July 30, 2014

Walking the wing of the legendary Avro Arrow

Posted by WARREN PERLEY – Editor, BestStory.ca
Writing from Montreal

As a reader, it’s hard to resist a story revealing for the first time the details of how Canadian scientists helped rescue the three Apollo 13 astronauts from certain death when their spacecraft was crippled 200,000 miles from Earth 44 years ago this past April.

As an editor, I was as much intrigued by the person writing, as by the story itself. After all, it’s not every day that you have a NASA-accredited researcher and scientist, such as Torontonian Dr. Roderick Tennyson – considered one of the world’s most knowledgeable aerospace engineers – offering to write a memoir about the most famous space rescue in history.

Many of you probably remember the details of that near-death, space adventure through the 1995 docu-drama titled Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. In the film, Tom Hanks stars as flight commander Jim Lovell; Kevin Bacon is Command/Service Module pilot Jack Swigert; and Bill Paxton is Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) pilot Fred Haise. The movie was a box-office hit, grossing $355.2 million. The expression, “Houston, we have a problem,” became part of the English lexicon as a result of the Apollo 13 crisis.

But what the Hollywood version of events completely ignored was the role played by some of Canada’s most brilliant aerospace scientists in helping to figure out a way to bring the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely after an oxygen tank explosion disabled their spacecraft on Monday, April 13, 1970.

So I considered myself a lucky editor to land such an original, unique, behind-the-scenes story. However, I soon realized that luck had nothing to do with it. Our ability to present this story to our readers had everything to do with technology writer and editor Daphne Lavers, who is Rod Tennyson’s wife and is herself a much valued contributor to BestStory.ca.

It was only after several discussions between them that Daphne persuaded Rod that the story should be told about the role played in the Apollo 13 rescue by an elite group of scientists at the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS).

With the help of Daphne who worked closely with him in organizing and writing his story with an eye to accuracy and copious detail, Rod recounts the drama that gripped the UTIAS scientists from the time they received the call for help from NASA on Thursday morning April 16, 1970 until about 4 p.m. that same day when they came up with the answer to the one mathematical problem they had been asked to solve: How much pressurized oxygen was needed in the connecting tunnel between the Command Module and the Lunar Excursion Module, in conjunction with an explosive ring which would be detonated, in order to separate them without damaging the Command Module, which was needed to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth?

With typical precision, Rod tells us in his story how and what answer the UTIAS team calculated for NASA within a matter of hours. The fact that he was part of that illustrious UTIAS team and would go on to become a two-term director of UTIAS (see his profile Roderick Tennyson) did not surprise those who followed his brilliant career.

The first Avro Arrow, RL-201, is officially rolled out on 4 October 1957

A harbinger of his potential as a scientist and researcher was apparent as early as 1958 when he was still an aerospace engineering student at the University of Toronto. His small aerospace class of eight or nine students was invited to Downsview air base, near UTIAS, for a tour of the facility and an introduction to the Avro Arrow, the best supersonic fighter aircraft in the world at that time and manufactured in Canada by A. V. Roe.

The tour took several hours and included access to the air traffic master control room which was being readied for a test flight by famed Polish-Canadian test pilot Jan Zurakowski. The students were taken out to the hangar and onto the gantry beside the aircraft. One at a time and accompanied by an Avro engineer, they were allowed to walk on a defined section of the aircraft wing and look into the cockpit.

“It was amazing. The aircraft looked huge – it was a stunningly beautiful machine,” Rod recalled.

In fact, the aircraft was huge – with a wingspan of 50 feet, a length of nearly 78 feet, and capable of Mach 1.98 speed. This compares with the U.S.–made fighter aircraft touted by the current Conservative government, the F-35, with a wingspan of 35 feet, a length of 52 feet and a flight speed of Mach 1.67. The Arrow was also superior in that it had twin engines, meaning it could fly even if one of them flamed out, unlike the single-engine F-35.

Rod and the other students watched as the aircraft was towed out of the hangar and Zurakowski taxied down the runway for takeoff. When he was airborne, they were allowed to listen to his real time comments to the control tower.

