Former NASA astronaut Jim McDivitt, who commanded the important Gemini IV and Apollo 9 missions – both crucial for NASA’s ability to reach the Moon — has died at age 93. His family said he passed away peacefully in his sleep on October 13, 2022.Continue reading “Remembering the Gutsy and Hilarious Apollo Astronaut Jim McDivitt”
Comet NEOWISE Was Spiraling and Spinning as it Passed by Earth
Earlier this week, we shared an image of Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. And now, here are a group of images from the 8.1-metre Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. Like Hubble, Gemini North focused in on the comet’s nucleus and coma, instead of its stunning, gossamer tails. But Gemini zoomed in and caught something Hubble didn’t: Comet NEOWISE was rotating, which created a spiraling stream of molecular gas.Continue reading “Comet NEOWISE Was Spiraling and Spinning as it Passed by Earth”
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America’s Pioneering Astronauts Honored with new ‘Heroes and Legends’ Attraction at Kennedy Space Center
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – America’s pioneering astronauts who braved the perils of the unknown and put their lives on the line at the dawn of the space age atop mighty rockets that propelled our hopes and dreams into the new frontier of outer space and culminated with NASA’s Apollo lunar landings, are being honored with the eye popping new ‘Heroes and Legends’ attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida.
With fanfare and a fireworks display perfectly timed for Veterans Day, ‘Heroes and Legends’ opened its doors to the public on Friday, November 11, 2016, during a gala ceremony attended by more than 25 veteran and current NASA astronauts, including revered Gemini and Apollo space program astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Charlie Duke, Tom Stafford, Dave Scott, Walt Cunningham and Al Worden – and throngs of thrilled members of the general public who traveled here as eyewitnesses from all across the globe.
Aldrin, Scott, and Duke walked on the Moon during the Apollo 11, 15 and 16 missions.
Also on hand were the adult children of the late-astronauts Alan Shepard (first American in space) and Neil Armstrong (first man to walk on the Moon), as well as representatives from NASA, The Boeing Company (sponsor) and park operator Delaware North – for the engaging program hosted by Master of Ceremonies John Zarrella, CNN’s well known and now retired space correspondent.
The stunning new ‘Heroes and Legends’ attraction is perfectly positioned just inside the entrance to the KSC Visitor Complex to greet visitors upon their arrival with an awe inspiring sense of what it was like to embark on the very first human journey’s into space by the pioneers who made it all possible ! And when every step along the way unveiled heretofore unknown treasures into the origin of us and our place in the Universe.
Upon entering the park visitors will immediately and surely be mesmerized by a gigantic bas relief sculpture recreating an iconic photo of America’s first astronauts – the Mercury 7 astronauts; Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.
“With all the drama of an actual trip to space, guests of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida will be greeted with a dramatic sense of arrival with the new Heroes & Legends featuring the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® presented by Boeing. Positioned just inside the entrance, the attraction sets the stage for a richer park experience by providing the emotional background and context for space exploration and the legendary men and women who pioneered our journey into space,” according to a description from Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts, which operates the KSC visitor complex.
“Designed to be the first stop upon entering Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Heroes & Legends uses the early years of the space program to explore the concept of heroism, and the qualities that define the individuals who inspired their generation.”
“I hope that all of you, when you get to see Heroes and Legends, you’re inspired,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana, a former space shuttle astronaut and member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, during the ceremony.
“The children today can see that there is so much more they can reach for if they apply themselves and do well.”
“I think people a thousand years from now are going to be happy to see these artifacts and relics,” Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden told the crowd.
“We have so much on display here with a Saturn V, Space Shuttle Atlantis. People will think back and see the wonderful days we had here. And I guess in that same vein, that makes me a relic too.”
Furthermore, ‘Heroes and Legends’ is now very conveniently housed inside the new home of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (AHOF) – making for a unified space exploration experience for park visitors. AHOF previously was located at another off site park facility some seven miles outside and west of the Visitor Complex.
The bas relief measures 30 feet tall and 40 feet wide. It is made put of fiberglass and was digitally sculpted, carved by CNC machines and juts out from the side of the new into the new 37,000 square foot U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (AHOF) structure.
To date 93 astronauts have been inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame spanning the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
“I don’t consider myself a hero like say, Charles Lindbergh,” said Jim Lovell, a member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame and Apollo 13 commander, when asked by Zarrella what it feels like to be considered an American space hero. “I just did what was proper and exciting — something for my country and my family. I guess I’m just a lucky guy.”
