Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous eighteen episodes of this series we followed the course of aviation and spaceflight history from the first experiments in powered flight by British aviation pioneer William Samuel Henson in the mid-19th century to the Explorer I tragedy of 1957. In this chapter we’ll look back at the Salyut 4 crisis of 1962 and the historic moment when NASA finally made good on its promise to put a man on the Moon by 1963.
"We have a problem...our number two oxygen tank has failed." Those words put a chill in Soviet ground controllers; Salyut 4 was clearly in serious trouble. The question now was whether or not anything could be done about it; with half of their oxygen supply gone in one fell swoop, any thought of a lunar orbit was now out of the question and even getting the Salyut cosmonauts back to Earth safely looked like an extremely difficult task to accomplish. Theoretically it might be possible for Gagarin and his crewmates to turn the ship around and get home if they were careful to conserve their remaining oxygen, but it would take a great deal of luck and a certain degree of split-second timing in order to pull off the turnaround.
Then Gherman Titov had an innovative idea. The original mission parameters for the Salyut 4 flight had included an unmanned test of Salyut’s lunar landing module; what if, Titov suggested, the crew all got into their EVA suits and used the lunar module as a temporary lifeboat for the turnaround maneuver? Once the capsule had been separated from Salyut’s service module, the crew could transfer back to the capsule and eject the lunar module prior to re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Alexei Leonov and Yuri Gagarin immediately concurred that this plan was their best hope for making it back to Earth, and after initially sounding skeptical about Titov’s proposal ground controllers at Baikonur agreed to let the Salyut 4 crew carry it out.
A nation, and a world, waited anxiously as the cosmonauts raced against time to pull off what would go down as the most complicated rescue maneuver in aerospace history. There was literally no room for error-- the slightest miscalculation would leave Titov and his crewmates trapped in space, and eventually dead. Few people on either side of the Iron Curtain were more interested in the drama taking place than President Kennedy; the United States’ own lunar ambitions would be greatly affected by the success or failure of Titov’s plan. He and the NASA officials serving in his administrations were haunted by the possibility of another disaster leading to the loss of American astronauts in the line of duty, and after the Explorer 1 tragedy Kennedy did not want to risk having men stranded in space if there weren’t a way to pull their irons out of the fire.
To everyone’s relief, Titov’s plan went off without a hitch and the Salyut 4 crew made a safe-- if somewhat bumpy --return to Earth, landing on a plain in central Kazakhstan. It would later be concluded by Soviet space officials(and American intelligence experts) that a defective coil in Salyut 4’s electrical system had probably been the main cause of the failure of that craft’s number two oxygen tank. When the archives of the Communist-era Russian space program were opened following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Western space engineers would learn that their Soviet brethren had been worried such a defect might one day set off an explosion large to cripple or even destroy a Salyut.
The Salyut 4 drama prompted NASA to make some adjustments to the Explorer program’s training procedures; in addition to being taught the basics of landing on and returning from the Moon, the astronauts of Project Explorer were now also given instruction in how to perform what the Western press had already nicknamed "the Titov maneuver". NASA made some modifications to Explorer’s lunar module as well, modifying its basic design so that in the event of an emergency the module could double as a lifeboat. All these changes served to further drive up the already massive budget for Project Explorer, but as President Kennedy himself said more than once the cost of doing nothing would have been ten times greater.
One thing the Salyut 4 crisis didn’t do was shake NASA’s confidence in its ability to meet Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the Moon before the end of 1963. In fact, some officials at NASA thought that Khrushchev’s decision to postpone the next group of Salyut missions in the wake of the Salyut 4 incident might represent an opportunity for the United States to take the lead once and for all in the moon race. By the time the Soviets resumed the Salyut program in late November of 1962, the United States already had two successful lunar orbital flights under its belt and preparations were well underway for what was dubbed the Explorer program’s "dress rehearsal" mission, Explorer VI.
