Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Bondarenko/Apollo I Connection

From Soviet space program expert James Oberg's "Uncovering Soviet Disasters":

Even before the first announced Soviet spaceman blasted off in 1961, rumors reached the West about the existence of secret graves of anonymous dead cosmonauts, killed on unannounced missions. Moscow vigorously denied them all, to no effect. Lists of dozens of dead cosmonauts circulated in the Western pressfor many years. The Soviets denounced the originators of such material as "enemies."

Then, in 1986, Golovanov revealed in Irvestiya that indeed there had been a cosmonaut fatality back then after all, and it had been kept secret. His article even included the dead cosmonaut's name, Valentin Bondarenko, and the date of his death, March 23, 1961.

"Valentin was the youngest of the first batch of cosmonauts (he was 24 years old)," Golovanov wrote. A small, grainy formal portrait accompanied the article. It showed a very young man attempting to look stern and important. The photograph had been taken only a few days before his death.

Bondarenko had been undergoing routine training in a pressure chamber, which was part of a ten-day isolation exercise. At the very end of the exercise he made a trivial but fatal mistake. "After medical tests," explained Golovanov's article, "Bondarenko removed the sensors attached to him, cleaned the spots where they had been attached with cotton wool soaked in alcohol, and without looking threw away the cotton wool-- which landed on the ring of an electric hot plate. In the oxygen-charged atmosphere the flames immediately filled the small space of the chamber.
Under such a condition of high oxygen concentration, normally nonflammable substances can burn vigorously. The cosmonaut's training suit caught fire. Unaccustomed to the vigor of high-oxygen fires, Bondarenko would only have spread the flames further by attempting to smother them.

When the doctor on duty noticed the conflagration through a porthole, he rushed to the hatch, which he could not open because the internal pressure kept it sealed. Releasing the pressure through bleed valves took at least several minutes. And for ail that time Bondarenko was engulfed in flames.

"When Valentin was dragged out of the pressure chamber," continued Golovanov's account, "he was still conscious and kept repeating,'It was my fault, no one else is to blame....' " He died eight hours later from the shock of the burns.

Golovanov's candid story, in which he disclosed Bondarenko's death, may have astonished his countrymen, and it briefly made headlines in the Western press; but it was hardly news to informed "space sleuths" in the West. They had been hot on the trail of exactly this incident, and Soviet news censors knew it. The cause and effect of Western digging into a Soviet catastrophe, followed by Soviet large-scale (but still not full-scale) release of an "official account," are quite clear-cut. The broad outlines of the "Bondarenko tragedy" had already slipped past the Soviet cover-up.

In 1982 a recently emigrated Russian Jew named S. Tiktin discussed Soviet space secrets in a Russian-language monthly magazine published by anti-Soviet emigres in West Germany. He mentioned in passing a relevant incident. "Soon after the flight of Gagarin [in 1961] the rumor spread about the loss of cosmonaut Boyko (or Boychenko) from a fire in a pressure chamber," he wrote.

In 1984 St. Martin's Press published a book, entitled "Russian Doctor", by the Russian emigre surgeon Dr. Vladimir Golyakhovsky. He described the death of a cosmonaut trainee in a pressure chamber fire. Half an entire chapter was devoted to the incident -- and with authority -- since, incredibly, Golyakhovsky (a specialized surgeon-traumatologist) had apparently been the emergency room doctor at the prestigious Botkin Hospital when the dying cosmonaut was brought in.

As Golyakhovsky remembered it, a severely burned man identified only as "Sergeyev, a 24-year-old Air Force Lieutenant," was brought in by stretcher. "I couldn't help shuddering," Golyakhovsky recalled. "The whole of him was burnt. The body was totally denuded of skin, the head of hair; there were no eyes in the face. ... It was a total burn of the severest degree. But the patient was alive...."

Golyakhovsky saw the man's mouth moving and bent down to listen. "Too much pain -- do something, please -- to kill the pain" were the tortured words he could make out.
"Sergeyev" was scorched everywhere but the soles of his feet, where his flight boots had offered some protection from the flames. With great dimculty the doctors inserted intravenous lines into his feet (they couldn't find blood vessels anywhere else) and administered painkillers and medication. "Unfortunately, Sergeyev was doomed," Golyakhovsky remembered realizing immediately. "And yet, all of us were eager to do something, anything, to alleviate his terrible suffering." The man lingered for sixteen hours before dying.