The astronauts are also quick to say that they were supported by hundreds of thousands of dedicated people working in the space program to make Apollo happen.
“It important to remember all the dedication and hard work that it took from those of us involved in the astronaut program, but also the support we received from Kennedy and all the contractors involved in Apollo,” said Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke.
“400,000 people made it possible for 24 of us to go to the Moon.”
“So dream big, aim high!” exclaimed Duke.
“Hopefully this is an inspiration to you and your kids and grandkids.”
Construction of the facility by Falcon’s Treehouse, an Orlando-based design firm began in the fall of 2015.
“We’re focusing on a story to create what we consider a ‘launch pad’ for our visitors,” said Therrin Protze, the Delaware North chief operating officer of the Visitor Complex. “This is an opportunity to learn about the amazing attributes of our heroes behind the historical events that have shaped the way we look at space, the world and the future.
“We are grateful to NASA for allowing us to tell the NASA story to millions of guests from all over the world,” Protze said.
Visitors walk up a sweeping ramp to enter the Heroes and Legends experience.
After visitors walk through the doors, they will be immersed by two successive video presentations and finally the Hall of Fame exhibit hall.
Here’s a detailed description:
• In the stunning 360-degree discovery bay, What is a Hero?, guests will explore how society defines heroism through diverse perspectives. Each examination of heroism starts with the following questions: What is a hero; Who are the heroes of our time; and What does it take to be a hero? During the seven-minute presentation, the historic beginning of the space race is acknowledged as the impetus for America’s push to the stars in NASA’s early years and the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
• Through the Eyes of a Hero is a custom-built theater featuring a multi-sensory experience during which guests will vicariously join NASA’s heroes and legends on the most perilous stages of their adventures. Artistically choreographed lighting and 3D imagery will be enhanced by intense, deeply resonant sound effects to create the sensation of being “in the moment.” The seven and one-half minute show takes guests on an intimate journey with four space-age heroes to fully immerse them in the awe, excitement and dangers of the first crewed space program missions.
• The third experience, A Hero Is…, offers interactive exhibits that highlight the nine different attributes of our history making astronauts: inspired, curious, passionate, tenacious, disciplined, confident, courageous, principled and selfless. A collection of nine exhibit modules will explore each aforementioned attribute, through the actual experiences of NASA’s astronauts. Their stories are enhanced with memorabilia from the astronaut or the space program.
Priceless historic artifacts on display also include two flown capsules from Mercury and Gemini; the Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft piloted by Wally Schirra during his six-orbit mission in October 1962 and the Gemini IX capsule flown by Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan for three days in June 1966.
The human rated Mercury Redstone-6 (MR-6) is also on display and dramatically mated to the Schirra’s Sigma 7 Mercury capsule.
Another room houses the original consoles of the Mercury Mission Control room with the world map that was used to follow the path of John Glenn’s Mercury capsule Friendship 7 between tracking stations when he became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.
Further details about ‘Heroes and Legends, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and all other attractions are available at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex website: https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, GOES-R weather satellite, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:
Nov 17-20: “GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-REx launch, SpaceX missions/launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings
Gallery: Spacesuits Are Amazing Human-Protection Machines
Did you know it’s been nearly 50 years since the first spacewalk? On March 18, 1965, Russian Alexei Leonov ventured from the safety of his Russian spacecraft for the first attempt for a person to survive “outside” in a spacesuit. While Leonov had troubles returning to the spacecraft, his brave effort set off a new era of spaceflight. It showed us it was possible for people to work in small spacesuits in space.
Think about what spacewalks have helped us accomplish since then. We’ve walked on the Moon. Constructed the International Space Station. Retrieved satellites. Even flew away from the space shuttle in a jetpack, for a couple of flights in the 1980s.
In this gallery, we’ve highlighted some of the more memorable images from American spacewalks over the years to honor a new Smithsonian Air and Space exhibit opening today (Jan. 8).
REAL Images of Eclipses Seen From Space
That ‘amazing astro-shot that isn’t’ is making the rounds of ‘ye ole web again.
You know the one. “See an Amazing Image of an Eclipse… From SPACE!!!” screams the breathless headline, with the all-too-perfect image of totality over the limb of the Earth, with the Milky Way thrown in behind it for good measure.
