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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 21



Summary: In the previous twenty 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 deployment of the first permanent space stations in Earth orbit and the beginning of the age of supersonic flight. In this chapter we’ll delve further into the US-Soviet race for Mars and recall the tragedy that spelled the beginning of the end for the Concorde.


Having been beaten to the punch in the race to get the first permanent manned space station operational, the United States was determined to regain the initiative in the space race by sending the first manned flight to Mars. In the meantime, US astronauts were busy trying to top the endurance records set by their Soviet brethren on board Soyuz. In May of 1967, just under a month after the maiden Soyuz flight, the American Manned Orbital Laboratory-- dubbed "Skylab" by the New York Times --was officially christened by a three-man crew under the command of future Mars astronaut James Lovell. Lovell’s crew spent fifteen days in orbit running experiments ranging from tests of the effects of zero gravity on insects to collection of solar radiation data; predictably, the crew of the next Soyuz mission sought to surpass Lovell’s record by logging twenty days in space, and from there the superpowers would spend the next decade or so competing with each other in a cosmic game of "double dare" to find out who could keep a space station crew in orbit the longest.

This rivalry would turn out to be a prelude to an even more competitive phase in the history of space exploration: the quest to send a manned flight to Mars. For generations, the Red Planet had held an almost hypnotic fascination for the human race; after the first successful lunar landing in 1963, the notion of manned exploration of Mars gained an added attraction for US and Soviet space scientists. Since the Martian polar icecaps were similar in many respects to their counterparts back on Earth, much of the early discussion about possible mission parameters for a manned orbit of the Red Planet or a landing on Martian soil was quite  naturally focused on searching for evidence to confirm or refute the theory that Mars had once possessed vast amounts of surface water.

There was also great interest in finding out whether or not Mars had any life forms inhabiting it. One Soviet cosmonaut who took part in the Soyuz program jokingly suggested that a Martian language instruction course ought to be included as part of the basic training regimen for cosmonaut cadets. In a more serious vein, a group of NASA exobiologists submitted a report to the agency’s director in July of 1967 recommending that the first US manned expeditions to Mars check the Martian atmosphere for any microbes it might contain. A corollary to the report, published two months later, hinted that a landing on Mars might turn up at least faint signs of humanoid life forms on the Red Planet.

In the midst of all this fascination with the planet Mars, an event was about to happen back on Earth which would ultimately spell doom for the concept of supersonic passenger flight...


September 28th, 1967 was just a handful of days short of the ten-year anniversary of the Explorer I tragedy. That afternoon, a Concorde prepared for takeoff from London’s Heathrow Airport on what should have been a routine cross-Channel passenger flight to Paris. And all seemed to be well as the jet taxied into takeoff position; in fact, an air traffic controller on duty at Heathrow that day would later recall the jet’s takeoff looked flawless.

And it was-- until the plane’s co-pilot frantically radioed the main control tower that the jet was starting to come apart at the seams. A previously undetected structural flaw had caused one of the Concorde jet’s engines to begin tearing itself loose from the rest of the plane; despite the control tower’s best efforts to guide the stricken jet to an emergency landing the Concorde’s flight crew was unable to regain control of their plane and as bystanders watched in helpless horror, the jet smashed into the runway and disintegrated. The entire flight crew and all but one of the Concorde’s passengers were killed in the impact.

British and French civil aviation authorities immediately ordered all surviving Concordes grounded until an investigation could determine just how many other planes of that type suffered from the same kind of structural problems that had led to the Heathrow disaster. In the United States, opponents of the now long-dead Boeing 2707 project pointed to the Heathrow crash as a vindication of their arguments against SSTs; in the Soviet Union, reports about the Heathrow accident caused Kremlin civil aviation  officials to hasten their plans to phase out the Tu-144, which as we’ve seen in the previous chapter was having its own troubles.

By the time the investigation was complete, a widespread consensus had emerged on both sides of the English Channel that the Concorde’s virtues were greatly outweighed by its faults. The jet that had started its career in a blaze of hope and grandiose publicity would end said career under a cloud of disappointment and red ink. Even before the board of inquiry looking into the  Heathrow crash released their final report in the summer of 1968, British Airways and Air France had both already made the decision to discontinue use of the Concorde; this decision had long been  expected in the aviation industry because of the financial losses both airlines were taking on Concorde fuel and maintenance costs, but the Heathrow crash constituted the final nail in the casket.

These events, coming as they did on top of the Soviet government’s gradual retirement of the Tu-144 from commercial use, were in effect the end of the age of supersonic passenger planes. If one agrees with the comment by a certain post-Cold War Russian author that the cancellation of the Tu-144 marked the death of the SST, then the Heathrow crash and its aftermath can be said to have constituted the SST’s funeral.


But while the SST faded into oblivion, the manned space station and the quest to send a man to Mars were gathering steam. In fact, some of the Soviet aerospace engineers who tried and failed to make the Tu-144 a success were given an opportunity for redemption by signing on for the Soviet Mars manned orbiter program, codenamed Krasnyya Mira("Red World"). Another group of aerospace designers who got a second chance thanks to the race to send a manned flight to Mars was the team that created the aborted Boeing 2707; by the time of the Heathrow crash, many of the men who’d once toiled on the 2707 were redirecting their individual and collective energies toward creating a workable flight vehicle for the American Mars project, dubbed Mariner by NASA.

