40 Years of Voyager

Launch of Voyager 1

Launch of Voyager 1 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, September 5, 1977, (Public Domain via NASA)

There were many things happening in September 1977. Some were good,  and some were bad.  On the good side,  I started my undergraduate career at Brighton Polytechnic (now part of the University of Brighton).   On the negative side, if you remember  Peter Gabriel’s lyrics,  you’ll know that in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko was killed by officers of the South African state security services following his arrest in August. This event, and Gabriel’s commemorative song on his third album (Peter Gabriel III  informally known as Melt, released in 1980)  had a profound effect on public consciousness of the Anti-Apartheid movement in the UK and elsewhere.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1,  the subject of this article, was launched  from Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, aboard a Titan IIIE.

Voyager is currently the most distant man-made object from Earth at approximately 139 AU (Astronomical units – 1 AU is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun). It is also the most distant object in the solar system whose location is known.

I am amazed when an aircraft celebrates 40 years in service, and this is happening fairly frequently as design life causes aircraft which I thought to be modern to be consigned to museums, whereas others are kept in service as there is simply no conceivable replacement.  I was shocked when I noticed the 40th Anniversary of the Panavia Tornado had occurred a couple of years ago (probably more). So for a Spacecraft to be functioning 40 years after launch is a thing of considerable wonder.

There are many things to wonder about the Voyager mission as a whole.  The famous Golden Records with images, recordings of voices, music and sounds (including the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”) are just one feature. Look at the Voyager website for more images and information on the mission than I could ever want to squeeze into a blog post.

For me – the picture below is the real kicker.  The “Pale Blue Dot”,  as it has become known, is a photograph of Earth taken on February 14, 1990 by Voyager 1 from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU). It was part of the Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.  That’s us. Planet Earth takes up approximately half a pixel and is visible just over half way down the brown band on the right of the picture. The bands of colour are caused apparently by sunlight in the camera’s optics,  even from a distance of 40.5 AU.

The 'Pale Blue Dot’ - Earth seen from Voyager 1, 1990

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed ‘Pale Blue Dot’, is a part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. (Public Domain via NASA)

I’ve lifted the quote below from the Wikipedia page on the Pale Blue Dot and apart from taking out a couple of the hyperlinks, present it here unaltered.  I always loved the things Carl Sagan had to say about the Cosmos, and this is another of them.  It makes an excellent way to close the article.

During a public lecture at Cornell University in 1994, Carl Sagan presented the image to the audience and shared his reflections on the deeper meaning behind the idea of the Pale Blue Dot

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

 This image and others are available at https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/downloads/



Blue Skies, Gene Cernan

Having mentioned Apollo 17 in what turned out to be the final post of 2016 on this blog, I couldn’t let the passing of Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17’s Mission Commander, go unremarked.  Captain  Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan, USN,  passed on January 16, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  It’s always sad when these veterans and dare I say, heroes pass.  We may not know their like again.

Captain Eugene A.

Captain Eugene A. “Gene” Cernan, USN, (1934-2017)
Gemini 9A, Apollo 10, Apollo 17
(Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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)


American shapes

I recently commented how much I liked the appearance of the F-104 “Starfighter,” especially in its early USAF liveries.  It made me think a little about some other forms that have been inspirational to me over the years.   I spent a wonderful few minutes looking at pictures of the English Electric / BAC Lightning, and I promise I’ll put something together in a future post.

One aircraft which I find immensely pleasing to look at, and which bears a small resemblance to the F-104, is the T-38.  It must the the short stubby low-aspect ratio wings.  There’s something about a white painted T-38 that I find very satisfying.

I did some image searching and had my breath taken away by this US Air Force image from 1961 – there is a T-38 in there somewhere.

X-15 being carried by its NB-52B mothership

X-15 being carried by its NB-52B mothership (52-0008), with T-38A chase plane.
San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives catalog #00043417.
United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The T-38 in this view reminds me incredibly of the Orion Spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – so much so that I can almost hear the strains of “The Blue Danube” as it cruises alongside the venerable NB-52B  / X-15 combo.

Which led me to yet another ramble.   The B-52 has never been a shape I’d call attractive,  but it’s symbolized American air power probably more than any aircraft has since the B-17.  I was curious why this specific aircraft was an NB-52 but I haven’t found that explanation yet.  What I did find was another very pleasing image which completes a little circle for me.

A NASA Lockheed TF-104G Starfighter flies chase on the NASA Boeing NB-52B

A NASA Lockheed TF-104G Starfighter (serial N824NA) flies chase on the NASA Boeing NB-52B during a DAST ARW-1 captive flight on 14 September 1979.
By Bob Rhine, NASA (NASA photo EC79-11687) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the same B-52, 18 years later, with a former Luftwaffe TF-104G flying chase.   The NASA civilian scheme for the F-104 is very pretty.   The story of the B-52 itself is interesting and as usual I defer to the “W” website for the text.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balls_8

“Balls 8 (52-0008) is a NASA Boeing NB-52B mothership, retired in 2004 after almost 50 years of flying service with NASA. The aircraft is famous for dropping the X-15 aerospace research vehicle on 106 of the 199 X-15 program flights.

Balls 8 was originally an RB-52B that was first flown on June 11, 1955, and entered service with NASA on June 8, 1959. It was modified at North American Aviation’s Palmdale facility to enable it to carry the X-15.

The modified bomber flew 159 captive-carry and launch missions for the X-15 program from June 1959 until October 1968. It was first used to launch the X-15 on its fifth flight, January 23, 1960. It also flew missions for the X-24, HiMAT, Lifting Body vehicles, X-43, early launches of the OSC Pegasus rocket and numerous other programs.

At its retirement on 17 December 2004, Balls 8 was the oldest active B-52 in service, and the only active B-52 not of the H model. It also had the lowest total airframe time of any operational B-52. It is on permanent public display near the north gate of Edwards Air Force Base in California.”

A further footnote from the image notes –  “The TF-104G was produced for Germany with the USAF s/n 63-3065, Luftwaffe serials 27+37. It was transferred to NASA in 1975 as N824NA. After retirement it went to the California Polytechnic Institute and is today on display at the Estrella Warbirds Museum, Paso Robles, California.”