This challenge closed on 13/11/2019. See below for the correct answers.
A Narrow Escape
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Correct AnswerMeg, I have been working through the list of suspicious incidents affecting Apollo Eleven and it is longer than you might think. The pre-launch, stage three thruster valve problem is a little suspicious given all the checks that took place before that, but on the other hand telemetry guaranteed that it would be detected and the technicians showed that it was easy to bypass. If that was a sabotage attempt then it wasn’t very well designed, so I don’t think it could have been an engineer that set it up. On the other hand, no-one else would have had time alone with the component. On the other hand, someone from FIDO’s team sent me a message to tell me about a very near miss that sounds like it could have been a serious attempt to destroy the command module on re-entry. As Apollo XI approached the re-entry point they jettisoned the Service Module to re-orient the Command Module so that the heatshield was pointing into the atmosphere. Since they were on pretty much a ballistic orbit the SM would have stayed close to the CM, and without a heatshield of its own it would break up into large pieces that posed a significant danger to the CM and its crew. To avoid that the SM was supposed to carry out a sequence of short burns to move its trajectory away from the Command Module, skipping it off the atmosphere so that the CM could re-enter free from the debris field. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have happened. Aldrin reported that the CM flew past the SM which was flying at an attack angle well beyond operational parameters, and a commercial pilot, Frank Brown, reported seeing the two spacecraft tracking closely as they burned through the atmosphere. A single collision with one of the white-hot fragments could have badly damaged the re-entry capsule, and even if the astronauts had survived the collision then the odds are that the parachute system would have triggered early or been fatally damaged by the blast. NASA engineers are working fast to correct the problem for Apollo XIII and they have mitigations in place for XII’s re-entry, but the view of the experts is that they dodged a bullet with this. The flight officer who reported it to me pointed out that if the Soviets wanted to sabotage the mission this might have been a good bet: it was a nasty accident that was hard to foresee, and it will be very difficult to show that someone deliberately miscalculated the burn times since it was the interaction of the thrusters and stabilisers that caused the problem. I think he is one of a growing number of NASA employees who have begun to believe that the USSR has deep cover agents working to destabilise the programme. My worry is that even if he is wrong, the lack of trust that is growing within the organisation will destabilise it on its own. I am really hoping he is mistaken. The success of Apollo XI seems to have bought a lot of international goodwill and I think it could be the start of something more positive. The Soviet cooperation with the landing gave me hope that we could find more common ground and start to thaw East-West relations, but this could really threaten that. In the mean-time we had better step up security. I think we should use a simple Vigenere cipher with period two for our next message. I have encrypted the attached re-entry report using a columnar transposition cipher.
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