As the old saying goes, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Sure, the pic is a fake, and it’s been debunked many, many times since it was first released into the wild a few years back. But never let reality get in the way of a good viral meme. As eclipse season 2 of 2 gets underway tonight with a total lunar eclipse followed by a partial solar eclipse on October 23rd both visible from North America, the image is once again making its rounds. But there’s a long history of authentic captures of eclipses from space that are just as compelling. We’ve compiled just such a roll call of real images of eclipses seen from space:
The Solar Dynamics Observatory:
Launched in 2010, The Solar Dynamics Observatory or SDO is NASA’s premier orbiting solar observatory. But unlike Sun-staring satellites based in low Earth orbit, SDO’s geosynchronous orbit assures that it tends to see a cycle of partial solar eclipses twice a year, roughly around the equinoxes. And like many satellites, SDO also passes into the Earth’s shadow as well, offering unique views of a solar eclipse by the limb of the Earth from its vantage point.
A joint mission between NASA and JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) launched in 2006, Hinode observes the Sun from low Earth orbit. As a consequence, it nearly has a similar vantage point as terrestrial viewers and frequently nabs passages of the Moon as solar eclipses occur. Such events, however, are fleeting; moving at about eight kilometres per second, such eclipses last only seconds in duration!
Like Hinode, Proba-2 is the European Space Agency’s flagship solar observing spacecraft based in low Earth orbit. It also catches sight of the occasional solar eclipse, and these fleeting passages of the Moon in front of the Earth happen in quick multiple cycles. Recent images from Proba-2 are available online.
Eclipses from the ISS:
The International Space Station isn’t equipped to observe the Sun per se, but astronauts and cosmonauts aboard have managed to catch views of solar eclipses in an unusual way, as the umbra of the Moon crosses the surface of the Earth. Such a view also takes the motion of the ISS in low Earth orbit into account. Cosmonauts aboard the late Mir space station also caught sight of the August 11th, 1999, total solar eclipse over Europe.
Weather satellites can, and do, occasionally catch sight of the inky black dot of the Moon’s penumbra crossing the disk of the Earth. GOES-West snapped the above image of the November 13th, 2012, solar eclipse. The umbra of the Moon’s shadow races about 1700 kilometres per hour from west to east during an eclipse, and we can expect some interesting images in 2017 when the next total solar eclipse crosses the United States on August 21st, 2017.
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project:
The final mission of Apollo program, the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, also yielded an unusual and little known effort to observe the Sun. The idea was to use the Apollo command module as a “coronagraph” and have cosmonauts image the Sun from the Soyuz as the Apollo spacecraft blocked it out after undocking. Unfortunately, the Apollo thrusters smeared the exposure, and it became a less than iconic— though unusual — view from the space age.
Gemini XII and the first eclipse seen from space:
On November 12th, 1966, a total solar eclipse graced South America. Astronauts James Lovell Jr. and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. were also in orbit at the time, and managed to snap the first image of a solar eclipse from space. Gemini XII was the last flight of the program, and the astronauts initially thought they’d missed the eclipse after a short trajectory burn.
ISS Astronauts catch a transit of Venus:
We were fortunate that the International Space Station had its very own amateur astronomer in residence in 2012 to witness the historic transit of Venus from space. NASA astronaut Don Pettit knew that the transit would occur during his rotation, and packed a full-aperture white light solar filter for the occasion. Of course, a planetary transit meets the very loosest definition of a partial eclipse, but it’s a unique capture nonetheless.
Japan’s SELENE-Kaguya spacecraft entered orbit around the Moon in 2007 and provided some outstanding imagery of our solitary natural neighbor. On February 10th, 2009, it also managed to catch a high definition view of the Earth eclipsing the Sun as seen from lunar orbit. A rare catch, such an event occurs during every lunar eclipse as seen from the Earth.
An unusual eclipse… seen from Mars:
We’re fortunate to live in an epoch in time and space where total solar eclipses can occur as seen from the Earth. But bizarre eclipses and transits can also be seen from Mars. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have witnessed brief transits of the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos across the face of the Sun, and in 2010, the Curiosity rover recorded the passage of Phobos in front of the Sun in a bizarre-potato shaped “annular eclipse”. But beyond just the “coolness” factor, the event also helped researchers refine our understanding of orbital path of the Martian moon.
