Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Astronyms, part 3: Projects Mercury & Gemini and the X-15

This is part of this series of posts on the history of spacecraft naming.

NASA's naming of spacecraft is more varied - and perhaps more interesting - than the Soviety/Russiany names, largely because individual vessels are (sometimes) given unique names, not always in a very coordinated way. The early ones, especially, were left largely to the astronauts themselves to name. But they were also very much in the public eye, and so official, centralised control was perhaps inevitable. The broader program/class names are also interesting.

(Space condom. In space service 31 January 1961 to 16 May 1963)

NASA's first big wossname was Project Mercury, the attempt to put a human in space at all, in competition with the Soviet Vostoks, and ultimately building up to the Apollo moon landings. The name Mercury made good sense for these first rocket men, since it was all about speed, going ridiculously fast, even compared with the relatively new technology of supersonic flight that had wowed people in the preceding decade. It was a simple, reasonably neutral name for the first US spacecraft class, reflecting only a fairly common classical education in those who chose it.

The exact story of Project Mercury is perhaps best told in Tom Wolfe's 'The Right Stuff' (avoid the movie, read the book). But in summary, there were 7 dudes chosen to be America's first astronauts, known through the media as the Mercury Seven; one of them, Deke Slayton, was barred from actually flying any Mercury missions, only getting into space at the very end of the Apollo era. There were also two chimps, Ham and Enos, who I've previously argued should be considered as much real astronauts as the six of the Mercury Seven who went up with the same vehicles. So there were 8 piloted Mercury missions.

At this point, it's worth discussing how US rocket naming generally works, when there's a space condom on top. As mentioned, the class of vessel has a name (like Mercury) and each type of rocket gets a name (like Redstone or Atlas) and when one is placed on top of the other, they're given a composite name (like Mercury-Redstone or Mercury-Atlas). Then they'd also be given sequential numbers in the order in which they were launched, so that there was Mercury-Redstone 1, Mercury-Redstone 2, etc. It's a fairly sensible system. These were sometimes simplified for the public as Mercury 1, Mercury 2, etc, and there were also individual production numbers for each vessel and rocket, for internal logistics purposes. The names of the rockets are a whole extra branch of study, because most of the first ones were converted military explodey-boom attack rockets, and so named in the peculiar mix of hubris and misinformation that guides a lot of military naming, but later on space launches needed quite different kinds of rockets than military kabooming, so specialised new designs started emerging, and with that the freedom to explore new naming conventions. For today's set of rockets, assume everything is basically primarily a military design.

Then, as I say, the pilots got hold of their new Mercury capsules (or ships, as they preferred to call them [or condoms, as I prefer to call them]), and applied their pilot traditions, spawned largely during World War II, of custom naming their craft and painting the space condom equivalent of nose art on them. The names are now widely known, mostly through Wolfe's book I imagine, but you have to dig a little to find good pictures of the hull art. Wikipedia, for example, has all the 'mission insignia', as they call them, as separate drawings, but only a few photos where these are clearly visible on the actual spacecraft (for example, the painted 'crack' on Liberty Bell 7, below), which is a pity.
Look bottom left. Subtle but clever.

The complete list of piloted Mercuries includes (listed by formal mission name, unique vessel name and commander):
Mercury-Redstone 2. No unique name. Ham.
Mercury-Redstone 3. Freedom 7. Shepard.
Mercury-Redstone 4. Liberty Bell 7. Grissom.
Mercury-Atlas 5. No unique name. Enos.
Mercury-Atlas 6. Friendship 7. Glenn.
Mercury-Atlas 7. Aurora 7. Carpenter.
Mercury-Atlas 8. Sigma 7. Shirra.
Mercury-Atlas 9. Faith 7. Cooper.

Those unique names are probably the most personal ones any spacecraft have yet had, chosen directly by their one and only pilots, before there were any serious naming policies in place from higher management. Naturally, they weren't totally personal, since the pilots knew they'd be naming them in the public eye, but they still tell us a lot about what each guy felt was important. Oh, to breach the interspecies language barrier and learn what Ham and Enos might have named their vessels. Probably something like, "Rage! Anger! Fear! Everything smells like piss again! STOP FUCKING ELECTROCUTING MY COCK!" It's a bit long, but poetic, in its own way.

Anyway, Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7 are pretty nationalist (inasmuch as the US likes to claim the concept of freedom as its own) and Friendship 7 was also cleverly political, an early Cold War olive branch. Aurora 7 was a Saganesque attempt to capture the PB&J of space, but Carpenter's poor handling of the mission left him open to criticism as too artsy and not technical enough. Sigma 7 stood in direct contrast to that, a purely mathematical symbol, devoid of subjective beauty, to go with what Shirra intended as a serious engineering mission. As a Greek letter, it also stood by Slayton, after his cancelled mission, which he had intended to name Delta 7. And Faith 7 was somewhere between a statement of intent and a prayer, as it was aiming to stay in space as long as possible, managing a total flight time of over 34 hours, which was a lot back then, especially for a cramped one-man pod with no toilet. Finally, there was also the hypothetical name Freedom 7-II for a hypothetical 7th human flight to be flown by Shepard, which never happened. Coming from a combat pilot tradition, it wasn't at all surprising that he'd want to name it the same thing again (Chuck Yeager, for example, named all his planes Glamorous Glennis, after his wife), but I find the 7-II bit awkward and unsightly. You'll also notice that there were only 6 actual human-piloted Mercuries and only 6 human pilots, voiding the whole reason they'd added the number 7 to all their vessel names in the first place.

