August 5: Mars 6, and a couple of important birthdays

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Mars 6 was launched on August 5, 1973, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soviet probe was intended to make a soft landing on Mars, beating the Viking program by a few years, but something went wrong during descent. It managed to return data from the atmosphere, though a fault in the computer due to cosmic rays rendered the data unreadable. The retrorockets fired for landing, and that was the last anyone heard from it. It would not be the last Mars lander to be lost in this way; soft-landing on planets turns out to be technically challenging and fraught with uncontrollable unknowns, such as the position of every last boulder in the landing ellipse. Mars 6 may have been beaten by no more than an unexpected slope, causing it to tip over on landing. Of course, nobody really knows, and probably never will.

Today is the 104th birthday of Artem Mikoyan. Don’t know who he is? He headed a design bureau with Mikhail Gurevich – OKB Mikoyan-Gurevich, or MiG for short. You’ve probably heard of that. One of their early successes was the Mig-15 – a cutting edge design with swept wings that was exported throughout the Communist Bloc and produced in huge numbers. Variants of it continue to fly today, mainly as trainers or for their historical value. Mikoyan himself lived until December 9, 1970

Today is also the 79th birthday of a man still living – Neil Armstrong. You’ve definitely heard of him. Born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Armstrong served in the US Navy before joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a civilian test pilot. He accumulated a total of 2,450 flying hours at Dryden Flight Research Center, flying a variety of jet fighters and rocketplanes, including the X-15. He joined the astronaut corps in 1962 and made his first flight aboard Gemini 8 in 1966, performing the first docking in space. The docking didn’t last long; a struck thruster caused Gemini 8 and the unmanned Agena target to tumble out of control. It was Armstrong’s smooth and precise handling of this potentially lethal condition that led to him being named commander of his next mission: Apollo 11. On July 20, 1969, he became the first human being to set foot on the Moon. After the mission, he had 8 hours and 14 days in space, and served in administrative functions at NASA until 1971, when he resigned to serve as a professor of engineering at the University of Cincinnati, then in a succession of jobs in private corporations. His last service to NASA was in 1986, when he served as vice chairman of the Rogers Commission to investigate the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Despite his extensive aeronautical and astronautical background, he is seldom seen in documentaries on either subject, as he is a very private man who seldom gives interviews and is generally modest about his achievements. However, he recently appeared at a major press event at Kennedy Space Center to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his last and most famous spaceflight.
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