Houston to assure her he was okay.  Cernan was dinged up and singed, but the biggest worry on his mind was what this mistake would do to his position for future missions.  He was in the running to command Apollo 17 and Astronaut Chief Deke Slayton was the one who would make the final decision.  Slayton gave him an easy out, saying, “So Gene, at what point in the flight did your engine quit?”  Though he appreciated the face-saving offer, Cernan chose to man-up and tell the truth – it was a simple case of pilot error.  The crash happened on a weekend so it was barely mentioned in the press (imagine this escaping unnoticed today!).  In the end, Cernan was still given command of Apollo 17, the final manned flight to the Moon.  After promising himself to be more careful, he managed to injure a ligament in his calf six weeks before lift off.  A kindly flight surgeon risked his own career to nurse him back to health and no one was aware how serious the injury had been.  For the record, the Apollo 17 flight wasn’t nearly as exciting (as in ‘hair-raising’) as the Apollo 10 flight had been.

     Of course, we can’t let this article about near misses pass without mentioning Apollo 13.  Rather than repeat the whole story here, I will refer readers to Ron Howard’s excellent adaptation of Jim Lovell’s equally excellent book, Lost Moon.  I showed this movie in three parts to my Geography – Earth Science classes during the last days before Christmas break.  After viewing Apollo 13, I would point out three things:  First, Howard screened the movie to an audience of the NASA folks who actually worked on the Apollo space program.  If he had fears they would pick it apart, he was delighted when he viewed the list of things they found ‘wrong’ with his film.  They listed things like ‘the wrong license plate design on Jim Lovell’s car’ and ‘The wrong logo was used on the overalls worn by the launch pad closeout crew’.  When he asked about the movie itself, they responded, “Oh it was great – just like it happened.”  Condensing months if not years of the Apollo program is a daunting task, but Howard pulled it off very nicely.

     As far as I am concerned, the star of the entire movie is Jim Lovell’s mother Blanch (played by none other than Ron Howard’s real mother, Jean Frances Speegle Howard).  In the scene where Lovell’s wife visits Blanch in a nursing home to tell her about the accident, she sees how upset the youngest daughter is and asks if she is scared.  When the girl nods, Blanch says, “Don’t you worry honey.  If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it.”  Blanch has another great scene where she asks Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin if they were in the space program as they try to distract her during the critical landing phase of the Apollo 13 mission.

     During the TV coverage of the unfolding Apollo 13 accident, they showed a clip of Lovell (Tom Hanks) being interviewed prior to the mission.  Asked if he had ever had any near misses, he told the story of flying over the Sea of Japan trying to locate his aircraft carrier.  It was night and his homing beacon was useless because someone else was using the same frequency and it was taking him in the wrong direction.  To make matters worse, he had a short circuit that knocked out his cabin lights and instruments.  With no lights in the cockpit, he noticed a trail of phosphorescent algae on the surface of the ocean below.  It had been churned up by the propellers on his carrier and he was able to follow the trail back to his home ship.  As Lovell says in the movie, “You just never know what will transpire to help bring you home.”

     If you watch Apollo 13, keep an eye out for the one of the Naval officers who greets the crew when they come aboard the recovery carrier at the end of the movie.  Lovell was a consultant on the movie (it was his book, after all) so they wrote a cameo appearance for him.

Top Piece Video:  As long as we are talking about near misses in space travel  . . .  here is the classic David Bowie track redone on the ISS courtesy of Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield and his son who put the video together: