Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous chapters of this series, we explored the history of aviation and spaceflight from William Samuel Henson’s first experiments with powered flight during the mid-1840s to the start of the US-Soviet Mars race. In this episode we’ll look back at the first manned orbital flights to Mars and the rise of the European consortium Airbus as a challenger to US firms’ growing dominance of the commercial aviation industry.
Neil Armstrong had a tall order ahead of him when he was designated to replace Jim Lovell as mission commander for the inaugural orbital flight of Project Mariner. It wasn’t so much the actual responsibilities of command that were a challenge for him; rather, he would have to learn in a hurry to cope with the tsunami of print and broadcast reporters who would now follow his every move as he counted down the weeks and days until Mariner 1 was set to launch from Cape Canaveral. While he had been in the media spotlight back in the days when he was part of the Explorer crew roster, that was peanuts compared to the attention he would be getting now.
In fact, NASA as a whole would be in the public spotlight like never before. Project Mariner was the most ambitious spaceflight enterprise in American history; just over three decades after the legendary entertainment impresario Orson Welles had given radio audiences the fright of their lives with an imagined attack from Martians in his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the astronauts chosen to participate in the Mariner program would be going to the Red Planet to see if they could find real Martians--or at least microbes in the Martian atmosphere. The first Mariner orbital survey mission alone was expected to span something close to eighteen months, which meant that if all went well Armstrong and his crewmates would be setting new records for hours logged in space.
Armstrong’s mission came at a time when some people were questioning not only the value of the American space program but also the very idea of America itself. A decade of civil rights turmoil, bloody war in southeast Asia, and general discontent in regard to the nature of modern American life had sapped some of the enthusiasm for risky ventures like sending men to Mars. And with the environmental movement just starting to become a major influence in American and cultural political life, some people suggested that the time and money spent on probing other worlds might be better used instead cleaning up this one.
Naturally, President Nixon considered it vital for the Mariner 1 mission to succeed; such a success would not only gain renewed prestige for the American space program but also boost the morale of America as a whole. On a more practical note, a successful Mariner 1 flight would clear the way for aerospace contracts that would provide thousands of technical and manufacturing jobs and energize the U.S. economy; there was also a wealth of scientific information to be gained from this mission-- conventional wisdom in the world scientific community held that a number of clues to the origins of life on Earth could be found in the sands and icecaps of Mars.
On August 3rd, 1970 the eyes of the world turned toward Cape Canaveral, as they’d done countless times in the nineteen years since Charles Yeager’s historic suborbital mission at the start of Project Mercury. The Mariner 1 launch vehicle, a huge multi- stage craft that dwarfed even the old Explorer rockets, glistened in the midday Florida sun while its four-man crew, awaiting the "go for launch" signal from Capcom, busied themselves going over their pre-flight checklists.
The "go" signal came at 2:05 PM Eastern Daylight Time, and with a rumble loud enough to wake the dead Mariner I leaped into the skies on the first leg of its historic orbital trip to Mars. Back on Earth, meanwhile, Europe’s commercial aviation industry was about to be turned upside down.
Whatever their individual agendas and goals might have been, collectively European commercial aviation companies in the early ‘70s shared one major concern: how to challenge the United States’ growing dominance of the civilian passenger & cargo jet manufacturing business. This was especially true in Britain, where commercial aircraft manufacturers bemoaned the fact that their country-- once the prime mover of progress in the aerospace world-- had fallen to a distant second behind America in most areas of aviation technology and was in serious peril of dropping even further back.
In October of 1970, two months after Mariner 1 left Earth, executives and designers from some of Europe’s best-known civil aviation firms met in London for a three-day conference on the topic of how to revive the European aviation industry. The end product of those three days was the establishment of Airbus, a multi-national consortium of commercial aerospace manufacturers who would pool their resources to build and sell aircraft which could give American-made airplanes a run for their money in the global civilian aviation market.
The following spring, Airbus’ main design team presented the blueprints for the company’s first passenger jet, the A101. The A101 was intended to compete with the jumbo jets made by Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas for pre-eminence in the commercial airline industry; not only did Airbus hope to sell the new jet to major airlines in Europe and Asia, but they also aspired to gain a foothold in the U.S. commercial aviation market. Attaining said foothold, however, would prove easier said than done given that most major U.S. airlines were still a bit leery of European- made passenger jets in view of the disasters which had overtaken the ill-fated Concorde and Tu-144. It would take a great deal of patience on the part of the company’s top brass to overcome such reluctance.