Afterward Golyakhovsky reported talking with a small young officer who had waited by the phone in the lobby while the burned man lay dying. The doctor requested and received an account of the original accident. Details included "an altitude chamber... heavily laden with oxygen" and "a small electricstove [with] ... a rag burst[ingl into flame." Golyakhovsky was also told that it had taken half an hour to get the pressure chamber open, with "Sergeyev" on fire until the flames consumed almost all the oxygen inside the room.

Sometime later Golyakhovsky saw a photograph of this deathwatch officer in the newspapers. He had been Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space.
Despite minor distortions, the Tiktin and Golyakhovsky material turned out to provide fundamental, direct, and invaluable leads into a major catastrophe in the early Russian space program. It was left to the Soviets only to fill in the details about the real death of Valentin Bondarenko, and they did in April 1986.

Golovanov's article also provided some new confirmation of many other things we knew or suspected. It had already been known that of the twenty men chosen for space training in March 1960, a prime group of six finalists had later been selected for the first mission, But Golovanov filled in unknown details. One of the original six, a man named Anatoliy Kartashov, had already been grounded after experiencing skinbleeding during a centrifuge run. A second "sixer," Valentin Varlamov, was dropped after injuring his neck in a stupid diving mishap (he died several years later of an unrelated medical problem). Their replacements became some of the first men in space; a quarter century later even Golovanov's glasnost still couldn't publish their photographs.

Another of the twenty cosmonaut trainees (the one named Mars Rafikov) had left later for personal reasons (because he was the only non-Slavic cosmonaut ever selected, his motivation is subject to speculation). The last casualty, Dmitriy Zaikin, was grounded in 1968 for medical reasons (ulcers) after serving on a backup crew.

None of these details had been known at the time, in the early 1960s. Instead, in the absence of Soviet candor, Western observers filled in their ignorance with guesses and rumors, mostly wrong and almost always far worse than the truth.

A few paragraphs later, we read:

The Bondarenko tragedy in 1961 bears disturbing similarities to the catastrophe at Cape Kennedy in January 1967, when three Apollo astronauts also died in an oxygen-rich fire. Without knowledge of the Soviet disaster, NASA engineers grew careless in their own use of pure-oxygen atmospheres. On Apollo I (as in the Soviet cabin) there was material that turned out to be highly flammable under oxygen-rich conditions; on Apollo 1 (as in the Soviet cabin) there was no quick-releasehatch; on Apollo I (as on the Soviet cabin), there was no effective fire-fighting equipment.

Could knowledge of the Bondarenko fire have prevented the Apollo I fire and saved the lives of Virgil ("Gus") Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee? The mere knowledge that a Soviet oxygen-rich fire had killed a cosmonaut might have been enough to forestall an American repetition of the disaster.

Khrushchev was Soviet premier at the time of the Bondarenko tragedy, and ten years later, during his enforced retirement, he remarked in his oral memoirs that in general such accident data should be shared. Discussing the Soyuz 11 tragedy, which had just occurred, he said: "I believe the cause of the accident should be announced for two reasons: first, so that people who still have no idea what happened may be consoled; second, so that scientists might be able to take the necessary precautions to prevent the samething from ever happening again. On top of that, I believe the United States should be informed of what went wrong. After all, Americans, too, are engaged in the exploration of space."

Yet when he had the chance, in 1961, Khrushchev did nothing to carry through this policy. Perhaps he regretted it.

His successors, including Gorbachev, continued this policy of nondisclosure, to the detriment of all space travelers. When in 1965 a space-walking cosmonaut on Voskhod 2 nearly died as the result of hisdifficulties in holding on and moving around outside the spacecraft, the Soviets did not warn their American colleagues at all. Instead, in numerous public statements, they raved about how easy and effortless the whole activity had been (only after nearly a decade did the cosmonauts admit toWestern journalists that they had faked their initial reports). Consequently NASA planners and astronauts underestimated the troubles they could face in similar activities, and in mid-1966 an American astronaut was nearly lost in space when he unexpectedly encountered the same difficulties. Even as late as 1985, when cosmonaut Vasyutin faced a life-threatening infection in orbit, the Soviets refused to share the diagnosis of their problem with American space doctors. For the sake of the safety of future space farers, a bit more "cosmic glasnost" is required.

