Hitting the Books: Buck Rogers flew so that NASA astronauts could spacewalk


You’ve all seen the iconic image of the US astronaut using gracefully upon his NASA-built MODOK chair. That astronaut was Bruce McCandless II, Houston’s capsule communicator throughout the moon touchdown mission, Challenger crew member, and the driving pressure behind America’s skill to conduct operations exterior of the stuffy confines of area shuttles and worldwide stations. Without McCandless, there is no assure the US would have EVA capabilities in the present day. Wonders All Around, exhaustively researched and written by McCandless’s son, Bruce III, explores McCandless the elder’s trials and tribulations throughout NASA’s adolescence and his laser-focus on enabling astronauts to zip by way of area unencumbered by the mass of their ships.

Greenleaf Book Group

Copyright @ 20201 Bruce McCandless III. Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press. Distributed by Greenleaf Book Group. Design and composition by Greenleaf Book Group and Kimberly Lance. Cover design by Greenleaf Book Group, Shaun Venish, and Kimberly Lance. Cover picture courtesy of NASA, photographed by Robert L. “Hoot” Gibson


In his lengthy leaden days of ready for a spaceflight, my dad discovered the path to redemption on the again of an growing old cartoon character. From the afternoon in December 1966 that he first tried out the Manned Maneuvering Unit in a Martin Marietta simulator, he was hooked on a imaginative and prescient of a gas-propelled jetpack that would enable astronauts to function exterior their spacecraft. This imaginative and prescient had an apparent pop-culture antecedent. In the Nineteen Twenties a comic-strip character named Buck Rogers — a rock-jawed, All-American World War I veteran — succumbed to the results of a mysterious fuel he encountered whereas working as a mine inspector. He fell right into a deep sleep and woke after 5 centuries of slumber to a wierd new world of spaceships, ray weapons, and Asian over-lords. Though he initially traveled this new world through an antigravity belt, a tool that allowed him and his greatest gal, Wilma, to leap nice distances at a time, Buck ultimately acquired a svelte and evidently omnidirectional jetpack. He ultimately ventured into area in an journey known as Tiger Men from Mars, and his exploits in the cosmos modified America’s imaginative and prescient of the future ceaselessly. Millions adopted Buck’s adventures in the funnies, on radio, and in film serials. Among Buck’s imitators and religious heirs are Flash Gordon, Brick Bradford, John Carter of Mars, and Han Solo.

A number of gifted women and men spent important quantities of money and time to wrestle that jetpack out of the humorous papers and into the area shuttle. None labored more durable, although, than Bruce McCandless and his chief collaborator, an Auburn-educated engineer and Air Force officer named Charles Edward (“Ed”) Whitsett, Jr. Whitsett was a pale, bespectacled particular person, mild-mannered however tenacious. He had a head begin on my father. He’d been pondering and writing about jetpack know-how as early as 1962. In a way, he was attempting to unravel an issue that didn’t exist but: Namely, how could an astronaut enterprise exterior his or her spaceship and carry out constructive duties in an atmosphere with no oxygen, with excessive temperature fluctuations, and in an orbital “free fall” that would depart the spacefarer lolling in the sensible equal of zero gravity? Alexei Leonov of the Soviet Union and American Ed White had confirmed that extravehicular exercise was attainable, that males could survive exterior of their area capsule, however principally all they’d completed was float. How could a person transfer from one a part of a spaceship to a different, or from one spacecraft to a different craft, or from a spacecraft to a satellite tv for pc, to be able to make inspections or repairs? None of those wants actually existed in the early sixties, when the applications of each nations have been nonetheless simply attempting to fireplace tin cans into low Earth orbit and predict, roughly, the place they might come again down. But clearly the wants would ultimately come up, and varied strategies have been proposed to deal with them.

In the mid-sixties, the Air Force assigned Whitsett to NASA to oversee improvement of the Air Force’s Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. Gene Cernan’s failed take a look at flight of the AMU on Gemini 9 in 1966 — the “space-walk from hell,” as Cernan known as it — set the jetpack challenge again, but it surely by no means went away. McCandless, Whitsett, and a NASA engineer named Dave Schultz labored quietly however assiduously to maintain the dream alive. They enlarged and improved the AMU all by way of the latter half of the decade and into the seventies. In the “Forgotten Astronauts” wire story that portrayed him as a washout in 1973, my dad talked about the cause why he needed to remain in the manned area program regardless of not having gained a crew project on both Apollo or Skylab. “McCandless,” stated the article, “has helped develop the M509 experimental maneuvering unit. The Skylab astronauts strap it on like a backpack and propel themselves Buck Rogers — like around the Skylab interior. [He] wants to build a larger operational unit to perform space chores outside the shuttle.” And that’s precisely what he did.

Though the Skylab M509 exams in 1973 and 1974 have been a convincing success, leading to the triumph of the jetpack idea over each rocket boots and the handheld maneuvering unit, Whitsett and McCandless didn’t relaxation on their laurels. Over the subsequent a number of years, utilizing no matter time and funding they could scrape collectively, the crew made a number of upgrades — eleven, by one rely — to what was now being known as the “manned maneuvering unit,” or MMU. The bulbous nitrogen-gas gasoline tank of the ASMU was changed with two streamlined aluminum tanks in the rear of the unit, every of which was wrapped in Kevlar. The variety of propulsion nozzles was elevated from fourteen to twenty-four, positioned round the jetpack to permit for six-degrees-of-freedom precision maneuvering. Smaller gyroscopes changed these used on the ASMU, and, as area historian Andrew Chaikin has famous, the ASMU’s “pistol-grip hand controllers, which were tiring to operate in pressurized space suit gloves, were replaced by small T-handles that needed just a nudge of the fingertips.” The MMU’s new arm models have been made to be adjustable, to accommodate astronauts of all sizes. Painted white for optimum reflectivity, the unit was constructed to outlive the 500-degree fluctuation in temperatures (from a excessive of 250 levels F to a low of minus 250 F!) that an astronaut would possibly encounter in area.

By 1980 the machine weighed in at 326 kilos. Like the AMU and the ASMU earlier than it, the MMU was designed to suit with or “over” the astronaut’s stress go well with. Shuttle astronauts wore a newly designed go well with known as the Extravehicular Maneuvering Unit, or EMU, a two-piece marvel of textile engineering made up of fourteen layers of Nylon ripstop, Gore-Tex, Kevlar, Mylar, and different substances. Power for the jetpack’s electronics was provided by two 16.8-volt silver-zinc batteries. Two motion-control handles — the translational hand controller and the rotational hand controller — have been mounted on the unit’s left and proper armrests, respectively, and a button activated an “attitude-hold mode,” which used motion-sensing gyroscopes to direct the firing of the thrusters to keep up an astronaut’s place in area.

The machine had been examined in each means its designers could think about. A consultant of an area gun membership visited Martin Marietta and shot the MMU’s nitrogen gasoline tank with a .50 caliber bullet to establish whether or not the tank would explode if pierced. (It did not.) The jetpack was run by way of a whole bunch of hours of simulations. At my father’s urging, a gifted and intense Martin Marietta challenge supervisor named Bill Bollendonk subjected the machine to space-like situations in the firm’s thermal vacuum facility. The MMU was now not a “far out” experiment, as Mike Collins as soon as known as it. It was now a promising area software. Unfortunately, for the second, it was nonetheless an unused area software. American astronauts remained on Earth, as NASA struggled to supply its next-generation orbital workhorse, the area shuttle.

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