Thursday, May 24, 2012

50 YA: Aurora 7 in Space!

Mercury-Atlas 7 blasts off!

Fifty years ago, on May 24, 1962, NASA launched mission MA-7 with astronaut Scott Carpenter from Launch Complex LC-14 at Cape Canaveral. The capsule, named "Aurora 7" by the astronaut, entered Earth orbit five and a half minutes later. Like John Glenn's MA-6 flight, the mission lasted for 3 orbits and completed its primary mission objectives.

Mercury Mission Control.

Some of the mission objectives were scientific. One objective was to observe liquid in a weightless environment. Another involved investigating things that John Glenn had reported during his flight, such as the airglow in the atmosphere layer, and identification of the "fireflies" Glenn had reported, which turned out to be frozen ice particles from the spacecraft exterior. Photographs were taken of the Earth and the colors in the atmospheric layer.

Photo taken from Aurora 7.

Most importantly, the spacecraft was checked out for engineering tolerances, and deemed ready for continued missions with longer orbits. Unfortunately, the Automated Control System suffered a malfunction. Astronaut Carpenter was able to manually take control and operate the spacecraft so that no mission objectives were affected, except one.

Carpenter inside the Mercury spacecraft before launch.

After a flight time of 4 hours 30 minutes, Carpenter began re-entry operations. The retro rockets fired, slowing the spacecraft so that it began to lower its altitude. Carpenter lowered and secured the periscopic viewer used for outside observations, and a minute and a half after firing the retros, the retro pack was jettisoned, exposing the heatshield for re-entry. During re-entry and the blazing fire of heated plasma around the craft, Carpenter used the spacecraft controls to orient the spacecraft position. At some point during the process, enough error entered the flightpath to cause it to go slightly off course. The main parachutes were deployed perfectly, and splashdown occurred at mission time T+4 hours, 57 minutes, 10 seconds. The only problem was, there was no one there to fetch him!

Aurora 7 in the water, with Navy frogmen assisting.

The spacecraft had overshot the expected landing area, and Carpenter found himself 402 kilometers away from where they were looking. Eventually though, he was found and Navy divers were dispatched to place a flotation collar around the capsule to prevent it sinking like what happened to Gus Grissom's capsule. Carpenter egressed from the upper hatch and entered one of the liferafts provided. The rescue ship, carrier Intrepid, arrived and the capsule was recovered and Carpenter brought on board for a successful end to the MA-7 mission.

Carpenter on the deck of USS Intrepid.

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