“480,000 km From Home”

Regarding the US space program, the broad strokes are remembered. Most people can reminiscence on the triumphs and disasters replayed on TV. However, over time the important details become lost. Few recall the number of Apollo lunar landings (there were 6). In the 1970s, space missions seemed almost commonplace. Each became another news item among other headlines. The greatest headline “Man Walks on the Moon” was printed in 1969. Space exploration was still an impressive feat in technology and human courage. Yet, as the mission numbers increased, the excitement ebbed. The USA and the USSR continued manned orbital flights, but beyond the space race’s lunar finish the public but no longer watched a rocket’s ascent in awe. Today, some people remember Mercury and Gemini missions before the Moon landing. Few people recall the following mission called Marathon One, or the records still held by its two-man crew four decades later.

Marathon One’s primary mission was simple: Fly far into space—very far into space. During the near-tragic Apollo 13 mission, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and John Swigert travelled over 400,000 km (nearly 249,000 miles) from Earth while over the “dark” side of the Moon. This distance record was set April 15, 1970. Marathon One’s mission was to break it. Although the Moon would be important later in the later stages, the only target for Mission Commander Walter Tuck (USN—later a shuttle commander) and Science Pilot Bertram “Bud” Delhurst (USAF) was a truly dark point in deep space. Delhurst held a PhD in physics. This was an important qualification in the mission’s second goal of studying the extent of Earth’s radiation fields and radiation levels from solar and interstellar sources. If humans were to cross interplanetary distances, this data would form the basis of knowledge crucial to survival. Solar radiation remains a critical factor in planning possible Mars missions in the 21st Century. Without the lure that Marathon One was a precursor to interplanetary missions, its objectives may have seemed esoteric, perhaps even boring. To most, they did anyway. Certainly this was not true for the two brave men so far from Earth. The radiation issues were serious. Any levels beyond what their modified Gemini B capsule could withstand and it would become their high‑velocity tomb. All people who venture into space accept the same risk. Tuck and Delhurst continued the tradition of being cool, calm and collected professionals in a dark, cold and unforgiving vacuum.

The concept of traveling farther into space than ever before and the mission name gave the impression the two men would set a duration record as well as one for distance. Editorial cartoons showed the capsule in a vast, black or sometimes starry field with an exclamation balloon containing the classic phrase: “Are we there yet?” In the pre-mission press conference, Tuck and Delhurst were asked about the psychological impact of a long space flight. Delhurst joked he hoped he would not start calling the ship “Mommy One.” The single Tuck upped the humor ante by saying he was taking an engagement ring on the flight. NASA downplayed his joke and it hardly saw print. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, even for space exploration. The ring that mattered most was the loop of their path. A path whose farthest point was nearly 483,000 km, or 300,000 miles from Earth.

Another mission aspect not widely discussed in public had ramifications that were not only interplanetary but also international. The USSR decried Marathon One as a stunt. They claimed an unmanned probe could have done the mission, and that interplanetary science was already well underway in the Soviet Union. They offered their Venera and Mars (called “Marsnick” by the West) programs as proof. In addition to launching the first human into space, the USSR had a number of “firsts” in space exploration. This included successful missions of unmanned probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. The first craft from Earth to reach another planet’s atmosphere was from Russia: Venera 4 entered Venus’ sky on October 18, 1967. All the achievements of the USSR space program had little glory compared to that first “small step” on the lunar surface. Still, it was not sour grapes inspiring their criticism, but the unstated strategic importance of manned space operations.

Consider the formerly secret Soviet Almaz space platforms. Both were armed. A similar USAF spy platform deceptively called the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) was planned but never left the ground. (Spy satellites perform those roles today.) Alone, the technical challenges of Marathon One’s mission were profound, but it was not the only mission NASA had underway at the time. Alan Bean, Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott were already aboard Skylab. (Their mission, Skylab 3, is also classified as SLM-2 as the numbering system of manned flights by the astronaut corps did not include Skylab’s unmanned launch. However, NASA officially denotes that as Skylab 1.) With these two missions underway, it was the first time in the history of human space flight that a nation had dared to conduct separate but concurrent manned missions. This was a US “first” and a clear display of mastery of the new high ground.

Strategic implications weren’t evident when Commander Tuck beamed back photos that showed Earth as a single blue disc in a black expanse. They took the photos after passing the imaginary circle of lunar orbit and into interplanetary space. They now faced the danger of pulling a “Major Tom” and continuing into the deep black towards whatever, if any, great beyond the astronauts believed existed after life. Their ship was equipped with extra thrusters, but would need help from lunar gravity to return home. The crew executed the maneuvers of the complex trajectory with precision. As they approached Earth and readied for reentry, Tuck and Delhurst spoke to Mission Control and the few reporters covering the end of their nevertheless historic mission. Tuck said: “We return home from being so far away, but we hope this record will soon be broken.” Delhurst attempted a more Armstrong-style comment by saying: “One day, the distance we traveled will not seem remarkable, when men and women enter Earth’s orbit for the first time in their lives at the end of a greater trip. Their own home being farther away than our travels in Marathon One.” Many have dissected those sentences to support ideas both lofty and ridiculous. But Delhurst’s intent was clear. He saw humanity not limited to Earth. If space exploration continued, future generations could be born in space or on the surface of other planets. However, Marathon One is still the farthest humans have ever gone. Funding and political will for space exploration wax and wane like or companion world where humans have actually walked. The technical challenges to achieve that were enormous, but were overcome. All those who continue to travel into the black expanse above our blue sky prove one resource will always be in abundance, that being human courage. That fact exists in any universe, parallel or otherwise.