Mapping Vintage Space

Regular readers of Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I have a tendency to link newer posts to older ones. This reflects the interrelation of all the topics I have (and will) discuss in this blog. I find this era of history to be complex (as most big historical eras are) with aspects that can be treated independently, but need to be contextualized by one another.

And so I thought I would begin mapping Vintage Space, building a sort of narrative roadmap that will give the more casual reader a better idea of where in the history of space and spaceflight each individual episode belongs. This is in no way a complete chronology, but rather a framework for my content. (Pictured, the sun rise above the gulf of Mexico as seen from orbit by Apollo 7. 1968.) Continue reading “Mapping Vintage Space”

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Fashioning Vostok 1


In a previous post, I unravelled some of the mystery surrounding Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 mission. One of the principle differences I tried to bring to the forefront in that post, as well as others discussing the Soviet Space Program, is the fundamental difference between its closed structure and NASA’s open one. The Soviet Union tightly controlled what information the public knew about the space program. They didn’t broadcast test launches live or introduce their cosmonauts to the country as heroes amid great fanfare. (Left, the launch of Vostok 1. 1961. Image source: aerospaceweb.org)

But the Soviet Space Program’s development from unmanned satellite to manned orbital flight was not all that different from NASA’s, and the variable successes and failures in developing manned spaceflight put both organizations on par. A closer look at the lead up to the launch of Vostok 1 almost humanizes the Soviet machine that presented perfect spaceflight with no mention of failures. Again, I have no interest in denigrating the Soviet accomplishments; I only hope to add dimension to the popular stories. Continue reading “Fashioning Vostok 1”

The Enigmatic Vostok 1

In previous posts, I’ve talked a little bit about how the Soviet Space Program designed its perfect cosmonaut and outlined some of the differences between Soviet and American spaceflight in the early 1960s. In both cases, Yuri Gagarin (left) has been a focal point, though I’ve never expressly treated his own mission. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; his mission lasted 108 minutes and he made one orbit around the globe. Upon his return to Earth, he was lauded as a hero and the Soviet Union enjoyed its continued position as the leading power in space.

But in the years and decades that followed, details of the flight revealed a very different picture of this historic Soviet accomplishment. Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, documentation was slowly released to reveal the secretive nature of the Soviet Space Program as a whole. In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, I thought I’d unravel some of the mystery. For those steeped in the history of spaceflight, these anecdotes may not be new. But for the casual reader, I hope to shed some light on the lesser-known aspects of the launch heard ‘round the world. I don’t in any way intend to denigrate the Soviet accomplishment; if anything I hope to add some depth to the stories most people find in history books surrounding Gagarin and Vostok 1. Continue reading “The Enigmatic Vostok 1”

Spaceflight: Risky Business

One of the things that fascinates me about NASA’s early manned programs is the risks the organization took to achieve its goals. The Apollo Program is a great example: NASA had a goal, a time frame in which to achieve its goal, and a real need to succeed. The risks could be justified in the name of a successful end-of-decade lunar landing. But the organization also had the money needed to achieve such a technological feat – roughly 4 percent of the GDP in the mid-1960s instead of the less than 1 percent it has now. (Pictured, engineers and astronauts begin troubleshooting in the minutes after an explosion rocked Apollo 13. 1970.)

Still, it wasn’t just having enough money to run the tests needed to get the results. NASA made bold, daring decisions in the 60s. Since the end of Apollo, however, NASA has become more conservative in its approach to both manned spaceflight and unmanned planetary exploration. Continue reading “Spaceflight: Risky Business”

Bringing Down a New Bird: Landing Gemini

I’ve previously discussed NASA’s invention of a landing system for the Mercury program – with little time and almost no prior experience, engineers determined that splashdowns were the simplest and least risky method to bring an astronaut home. But, as I’ve also previously discussed, splashdowns were far from an ideal landing method; inherently dangerous to both astronaut and capsule alike. (Left, a half-scale Rogallo wing mated to a half-scale Gemini spacecraft. NASA Archives.)

NASA’s second-generation Gemini program opened the door for a change in landing methods. Though incepted in early 1962, work on the program began late in 1961 when the end-of-decade lunar landing goal was seemingly far away. Gemini, then, had a more open schedule at the outset, allowing engineers to undertake some major design changes. One of the first aspects of Mercury to go was splashdown. The original goals for Gemini stated that a pilot-controlled land landing was paramount. So the program began seeking an answer to the question of how to invent a land landing system. Continue reading “Bringing Down a New Bird: Landing Gemini”

Unraveling Venus

Whenever anyone gets me talking about space and spaceflight, they invariably ask what got me started on ‘all of this space stuff’ in the first place. The short answer is Venus. I became captivated by the planet researching a second grade science project and my interest has continued growing from there. It is a planet, sometimes referred to as Earth’s twin but really more like the Earth turned inside out, that and I can see in the sky! But it’s never been the object that truly captivates me; it’s the hunt to learn about the object. Continue reading “Unraveling Venus”

Designing the Perfect Cosmonaut

In a previous post, I talked about how NASA designed the perfect astronaut – the qualities that were considered vital in selecting the first generation Mercury astronauts. The Soviet Space Program was no different. The organization held its candidates to an equally stringent set of standards as well as a host of unspoken ideal qualities. A cursory look at the Mercury Astronaut selection and the first Soviet Cosmonaut selection reveal two greatly similar processes. But of course, different countries with different resources use different methods. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union’s selection and training prior to selecting Yuri Gagarin as its first cosmonaut differs from NASA’s, and some of the main differences between programs are fairly striking. When compared, the agenda of both nations are evident as they determined which man (or men) would represent them as the space age began. So, what makes the perfect Cosmonaut? (Left are three images of the first spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. 1964.) Continue reading “Designing the Perfect Cosmonaut”