A few reviews of Oberg's work on the Soviet space program:

"Finally, someone is telling it like it is about the Russian manned space program - the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have relied on Jim for years because no one knows it or tells it like him."
-Walt Cunningham, Apollo astronaut

"This remarkable book is must reading for anyone who wishes to understand the culture with which one must deal when cooperating with Russia."
Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, Apollo moonwalker and US Senator

"A great piece of investigative journalism. A must-read for program managers, engineers, and scientists engaged in present and future projects with Russia."
Gene Kranz, Apollo flight director

"Clear-eyed, cold-blooded look at the real costs and benefits of this joint endeavor. Don't miss this one!"
Richard Truly, former astronaut and NASA administrator

This day in history.

On July 12, 1995, the Galileo probe was released from the Galileo spacecraft enroute to Jupiter.
It gave us such images as these:

And then we crashed that sucka.

Great stuff.

A really, really loud launch.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Today in Space History.

On this date in 1993, Russian Pilot Cosmonaut Sergei Vozovikov drowned during recovery training in the Black Sea.
He was 35 years old, and left behind a wife and two children.
He never had the opportunity to fly in space.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Done and DONE.

Big, deep breath.

EVA quotes.

Understatement of the century:

"And, uh, Sergei, be careful with the hammer. It is not desirable to damage the visor."
("And be all dead and whatnot.")

Jeopardy, for Jannie

A: In 1961, this man was receiving so much mail that he was given his own postal code, "Moscow 705."

Q: Who is Yuri Gagarin?

Today in Space History.

On July 10, 1966, cosmonaut Vladmir Komarov announced in Japan that the Soviets would beat the US to the moon by "at least a year."
Tragically, Komarov would not live to see a lunar landing.

On 24 April 1967, Komarov was killed during the re-entry of Soyuz I.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pete Conrad

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of the death of Pete Conrad, so I'll share a few interesting tidbits about him.

The Conrad family lost its fortune in the Great Depression, and soon after, Pete's father left the family. Pete struggled with schoolwork, mostly because of a little-understood condition called dyslexia. After he failed all his 11th Grade tests, he was kicked out of the prestigious Haverford School. (Pete's uncle was financing his education.)
Conrad's mother was determined to find a good school for her son, whom she knew was not "stupid" or "slow." She enrolled Pete in the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York. Though Pete had to repeat 11th Grade, when he graduated, he was accepted to Princeton. On a full-ride Navy ROTC scholarship. How do you like them apples, Haverford School?

By the time Pete was 16 years old, he had earned his pilot's license. Instead of paying for lessons, he worked odd jobs at the airport in exchange for stick time. As a teenager, Pete once drove 100 miles to repair an aircraft which no one else could fix. He fixed the plane all by himself, to the astonishment of the mechanics and pilots present.

Pete was invited to the application process to choose the first Mercury astronauts. Still having a rebellious nature, he gave 'em hell. During an inkblot test, he told the psychiatrist that one blot was a sex act, and described the act in graphic detail. For the next blot, he simply deadpanned, "It's upside-down." His initial application was (surprise!) denied. He was, they said, "not suitable for long-term flight."

Alan Shepard talked Conrad into reapplying during the next selection process, and since many of the invasive and intrusive and unnecessary tests had been done away with, Pete passed with flying colors and was accepted.

On November 12, 1969, Pete became the third man to step on the lunar surface. Since there was no pressure to make a dramatic statement a la Neil Armstrong, Pete used the moment to make fun of his own height and get a laugh out of everyone. He also won $500 from an Italian journalist, who was certain that NASA gave its astronauts scripts, though Pete denied it and said he could prove it. And so the third man to step on the moon exclaimed to the world:

"Whoopeeeee! Man, that may have been one small step for Neil, but it was a long one for me!"

Pete died in a motorcycle crash in a small town called Ojai, California.
Ojai is a word from the Chumash Indian tribe meaning "moon."
True story.

JSC has an area of planted trees in memory of all the astronauts who have died. After Pete's death, they planted a tree and held a memorial service. Alan Bean, also an Apollo 12 moonwalker, humorously"channeled" his late crewmember at the service and informed everyone that Conrad's message from beyond was that he wished for the lights in his particular tree to be colorful, even though the only lights on the memorial trees are white. To this day, the lights in Pete's tree are the only colored lights in JSC's trees at Christmas.

