Saturday, May 26, 2012

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project press kit items from NASA JSC

In July 1975, an American Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft for two days of joint scientific experiments. Before and after the docking, the two spacecraft manœuvered around each other and made additional dockings and undockings to give their crews and ground controllers experience with joint operation of these two very different craft. The Apollo–Soyuz Test Project (ASTP; in Russian, Экспериментальный полёт «Аполлон» — «Союз», or ЭПАС) stands out as a triumph of international scientific co-operation and goodwill against the backdrop of the Cold War. A few items from the press kit issued by NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) provide an introduction to this landmark mission:

This first item is a small slip of paper, 6 cm × 15 cm (4½” × 6”) with the background and objectives of the mission explained on both sides. It’s printed on a lightweight beige stock with a linen face. I particularly like the 1970s typography in the title.

It begins:
“Three years of combined effort by the world’s leading space powers will culminate with dual launches for the first international manned space flight, the result of a May 1972 US–USSR agreement to design and test a compatible docking system for future spacecraft and space stations.

A milestone in international space cooperation, the Apollo Soyuz Test Project calls for the docking of a US Apollo and a USSR Soyuz in Earth orbit to test jointly designed rendezvous and docking equipment and procedures. The test lays the groundwork for future activities involving manned spacecraft of the two nations, and may help to make space rescues possible in years to come.”

It would take twenty years, but the hopes expressed in these paragraphs would prove fruitful. The Androgynous Peripheral Attach System (APAS) docking mechanism designed for this mission would provide the basis for the American Space Shuttle to dock with the Russian Mir space station and later with the International Space Station.1

The second item is a card, 18 cm × 13 cm (7” × 5”) that contains the schedule for the mission, as at 23 May 1975. It includes four alternate date ranges for successive days in July in case the launch did not occur as planned on 15 July (as it happened, the mission ran to schedule).

The third item is a card, 26.5 cm × 20 cm (10½” × 8”) that presents the mission profile in graphical form, beginning with the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan, and finishing with the splashdown of the Apollo spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean. The text throughout is in both English and Russian.

The back of the card presents an information summary of all2 American human spaceflights up to that time, covering the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs: thirty missions with a total cumulative time in space of 21,851 person hours!

1The docking mechanism of the Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft is designed to be compatible with APAS too, making dockings of Shenzhou and the International Space Station technically feasible.
2The summary is not quite complete. It includes the two sub-orbital flights carried out as part of the Mercury Program (Mercury-Redstone 3 and Mercury-Redstone 4) but excludes thirteen sub-orbital flights of the X-15 rocket plane that, between 1962 and 1968, met the American definition for a spaceflight that was then in use. As defined in the US at the time, a spaceflight was any flight that reached an altitude of 50 miles (80 km). Furthermore, two of these flights—flight 90 and 91, both made by Joe Walker—also met the international definition for a spaceflight (a flight reaching an altitude of 100 km—62 miles). If the Mercury-Redstone flights were spaceflights, the X-15 flights were too. The incredible X-15 is sadly a too-often overlooked chapter of spaceflight history.

Copyright information: These three items come from a NASA press kit. The schedule and the profile are clearly NASA publications and, as works of the US federal government, are in the public domain. The mission schedule card is US Government Printing Office publication 1975—671-549/13 and the mission profile card carries the NASA image number S-74-3297. The small overview sheet does not provide any publication details, so at the very least, as a publication in the United States before 1989 without a copyright notice, it would be in the public domain anyway, even if it were not a federal government publication.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Skylab reboost concept art

After the Skylab 4 crew returned to Earth in February 1974, NASA had no further plans for the space station and shut down its systems. Prior to undocking, the crew had used the engine of their Apollo spacecraft to nudge Skylab into a higher orbit, roughly 440 km above the Earth. However, even at this height, the Earth’s atmosphere is dense enough to exert significant drag on a satellite. A period of increased solar activity in the 1970s made this situation worse for Skylab. This activity caused the density of the atmosphere at Skylab’s altitude to increase, and therefore the drag on the station to increase in proportion.

Based on measurements taken during the Skylab missions, NASA predicted that the station would remain in orbit another nine years, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere sometime in 1983.

Doomed if left where it was, the station still represented a valuable collection of resources in orbit: air, water, and shelter that NASA had already  paid to carry up there. By 1977, with the Space Shuttle program well underway, NASA planners recognised an opportunity to save the station for refurbishment and reuse. With orbital flights of the shuttle scheduled to begin in mid 1979, NASA contracted Martin Marietta Corporation (today, absorbed into Lockheed Martin) to develop a booster that could be carried to Skylab by a space shuttle and used to raise Skylab’s orbit out of imminent danger, as illustrated in this piece of concept art:

Here’s a close-up of the booster module itself, designated the Teleoperator Retrieval System (TRS):

It’s docked to the main port of Skylab’s Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA). The square plate visible at the centre of the cluster of engines carries an attachment point to allow the shuttle’s robot arm (Remote Manipulator System — RMS) to grasp the module and manœuver it into position. Note also that Skylab’s main solar array has been re-folded into its launch position (it’s the long, flat, rectangular structure along the side of the station with the words “United States” barely legible along it). I presume this was to keep the station’s centre of mass as close as possible to the TRS’s line of thrust during the boost, as well as to minimise stresses on the array—although the solar panels on the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) are still fully deployed.