The future: It’s also interesting to think of what sort of astronomical wonders await travelers as we venture out across the solar system. For example, no human has yet to stand on the Moon and witness a solar eclipse. Or how about a ring plane passage through Saturn’s rings, thus far only witnessed via the robotic eyes of Cassini? Of course, for the best views of Saturn’s rings, we recommend a vacation stay on Iapetus, the only major Saturnian moon whose orbit is inclined to the ring plane. And stick around ‘til November 10th, 2084, and you can witness a transit of Earth, the Moon and Phobos as seen from the slopes of Elysium Mons on Mars:
Hopefully, they’ll have perfected that whole Futurama “head-in-a-jar” thing by then…
-Looking for eclipses in science fiction? Check out the author’s tales Exeligmos and Shadowfall.
Relive The Joy Of Spacewalking During America’s First EVA, 49 Years Ago Today
In five decades of spacewalks, we challenge you to find a set of photos that more fully represents the potential of the tumbling gymnastics you can do during a spacewalk.
NASA astronaut Ed White stepped out of his Gemini 4 spacecraft 49 years ago today, equipped in a spacesuit and attached to his spacecraft by nothing more than a tether. These incredible pictures (taken by commander Jim McDivitt) give a sense of how White moved around, propelled by a small maneuvering unit in his hand.
After about 20 minutes of orbital exercises, White was ordered back to the spacecraft. “It’s the saddest moment of my life,” he said. In a NASA oral history interview in 1999, McDivitt later recalled the trouble they had getting him back inside:
I was kind of anxious to have him get back inside the spacecraft, because I’d like to do this in the daylight, not in the dark. But by the time he got back in, it was dark. So, when we went to close the hatch, it wouldn’t close. It wouldn’t lock. And so, in the dark I was trying to fiddle around over on the side where I couldn’t see anything, trying to get my glove down in this little slot to push the gears together. And finally, we got that done and got it latched.
It was the first time any American had done this — but White was not the first in the world. That honor belongs to Alexei Leonov, who pushed out of Vokshod 2 in March 1965. (The Soviet spacewalk was actually quite terrifying, as Leonov had to reduce the pressure in his spacesuit to get back inside the spacecraft.)
Even after White’s triumph, there was much to learn about spacewalking. Several astronauts in later Gemini missions struggled with doing tasks outside the spacecraft because there were not enough handholds to keep a grip in microgravity. It took until Gemini 12 for a combination of astronaut training and spacecraft design to make spacewalking a more controlled procedure — just in time for the Apollo moon program of the 1960s and 1970s.
Below the video about Gemini 4 are several more pictures of White’s adventures in space. Gemini 4 was White’s only spaceflight. He died in a launch pad fire for Apollo 1 on Jan. 27, 1967.
Check out more photos of memorable NASA spacewalks in this past Universe Today story.
Direct Image of an Exoplanet 155 Light Years Away
Chalk up another benchmark in the fascinating and growing menagerie of extra-solar planets.
This week, an international team of researchers from the Université de Montréal announced the discovery of an exoplanet around the star GU Piscium in the constellation of Pisces the Fishes 155 light years distant. Known as GU Psc b, this world is estimated to be 11 times the mass of Jupiter — placing it just under the lower mass limit for brown dwarf status — and orbits its host star 2,000x farther than the distance from Earth to the Sun once every 80,000 (!) years. In our own solar system, that would put GU Psc b out over twice the distance of the aphelion of 90377 Sedna.
The primary star, GU Psc A, is an M3 red dwarf weighing in at 35% the mass of our Sun and is just 100 million years old, give or take 30 million years. In fact, researchers targeted GU Psc after it was determined to be a member of the AB Doradus moving group of relatively young stars, which are prime candidates for exoplanet detection. Another recent notable discovery, the free-floating “rogue planet” CFBDSIR 2149-0403 is also thought to be a member of the AB Doradus moving group.
The fact that GU Psc B was captured by direct imaging at 155 light years distant is amazing. The international team that made the discovery was led by PhD student at the Department of Physics Université de Montréal Marie-Ève Naud. The team was able to discern this curious planet by utilizing observations from the W.M. Keck observatory, the joint Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the Gemini Observatory and the Observatoire Mont-Mégantic in Québec.
Universe Today recently caught up with researcher Marie-Ève Naud and her co-advisor Étienne Artigau about this exciting discovery.
What makes this discovery distinctive? Is this the most distant exoplanet ever imaged?
“Well, first, there are not a lot of exoplanets that were detected ‘directly’ so far. Most were found indirectly through the effect they have on their parent star. The few planets for which we have an actual image are interesting because we can analyze their light directly, and thus learn much more about them. It was also one of the “coolest” planets that have been directly imaged, showing methane absorption. And yes, it is certainly the most distant exoplanet to a main-sequence star that has been found so far.
