Getting off the ground is half the battle

Ned Jilton • Jun 10, 2020 at 7:30 PM

I was watching with anticipation the countdown on NASA TV on Wednesday, May 27, to see astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley liftoff in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canavarel, Florida — the same complex from which the moon flights launched.

Both Behnken and Hurley are space flight veterans. Behnken flew on the space shuttle twice and has several spacewalks to his credit while Hurley also flew on the space shuttle twice, including STS-135, the final mission of the program, in July 2011.

While the count progressed, the moderators talked about how in the event of an emergency the Dragon capsule has a series of eight SuperDraco abort engines that would push the capsule away from the Falcon rocket before parachutes would open to bring the crew safely back to earth.

For some reason, I begin to think about the Gemini 6 mission while they were talking about the abort system.

In December 1965, Gemini 6, with astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford, was to catch up with Gemini 7 for America’s first rendezvous in space. The countdown went fine and at zero the engines ignited — for one second — and then shut down.

The astronauts were sitting on the launch pad in a very dangerous situation. Inside the capsule, Schirra, commanding the mission, had to make the decision either to pull the abort handle and escape or to ride it out atop the rocket until it could be made safe by the ground crews.

Schirra chose to wait. And it was probably a good choice for several reasons.

First, because he didn’t pull the handle, NASA was able to fix the problem and reset the rocket for flight three days later. If he had pulled the handle, the mission would have been scrubbed altogether.

Second, while the Mercury, Apollo and Dragon capsules all have abort rocket systems to lift them away from the rocket, Gemini used ejection seats. Had Schirra pulled the handle, the doors of the capsule would have blown open, and the astronauts would have been shot out horizontally about 100 feet from the ground. Even if the parachutes opened in time, it would still not have been a good day.

Getting back to Wednesday’s countdown, the moderators moved from talking about the capsule to talking about the Falcon 9 rocket. Listening to this reminded me of one of my favorite news clips from the space program, the launch of Apollo 4.

Wait! What? Apollo 4? “I thought Apollo 7 was the first manned mission,” you might be saying.

Yes, Apollo 4 and CBS New’s Walter Cronkite.

To me, Cronkite was the voice of the space program. His calm but enthusiastic voice describing what’s happening and filling you in on all the details about the astronauts, the spacecraft and the mission. It’s this demeanor, or the loss of it during the broadcast, that makes the Apollo 4 clip so good.

The Nov. 9, 1967, unmanned Apollo 4 mission was the first launch of a completed Saturn V rocket, including the never-before-flown first stage. No one in the news media knew what to expect.

Cronkite was doing his broadcast from the cape like he had done for past flights. He talked about President John F. Kennedy’s dream to reach the moon and what this rocket meant. Then he cut to the voice of mission control as the countdown approached.

When the Saturn V roared to life, it shook the ground and rattled the building at the cape.

Cronkite’s famous poise disappeared for a couple of minuets.

“My God, our building’s shaking here! Our building’s shaking!” Cronkite yelled, “Oh, the roar is terrific, the building’s shaking! This big blast window is shaking! We’re holding it with our hands! Look at that rocket go into the clouds at 3,000 feet! The roar is terrific. Look at it going! You can see it ... you can see it. Part of our roof has come in here.”

As ceiling tiles fell around him, Cronkite regained some of his composure while continuing the broadcast. He later admitted that he was “overwhelmed” by the power of the rocket and the emotion of the moment.

Wednesday’s SpaceX launch was scrubbed due to weather.

But, you know, it didn’t seem that bad. In fact, you could see patches of blue sky in the background. But NASA has strict rules about launch weather restrictions.

And you can thank Apollo 12 for that.

It was a rainy day when Apollo 12 with Commander Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean launched on Nov. 14, 1969, worse than the weather was on Wednesday. Raindrops could be seen on the lenses of cameras recording the event, but conditions were deemed minimally acceptable.

The Saturn V roared to life and the rocket cleared the tower. Thirty-seven seconds into the flight, all the warning lights in the command module came on and the telemetry at Mission Control seemed scrambled.

“Okay, we just lost the Platform gang,” Conrad said. “I don’t know what happened here. We had everything in the world drop out.” He began calling out all the warning lights.

What the astronauts in the capsule or the folks at Mission Control didn’t know was that Apollo 12 had been hit not once, but twice, by lighting during liftoff.

The mission was on the verge of being aborted when flight controller John Aaron remembered he had seen this scrambled telemetry before during a simulation a year earlier. “Flight, try SCE to ‘AUX’ ” Aaron told the flight director. He was asked to repeat what he had said. Almost no one at Mission Control knew what he was talking about but they relayed his message to the spacecraft.

“What the hell is that?” Commander Conrad said. But astronaut Bean knew what it was and where the switch was. He successfully reset the system enough to get Apollo 12 into orbit where the rest of the circuit breakers in the command module could be reset.

Just before reaching orbit, Conrad said to Mission Control, “Looks like we need more all-weather testing.”

Needless to say, NASA took another look at its flight regulations regarding weather.

Apollo 12 went on to become the second successful moon landing. John Aaron would play a major role in the Apollo 13 mission. And Saturday, May 30, SpaceX successfully launched its manned rocket from the same pad as Apollo 12.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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