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17.07.2009 08:24 - T Minus 3 Days and Counting, Part 2: Death And Space.

Space travel is extremely dangerous, and likely to be for some time.  Alan Shephard's comment that "You're sitting on top of the biggest controlled explosions ever known, and it's all provided by the cheapest bidder" still holds true.  Both American and Russian lives were needlessly expended in the rush to the Moon.

In America's case, the lives of Virgil Grissom, Ed White and Don Chaffee were taken in a fire on the Apollo 1 launchpad.  Grissom had been particularly critical of the Apollo Command Module, and threatened to hang a lemon on it, as well as saying it would be the death of him.  The fire was either caused by static discharge from the nylon spacesuits rubbing against nylon and metal couches, or by incomplete wiring sparking and setting fire to rubbish left lying round.  Add to the fact that the spacecraft, in "plugs out" test mode - seeing whether the ship would run under it's own power - was pressurized with pure oxygen to 16psi, which is a dangerously explosive combination.  Grissom knew his spacecraft, having nearly drowned when his Mercury capsule jettisoned its hatch, and subsequently contributed so much to the design of the Gemini capsule that it was called the "Gusmobile" (which, interestingly enough, lay horizontally in the water, rather than vertically, like the Mercury capsule).  Ironically, the hatch on Apollo 1 was designed to open inward, due to dissatisfaction with the Mercury hatch misbehavior, and so was impossible to open due to the pressurisation.  It also lacked an emergency escape system which would open the door quickly - it took five minutes, and special ratchets, to open the door from outside.

After the fire, the Apollo system was completely worked over - flammable material replaced with fire-retardant material, the hatch totally redesigned and the spacesuits made out of Betacloth.  More importantly, the documentation was brought up-to-scratch and contingency plans worked out.  So complete was the documentation that it probably saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew.  Even then, there were adjustments to be made to Apollo, when it was found that the LM life support system used canisters which were round, rather than square, like the CM's.  An important lesson on standardisation that dated from Whitfield's and Babbages time had not been taken into consideration - consolidate parts with similar function to one type only.

The Russian losses were similar, and came from similar reasons.  The Russians had claimed a number of firsts in front of the Americans with the "Voskhod" spacecraft - first 3-man spacecraft, and first space-walk.  Only years later did it come out that the Voskhod was in fact a heavily-botched Vostok one-man spacecraft, and tremendous gambles had been taken with Cosmonaut's lives to keep up appearances by beating the American Gemini 2-man capsule into orbit. 

Russia's new spacecraft, the Soyuz, was not yet ready, and pressure was being put on to have it finished, so much so that a similar state of affairs existed to that of the Apollo 1 capsule.  Yuri Gagarin, although grounded due to his fame, was head of the Cosmonaut corps and was extremely worried that failures and mistakes on the new craft were being swept under the table.  He was in possession of a report of over 200 design faults which had yet to be corrected.  The report was circulated, and disappeared.  People who circulated the report were demoted to out-of-the-way places.  Unmanned tests of the Soyuz spacecraft and stack - Cosmos 133 and 140 - ended in disaster, despite which, the Politburo insisted on another success in space to mark Lenin's birthday, and/or to capitalise on the Apollo 1 disaster.  Gagarin set himself up as backup pilot for the Soyuz in an attempt to save the life of designated pilot Vladimir Komarov, thinking that he'd bump himself up to flight status over Komarov, because the Leadership wouldn't dare risk him in an untried ship.  It didn't work, and Komarov was literally, and knowingly, ordered to his death.

On April 23rd, 1967, Soyuz 1 was launched into orbit from Baikonaur Spacedrome.  Immediately it was in trouble.  One of the two solar panels failed to open, leaving the ship starved of power.  Komarov was unable to maneuver the craft properly due to orientation system problems.  Soyuz 2, which was planned to launch and rendezvous with Soyuz 1, was quietly aborted.  By the thirteenth orbit of Soyuz 1, the automatic stabilisation system was dead, and Komarov reported that the manual system wasn't much use, either.  It was decided to abort the flight.  After a successful reentry, the parachute system did not deploy properly due to faulty pressure sensors. Komarov attempted to deploy the parachute manually but failed, hitting the ground at an estimated 89 mph.  Komarov was killed by the impact.

Subsequent examination found similar faults on the Soyuz 2 spacecraft.  If it had been launched, there would have been four lives lost.  The Soyuz programme went into an 18-month redesign period, and even then a faulty pressure valve would doom the crew of Soyuz 11 during re-entry.  The Zond programme - Russia's moon programme - eventually collapsed after the explosion of the N-1 moon rocket, and the death of Gagarin in a flying accident.

 

 


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