“I was definitely hooked on aerospace as a career! “ Rod says. Before he left the facility that day, he had been offered – and had accepted – a job with A. V. Roe, scheduled to begin when he graduated the following year. “It was a dream job for a young aerospace engineer,” he recalled.

Unfortunately, the year following his visit to A. V. Roe, the Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker cancelled the Arrow program on February 20, 1959, taking the unheard-of step of ordering the immediate destruction of all blueprints and insisting that all flight test models be cut into pieces with blow torches.

During the test program for the Arrow, various polished stainless steel test models had been fabricated with different geometries in order to come up with the optimum engine inlet configurations. Rod knew that a number of these test models had been fired off the Scarborough bluffs over Lake Ontario and that they lay in the bottom silt, never to be recovered.

“Much to our amazement, one of the models was found at the back of a storage cupboard in the UTIA [University of Toronto Institute for Aerophysics, as it was then known] machine shop,” Rod said. “It is now on permanent display at the institute [UTIAS].”

Like most Canadians, Rod was shocked when he learned of the Arrow’s cancellation. It led him to continue his aerospace studies after completing his undergraduate engineering degree. “I decided that my best chance to get ahead in this field was to pursue graduate studies at UTIA,” he said. “This was highly recommended by the professors who agreed that two years of undergraduate aerospace education was too little.”

He went on to get his Master’s and a Ph.D. in aerospace studies with his thesis on cylindrical shell structures. Ironically, losing the job opportunity with the Arrow program and instead staying at the U. of T. to specialize in the study of cylindrical shell structures likely allowed him to contribute more fully to helping the UTIAS team tackle the Apollo 13 challenge several years later.

But the Apollo 13 mission was not the most significant scientific or academic achievement of Rod Tennyson’s career. In later years, he and his research team flew experiments on the Space Shuttle to study the effects of the space environment on plastic thin films (such as Kapton used for solar panels on satellites) and composite materials (for example, carbon fibre reinforced plastics similar to what we use today on sporting goods and race cars).

They also studied impacts from space debris and micrometeoroids, much like what was shown in the movie “Gravity”. This work led to new design methods for predicting impact damage to spacecraft, and a fibre optic impact detection system which received a NASA award for innovation.

In the past decade, Rod has focussed his research on fibre optic sensor systems used on bridges and pipelines for detecting damage such as corrosion, cracking and structural failure. He and his research team have several patents that were used to create commercial systems in a startup company called Fox-Tek, which has since merged with another company.

But for all Rod’s outstanding scientific career accomplishments, the Apollo 13 mission was surely the most momentous achievement of a lifetime, allowing him to be part of a dedicated, brilliant Canadian aerospace team which helped save the lives of three intrepid American astronauts!

Published: JULY 2014
When Apollo 13 crew faced death NASA turned to U. of T. for help

Writing from Toronto

On April 13, 1970, an explosion crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft, threatening to doom its three astronauts to a certain death 200,000 miles from Earth. After several days of intense analysis and feverish activity in the U.S., when the final crunch came the day before the spacecraft had to return to Earth, NASA still needed the answer to one critical mathematical equation in order to bring the crew home safely. Now for the first time, we learn that NASA sought that answer from only one source: the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies. Dr. Roderick Tennyson gives readers a first-person account of how he and his fellow UTIAS aerospace scientists came up with the answer in less than eight hours.

Nondescript building hides UTIAS treasure

By RODERICK TENNYSON – Writing from Toronto

When NASA needed an answer to a mathematical equation to save its Apollo 13 astronauts, why did it place all its trust in the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS)? The answer dates back to the late 1940s when the University of Toronto became the first post-secondary educational institution in Canada to establish an aeronautical engineering program. The U. of T. allowed its new faculty to operate with a high degree of autonomy, which fostered an environment of innovation and exceptionally high standards. This, in turn, produced world-class aerospace scientists, a fact that did not go unnoticed by NASA.

8,603 Words | 19 Photos | 5 Illustrations

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