Safe in its new orbit, Skylab would then be ready for renovations and expansions to keep it in useful service perhaps as far as 1989. Alternatively, NASA also considered the possibility of using the TRS to de-orbit Skylab in a safe, controlled manner, far away from human populations (Skylab’s orbit carried it over around 90% of the world’s people).

However, none of this was to be. Solar activity through the 1970s remained higher than predicted, and by April 1979, it was clear that Skylab would not last longer than a few more months. It was also clear that the Space Shuttle was nowhere near ready: ongoing problems and delays with its revolutionary new heat shield and engines postponed the first orbital flight past the end of the year.

On 11 July 1979, Skylab’s orbit decayed and brought the station down in an uncontrolled1 re-entry over the Indian Ocean and Western Australia.

On 12 April 1981, the first space shuttle flew.

Incidentally, I’d love to know the name of the artist who did the original painting. If you know, please leave me a note!

1 Well, almost uncontrolled. As the station crossed the east coast of North America, headed  south-east on what was almost certainly to be its final orbit, ground controllers fired the station’s thrusters to set it tumbling in its orbit. This tumble was intended to maximise the atmospheric drag and bring Skylab down as quickly as possible, hopefully somewhere in the South Atlantic or Indian Ocean and before it re-appeared over the Pacific North-West of the United States.

Copyright information: The print in my collection was formerly held by a newspaper archive. It is a black-and-white version of NASA image S78-23631. As a work of the US federal government, this image is in the public domain.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Skylab 4 certificate from NASA MFA Office

I work for a large organisation that regularly hands out awards of various kinds to recognise excellence or to celebrate particular milestones. I therefore feel some kind of camaraderie with the recipient of this award, although I never knew them personally.

These certificates were printed for employees of NASA and its contractors to commemorate the success of Skylab 4 — the third and final mission to take a crew to the space station.

Printed on US letter-size paper, it displays the insignia of the Skylab program, plus mission insignias for all three Skylab crews (with Skylab 4’s the largest). The employee’s name is printed below (blurred out here for their privacy), together with a short message of appreciation, and facsimiles of the signatures of the three astronauts who flew the mission: Jerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue.

This is an ordinary piece of paper made extraordinary by its association with an extraordinary achievement. Skylab 4 put a crew of three astronauts on a space station for 84 days of scientific research and returned them safely to Earth.

I sometimes wonder whether any of the ephemera from our office will one day be collectable to someone!

Copyright information: this certificate was issued by NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Awareness Office. As a work of the US federal government, it is in the public domain.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Skylab 3 press kit from the US DoD

This week’s artifact is a press kit issued by the United States Department of Defense to describe the contribution of the military to the Skylab 3 mission. Probably the most visible role was that of the recovery forces: prior to the Space Shuttle, American spacecraft landed (“splashed down”) in the ocean. The astronauts and their capsule were recovered by helicopter and brought aboard an aircraft carrier waiting nearby.

However, as the press kit points out, the military involvement went far beyond recovering the spacecraft. Throughout Skylab 3’s launch and return, 2,260 members of the United States Air Force and United States Navy provided tracking, communications, safety, rescue, and meteorological services. Three ships and 51 aircraft were assigned to these efforts: a sizeable undertaking.

To most people, perhaps the most interesting thing about the document is how incredibly crude its production appears by today’s standards. The document itself is sixty pages of heavy stock in the old government letter size of 8” × 10½” (203 mm × 267 mm). Black-and-white printing appears on one side of the page only.

In 2012, any crank who hands out flyers on a street corner has slicker-looking material than the US Department of Defense was producing only forty years ago. Conversely, I’m struck by how closely some vintage sci-fi fanzines from the same era in my collection resemble this press kit: those amateurs were doing some impressive work.

One day, I’d like to scan the entire document for posterity, but the stapled binding on my copy is very tight, and getting good scans without damaging it will be a time-consuming challenge. For now, here are a few representative pages that deal with the recovery effort by USS New Orleans off the coast of California. New Orleans was flagship of Task Force 130, based at Pearl Harbor under Rear Admiral John L. Butts, Jr.


Copyright information: The text and images in this press kit are the work of the United States federal government, and therefore in the public domain.