[EDIT: Apparently, Shepard was primarily responsible for starting the habit of unique vessel names, just because he got the first opportunity to, and the specific custom of ending all Mercury names in 7 came from the coincidence of Shepard's vessel being production number 7, which fitted into the growing media meme of the Mercury Seven.

Aurora 7
was intended to carry the spacey associations I mentioned above, but originally came to Carpenter because he'd lived as a child on the corner of Aurora Avenue and Seventh Street, Boulder, Colorado.]

All 8 piloted Mercuries were flown successfully, once each, though Liberty Bell 7 sank into the Atlantic unexpectedly, almost drowning Grissom.

(Space plane. In space service 19 July 1963 to 22 August 1963)

At the same time that NASA was rushing to get any white, English-speaking male into space with a Mercury condom before the Soviets could get a white, Russian-speaking male there first in a Vostok condom, there was a more mature US Air Force project (run in part by the non-space, aeronautics side of NASA, concurrently with Project Mercury, Project Gemini and the early missions of Project Apollo) to design a rocket-plane, capable of flying horizontally, landing on a runway and still breaching the boundary of space. This was the X-15, a beastly thing that was more rocket than airplane, with titchy wings and its internal space filled almost entirely with fuel and engine, with just a small bit left over for a cockpit. It could only just barely make it into space for a short time, even using a generous definition of 'space', but it served as a foundation for future space planes, which the US military felt would be useful in the same way that the Soviets initially felt they needed a manned Almaz in orbit, before fully automated satellites became trusted. The X-15 also opened up another research path for very fast conventional aircraft to follow along.

 X-15 follows the standard US military aviation coding system, where X marks it as an aircraft intended for experimental purposes and 15 marks it as the 15th distinct type used in that role. Strictly speaking, it should be the X-15A, with the A indicating that it's the first major variant of the X-15 type, but since the planned multistage X-15B variant never materialised, few people bother with the A. This is interesting enough, but it's really more of a bureaucratic code than a real name; unfortunately, that's the best we get from this very dry engineering project, mostly kept out of the public eye. Luckily, the X-15s had to be carried into the air by a B-52 motherplane, and the one used for that job most often had the magnificent name of Balls 8. NASA only recently retired Balls 8, which just goes to show how much people appreciate a good name.

Three X-15s were built, flying between them a total of 199 test flights. There were 13 flights between 8 pilots that the USAF deemed to have entered space, using a lower boundary of 80km, but only 2 flights in July and August of 1963, both piloted by Joe Walker, satisfied the more commonly accepted boundary of 100km, which also made him the first person to go into space twice and made the third-built X-15 the first piloted vessel to enter space more than once. Most of these flights, including Walker's proper two space flights, were made using the third X-15, though the first also made two "space" flights. Joe Engle, one of the other 8 pilots to get over 80km up, eventually became a shuttle pilot, while Neil Armstrong was another early X-15 pilot, making it up to 63km in his highest flight, before jumping over to the properly spacey side of NASA in time for Project Gemini.

X-15s 1 and 2 survived (number 2 was rebuilt and continued flying after a lesser crash) and are museum pieces today. X-15 number 3 was destroyed, killing pilot Michael Adams, when it broke up on the 12th flight above 80km, near the town of Johannesburg, California.

(Space condom. In space service 23 March 1965 to 15 November 1966)

Figuratively expanding the Project Mercury agenda and literally expanding the Mercury hull, the Gemini space condom was the same basic shape as the Mercury, but enlarged for two people and with a jettisonable Equipment Module to give it more rockets and stuff without vastly increasing the load the parachutes would have to return to the surface afterwards. Where Mercury could really just go up and then down again, Gemini could manoeuvre around a bit, dock with other spacecraft and even let a guy out for a spacewalk. In a lot of ways, the Gemini design was somewhere between the Voskhod and Soyuz designs (Or Voskhod was between Mercury and Gemini, depending how you look at it).

[EDIT: The preliminary name for this project was Mercury Mark II, which is pretty accurate, if a little uninspired. It was very quickly changed to Project Gemini instead.]

The name Gemini is almost too obvious, referring to the mythical space twins who mirror the pair of pilots aboard. But it rolls off the tongue well [EDIT: Depending how you pronounce it; I say gemi-nye, while others say gemi-knee]. All Geminis were launched on Titan II rockets, and so were officially numbered as Gemini-Titan 1, Gemini-Titan 2, etc, but are much more commonly referred to as Gemini I, Gemini II, etc., suddenly officially using Roman numerals that would confuse the later numbering scheme of Project Apollo. One interesting quirk was Gemini VI-A, which had been scheduled to launch on its own (as Gemini VI) and chase a target rocket, but that was cancelled when the target failed and it was instead launched after Gemini VII, meeting up together with it in orbit. Gemini IX also became Gemini IX-A due to rescheduling, but was still launched in the correct sequence.

Only one Gemini got a unique name, Gemini III, the first piloted one, which was called Molly Brown. This is insanely funny, if you recall that its commander, Gus Grissom, had almost been drowned by Liberty Bell 7, and if you're aware of the musical titled 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown', adapted into a book which was made into a movie, released the year before Gemini III launched. Molly Brown is was the only spacecraft so far named after a real person [EDIT: until the 2011 launch of Soyuz TMA-21, named Gagarin]. NASA management didn't see the funny side of this and issued a memo prohibiting further unique names. As a result, Gemini IV, which was going to be called American Eagle - far more serious and super nationalisty - was forced to go nameless, as were all further US spacecraft until Apollo 9. But that's a story for another time.

[EDIT: Gemini V was also planned to be named Ladybird at the time that the Molly Brown ban came into effect, named after Lady Bird Johnson, wife of former US President Lyndon Johnson.]

All 10 piloted Geminis flew successfully, once each.