Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Boilerhouse Valves

"Wendell Moore, Rocket Installations Engineer at Bell Aircraft, the man responsible for fitting the engine into the [first rocket airplane in the late 1940's] X1, shakes his head today when he recalls some of the early problems.

"We had valves in that plane that were boilerhouse valves, old brake valves--anything we could fix up in a hurry. To save time, we'd use standard castings and then design our special fittings to match the size. When we got through, we had a big fantastic piece of junk that you'd suspect might belong on a tractor. But we made it work."

From Mallan, L. 1955. Men, Rockets and Space Rats. New York, Messner.

Above, a photo of the X1 purging hydrogen peroxide fuel after a landing. After the 'bracing' experience of flying such a craft faster than the speed of sound, test pilot Chuck Yaeger said "I couldn't talk for two days."

Sunday, August 21, 2011


After installing a new hose, on rather a whim I decided to put the suit on, for the first time in some months; the fit is decent, but too tight in some places, making for some diabolically detailed seaming on my part in the next few evenings. Putting the suit on, and taking it off, alone, is challenging; it's very tight. But, once a few pounds of pressure have been pumped into it, that will expand the suit somewhat, taking the load off my calves and a few other places. Is sweated a lot putting it on and taking it off, reminding me to sew a sweat-absorbing headband into the helmet liner (not seen here). I also must treat the inside of the helmet visor with an anti-fog treatment; if the visor fogs, and that fog freezes at high altitude, I'll be blind! There is a helmet-visor warming coil built into the visor--just like the defog wires in a car rear window, but I'm still working out the power requirement (the helmet is Russian! I have a manual, but need to get it translated). All in all, a good exercise!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Breathing Gas System Test

Though I'm still waiting for one hose, I fixed my valve problem and today carried out a full-pressure test of the breathing gas delivery system; breathing gas comes from the silver tank, where it flows out at 150PSI, to a pressure regulator that steps the pressure down to 10PSI, which is then routed by the red hose into the high-altitude breathing gas regulator (the large, cylindrical unit at the bottom of the blac, vertical instrument panel). From here, depending on altitude, the regulator delivers either am mix of ambient gas (air) and the pressurized supply, or 100% breathing gas from the cylinder; one can set the mix with a control knob. Later, I'll put the pressure regulator into an airtight box that can be pumped down to pressures simulating high altitude, but for the moment the test went well, though there are of course new issues to deal with; the step-down pressure controller is a little fiddly, and needs a better control knob, and the instrument panel certainly needs a powerful light so I can see the displays.

A good day! Now to make the last adjustments to the pressure suit itself, when the last hose arrives, and gear up for the full test at the end of the month!

Friday, August 19, 2011


Working with a new pressure-regulating valve...but I've got something wrong, it seems, and this is not working as expected! Well that is a learning opportunity (if you see the glass as half-full) or a failure (if you see the glass as half-empty. To me, it's a learning opportunity.

Detail Work

Splicing together some tubing for the liquid cooling tubes that will circulate a cool fluid through my inner garments; I'm using a self-vulcanizing rubber tape to make the seals, which turn out to be watertight and very durable. Waiting for two valves and a hose to come in the mail; when they do, and they're all installed....I think it will be time for the full pressure test!

Friday, August 12, 2011


Last night I built the testbed, a framework that supports the breathing / suit gas pressurization tank and the instrument panel; it's on wheels, so it can be moved easily, and the hoses are long enough to conveniently reach the suit ports. The suit has just one or two small adjustments to make before the end-of-August full test. That will be an exciting day!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Another World

Good diving weekend; watching a large crab using a claw to pry open an oyster was mesmerizing. Todd and I also glided through a thick stand of plumose anemones, waist high. At the dive shop we talked to the owner, Ron, who as part of the US Navy's Experimental Diving Unit in the 1960's was the first person to dive at 1,000 feet depth. Quite a story!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Falling to Earth

Finally, an evocative description of one of the space era's most intriguing domains; that of the command module pilot, who orbited the moon alone as his companions explored the surface. By Apollo 15, in 1971, NASA was confident enough to keep astronauts on the moon for several days, in contrast to Apollo 11's 'touch and go' in which the astronauts descended to the surface, popped out briefly and then got the Hell out of there and back to Earth in a hurry. No, by Apollo 15 the project was all about science and exploration, and command module pilot Al Worden's book "Falling to Earth" narrates his experience of flying the command module, alone, around the moon for three days. Other astronaut's memoirs have been evocative on occasion, but in the relevant chapters, Worden (and his coauthor, Francis French) draws me right into the cabin with him, for experiences we normally associate with science fiction. But, in my experience and as revealed in Worden's experiences, fiction is a hack-job compared to reality. In the photo (click for mind-expanding enlargement), crater Tsiolkovski from an altitude of just under 50,000 feet above the surface of the moon.

“And then I slipped around the back of the moon once again…I couldn’t talk to Jim, Dave or the Earth. I was the most isolated human in existence…I didn’t feel lonely or isolated…I had a meticulously choreographed three days ahead of me…I needed to use the sextant, the windows…

The moon looked enormous from such a low orbit. From Earth, I’d had no sense of its vertical features. Now…I saw the outer rings of molten waves formed by meteor impacts…As I constantly rounded a curve and angled surface, the tops of these hills would peek over the horizon before I reached them, and once I passed over them the landscape would plunge thousands of feet in steep, shadowed crater walls. With no atmosphere to soften the view, every crater and boulder was sharp and crisp.
I felt like a sailor crossing a dark ocean…Gliding over Picard crater, I could see delicate layers of lava…all the way down to the bottom. They alternated between thin light and dark bands…

I orbited alone in a detached, eerie silence, my spacecraft on a smooth trajectory. When I flew jets back on Earth, I was used to little bumps as I cruised through air and the roar of the engine. Here there was stillness and peace. It was more like riding in a hot-air balloon, drifting with no sense of motion…The only noise came from pumps and fans running in the background…Since my life depended on this machine, I was hyperaware of unusual sounds.

I curved around the moon to where no sunlight or Earthshine could reach me. In the dark and quiet, I felt like a bird of the night, silently gliding and falling around the moon, never touching. I turned the cabin lights off. There was no end to the stars. I could see tens, perhaps hundreds of times more stars than on the darkest night on Earth…There were so many, I could no longer find constellations. My vision was filled with a blaze of starlight…I sensed that there was so much more out there that our Earthly philosophies would lead us to believe.”

Excerpted from Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut's Journey to the Moon(c) 2011 by Alfred Worden and Francis French.