Wednesday, 10 November 2004

"Other than that things are fine"

Over at, the Encyclopedia Astronautica, there's an article entitled The Hard Road to Space, which details the few well-publicised tragedies, and many, many unpublicised close-calls that have occurred in manned spaceflight.

The title of this post comes from Astronaut Gordon Cooper's long-duration Mercury flight in Faith 7, where at the end of the mission, nearly every system was failing. Those that hadn't already failed, that is.
Well, things are beginning to stack up a little. ASCS inverter is acting up. And my CO2 is building up in the suit. Partial pressure of 02 is decreasing in the cabin. Standby inverter won't come on the line. Other than that things are fine.
He had to bring Mercury MA9 in via manual control - and landed within sight of the recovery vessel, an extraordinary bullseye under the best of circumstances - which these most certainly weren't.

Some of the Soviet missions though were, if anything, worse. This one's a description of Cosmonaut Boris Volynov's ordeal in Soyuz 5 :
Volynov remained behind for what was undoubtedly the most unbelievable re-entry ever survived. The PAO service module of the Soyuz failed to separate after retrofire. While this had occurred on various Vostok and Voskhod flights, and on one Mercury flight, it was a much more serious problem for Volynov, where the module was much larger than a small retropack. Furthermore, once it started reaching the tendrils of the atmosphere, the combined spacecraft sought the most aerodynamically stable position - nose forward, with the heavy descent module with its light metal entry hatch at the front, the less dense service module with its flared base to the back. Volynov at once appraised the situation and considered all possibilities and realised that there was nothing he could really do.

The spacecraft was re-entering air-lock forward and with every minute the G forces increased. Volynov did his duty with all of his strength but this became increasingly difficult since he was hanging in the straps of his seat with the G forces assailing him in the opposite direction from what planned. Soon a strong smell penetrated the cabin - the rubber gaskets of the hermetic seal of the hatch were burning. The hatch had a light covering of heat protective resins, but at the last moment these could not hold out and they vaporised into fumes that immediately spread throughout the cabin. Volynov could remain conscious for only a few seconds after this.

He remained alive when a miracle occurred - a miracle for which he could thank the designers who had included a strong titanium frame which helped the airlock hold out against the onslaught of the superheated plasma. The PAO service module finally separated from the SA re-entry vehicle. The capsule turned around to an aerodynamically stable position at hypersonic speed and the heat shield finally took the brunt of the heating as designed. The spacecraft continued on a 9 G ballistic trajectory. The damage to the capsule resulted in a failure of the soft-landing rockets. The landing was harder than usual and Volynov broke his teeth. The capsule was recovered 2 km SW of Kustani, far short of its aim point, on January 18, 1969 at 07:58 GMT. It would be seven years until Volynov flew again, on Soyuz 21.
But he wasn't out of the woods yet...
The crew was to be feted at a state ceremony at the Kremlin, but this was ruined by an attempted assassination of Soviet leader Brezhnev.
Fortunately, the gunman didn't just miss Brezhnev (who was in another car), but the Cosmonauts as well. As for Volynov's next mission, Soyuz 21 :
Crew member became psychotic and mission was returned to earth from space station early. Toxic gases in station were suspected.
In this one, Volynov had to control the ride down while accompanied by a crewman who was stark staring bonkers.

Then there's the Voskhod 2 crew that spent the night after re-entry up a tree, surrounded by hungry wolves... or the Soyuz 18-1 crew that had to abort the launch, and landed after a crushing 20-g re-entry onto a mountainside near the Chinese border, then slid to the very edge of a precipice...

As they say, go and RTWW. Read the whole thing.

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