This distance makes GU Psc b very interesting from a theoretical point of view, because it’s hard to imagine how it could have formed in the protoplanetary disk of its star. The current working definition of an exoplanet is based solely on mass (<13 Jupiter masses), so GU Psc b probably formed in a way that is more similar to how stars formed. It is definitely the kind of object that makes us think about what exactly is an exoplanet.”
At a distance of 2000 A.U.s from its primary, how are astronomers certain that PU Psc b is related to its host and not a foreground or background object?
“As the host star, GU Psc is relatively nearby; it displays a significant apparent proper motion (note: around 100 milliarcseconds a year) relative to distant background stars and galaxies.
On images taken one year apart with WIRCam on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, we observed that the companion displays the same big proper motion, i.e. they move together in the plane of the sky, while the rest of the stars in the field don’t. We also determined the distance of the both the planet and the host star, and they both agree. Also, they both display signs that they are very young.”
Were any groundbreaking techniques used for the discovery, and what does this mean for the future of exoplanet science?
“Quite the opposite… most planet hunting techniques using direct imaging involve state-of-the-art adaptive optics systems, but we used ‘standard’ imaging without any exotic techniques. Planet searches usually attempt to find planets in orbits similar to those of our own solar system giants, and finding these objects, indeed, requires groundbreaking techniques. In a sense, there is an anthropocentric bias in the searches for exoplanets, as people tend to look for systems that are similar to our own solar system. Very distant planets like GU Psc b have been under the radar, even though they are easier to find than their closer-in counterparts. To find this planet, we used very sensitive ‘standard’ imaging, but we chose carefully the wavelengths where planets display colors that are unlike most other astrophysical objects such as stars and galaxies.”
GU Piscium shines at magnitude +13.6 northeast of the March equinoctial point in the constellation of Pisces. Although its exoplanet companion is too faint to be seen with a backyard telescope, its angular separation is a generous 42,” about the apparent span of Saturn, complete with rings. And it’s shaping up to be a red dwarf sort of week at Universe Today, with our recent list of red dwarf stars for backyard telescopes. And the current tally for extra-solar planets sits at 1,791… hey; didn’t we just pass 1,000 last year?
Congrats to Marie-Ève Naud and her team on this exciting new discovery… and here’s to many more to come!
Read the original paper, Discovery of a Wide Planetary-Mass Companion to the Young M3 Star GU Psc.
Best Ever Astronaut ‘Selfies’
“Talk about a selfie!” wrote former astronaut Clay Anderson on Twitter yesterday (Oct. 1). He posted that comment along with a favorite photo from Expedition 15, when he was standing in restraints on the robotic Canadarm2. Off in the distance, he saw his shadow against the solar array panels of a Soyuz spacecraft.
That got us thinking — what are the best astronaut selfies? Below are some of our favourites (some intentional, some not) from over the years. Any that we have missed? Let us know in the comments!
The Epitome of Cool: Neil Armstrong and David Scott, 1966
So, you’ve just endured a harrowing experience where your orbiting spacecraft has gone wildly out of control. You somehow — while undergoing the incredible, vertigo-inducing G-forces of your spinning spacecraft — figure out a plan, undock your spacecraft from another spacecraft and abort your original mission.
Six and a half orbits and ten hours and 44 minutes after you’ve thunderously launched into space, you violently re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in a pitching ocean. Obviously, you have to throw up, and so does your crewmate. But there’s just one air sickness bag.
But by the time the rescue crew has arrived you’ve donned your sunglasses and look as cool as a cucumber.
That’s Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott’s experience during the Gemini 8 mission.
The epitome of cool.
Survival: Terrifying Moments in Space Flight
Space is a dangerous and sometimes fatal business, but happily there were moments where a situation happened and the astronauts were able to recover.
An example: today (March 16) in 1966, Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott were just starting the Gemini 8 mission. They latched on to an Agena target in the hopes of doing some docking maneuvers. Then the spacecraft started spinning inexplicably.
They undocked and found themselves tumbling once per second while still out of reach of ground stations. A thruster was stuck open. Quick-thinking Armstrong engaged the landing system and stabilized the spacecraft. This cut the mission short, but saved the astronauts’ lives.
