On This Date: Orbit & De-Orbit

Here’s the orbit anniversary:

On this date in 1965, astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young climbed into the space capsule dubbed Molly Brown for the activist who survived the sinking of the Titanic (and insisted the lifeboat go back for survivors), probably because Grissom’s previous Mercury spaceflight had ended with that capsule sinking into the ocean. Gemini 3 launched from Cape Kennedy and, within five hours, splashed down in the Atlantic. The splashdown’s impact was hard enough that Grissom’s faceplate cracked when his helmet hit the side of the capsule or, perhaps, a knob.

Young (fore) & Grissom, Gemini 3 (NASA)

Perhaps the most unusual event during the mission was the consumption of a corned beef sandwich. The Complete Book of Spaceflight claims that the sandwich was purchased by Grissom, smuggled onboard by Young, and eaten by Grissom. One can only imagine the number of crumbs that flew loose in low gravity. While astronauts could be grounded for such transgressions, Young went on to fly in both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. In a seemingly unrelated notation, NASA reports, “The personal hygiene system was only partially tested.”

For Gemini 3, Roger Chaffee served as CAPCOM, the astronaut who communicated with the capsule from the ground. Both Chafee and Grissom would die in the fire on the ground during the testing for Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.

Here’s the de-orbit anniversary:

On this date in 2001, the Mir space station fell out of orbit and disintegrated into fiery bits as it plummeted through Earth’s atmosphere. Some fragments reached the Earth’s surface, hitting the Pacific Ocean.

Linenger on Mir (NASA)

Parts of Mir were launched from Kennedy Space Center and Baikonur in Russia between February and April of 1986. Humans occupied Mir for 3,644 consecutive days, and Valeri Polyakov stayed for a record 437 days.

The shower, though, was a debacle, and lots of things leaked, broke, and sometimes caught fire, an especially dangerous problem because it’s an enclosed space and fire behaves differently in low gravity. When the vacuum cleaner broke, the three Mir residents stopped cutting their hair but had trouble tidying up. In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach points out that cognac and whiskey were staples on Mir, perhaps to deal with the habitat’s shortcomings.

Despite all the difficulties of living on Mir, the expedition became, for a few people, a chance to live somewhere other than on Earth. Roach quotes the American who spent 132 days on Mir: “‘The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming,’ wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger, “that I try not to think about it before going to bed because I become so excited or agitated or something that I cannot sleep with such an enormous size in my mind.’”

Mir was a precursor to the International Space Station, which has exceeded Mir’s record for continuous human occupancy in space. Roughly eight months after one space station disintegrated, another welcomed continuous human occupancy.


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