Recovering Apollo 11’s Engines from the Atlantic

This week, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced a bold plan: to recover at least one of Apollo 11’s engines from the bottom of the Atlantic. The engines sunk to the briny deep after the Saturn V’s spent first stage jettisoned a little less than three minutes after launch on July 16, 1969. Bezos’ team of underwater experts armed with state-of-the-art sonar technology have located the engines, and he hopes to donate the recovered hardware to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. But NASA still owns the engines, and the agency gets to decide what happens to this piece of history, which may not even be form Apollo 11 at all.  It’s an interesting proposal, and however Bezos’ plan for recovery unfolds, its sure to be interesting (particularly to historians). Check out my full article on Motherboard. (Left, Apollo 11 shortly after launch. The first stage’s five F-1 engines are responsible for the fiery trail the Saturn V is leaving across the sky. 1969.)

NASA’s LRO: Shedding New Light on Old Mysteries

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter keeps finding interesting things on the moon. Last week, LRO’s camera photographed the landing sites of Luna 23 and 24, two Soviet probes that landed in the 1970s. The images have enabled scientists to solve mysteries about these missions, specifically what happened to Luna 23 and why the samples returned by Luna 24 were drastically different than anticipated. It seems these nearly 40-year-old missions are still unfolding. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, the Soviet Luna 16 spacecraft. One of many in the long-lasting program.)

The Life and Times of Don McCusker

I got an email from a reader a few months ago who was particularly pleased that an old post mentioned his father, Don McCusker. McCusker was a North American Aviation test pilot and one of the few men to fly the full scale Gemini manned Test Tow Vehicle (TTV), the full scale Gemini spacecraft mated to the paraglider wing. Some research in unusual places, and a fascinating correspondence with his wife Helena, gave me fairly good picture of McCusker’s life. So while my research isn’t quite finished, I thought I’d write a short overview of the very interesting life of a test pilot that almost no one knows about. (Left, the Martin-built B57 that was used in research and development tests of a guidance systems. Don McCusker is on top, at the time serving as manager of the simulated MACE program. USAF.)

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The Unsinkable Gusmobile

On March 23, 1965, Gus Grissom and John Young launched on the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3. First planned as a followup to Mercury known as Mercury Mark II, development of the Gemini spacecraft took nearly six years. The finished product was an expression of what Grissom wanted in a spacecraft, from the cockpit layout to the placement of each switch and instruments. It was, in many ways, his baby. Grissom’s close hand in its design prompted many of his fellow astronauts to call NASA’s second-generation spacecraft the Gusmobile.  (Left, the Gemini 3 crew, Gus Grissom and John Young in 1965.) Continue reading “The Unsinkable Gusmobile”

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Animals in Space Before NASA

For most people, early biological testing in space brings to mind Ham the chimp, angrily trying to bit any hand that came near him after his suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket. But Ham was launched on January 31, 1961, nearly a decade after the first monkeys survive surborbital flights. Biological testing in space goes back even further. In the late 1940s, fruit flies became the first animals to survive exposure to spaceflight conditions. (Left, Ham ready for launch in 1961. The system in his capsule designed to reward or shock him for his inflight performance malfunctioned and he was shocked for pushing the right buttons. He was, understandably, irate.)  Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: Animals in Space Before NASA”

Surveyor 3, Apollo 12, and Interplanetary Microbes

This week, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter program released a striking image of the Ocean of Storms. The picture shows two historic missions at once: Surveyor 3 and Apollo 12, two missions that overlap in NASA’s history. The unmanned Surveyor 3 landed in 1967, and in 1969 the Apollo 12 lunar crew recovered pieces of its hardware and returned it to Earth. It was the first, and so far only, time humans have visited an unmanned spacecraft. But there’s more to the story. Microbes were found on the pieces of Surveyor 3 the Apollo 12 astronauts brought back. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad poses with Surveyor. The LM Intrepid is seen in the distance – talk about a precision landing! November 1969.)

Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?

On February 13, President Obama unveiled the proposed budget for NASA for the fiscal year 2013: $17.7 billion. That’s $59 million less than FY 2012, and a number that’s expected to remain constant over the next five years. Hardest hit was the Mars program, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of exploration on our cosmic neighbour. NASA has had great luck with creative and cost-efficient Martian missions in the past, so it’s possible that the next decade on Mars will be fruitful, it might also look different than anticipated. (Left, Mars’ atmosphere.) Continue reading “Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?”