On Another Day in December

Harrison H. Schmitt

Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt stands by the American flag during a moonwalk on the Apollo 17 mission. Home, that small dot in the blackness of space above the flag, is a quarter-million miles away. 
Schmitt, Gene Cernan and Ron Evans made the Apollo program’s final journey to the moon in December 1972. (NASA – Public Domain)

I don’t have much to add to this as the picture itself is amazing.   The minute Earth floats just above the American flag, 44 years ago,  as Harrison Schmitt and Gene Cernan walk on the lunar surface in the final Apollo Mission.  Apollo 17 lasted from December 7 to December 19, 1972, and had many memorable features including the only night launch of an Apollo mission.  Harrison Schmitt,  in a conversation I heard a few years ago said of the launch”Did you see it?  I missed it!”

I was asking my history class last week if they thought 17 was a strange number  for the last Apollo mission.   I will have to read the official history again but I do believe that enough Saturn Vs were built for numbers 18, 19 and 20, but the Nixon administration’s budget cuts of the early 70s put paid to the effort.

On a personal note (since there ought to be one)  I actually met Harrison Schmitt a couple of times a few years ago (I think it was 2009) in a previous job.  Once as a speaker in a series of talks about the Manned Space Program and once again to talk about his book.   I found him to be a very sociable guy  – he has after all been a politician and public figure for many years,  and he chatted easily with his audience, and was very much at ease for a talk he gave.   I dutifully joined the line to purchase and have him sign a copy of his book  Return to the Moon:  Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. (New York,  Copernicus, 2006) in which he advocates a series of privately funded return missions to re-establish a colony on the Moon for energy extraction and low gravity manufacturing.   Interesting stuff.

Since we saw the tiny blue dot which is the earth floating above the flag in the first picture,  it would be appropriate to note that Harrison Schmitt is probably (I think he says he is) the man responsible for another fairly classic image of the Earth  from any Apollo mission,  this is the picture commonly known as the “Blue Pearl”

Earth seen from Apollo 17

The Apollo 17 crew caught this breathtaking view of our home planet as they were traveling to the Moon on Dec. 7, 1972. It’s the first time astronauts were able to photograph the South polar ice cap. Nearly the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible, along with the Arabian Peninsula. (NASA – Public Domain)

One Day in December – Tom and Wally meet Jim and Frank

Whenever I get a quiet moment I go and look at Bryan Swopes’ excellent This Day in Aviation,  and frequently find something I would like to re-broadcast. Sometimes I just share the entry on my Facebook page,  and sometimes I want to expand or amplify something he’s written usually because I find something interesting that I’ve looked up in addition to the original article.   This is one of those occasions.

 Gemini 7 spacecraft photographed from Gemini 6

This photograph of the Gemini 7 spacecraft was taken from Gemini 6 during rendezvous and station keeping maneuvers at an altitude of approximately 160 miles above the Earth. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 launched on December 15, 1965 and December 4, 1965, respectively. Walter M. Schirra, Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford on Gemini 6 and Frank Borman and James A. Lovell on Gemini 7 practiced rendezvous and station keeping together for one day in orbit. (NASA – Public Domain)

December 4th 1965  was the launch date of Gemini VII  with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, both on their first space flights.  Gemini VII was a long-duration mission, and although they were to be target,  they would be part of the first rendezvous in space with another manned spacecraft, in this case Gemini VI, which by a series of mischances would be launched later than its sequential successor.

I wanted to know who was in Gemini VI,  since Bryan Swopes recorded the date simply as the launch of Gemini VII.   The information was forthcoming from Wikipedia.  The crew of Gemini VI was Wally Schirra, on his second space flight,  and Tom Stafford, on his first.

Gemini VI was scheduled for launch on October 26th 1965 and was supposed to rendezvous and dock with an Atlas-Agena rocket which was launched shortly after the astronauts boarded their craft.   Apparently something went horribly wrong in staging, and the Agena exploded on separation from the Atlas booster.  Gemini VI was canceled.

The Gemini VI-A mission  was conceived after Gemini VII was launched – Stafford and Schirra in VI would rendezvous with Bormann and Lovell in Gemini VII.   The next putative launch of VI was scheduled for December 12, 1965 and failed when the main engines shut down prematurely.   Standard procedure should have been for the Astronauts to eject, but Schirra declined to do so, as he didn’t feel the booster was vibrating or showing signs it was liable to explode.  He also had considerable doubts about ejecting through the hatch of the Gemini capsule which had also been on 100% oxygen for some considerable time.  “”We would have been two Roman candles going out, because we were 15 or 16 psi, pure oxygen.”

Eventually Gemini VI launched on December 15, 1965. The rendezvous was made on that day. The Gemini spacecraft got as close as 1 foot. They were not equipped to dock, but clearly would have been able to do so had it been feasible.

Gemini VI re-entered and splashed down on December 16th, 1965.  Gemini VII returned on December 18th, 1965. According to Borman the last couple of days of the mission were “bad.” The novelty had worn off after 14 days in orbit in a Gemini capsule.