Robotic probes had been analyzing Mars since the late 1950s; compared to the extremely sophisticated unmanned spacecraft which are available for planetary survey missions today, the early Mars robot vehicles were clumsy, half-blind things that tended to fade out rather quickly. But for all of their limitations, these early Mars probes provided useful new information about the Red Planet; as technology improved, so did the robot probes’ capabilities and  the quality of the information they transmitted back to Earth. By the time the first Mariner and Krasnyya Mira crews were ready to attempt a manned voyage to Mars, they would have data from nearly a decade’s worth of robotic probe surveys at their disposal.

Spacesuits were also improving during this timespan. NASA engineers were taking the lessons learned from the Explorer lunar missions and applying them to the new models of pressure suits which were to be worn during the Mariner flights to Mars. Early versions of the new suit design, used by Skylab space station  personnel, got high marks from those crews; by 1971 the new model would become the standard-issue attire for all extravehicular operations by NASA astronauts.


In the meantime, an innovative new vehicle concept was being floated in aerospace circles: the idea of a spacecraft that was a unique combination of sailplane, aircraft, and space capsule. This type of vehicle, nicknamed a "space glider" or "space shuttle", was anticipated to one day be the successor to the ‘throwaway’ one-use rockets which had been used for manned space flights since the days of Project Mercury and Vostok. It would take until the mid-‘70s for the concept to become reality, but interest in the idea was considerable from the beginning.

The logic behind the "space glider"/"space shuttle" basic concept was that if a spacecraft could be employed for multiple missions rather than simply being expended after a single flight, it would save money on fuel and construction costs and thus give such craft a greater operational lifespan before they needed to be replaced. Such reusability could come in handy for delivering personnel to space stations or placing satellites in Earth orbit; it could also, the idea’s proponents suggested, make the "space glider" a useful tool for constructing future permanent orbital platforms.

The first conceptual drawing of what the "space glider" might look like was printed in May of 1968 in one of America’s largest science magazines. Though drawn by an amateur artist instead of a professional aerospace engineer, it hinted at many of the characteristics the glider would need to have in order to function in space. Soviet space engineers examined the drawing with keen interest, believing it might hold clues to enhancing the performance and capabilities of the next generation of Soviet manned space vehicles.

Eight months later NASA commissioned its first official research study into the possibility of constructing and operating a working "space glider" in the coming decade. One man who took a particularly keen interest in the NASA report was President-elect Richard Nixon, who was looking to put his own stamp on America’s space program rather than just blindly follow in the footsteps of the Johnson Administration; once he was sworn into office Nixon would become the space glider’s best friend in Washington. Not that Nixon would neglect the Mariner project by any means-- in fact, one of his senior science advisors came up with the notion of using space gliders to assemble the components for a Mariner manned vehicle in Earth orbit. Once these components were fully put together, the idea went, the completed spacecraft could then take off for Mars without having to struggle quite so hard to get free of Earth’s gravitational pull.


When the Soviet space program began screening candidates in the summer of 1969 for the maiden flight of the Krasnyaa Mira program, speculation ran wild on both sides of the Iron Curtain that Salyut 4 veteran Yuri Gagarin would eventually make it onto the final roster of applicants for a post on the crew of Krasnyaa Mira’s first mission. In a Pravda interview, Gagarin himself said he was greatly looking forward to someday orbiting the Red Planet and gazing on its famous icecaps.1

But during the second week of August, 1969 fate would cruelly deprive Gagarin of the chance to fulfill that dream. While on a routine test flight near Star City,2 Gagarin lost control of his jet and crashed in the nearby countryside. He suffered a host of massive internal injuries, and in spite of doctors’ best efforts he was dead 48 hours later. His death was a crippling blow to the Soviet space program, and not simply because of his status as a Soviet national icon: as one of the most experienced cosmonauts being screened by the Krasnyaa Mira crew selection committee, he brought a wealth of knowledge and skills to the table that most of his fellow candidates barely even came close to matching. He could have made the perfect mission commander for Krasnyaa Mira’s maiden flight; now, with him gone, Soviet space officials would have to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, to find a man who could pick up the banner in Gagarin’s stead.

NASA had its own crew leadership problems to contend with as far as the Mariner program was concerned; in June of 1970 Navy veteran Jim Lovell, a Project Explorer alumnus who was to have commanded the Mariner debut mission, fell ill with the measles and had to be quarantined. Fortunately, another Explorer alumni, Neil Armstrong, was available to pinch-hit for Lovell; having trained as part of the backup team for Lovell’s crew, Armstrong had little trouble adjusting to the leadership role that had been suddenly thrust on him. Ironically, this Ohio native who would soon become the most famous American astronaut since John Glenn was far from the matinee idol-type figure one normally thinks of when picturing a space explorer-- in fact, for most of his adult life he had been a fairly private person.


To Be Continued...


[1] From Pravda’s July 20th, 1969 edition.

[2] The main training complex for the Soviet manned space program.


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