Pete's personal motto was "If you can't be good, be colorful."

I think we can all agree that Pete Conrad was both.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In which I never leave the computer again.

Have I mentioned how much I love the internets?

For cripes' sake, enter your ZIP code, play around with the horizon, the display, etc.

Click and drag the sky to "turn around" 360 degrees.

Here's the thing about having a geek hobby.
Other geeks also have that hobby, and geeks make really cool online toys and gadgets.


"The ideal crew for an Apollo mission would be a philosopher, a priest, and a poet. Unfortunately, they would kill themselves trying to fly the spacecraft."

-Michael Collins


Hell, all they had to do was Google it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Scout's honor, my husband and I were just discussing the same thing the other night while watching NASA-TV.

From The Onion, of course!

by Helen Donnelly
Astronaut Mom

Flight Engineer Oleg Kononenko, pay attention. And make sure Commander Sergei Volkov and spaceflight participant Yi So-yeon hear this, too. I don't care if So-yeon is taking a space walk to calibrate the solar panels. I want her to listen up. We need to have a serious International Space Station talk.

Just look at this mess! It's a disgrace. Is this any way for humans to live in outer space? There are used food tubes everywhere, dirty space suits hanging all over the place, and the automated transfer vehicle from last week is still in the loading dock. Honestly, I hoped you would take some pride in the greatest orbital research platform in history. But it looks like you're set on treating it like some sort of rumpus room.

For Pete's sake—take a little pride in where you live! Have you been in the transfer compartment lately? I'd be surprised if you could even get in there, since there's not even a path that you can walk through to get to it. I swear, it looks like a meteor shower went through here. That may fly in your countries, but when you're with me in the deep reaches of space, that just doesn't cut it.

All I want is to have a nice, clean space station for two minutes put together. Is that too much to ask?

The crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery is coming over in a few weeks and it looks like a disaster area in here. What am I supposed to tell them, that we didn't know they were coming? Do you want to embarrass me in front of NASA? They're bringing new lab equipment with them, and now there's nowhere to put it!

Read the whole article over at The Onion.


Never in my life had I noticed this until Charlie Duke himself mentioned it in an interview on "When We Left Earth." (At least, I think that's where I saw it.)

Armstrong: "Houston, uh, Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed."
Duke: "Roger, Twanq --- Tranquility..."

Audio: "Twanquiwity"

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Great tour of the Solar System

Made with Celestia.
Bonus: Fantastic accent.
Heh. I keep thinking of Mike Myers as Stuart MacKenzie in So I Married an Axe Murderer:

"I'm not kidding, that boy's head is like Spootnik; spherical but quite pointy at parts! Now that was offside, wasn't it? He'll be crying himself to sleep tonight, on his yuuuge pilla."

Earth Whistlers

From the University of Iowa:

Whistlers are produced by lightning and travel along Earth's magnetic field line from one hemisphere to the other, as shown in this illustration. In the ionized gas that exists in this region of space, the high frequencies travel faster than the low frequencies, thereby dispersing the wave from the lightning stroke into a whistling tone that decreases in frequency with increasing time, hence the term "whistler."

Hear earth whistlers here.

And here is an "earth chorus", which sounds remarkably like my parents' backyard on any given summer night.

Again, from U of I:

Chorus waves in Earth's magnetosphere are generated in the Van Allen radiation belts by electrons spiraling along Earth's magnetic field lines in this region. Once generated, the chorus waves interact with the moving electrons, disturbing the spiral orbit of the electrons and causing them to fall into Earth's upper atmosphere along the magnetic field lines.

Chorus waves consist of a rapid succession of intense ascending tones, rising in frequency over very short time intervals, each tone lasting typically less than one second. The frequencies of these rising tones occur in the audio frequency range and sound like a dawn chorus of chirping birds, a sound which gives these waves their name.

Saturn's Bow Shock

A bow shock is a discontinuity that forms when the supersonic solar winds encounter a planet's magnetic field, similar to the shock wave that forms upstream from a supersonic aircraft.
The bow shock crossing is indicated by the abrupt burst of electric field noise at the time marked by the arrow. The electric field noise is caused by electrical currents that flow in the shock.

In 2004, the Cassini probe crossed the bow shock of Saturn.
Here is the audio clip of the event.

And here is a wonderful graphic explanation, courtesy of the University of Iowa: