While we’re monkeying around with January 31, let’s not leave out Ham and the mission of MR-2. For what it’s worth, if Ham hadn’t been a bit over accelerated Al Shepard would have been on the next Mercury flight, before Yuri Gagarin. Given the suborbital vs. orbital nature of the missions, would that have made a difference?
As it turned out, the over acceleration prompted another unmanned mission, MR-BD, and Shepard’s flight shifted to May, after Gagarin’s orbital flight.
From our Mercury 6-DVD collection (one of our best) here’s the flight of Ham:
No recognition of January 31st would be complete without recognizing Explorer 1. The first U.S. satellite, launched on this date in 1958. Finding interesting footage that I haven’t seen before is one of my favorite parts of Spacecraft Films, and when doing our Liftoff set I wanted to make sure Explorer 1 was included (even though it started out as a DVD of rockets exploding). I’d never seen the way the “washtub” spun up to stabilize the upper stages before finding this footage, or the casual nature in which it was prepared (no clean rooms here!) and I’ll always appreciate the understanding it gave me. The narration is from Dave Mohr, a propulsion consultant that worked on the early SSME program (and so much more). This is from our 2-DVD Liftoff set, one of the successes.
After a late launch held up by weather, Apollo 14 was on the way to the Moon. After checkout in low Earth orbit the S-IVB fired for just under 6 minutes to place 14 on a translunar trajectory. For the previous five Apollo missions the probe and drogue docking system worked without any major problems, until Apollo 14′s CSM Kitty Hawk pulled away and turned around to dock with the LM Antares. Normally the cone at the end of the probe would make contact with the drogue, and small capture latches would hold the two spacecraft together until any residual motion could be nulled. Then the probe would be retracted, bringing the craft together and allowing the ring of docking latches to secure the two. Stu Roosa made the approach, but the capture latches at the end of the probe did not hold onto the drogue. The CSM and LM bounced apart. Roosa immediately pushed Kitty Hawk in for another attempt. If the two craft could not be docked, a lunar mission could not proceed.
Above: The Apollo Docking System (NASA)
The First and Second Docking Attempts (Television Feed and 16MM DAC):
After trying once more (attempt #3) the CSM was pulled away from the LM and S-IVB so the problem could be assessed. Here’s the Third Docking Attempt (Television Feed, the 16MM had been turned off):
After recycling the probe (retract and extend) and verifying the talkbacks were indicating properly, as well as verifying the circuit breakers were all in the proper position, Roosa moved Kitty Hawk in for the fourth attempt at docking. Here’s Docking Attempt Four (Television Feed):
When the fourth attempt failed, once again the spacecraft pulled away while discussing a solution, including conversation about going to an EVA to bring the probe in for a look. Eventually it was decided to try one more attempt at docking in nominal fashion, and if that attempt were not successful, to try some other ideas. Docking Attempt Five also failed. (Television Feed):
Finally, in a last-ditch effort before going to radical measures such as an EVA, Houston instructed the crew to make another attempt, with the probe extended, and to keep thrusting toward the LM at contact (+X), and retract the probe. In this way the alignment would be centered by the probe, and with the +X thrust when the probe was retracted the main docking latches would engage. The sixth docking attempt was successful. An extra television transmission was transmitted to the ground after the probe and drogue were retrieved from the tunnel, but nothing unusual was noted with the probe or drogue (absent some scratches on the drogue from the attempts). Ultimately the cause was thought to be the capture latch assembly not being properly cocked during the attempts. No further problems with the docking probe were experienced for the remainder of the mission.
The Final (Sixth) Docking Attempt (Television Feed):
Apollo 14 continued to the Moon, and once again the much-maligned inclusion of television played an invaluable service to the Apollo lunar missions.
Update: Since this post was originally made, some have mentioned Shepard’s intent to go EVA to get the probe. Here’s the comment, made after the fourth failed docking attempt:
The third manned voyage to the lunar surface, the mission of Apollo 14 left Earth 43 years ago today, on the afternoon of January 31, 1971. Coming just under a year after the “successful failure” of Apollo 13, lunar module Antares would venture to the Fra Mauro highlands originally slated for exploration on 13. CSM Kitty Hawk featured revisions instituted as a result of the Apollo 13 review board, including an additional oxygen tank in a different section of the service module.
Temperature at launch was 71ºF, with cloud cover of about 70%; the clouds were low, at around 4,000 feet. About 30 minutes before launch rain and the threat of lightning caused a hold in the count, a 40-minute 2-second hold at T-8 minutes. While it was not raining at the pad during launch, the vehicle did pass through the cloud decks.
From our Apollo 14 5-DVD collection, launch day preparations, including breakfast, suit up, trip to the pad and ingress (including the presentation of the gag helmet), followed by a multi-angle view of the launch of Apollo 14.