Episode 2 of the Space Oddities podcast takes a look at some interesting, manned spaceflight splashdowns and recoveries, in particular, those where civilians had a unique perspective or got in the way as was the case with the first SpaceX Crew Dragon flight.
The most fascinating story involves the Apollo 11 capsule carrying the first men to walk on the moon as it made its fiery reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Passengers and crew aboard Qantas flight 596 were the first to see the capsule return in an incredible fireball or as Captain Frank Brown shouted over the radio, “What a spectacle!”
This is Goddard (Video) - (Credit NASA)
A 1969 NASA produced film documenting the flight of Apollo 11. At the 14:54 mark of the film, you will hear the radio communications from the Qantas flight and see a short video of the capsule’s reentry from the aircraft.
SpaceX Crew Dragon Recovery Coverage (Video) - (Credit Tory with Overlook Horizon)
Space Oddities Podcast
Title: What a Spectacle
Air Date: 05/09/2022
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Welcome to “Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories from Mankind’s Exploration of Space”. I’m Joe Cuhaj.
Episode 2: What a Spectacle
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The date was August 2nd, 2020. The spacecraft Endeavour, the first manned capsule to launch from Florida and not Russia since the last space shuttle launch nine years earlier, had splashed down in the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Pensacola with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken onboard.
[Over Horizon SpaceX Recovery Audio]
Unlike previous manned capsule splashdowns where the landing site was far out in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans far from the view of spectators, this one had some unexpected and uninvited guests…
[Over Horizon SpaceX Recovery Audio: “OMG! THEY ARE PRIVATE BOATS!”]
SpaceX and NASA had let the public slip into the recovery area on their private boats, a dangerous proposition if ever there was one – what if the spacecraft landed off target and hit one of the boats? What if one of the capsules parachutes snagged on a boat causing them to flip over or drag them under the waves? What about the nasty and dangerous off gases that a spacecraft sheds after reentry? The situation could have quickly turned into a catastrophe.
A few days after their recovery, astronaut Doug Hurley commented on the incident during a press conference with the media.
[Hurley press conference]
This wasn’t the first time that spectators had watched a manned spacecraft land in person, but for those landings, the crowds were controlled and well out of harm’s way.
Once the space shuttle was fully operational and began routinely landing in Florida, onlookers were allowed to ring the runway at the Kennedy Space Center to view the spectacle…
[Shuttle landing commentary]
For the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights, most people could only watch the splashdown on television as the capsules landed far out in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. It was an extraordinary sight to see as the orange and white parachutes (if you had color TV) billowed out and softly landed the capsule back on Earth.
There was one fortunate group of people, however, who got to see one of the most historic splashdowns in history first hand, not on TV but from their seat in an airliner, and they got to see more than just the parachutes unfurl.
After an historic flight that began 8 days earlier from a launchpad at Cape Kennedy, Florida, the 3 man crew of Apollo 11 – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins – were preparing to return home to a hero’s welcome.
The mission to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade was a success. Now the final part of President Kennedy’s goal – to return the astronauts safely to Earth – was the only step left before NASA could call it mission accomplished.
On July 24th, 1969, the Apollo 11 capsule was whizzing its way through space at 9,671 feet per second heading towards a parachute landing 900 miles southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
At the same time, a pilot for Qantas airlines – the international airline from Australia - had a special treat lined up for his passengers.
Captain Frank Brown knew his schedule far in advance and realized that flight 596 would have a front row seat for the spacecraft’s fiery reentry.
Weeks before the flight, Brown began checking the flight path daily to make sure that there were no deviations that would prevent the passengers and crews from seeing the reentry. Their flight from Brisbane to San Francisco would fly approximately 280 miles parallel to the incoming capsule.
On July 24th, 1969, Qantas flight 596 was delayed for 2 hours before takeoff. That delay was on purpose so that the aircraft could make its rendezvous with Apollo 11.
As the jet soared over the Pacific, 12 year old passenger Trevor Hiscock said his eyes were “as big as the portal windows” as a glowing streak appeared.
In the cockpit, Captain Brown’s communications with the ground were tied into the radio stations of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as he described what he and the passengers were seeing:
[Captain Brown audio]
Captain Brown, the crew and passengers of Qantas Flight 596 were the first in the world to visually confirm that Apollo 11 had made it to the Earth’s atmosphere and had returned safely to Earth.
In honor of the flight, and maybe to placate some of the passengers for the delay in their takeoff, Qantas offered them a commemorative certificate while passengers in first class could dine from a special menu that included:
Duckling ala Armstrong
Roast Loin of Lamb Aldrin with Splashdown Sauce
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and Chilled Lunar Lobster with Collins Salad
And to top it off, a Moon Mint.
What a spectacle indeed.
I’m Joe Cuhaj and thank you for joining me for this episode of Space Oddities. You can read more fascinating, offbeat, and obscure space tales like these in my new book, aptly titled Space Oddities: Forgotten Stories of Mankind’s Exploration of Space, available at your favorite online or hometown bookstore.
If you liked this episode then tell a friend and be sure to like us on Facebook - visit facebook.com/SpaceOddityBook or drop me a line from my website, joe-cuhaj.com (that’s spelled CUHAJ). You can also learn more about my other books and upcoming appearances.
Special thanks this week to NASA, the Goddard Spaceflight Center, and Tory Carissimo from Overlook Horizon for the clips heard in today’s episode.
Our theme music is called “Inspired” and it comes to us courtesy of BenSounds.Com. We’ll see you next time with more space tales.
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