Explorer VI was nicknamed "the dress rehearsal" because its mission agenda was to conduct the final tests of the docking and maneuvering procedures that would be employed in the actual lunar landing attempt which was set to take place a few months down the line when NASA launched Explorer VII. Commanded by Project Janus veteran and former US Navy carrier pilot Neil Armstrong, Explorer VI would be closely watched not just by NASA but all around the world.
The Explorer VI mission was launched in December of 1962, a week before Christmas; for the most part the crew completed their assigned jobs with only a minimum of difficulty. But the most memorable part of the flight would have nothing whatsoever to do with any of the assigned docking or maneuvering tasks included in the official mission profile-- Armstrong’s crewmate Frank Borman, a devout churchgoer, read the first chapter of Genesis from the Bible in a live radio broadcast on the second-to-last day of the mission in honor of the Christmas holiday. This stirred a great deal of consternation among NASA officials, who generally tried to discourage their astronauts from making personal religious statements during a live communication with Earth, but it gained Borman and his crewmates a wealth of respect and appreciation in the ranks of the American public.
With the preliminaries over, NASA could now focus its energy and attention on the main event: Explorer VII. That spaceflight, set for the spring of 1963, would be one of the most important-- and sadly also one of the last-- defining moments of the Kennedy Administration.
The air in Cape Canaveral was giddy with anticipation on the afternoon of April 17th, 1963. One of humanity’s oldest dreams was on the verge of finally being realized; Explorer VII would soar into space carrying with it the hopes of not just a nation but an entire world. John Glenn, a Korean War air combat veteran with two prior space missions under his belt, had been designated to lead the Explorer VII crew, and in that role he would be granted a privilege no other human being had ever enjoyed-- the chance to walk on the moon.
Explorer VII blasted off at 1:34 PM US Eastern Daylight Time, its ascent into space tracked by both NASA radars and a veritable battalion of cameras and microphones from just about every major broadcast media outlet on Earth. The print media were also out in force at Cape Canaveral that day; the New York Times alone had 15 correspondents covering the launch.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan until the final approach to the landing site, when Michael Collins, lunar module co-pilot for Explorer VII, noticed a cluster of boulders at the originally scheduled landing site. Following the instincts that had kept him alive in Korea and guided him through two other spaceflights, Glenn told Collins to override the lunar module’s autopilot systems and switch to manual flight. The two astronauts then steered their craft towards a smoother landing spot over at Mare Tranquilitatus1.
From that moment on, the landing went like clockwork; with precision a Swiss watchmaker would have admired, Collins and Glenn placed their lunar module-- appropriately christened as Discovery --near the center of Mare Tranquilitatus. At 4:42 PM US Eastern Daylight Time on April 22nd, 1963, Glenn sent a short but memorable radio message back to Earth: "This is Discovery... we have made touchdown."
Around the world millions of people rejoiced at the successful lunar landing. The New York Times rushed an extra edition out to newsstands with the front page devoted mainly to the Explorer VII landing; at the CBS-TV news studios in New York anchorman Walter Cronkite, visibly fighting to maintain a professional demeanor, called the landing "the most important event in human exploration since Marco Polo went to Asia". The White House was flooded with telegrams and phone calls from all parts of the globe commending the historic achievement. Even the official Soviet government newspaper Pravda ruefully conceded: "The United States has made a significant leap forward in man’s quest to master the challenges of outer space. The task for the Soviet Union now is to build on and surpass Explorer VII’s accomplishments."2
Western intelligence analysts saw in those words a clue to the USSR’s future space ambitions. Having lost the race to the Moon, Moscow was now apparently going to try and beat the United States to the punch in establishing the first permanent space stations in Earth orbit; for that matter, it wasn’t entirely out of the question to consider the possibility of the Soviets making an all-out effort to send a manned orbital mission to Mars before the year 2000.
To Be Continued...
 Latin for “Sea of Tranquility”.
 From an editorial in the April 23rd, 1963 edition of Pravda.