On This Date in History: If you recall the movie The Right Stuff based on Tom Wolfe‘s book of the same name, the original Mercury astronauts are portrayed as tough, independent thinking, test pilots. As part of the space program, the test pilots were controlled by NASA engineers and administrators by appealing to their duty as military officers as well as their patriotic duty. In time, however, the astronauts realize that, without them there was no program. NASA had created heros in the minds of the public and, in doing so, inadvertantly created monsters. In one scene, the movie shows the astronauts joining together and influencing the design of the spacecraft so it would have a window and also an explosive hatch. Later, it even suggests that they influenced decisions regarding flight assignments. I don’t know the exact veracity of the movie but I do know that Tom Wolfe wrote an excellent book and he is well respected for the research he devotes to any given subject. So, I am certain that there was some truth to the notion that these astronauts were extremely independent.
Much of the movie takes place in the 1950′s and early 1960′s at the outset of the US manned space program and the beginning of the space race with the Soviet Union. By 1965, the astronaut corps had expanded and missions had become of a longer duration and the crew size had doubled. However, in general, NASA was typically slightly behind the pace set by the Soviets during the early years. So, when astronauts Ed White and Jim McDivitt completed the Gemini IV mission and recorded 66 orbits of the earth, it was an American duration record but short of the Soviet mark. More notably, Gemini IV focused on America’s first space walk. As had been the case with other milestones, when Ed White left the confines of the Gemini IV capsule on this date in 1965, a Soviet had already accomplished the feat. Cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov was the first person to venture into open space during the Voskhod II mission on March 18, 1965.
But, it was still a big deal and White found it quite exhilerating. White had floated out of the spacecraft at 3:41 pm EDT dangling from a 30 foot line that not only provided life support and communication, but also was his only tether to the remainder of humanity. It was scheduled to last but 12 minutes. This was science. This was serious. This was dangerous. This was a military man serving his country. This was a situation that requried complete control by mission administrators. White found out that it was also fun. For NASA mission specialiists, it was too much fun for White. You see, near the end of the window for the walk on top of the world, NASA controllers told McDivitt, “They want you to get back in now.” McDivitt, in turn, relayed the instructions of White who was having great fun floating freely while whizzing along at about 17,500 mph. White told McDivitt, “I’m not coming in…this is fun.”
McDivitt then ordered White back into the spacecraft with a paternal, “come in.” White ignored him. In fairly short order, NASA informed the astronauts that they had just 4 minutes of light left before they reached Bermuda, which was the boundary of the dark side of the earth. Like a little kid not wanting to come in for dinner, White remained outside the craft. So, McDivitt turned to a more pleading approach. “Come on. Let’s gt ack in here before it gets dark.” White simply said, “it’s the saddest moment of my life.” McDivitt reminded White that he had gotten himself in the dog house. You see, while mission control personnel had very little control over the astronauts and had little recourse if an individual went rogue, eventually any bad boy had to come home. McDivitt told White, “Well, you’re going to find that it’s sadder when we have to come down with this thing.”
NASA controllers were beside themselves. Their space walker was floating about, the hatch was still open and the dark side of the earth in less than a minute. “Gemini 4! Gemini 4! Get back in…you getting him back in?” McDivitt answered, “he’s standing in the seat now and his legs are below the instrument panel.” Naturally, only McDivitt and White knew for certain if White was indeed nearly back in but NASA was nonetheless somewhat relieved when it responded, “Okay. Get him back. You’re going to have Bermuda in 20 seconds.” White and McDivitt got back safely, though they did miss the splashdown spot by some 80 km. Nevertheless, White’s refusal to follow orders not only did not hurt his career much, but instead his hero status was greatly enhanced in the eyes of the public. You see..White’s walk was scheduled to last about 90 seconds longer than that of Leonov. White unscheduled extension resulted in a spacewalk of around 21 minutes which more than doubled the duration of Leonov. White may have been second to walk in space but he had smashed the efforts of the Soviets and America loves a winner.
McDivitt went on to command Apollo 9, which was an important lead-up mission to man’s first walk on the moon with Apollo 11. He retired from the Air Force and NASA in 1972 as a Brigadier General and after serving as Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program and program manger for Apollo 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. It is possible that White was in line for even greater glory than his space walk and the achievements of McDivitt. White was assigned to the first Apollo mission along with astronaut Roger Chaffee and Mercury veteran Gus Grissom. Today, Ed White’s name can be found as the title of elementary. middle and high schools around the country, though the moniker’s have nothing to do with his space walk. White’s name is included with Grissom and Chaffee for the sacrfice of their lives in the effort to reach the moon. In one of those very odd and eery historical instances, Grissom remarked prior to the initiation of the Apollo program, ”If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
White, Grissom and Chaffee were all killed when a flash fire swept through their Apollo I capsule during a launch pad test on January 27, 1967. Grissom would have been pleased in that they did not die in vain. As a direct result of the tragedy, safety flaws on the spacecraft were revealed and a safer design for future astronauts was adopted. There was a relatively brief delay but not enough to prevent the nation from reaching its goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the 1960′s. Roger Chaffee had never flown in space even though he had been part of the space program for 4 years. He never did go into space but is an American hero. Grissom had been one of the original astronauts and White had made that very long space walk. So, for them, both were American heroes twice which is a tough, dangerous trick that requires dedication, honor, integrity and ultimately immortality. For Ed White, it also required the ability to have some fun.
Weather Bottom Line: Been under the weather and I’m not too enthused with this but, as I had said several days ago, Thursday is the risk for severe weather around here with a quasi stationary boundary nearby. I suspect that the focus will probably be south and east of Louisville but I’m not really paying that much attention. Gusty winds, maybe hail…that would be the biggest threat I would think. I’d be more cocerned with rain totals in local places as there will probably be locally heavy rain. The actual cold front will be flopping just to our north so the focus of strong storms will be just to our north. Weekend should be fine. Pop up storm at best on Saturday. Highs mid to upper 80′s. Humidity will probably a little more tolerable. I’m done.