NASA’s First Interplanetary Journey: Venus

Venus has always held a certain fascination for sky-gazers. It’s the brightest object aside from the Sun and the Moon and it’s been named for three goddesses of love: the Roman Venus, the Greek Aphrodite, and the Babylonian Ishtar. As naked eye astronomy and myth gave way to scientific observation, Venus took on a different personality. Early Earth-based observations suggested it was a younger world and a tropical paradise, but better technology revealed it was hot and carbon dioxide rich. But there’s no better way to learn about a planet than to visit it. (Left, an artist’s concept of Mariner 2 – the first interplanetary spacecraft.)

In 1967, NASA developed a mission to send men to Venus. But before getting into the proposed manned mission, it’s worth stepping back to look at the state of NASA’s knowledge of Venus and its understanding of the interplanetary space a mission would have to go through to get there. Before this manned mission proposal, NASA had only sent one mission to Venus – Mariner 2.  Continue reading “NASA’s First Interplanetary Journey: Venus”

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The Life and Times of Pluto

This week, three people have approached me wondering why Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. My brief explanation of “it doesn’t meet the characteristics of a planet” didn’t set too well; they grew up with Pluto, they want it back! They want their children to grow up with Pluto! I realized after these exchanges that although the fate of Pluto has been a news feature since it’s contestation began a little over a decade ago, not many people know the details behind the decision. Each of the people I spoke to this week suggested I explain the story in more complete detail on my blog. As so, by request: a brief history of the outer planets and the rise and fall of Pluto. (Left, Pluto.) Continue reading “The Life and Times of Pluto”

Even Moon Landings Need Dress Rehearsals

Last month, amateur British astronomer Nick Howes announced that he will soon take up the hunt for Snoopy – not the cartoon Beagle whose mission will always be to take down the Red Baron in a dogfight, but Apollo 10’s lunar module of the same name. The ascent stage of the spacecraft was sent into orbit around the sun after it had served its purpose, and its thought to still be out there. Armed with his astronomer’s tool kit – namely looking for a moving dot against a background of stars – and a knowledge of the area where Snoopy might be, Howes hopes to recover the lost artifact of the Apollo program. (The Apollo 10 crew pats their mascot on the nose on their way out to the launch pad. 1969.)

Howes might accomplish something else, too: he might reignite interest in one of the most commonly overlooked missions of the Apollo program. Apollo 10 rarely makes an appearance in the history books. More often that not it is mentioned in passing, lumped into the pre-Apollo 11 missions that form the stepping stone to the moon. And so I thought I’d tell its story in a little more detail – and Snoopy’s while I’m at it. This probably won’t be news to anyone who has studied the space program in detail, but for the more casual reader, I hope this illustrates just how interesting the Apollo missions that didn’t land on the moon really were. (Right, Snoopy after the Red Baron gunned him down.) Continue reading “Even Moon Landings Need Dress Rehearsals”

Carnival of Space #216

Welcome to another installment of the Carnival of Space! Some neat things on the table this week, so let’s get to it. (Not exactly a hover craft, Dave Scott practices how to manoeuvre in anticipation of an EVA. If you look closely, it appears as though he’s doing this training in a shirt and tie. 1962.) Continue reading “Carnival of Space #216”

‘Going’ in Space

For the past few months, I’ve been contributing short articles to Motherboard. This week, I worked on a fun one I thought I ought to share: how to go to the bathroom in space and on the moon. I’ve put together a very brief history of the addition of ‘restroom facilities’ into NASA’s space race era missions. Check out the full article.

(Pictured, a diagram showing the Apollo urine collection and transfer system as it is meant to be worn over the liquid cooled undergarments.)

RATs and Monuments on Mars

In a previous post, I made the comment that I don’t necessarily think humans ought to colonize other planets; at least, not until we know a lot more about the environment upon which we intend to force ourselves. Manned exploration is another story. Sending men to another planet to survey the environment is much simpler than trying to replicate a man’s honed skills and keen mind in a machine – aside, of course, from the challenges associated with getting him there in the first place. Such tools exist on the recently silent Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity. But the rover’s tools serve an unlikely second purpose. They stand as a tribute to those lost during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. (Left, MER rover Spirit captures its own shadow. Mars, 2004.) Continue reading “RATs and Monuments on Mars”

The Real Apollo 18

Conspiracy theorists have concocted some incredibly creative stories to explain why NASA has not returned to the moon since Apollo 17’s splashdown in 1972. Some suggest that aliens on the moon prevented or scared astronauts from ever returning while others claim that there were undocumented missions to the moon. The other end of the spectrum sees moon hoax theorists claiming we never went to the moon, but the ‘evidence’ of these claims is so great it really deserves its own post. (Left, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan was the last man to leave a boot print on the moon. December 1972.)

Last week, Dimension Films released Apollo 18. Conspiracy theorists are coming out of the internet’s virtual woodwork in droves, lauding the film for finally admitting to the decades-old cover up. The real story of Apollo 18 is interesting but much less exciting.  Continue reading “The Real Apollo 18”