If you’re in my part of the world, you might be interested to know that the  Gemini VI capsule is  currently on display at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.  Gemini VII is  at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Thomas P. Stafford (left), pilot, and Walter M. Schirra Jr. Gemini 6

Astronauts Thomas P. Stafford (left), pilot, and Walter M. Schirra Jr., command pilot, pose during a suiting up exercise in preparation for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Gemini VI two-day mission. Image ID: S65-56188

James A. Lovell, Jr (left) and Frank F. Borman - Gemini VII

James A. Lovell, Jr (left) and Frank F. Borman, II, Prime Crew of Gemini VII (NASA – Public Domain)


Stars In The East

I was perusing a couple of news articles earlier in the week relating to the Word Trade Organization’s latest intervention in the Boeing / Airbus spat.

A sentence or two hiding at the very bottom of an article by Simon Jack in the BBC News website caught my eye.  The United States and Europe, he says, are not the only countries who are giving questionable subsidies to aircraft manufacturers.  Bombardier, he says,  receives governmental subsidies from the Canadian government. An even bigger threat to the A+B (Airbus and Boeing) duopoly is making itself known, not necessarily for the right reasons, in the east.  It’s a company I’d never heard of previously, but I’m not terribly familiar with the highly competitive world of commercial civil aviation.

Jack thinks the least regarded threat to A+B comes from COMAC, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd.  Established in 2008, COMAC is currently engaged in the production of a couple of aircraft, which are intended for China’s rapidly expanding internal airline market.


COMAC ARJ21 Xiangfeng “Flying Phoenix”
By Peng Chen (Flickr: China ARJ-21)
CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The first jet to be marketed is the ARJ21, originally developed by Aviation Industry Corporation of China, and which looks very much like a scaled down (some sites less charitably say “warmed over”) DC-9 / MD-90. This may be partly due to the fact that the factories producing the ARJ21 are the same factories that participated in the abortive attempt to build the MD-90 in China, which ceased after two examples (of the 40 proposed) were completed in 2000.  COMAC’s claims for the ARJ21 as a wholly indigenous product are further undermined by its wing, which is a product of the Antonov Design Bureau in the Ukraine, and the engines and avionics, which are are predominantly American.

The ARJ21 was a key project in the 10th Five-Year Plan of China which began March 2002. The fact that by December 2016 only six aircraft have been produced, and only two of these are in airline service in China, is perhaps indicative of the struggle that the project has encountered. COMAC has been trying for several years to gain American FAA type approval for the ARJ21, a necessary step for its products to operate globally, and that this has not been forthcoming.

COMAC’s other product, The 168-seat C919, is intended to be a direct competitor with A320 and venerable Boeing 737 families.  Although looking good at its roll-out  (see the YouTube video below) with a projected first flight in 2017, the development path may conceivably be as rocky as the ARJ21.

It’s certainly very tempting to think COMAC is waiting in the wings for some kind of coup, but one also needs to consider that the competition is in some cases very well established already. Embraer and Bombardier, while admittedly competing for third place behind A+B. demonstrate that COMAC has a longer march to market than our amorphous fear of Chinese business may suggest, however justified we may feel considering their near stranglehold on multiple sinews of world manufacturing.

A quick look through Wikipedia will produce the following figures of aircraft which its editors (reasonably) feel to be comparable with the ARJ-21 and C919.

Boeing 737 family (9,247 units produced) – 737 MAX forthcoming
Airbus A320 family (7,297 units produced) – A320neo forthcoming
Embraer E-Jets (1158 units produced)
Bombardier CRJ700 series (788 units produced)
Bombardier CSeries (10 units produced)
Sukhoi Superjet 100 (114 units produced)
Antonov An-148 (39 units produced)
Mitsubishi Regional Jet (4 units produced)
Irkut MC-21 (1 units produced)

Of particular interest are the recognizably Russian types produced under the umbrella of UAC, the United Aircraft Corporation.

Sukhoi Superjet 100

Sukhoi Superjet 100-95B EI-FWA of Irish regional airline CityJet crew training at Prestwick Airport, UK, June 2016. The Sukhois are intended to replace the airline’s Avro RJ85s
By Mark Harkin (EI-FWA Sukhoi Superjet 100-95B) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Vladimir Putin created UAC in 2006 by merging governmental holdings of Ilyushin, Irkut, Sukhoi, Tupolev, and Yakovlev into a new company in which the Russian government holds a majority stake. UAC effectively consolidates Russian private and state-owned companies engaged in the production of commercial and military aircraft. While some western journalists may perceive a commercial threat from COMAC, it would seem to be that a star rising slightly nearer in the east might also bear scrutiny.

Articles mentioned in the text are listed below.

Simon Jack at http://www.bbc.com/news/business-38131611 Exclusive: WTO rules Boeing’s state subsidies illegal (28 November 2016). The article discussed the subsidies paid by the State of Washington to encourage Boeing to build the wings of the 777x aircraft there.

A later article (in the same day) http://www.bbc.com/news/business-38131617 Boeing tax break ruled unlawful by WTO said that the United States government has been given 90 days to drop the special tax exemption or subsidy.

The New York Times mentioned http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/business/international/world-trade-organization-rules-against-boeing-tax-break-for-new-jet.html? that this was the latest volley in a spat between Airbus and Boeing dating back 12 years in which each side has accused the other of raking in millions of dollars in special governmental aid.

Forbes’ article http://www.forbes.com/sites/scotthamilton5/2016/11/28/wto-boeing-ruling-gives-airbus-good-pr-but-its-meaningless/#1a1e8c0c4a3c was interesting in that it pointed out that
the WTO has no enforcement powers, the United States was likely to appeal the ruling and that this particular case will be echoing round the courts for at least two more years.