In January of 1967, America appeared to be the leader in the race for the moon.. The public was euphoric over the success a of the Mercury and Gemini programs. The journey to the moon aboard the marvelous but untested Apollo spacecraft seemed within our grasp but in a worn piece of insulation on a wire underneath a seat in Apollo Saturn vehicle 204, there lay the seeds of a disaster which would cost the lives of three astronauts and set back the program seventeen months.
Late on the morning of January 27, 1967, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were sealed into Spacecraft 012 for a "full dress rehearsal" with 100 per cent oxygen. Under intense political pressure, a decision had been made to skip the unmanned test. The planned program was to include every step except fueling and launch.
The test was plagued with technical difficulties from a spacecraft that had a history of problems, repairs and more repairs. Five hours into the frustrating process, the countdown was placed on hold at T-minus 10 minutes and scheduled to resume at 6:31 P.M.
Unknown to astronauts and ground controllers, the insulation had worn from a wire underneath the seat of the spacecraft commander. The wire sparked and caused the oxygen soaked materials inside the spacecraft to explode in a wall of flame. Hampered by a hatch that required ninety seconds to open, the crew was unable to escape the fire and died within seconds.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the people of the Apollo program summoned reservoirs of strength to correct the deficiencies of the ill fated spacecraft. In an editorial "What Happened to Apollo", appearing in the August 1967 issue of Space & Aeronautics, John B. Campbell wrote:
"The fire that killed the Apollo 204 astronauts was caused by too little attention to flame propagation characteristics of materials, but it resulted in many other fixes to the hardware and the program. The cost is substantial, and tough problems of management persist, but Apollo is stronger today. "
"Yet the close view is not necessarily the most appropriate view of Apollo. The most ambitious single program ever undertaken by man, it will only be accomplished by men able to shake off the ample evidence of human imperfection and press on. In Apollo today -- at NASA, NAA and elsewhere -- there are capable, determined men who understand the job to be done. And they will do it."
Despite the various failures on the three previous Soyuz 7K-OK test flights (Kosmos 133, Kosmos 140A, and Kosmos 140), Brezhnev and Ustinov pressured Mishin to proceed with an attempt to accomplish the 'all up' manned rendezvous, docking, and crew transfer spectacular that would eventually be accomplished by Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5. Komarov was the pilot for the Soyuz 1 active spacecraft, which would be launched first. Soyuz 2, with the crew of Bykovsky, Khrunov, and Yeliseyev would launch the following day, with Khrunov and Yeliseyev spacewalking to Soyuz 1 and returning to earth with Komarov. Not only would this mission show the superiority of Soviet technology, compared to that in America just after the Apollo 204 fire, but it would prove several key elements (first orbit rendezvous, crew transfer via spacewalk) of the planned lunar landing mission.
However immediately after orbital insertion Komarov's problems started. One of the solar panels failed to deploy, staying wrapped around the service module. Although only receiving half of the planned solar power, an attempt was made to manoeuvre the spacecraft. This failed because of interference of the reaction control system exhaust with the ion flow sensors that were one of the Soyuz' main methods of orientation. The decision was then made to bring Komarov back. The first attempt at retrofire however failed - the automatic systems of the ship could not orient it because at the moment of manoeuvre to retrofire attitude the spacecraft was going through an ion 'pocket' - an area of low density where the sensors could not reliably detect the direction of motion of the spacecraft. A decision was made to make a manual retrofire on the next orbit.
Because the manoeuvre would be happening on the night side of the earth, Komarov could not use the Vzor optical alignment device to orient the spacecraft for retrofire. A method of alignment by sighting the moon through the periscope (anticipating Apollo 13's manual method by several years!) was hurriedly selected. Belyayev personally assured Ustinov that the method was feasible based on his Voskhod 2 experience. Following approval, Komarov was able to accomplish the manual retrofire using this method.
Re-entry was successful and the drag chute deployed. However due to a failure of a pressure sensor, the main parachute would not deploy. Komarov released the reserve chute, but it became tangled with the drag chute, which had not been released as would have normally occurred on deployment of the main chute. The descent module crashed into a field near Orenburg at 7 am. The local air force commander reported to the control center only that the cosmonaut would require immediate medical attention, then severed all communication links. Ustinov was told by Kamanin at eleven that Komarov was dead. Ustinov phoned Brezhnev, then in Czechoslovakia, at noon. The world was informed by TASS seven hours later. Komarov'sashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall in a massive ceremony.
As part of the reentry procedure at the end of his flight aboard Soyuz 5, cosmonaut Boris Volynov had to jettison his spacecraft's extra modules. But when he fired the explosive separation bolts, the Equipment Module failed to fully separate and blocked the ship's heat shield. Volynov lost control, and the Soyuz 5 began to tumble in space. It finally stabilized but with its nose, the thinnest part of the vehicle, facing forward. As the vehicle entered the atmosphere, it began to burn up and its structure to fail. Miraculously, stresses on the ship finally dislodged the Equipment Module, and the ship righted itself.
