cryogenic engine

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     When you picture a test pilot or astronaut wearing a pressure suit and strutting to their sleek ship, the mental image is not complete without them toting along a little metal briefcase connected to their suits via hoses. This yellow box is a portable liquid oxygen converter and serves the all important function of cooling the human inside the suit. Without cooling, the heavy layers of a pressure suit would cause the crew member to overheat within a matter of minutes.

     The simple device has no moving parts or electronics. It contains a small tank full of super cold liquid oxygen, constantly heating up and boiling away into a gas. The cold gas expands through the coil of tubing surrounding the tank, then travels through a hose into the suit where it’s distributed through the crew member’s cooling garment throughout the suit. Some of the oxygen is directed to the crew member’s helmet, allowing them to breathe 100% pure oxygen prior to the flight, purging their blood of nitrogen, thus avoiding decompression sickness, otherwise known as the bends.

     When the pressure suited individual sits in the cockpit, a supporting crew member will disconnect the portable system and connect the ship’s integral oxygen system which serves the same purposes during flight. Equipment identical to this was used during the Blackbird program. This interesting little artifact lies on display at Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale, California.

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     While driving down Interstate 5 through Santa Ana, California, you may have spotted this rocket. Even for space fans, identifying this vehicle may be difficult. It is a rare Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) for the short lived Delta III rocket. This DCSS has a home at Discovery Cube Orange County, where she acts as an effective billboard for this educational museum. This equipment is appropriately placed near Huntington Beach where this particular payload fairing was manufactured.

     On August 27, 1998, the Delta 259 mission lifted off from Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, marking the first flight of a Delta III, carrying the Galaxy 10 communication satellite. During the burn of its first stage, a design flaw in the rocket’s guidance system caused it to violently diverge from its planned trajectory and begin to break up. During the breakup process, the flight termination system was activated by the range safety officer, causing what was left of the rocket to explode. The Galaxy 10 satellite could be seen that night as a flaming ball streaking down until it spectacularly exploded as it hit the Atlantic Ocean. 

     The second flight of a Delta III would take place on May 5, 1999, as the Delta 269 mission flew from the same pad. Thanks to a manufacturing flaw in the Pratt & Whitney RL10B-2 engine, the second stage burn was cut short, causing the stage to tumble into a useless orbit. The Orion 3 communication satellite was written off and a second payload was lost.

     A final flight of the Delta III would take place on August 23, 2000, with the Delta 280 mission, which carried a dummy payload called DM-F3. This time, the flight was a success, but it was too late for the Delta III. The commercial satellite industry took a steep dive in the late 1990s. The more powerful Delta IV was just a few years away from its first flight, and Boeing was pursuing a more conservative Delta II Heavy rocket. These factors, combined with the failures, caused the Delta III to be quietly shelved. Some spare parts from the program were flown on various Delta II and Delta IV flights, and in the late 2000s, Boeing donated this DCSS to Discovery Cube Orange County where it stands today, greeting passersby on Interstate 5.