Space exploration is risky. Very risky. We all remember the two shuttle disasters: Challenger (STS-51) on January 28, 1986 and Columbia (STS-107) on February 1, 2003. For a boy who grew up in Huntsville Alabama with the space program in his backyard, these tragedies hit very close to home. Much of the shuttle was built at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center near in my hometown. In fact, throughout my life I have followed the space program very closely.
I met Werner von Braun on many occasions, the first being when I was in the 5th grade. I remember the ground shaking his rocket testing caused, interrupting baseball games and other activities. I was at the launch of Apollo 11, July 16, 1969 at 9:32 AM. I remember it like yesterday. And then on December 9, 2006, Nan and I attended the nighttime launch of the Discovery (STS-116) spacecraft as guest of NASA. It was also a great experience and the launch was breathtaking. For me, besides the launch itself, the highlight of that visit back to Cape Canaveral was meeting Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon. He served as Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 14, and flew along with Commander Alan Shepard, one of the original 7 astronauts, and Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa. Mitchell and Shepherd stepped on the moon on February 5, 1971.
This Apollo 14 flight was the next in line after the near disaster of Apollo 13. That was an incredible adventure where James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise were nearly lost in space. I remember the city of Huntsville basically shutting down as every scientist in the area moved out to Marshall and worked around the clock, frantically attempting to jury-rig the space craft and bring the three astronauts safely home. Fortunately, they succeeded.
Apollo 13, the movie about this journey, followed the actual events almost to the letter. Many years ago I met Ron Howard at the then Maui Writers Conference. I thanked him for doing the story straight up and not turning it into some Hollywood bastardization of a truly heroic event. Interestingly, he said that the studios actually did try to change the story but that he and Tom Hanks stood firm and demanded that the script follow the reality. I thank Ron Howard for that to this day. If you’ve never seen this movie, you should.
But earlier in the space program there were also disasters for both us and the Russians. I vividly remember Apollo 1, where Virgil “Gus” Grissom, also one of the original 7 astronauts, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee perished in a capsule fire. This was severely damaging the space program and almost derailed JFK’s promise of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. But during those times NASA was invincible and pressed on. Few people realize that the Apollo 1 disaster took place on January 27, 1967, a scant 2 1/2 years before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Heady times and great memories.
The Russians also had their disasters and one of the biggest ended 38 years ago today. Soyuz 11 was launched on June 7. 1971 and rendezvoused with their space station. The mission was fraught with all kinds of problems, including a fire that almost caused them to abandon the station in an emergent manner. But Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev completed their mission and on June 30, 1971 went through a seemingly uneventful reentry sequence. Other than lack of communication from the three cosmonauts, no one suspected anything was wrong until they opened the capsule and found the three dead cosmonauts. They attempted CPR but to no avail since they had been dead for some time.
The cause was a faulty valve. Apparently a ventilation valve was jolted open in the descent module when it separated from the service module. The two components were held together by explosive bolts, which were designed to fire in a sequential manner, but apparently they fired simultaneously and the force of these combined explosions damaged the valve so that it locked in an open position. This allowed for an evacuation of the air inside the capsule to the outside and a dramatic drop in oxygen content within the capsule. It is believed that the cosmonauts were probably incapacitated within 20 seconds or so and likely died shortly thereafter. This would be a death from asphyxia since there was no oxygen remaining for them to breathe. This tragedy turned the Soviet space program on its head and set them back, just as Apollo 1 did for us.
The key here is how rapidly these trained pilots became incapacitated and died. You’ve heard over over again on every flight you’ve ever taken that if the cabin pressure is lost, a mask will drop in front of you. Further they instruct you that if you are traveling with a child, that you should put your mask on first and then help the child. What happened on Soyuz 11 is the reason they tell you that. With cabin depressurization and the loss of breathable air, you can lose consciousness in 20 seconds or so and once that happens who is to save you and the child? See, those annoying instructions are important.