Volynov's troubles were not over, however. Damaged during reentry, the spacecraft's parachutes only partially deployed, making for a near-fatal landing. When ground searchers finally found the wrecked spacecraft, Volynov was not there. He had staggered to a nearby peasant hut, where he had kept warm until the rescue team discovered him.
Soyuz 11 was the second mission to Salyut 1, the first civilian space station. The first mission, Soyuz 10, was aborted because the crew could not enter the space station. The cosmonauts Viktor Patsayev, Georgi Dobrovolsky, and Vladislav Volkov were the crew of Soyuz 11. Originally, they were the Soyuz 11 backup crew, but when Valery Kubasov from the original crew became ill, the crews were changed. Soyuz 11 was launched on the 6th of June, 1971, and docked Salyut 1 the following day. This mission mark the first time a space station was manned.
The joined configuration of Soyuz and Salyut was 21.4 meters long with a total living space of 100 cubic meters, which gave the cosmonauts a place to conduct scientific experiments, relax, and sleep. For the next 23 days, each crewmember performed his scheduled experiments, which emphasized the study of human performance under, and reaction to, prolonged weightlessness. Research in the areas of astronomy, biology, and Earth observation were also done. This record-breaking 24-day space mission was heralded as the beginning a new era in space exploration
On June 29, 1971 the three cosmonauts boarded the Soyuz 11 command module, for their return flight home to earth after completing their flight plan successfully. They had previously transferred their scientific records, film, and log books to Soyuz in preparation for their return home. Everything went as planned, until the craft began to enter the Earth's atmosphere. A failure in the firing of the pyrotechnic devices that separate the Soyuz orbital module from the return module caused a pressure equalization valve to remain open and thus allowed the atmosphere in the return module to leak out. The cabin began to lose pressure, and oxygen. Viktor, one of the cosmonauts, knew that in order to restore pressure, he had to close the pressure equalization valve. He began turning the handle connected to the valve as fast as he could, but unfortunately, it was not fast enough. He was only able to get the valve half closed, when he died from lack of oxygen.
The spacecraft landed successfully, but the recovery teams found all three cosmonauts dead. As a result of this accident, all subsequent Soyuz crews have worn pressure suits during launch, re-entry, and docking activities. The Soviet Union did not return any crews to Salyut 1 and it was more than two years before they attempted another manned mission. The accident was a stunning blow to both the Soviet Union and the international aerospace community. The experimental and risky nature of man's venture into space had been made clear.
If the design had done a better job on the valve, the cosmonaut would have been able to close it in time. However, when designing the valve, the conditions under which it would be needed to be closed were not considered. It was intended to be used for such an emergency, however when the emergency came, it was not possible to close the valve in time to save the crew's lives, hence defeating its purpose.
In a case like this, the design team should have done more testing. However, it would be difficult to simulate the exact conditions of space, while still on Earth. The engineers didn't know what to include in the design until something actually happened, and by that time it was too late. This is the huge problem that faces the individuals designing safety-critical systems. If they knew every single condition then they could make their design handle it. But, unfortunately that is not reality.
Space Rescue Technology:
Scientists and science fiction athors have been thinking about emergency rescues in space for almost as long as they have thought about voyages in space. In his 1938 novel Triplanetary, E.E. "Doc" Smith wrote about "emergency lifeboats. Smith also wrote about an ablative heat shield in the same book (which was very similar to another early escape pod concept called an "airmat"). In 1941, author Harry Walton wrote about a rescue ship - he called it a "lifeship" - in Moon of Exile. In 1946, Arthur C. Clarke published his first short story, titled Rescue Party, in which aliens on a survey mission arrived to try to evacuate humanity from Earth in the face of the sun going nova.
Scientists and engineers have, of course, also considered this problem. Werner Von Braun pushed the idea of a manned space station in the 1960's; with it he also designed a protective ejection type capsule. A parachute with steel-wire mesh reinforcements and solid rocket booster would break the fall; antenna and radar beacon activate automatically.
After the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, NASA started seriously looking at alternatives for the Space Station. Some proposals even included the use of refurbished Apollo lunar capsules from the 1960's. The only completed crew rescue capability ever provided by NASA is the Apollo CSM rescue craft.
A kit was created to fit out an Apollo command module with five crew couches; in the event that a Skylab crew ran into trouble, a rescue CSM would be launched to rendezvous with the station. This capability was created partly in response to the sci-fi movie Marooned, released in 1969, starring Gregory Peck, David Janssen and Gene Hackman (among many others). The movie explored what happens when a problem develops in space and astronauts are stranded.
During the last decade, NASA developed the X-38 prototype, which was intended as an emergency vehicle for up to seven crewmembers on the International Space Station. It would have been carried up to the ISS by shuttle, and attached to a docking port. The craft offered a seven hour life support system, a steerable parafoil parachute deployed at 40,000 feet to carry it through to landing. It was intended to have fully automated navigation and control systems. This program has been cancelled.