Here are some other scary moments that astronauts in space faced, and survived:
Friendship 7: False landing bag indicator (1962)
John Glenn was only the third American in space, so you can imagine the amount of media attention he received during his three-orbit flight. NASA received an indication that his landing bag had deployed while he was still in space. Friendship 7’s Mercury spacecraft had its landing cushion underneath the heat shield, so NASA feared it had ripped away. Officials eventually informed Glenn to keep his retrorocket package strapped to the spacecraft during re-entry, rather than jettisoning it, in the hopes the package would keep the heat shield on. Glenn arrived home safely. It turned out to be a false indicator.
Apollo 11: Empty fuel tank (1969)
Shortly after Neil Armstrong announced “Houston, Tranquility Base, here, the Eagle has landed” during Apollo 11, capsule communicator Charlie Duke answered, “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” They weren’t holding their breath just because it was the first landing on the moon; Armstrong was navigating a spacecraft that was almost out of fuel. The spacecraft Eagle overshot its landing and Armstrong did a series of maneuvers to put it on relatively flat ground. Accounts say he had less than 30 seconds of fuel when he landed on July 20, 1969.
Apollo 12: Lightning strike (1969)
Moments after Apollo 12 headed from ground towards orbit, a lightning bolt hit the rocket and caused the spacecraft to go into what appeared to be a sort of zombie mode. The rocket was still flying, but the astronauts (and people on the ground) were unsure what to do. Scrambling, one controller suggested a command that essentially reset the spacecraft, and Apollo 12 was on its way. NASA did take some time to do some double-checking in orbit, to be sure, before carrying on with the rest of the mission. The agency also changed procedures about launching in stormy weather.
Apollo 13: Oxygen tank explosion (1970)
The astronauts of Apollo 13 performed a routine stir of the oxygen tanks on April 13, 1970. That’s when they felt the spacecraft shudder around them, and warning lights lit up. It turned out that an oxygen tank, damaged through a series of ground errors, had exploded in the service module that fed the spacecraft Odyssey, damaging some of its systems. The astronauts survived for days on minimal power in Aquarius, the healthy lunar module that was originally supposed to land on the moon. They arrived home exhausted and cold, but very much alive.
Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: Toxic vapours during landing (1975)
The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was supposed to test out how well American and Russian systems (and people) would work together in space. Using an Apollo command module and a Russian Soyuz, astronauts and cosmonauts met in orbit and marked the first mission between the two nations. That almost ended in tragedy when the Americans returned to Earth and their spacecraft was inadvertently flooded with vapours from the thruster fuel. “I started to grunt-breathe to make sure I got pressure in my lungs to keep my head clear. I looked over at Vance [Brand] and he was just hanging in his straps. He was unconscious,” recalled commander Deke Slayton, in a NASA history book about the event. Slayton ensured the entire crew had oxygen masks, Brand revived quickly, and the mission ended shortly afterwards.
Mir: The fire (1997)
The crew on Mir was igniting a perchlorate canister for supplemental oxygen when it unexpectedly ignited. As they scrambled to put out the fire, NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger discovered at least one oxygen mask on board were malfunctioning as well. The crew managed to contain the fire quickly. Even though it affected life aboard the station for a while afterwards, the crew survived, did not need to evacuate, and helped NASA learn lessons that they still use aboard the International Space Station today.
STS-51F: Abort to orbit (1985)
The crew of space shuttle Challenger endured two aborts on this mission. The first one took place at T-3 seconds on July 12, when a coolant valve in one of the shuttle’s engines malfunctioned. NASA fixed the problem, only to face another abort situation shortly after liftoff on July 29. One of the engines shut down too early, forcing the crew to abort to orbit. The crew was able to carry on its mission, however, including many science experiments aboard Spacelab.
STS-114: Foam hitting Discovery (2005)
When Discovery lifted off in 2005, the fate of the entire shuttle program was resting upon its shoulders. NASA had implemented a series of fixes after the Columbia disaster of 2003, including redesigning the process that led to foam shedding off Columbia’s external tank and breaching the shuttle wing. Wayne Hale, a senior official in the shuttle program, later recalled his terror when he heard of more foam loss on Discovery: “I think that must have been the worst call of my life. Once earlier I had gotten a call that my child had been in an auto accident and was being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. That was a bad call. This was worse.” The foam, thankfully, struck nothing crucial and the crew survived. NASA later discovered the cracks in the foam are linked to changes in temperature the tank undergoes, and made more changes in time for a much more successful mission in 2006.
We’ve probably missed some scary moments in space, so which ones do you recall?