Preliminary flight tests on the A101 prototype got underway in mid-July of 1971. To the relief of Airbus designers, pilots, and executives the A101’s maiden voyage went off with only one or two minor glitches; most of these occurred in the plane’s onboard communications systems and were quickly fixed by company service technicians. After seven months’ additional flight testing and a few subtle tweaks to the airframe, the new jet was finally deemed ready for service in January of 1972.
British Airways and Japan Air Lines were the first buyers for the new passenger jet, and given that both these airlines were major players in the commercial aviation industry, their decision to purchase the A101 constituted a vote of confidence in the Airbus design that American carriers couldn’t ignore. US commercial flight companies followed the A101’s debut with great interest....
In February of 1972, just over a month after the A101 was declared service-ready by Airbus, the Mariner I finally returned from its historic orbital expedition to Mars. In Moscow, Soviet space officials watched the TV footage of Mariner I’s successful splashdown with some degree of wistful envy; the Krasnyaa Mira project was well behind schedule and some of the more pessimistic members of the project team were beginning to wonder whether they would ever live to see a Soviet cosmonaut reach the Red Planet. So were the cosmonauts themselves, for that matter: at least one of them had threatened to resign from the Soviet space program out of sheer frustration with the seemingly endless delays which were keeping the first Krasnyaa Mira mission from getting off the launch pad.
Not the least of those delays was a persistent malfunction with the Krasnyaa Mira launch vehicle’s ignition systems. Time and time again, flight controllers at Baikonur had been forced to scrub Krasnyaa Mira’s maiden voyage at the last minute because of a faulty wire that kept the spacecraft’s main engines from being fired when they were supposed to. The program’s engineers were at their wit’s end trying to figure out how to correct this glitch; for that matter, the Kremlin was getting tired of waiting what often seemed like an eternity for their showpiece space project to get its act together. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet president at the time, had even threatened to fire most of the Mira project’s senior staff if they didn’t get the wire problem corrected soon.
The problem was finally resolved in the summer of 1972 with the invention of an improved primary ignition system for Krasnyaa Mira and the development of a ‘failsafe’ mechanism designed to activate a secondary ignition system should the primary system malfunction again. The introduction of higher-quality electrical circuitry in both the primary and secondary ignition units also helped correct the problem. On September 13th, 1972 the maiden voyage of the Krasnyaa Mira program finally blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a mission that was expected to last almost twenty months. Upon their return to earth in the spring of 1974, Mira I’s crew would be greeted as national heroes and decorated with the Order of Lenin.
In the meantime, U.S. commercial air carriers had started to appreciate the virtues of the Airbus A101 and were making some preliminary inquiries to the company about purchasing the jet for their inventories. The A101 was particularly attractive to East Coast regional carriers, who saw the jet as a lower-maintenance alternative to the Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas planes which then dominated the U.S. commercial aircraft market. Eastern Airlines was the first American carrier to acquire the A101, buying eight of these jets in December of 1972 for their Boston-to-New York City passenger routes. The A101 quickly caught on with many other American regional airlines; by June of 1973 many of the top U.S. national carriers had finalized contracts with Airbus to purchase A101s for their own inventories.
It wasn’t long before Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas put their respective development teams to work on coming up with a jet to compete with the A101 in terms of affordability. In the U.S.S.R., where copying Western airframe designs had been a common practice among plane designers for decades, the Tupolev bureau introduced an A101 clone called the Tu-152 for service with Aeroflot. By the end of 1973 airlines in forty-eight countries were using either the Tu-152 or the A101, and in some cases one could find examples of both aircraft in use with the same carrier.
Krasnyaa Mira I was notable for a host of achievements in spaceflight-- not the smallest of which was recording the first-ever motion picture footage of Mars’ polar icecaps. But however impressive the maiden Krasnyaa Mira and Mariner voyages might have been, they were simply the overture to over fifteen years of remarkable progress in the field of space exploration. Space scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain were starting to envision voyages that just two decades earlier even the most gifted science fiction writers would have found difficult to imagine...
To Be Continued