Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Specially Designed for Space

When astronauts embark onboard their vessel to accomplish another space mission, all of their equipment is generally at the cutting edge of technology. But how could one really imagine that NASA technicians would place such importance from the very start in an item of personal equipment that was not of an electronic nature, a simple knife!

Man has always headed off to conquer other territories, first of all by necessity, then by a desire for discovery, freedom and challenge. The first migrations were actually a question of survival. It was necessary to flee a region or climate that had become hostile and by the same token it was essential to follow the migrations of animals in order to feed oneself. But development of settled civilization has never shaken man’s passion for discovering new territories, across land and sea, from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans. Then came the skies, the planets, the Universe and infinity.

Mankind’s genes contain this thirst for conquest and discovery, but none of these adventures were ever launched without the best material suitable for the journey to be undertaken. From Cro-Magnon man to Neil Armstrong, man’s faithful traveling companion has been a knife. Carried everywhere this little object is undoubtedly useful in as variety of situations, on land or at sea, but one might well wonder what usefulness a knife might have in the high-tech environment of space-exploration and travel.

In fact there are a number of little jobs on board a space vessel that can be admirably undertaken with a multi-blade knife, including making emergency repairs that will ensure the success of the mission, as numerous official accounts have proven.

The “Swiss Army Master Craftsman” was used by Payton on board the space shuttle Discovery to undertake work on navigational equipment, leading Victorinox to produce as “Astronaut” model intended exclusively for members of NASA, of which the nearest equivalent commercially available is the “Ranger” reference 1.3763. This immediately led to the other Swiss firm, Wenger, developing a specific model, and these two brands became official NASA suppliers. But although the mission consists essentially of going into space, the return to earth should certainly not be forgotten. The re-entry trajectory can undergo last-minute alterations that could result in the vessel landing not a Cape Canaveral, but perhaps in the middle of the African bush or Amazon rain forest.

In such a case, a ‘survival” type knife is essential. Moreover crewmembers regularly undergo training in those inhospitable environments, enabling them to familiarize themselves with the equipment made at their disposal. Different types of knife have been tested under true conditions, particularly in the jungle of Panama. Bo Randall developed the first model after being contacted by Major Gordon Cooper, who was aware of the fine models produced by the Randall workshop for numerous elite units for various conflicts.

The “Astro” was based on the 15 or “Airman” model, and was officially adopted in October 1960. This knife accompanied Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepherd and Virgil Grissom in the course of the first American manned space missions. There was also a machete model produced by the Case Company, which was taken into space for the first time in 1965, on board the Molly Brown.

This M-1 Survival Knife has been carried on every manned Gemini and Apollo space flight since the "Molly Brown" with astronauts Grissom and Young in 1965. One accompanied Neil Armstrong to the moon. Armstrong is pictured with one of these knives on the Case company historical timeline.

Not many knives are noteworthy enough to be featured individually on the Case historical timeline. One of these knives is in the Smithsonian Institute Museum.

The M-1 model 1966 knife is a survival knife and actually resembles a machete. It is 17" long overall and has an 11 3/4" blade. It features white polypropolene handles (the lightest plastic that gives off no fumes) and saw teeth along the back of the blade. The original knife came housed in a special wooden display case with a space capsule in the background. Case made 2,494 of the knives for sale to the public at $75.00 each back in 1966. This knife was discontinued January 1, 1972.

In 1983 Case produced a special "2nd run" of 1000 knives commemorating NASA's 25th anniversary. The anniversary knife is identical to the original M-1 except that the blade has been etched with a special color logo.

Virgil "Gus" Grissom was the first NASA astronaut to go into space twice. He was eventually killed in a training accident in 1967. But, during another training in 1961, his Mercury Project "Liberty Bell 7" splashed down in the ocean and sunk. It was recovered in 1999. After almost 40 years on the ocean bottom (around 15,000 feet deep), his Model 17 was pulled out of the Liberty Bell capsule. It is now on display at Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, Indiana. The question came up, is the original knife, or a modern replacement?

Alan Shepard on May 5,1961 and Gus Grissom's on July 21,1961, the Randall Astros were stowed in the hatch of the space capsule. Both men carried NASA knives, verses their personal ones.

Beginning with John Glenn's orbital flight (Feb. 20, 1962) and from that point thereafter the knives were housed in a special sheathed compartment on Mercury's survival kit.

Scott Carpenter's "3" orbit flight also resulted in his knife being lost and it "was" his personal knife, that flight was on May 24,1962. It is not clear from his letter and request for a replacement knife to Bo Randall if the knife was lost at splashdown or sometime afterward. The knife was lost by the time the capsule was returned to the mainland.

David G, Concannon knows several astronauts, including a Mercury astronaut, and had a long talk with this gentleman about Randall knives and the relationship between the Mercury astronauts and RMK. At the time of this discussion, he had lost touch with RMK but he eventually back in touch with Gary Randall.

David was not part of the 1999 expedition that recovered the Liberty Bell 7, but he was on the 2001 follow up expedition to the same area with Curt Newport, the leader of that expedition. They discovered the world's deepest wooden shipwreck, a slave ship lost in 1810. David made a deep submersible dive to this wreck and recovered several objects, including a man's boot and other leather objects, which were remarkably well preserved.

As Newport described in his book, ownership of the spacecraft (and any contents purchased or provided by NASA) remained with the U.S. Government, specifically NASA, and the Smithsonian had the right of first refusal to acquire any items recovered. However, NASA transferred title to the capsule and its contents to the Discovery Channel Network before the recovery, the Smithsonian signed off on this transfer, and Discovery donated the capsule to the Kansas Cosmosphere, where restoration of the items recovered subsequently took place and the artifacts were displayed before going on tour to various museums around the country.

Given the history of the Liberty Bell 7 artifacts after their recovery and the close personal relationship the Mercury astronauts enjoyed with the Randall family, my best guess is that the knife on display in Indiana is not the knife flown on Liberty Bell 7, but is another personal knife that Grissom obtained from RMK. If it is the Liberty Bell 7 knife, the sheath was provided with the knife and was not flown. However, I doubt that this is the Liberty Bell 7 knife.

After taking a closer look at the photo in the original post, it is clear that this is not the knife that flew on Liberty Bell 7. Although the Liberty Bell 7 knife was remarkably well preserved after spending 37 years at the bottom of the ocean, 16,000 feet deep, it was still in pretty rough shape when it was recovered. It required a lot of restoration, and it had a lot of pitting all over. The knife in Indiana shows no signs of either the pitting or having been restored.

As an aside, the Grissom family was NOT happy with the recovery of Liberty Bell 7. They did not want the capsule's recovery to rekindle the old argument about whether Grissom panicked and fired the hatch prematurely, and consequently damage his memory and reputation as an astronaut lost in the service of his country. Personally, I don't believe this has happened. If anything, the capsule's recovery rekindled the public's memory of these heroic astronauts and the sacrifices they made for their country.

David G. Concannon had the pleasure of visiting RMK for the first time while on a business trip to Orlando. While at the shop, he spoke about his expedition to the spot where Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 space capsule splashed down, their discovery of a 200-year-old shipwreck nearby, his dive to 16,000+ feet to explore the wreck, and the condition of the items recovered.

The items that were found on this wreck, which was within six miles of Liberty Bell 7 on the bottom, were remarkably well preserved. However, the salt water can act like battery acid on carbon steel at this depth. If you look closely at the photo of the recovered knife, you can see where this happened. This scarring is not present on the knife in the Indiana museum.

Who will be the manufacture of the knife that makes it to Mars?