Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Spacecraft Testing in the 1960's

My Father at the Console of the Launch Phase Simulator

In this 1968 NASA Photograph, my Father, Ed Kirchman puts the Launch Phase Simulator through its paces.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s will never forget the challenge of President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth. We lived it. What many tend to forget is the daunting size of the challenge. We were using ICBMs that had been hastily developed in the face of the unfolding "Cold War." They had a pretty poor failure rate and we were just beginning to study the effects of hostile space environments to our hardware. Ed Kirchman had helped build the seaplanes that fought in the Pacific. Now he brought his knowledge to the problems of space flight. His engineer mind took him to explore the combinations of stresses that actually were present in a launch and one of his crowning achievements was designing the Launch Phase Simulator.

He started with a giant centrifuge. It was HUGE! One Summer I worked on the crew that cleaned it. I gained a great respect for the scale of Dad's Magnum Opus. He mounted a vacuum chamber on the end of the centrifuge arm to simulate the change of atmospheric pressure. Then he mounted a "shaker," or a giant vibration machine under the attachment where the spacecraft was bolted. This simulated the merciless vibration present in a launch.

Then Dad put in a cryogenic system to cool the spacecraft and heat lamps to bake it. By testing prototypes this way he was able to find out exactly how stresses occur in spacecraft as they lift out of the atmosphere. Dad wrote a number of reports on spacecraft testing and on the behavior of materials under stress during launch. His work was invaluable in increasing the reliability of spacecraft. But Dad almost did not become an engineer. He struggled in school. His high school guidance counselor even wrote a letter advising that Dad NOT pursue a career in engineering. Dad framed the letter.

He went to a Junior College for his basic courses, then he transferred to Notre Dame in South Bend Indiana. He was always a staunch fan of the 'Fightin' Irish,' even as he was part of the Vanguard of relatively new immigrants from Bavaria and Eastern Europe taking their place in the American experience. His Grandfather had fled Bavaria during Bismark, and muttered curses about the man as he sat on the porch of their home in Bay City. His Grandson would go on to develop new technologies to take us to the stars.

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