Was NASA’s First Launch Delay its Most Significant?

In January 1961, the pieces of the manned spaceflight puzzle were slowly coming together. NASA had a capsule, astronauts to ride inside it, and rockets to launch it. The capsule had even successfully launched on top of the rocket. The missing piece was the go-ahead for astronauts to launch inside a capsule, but flight surgeons and rocket engineers were playing it safe. Had they been a little more bold, Alan Shepard could have been history’s first man in space. Instead, Wernher von Braun’s concern that his rocket might explode and kill an astronaut delayed Shepard’s launch and secured his position as the first American in suborbital space. (Left, Alan Shepard on the morning of his May 5, 1961 suborbital flight.) Continue reading “Was NASA’s First Launch Delay its Most Significant?”

Unlucky Apollo 13

When Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970, the world wasn’t all that excited. Going to the Moon had become routine; the Vietnam war and Paul McCartney leaving the Beatles were bigger stories in America. The one aspect of the mission that did have people talking was its numeric designation: 13. Man’s greatest scientific endeavour was about to go head to head with one of its most enduring superstitions. Read my full article on Discovery News. (Left, the damage sustained to Apollo 13’s service module when the oxygen tank exploded, taken by the crew before reentry, 1970. It’s worth noting that NASA has never since launched, nor does it plan to launch, another mission designated ’13.’)

Recovering Apollo 11’s Engines from the Atlantic

This week, Amazon.com 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.)

Fun Facts and Finds About John Glenn

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight. The first orbital mission of the Mercury program, which launched on February 20, 1962, was a major achievement for NASA and a significant milestone to the American people. The flight marked the US finally matching the Soviet Union in space and was a major step towards the lunar landing goal Kennedy had set the year before.

My article commemorating the mission will appear tomorrow on Scientific American’s Guest Blog, but I thought it might be fun to share some of the interesting facts and bizarre finds I came across during my research. (Left, Glenn trains in a simulator. 1959.) Continue reading “Fun Facts and Finds About John Glenn”

On Newt Gingrich on the Moon

Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a bold claim: “By the end of my second term [2020], we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American.” On the surface, it’s an intriguing and even exciting prospect to space enthusiasts. A base on the Moon would extend human presence in the Solar System and act as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. Or, it could bankrupt NASA and prove to be little more than an ill-thought out, dead-end program. (Gingrich proposed a lunar base by 2020 in Florida on January 25, 2012.) Continue reading “On Newt Gingrich on the Moon”

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”

A History of the Dyna-Soar

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing some research into the USAF Dyna-Soar or X-20 program, and its story is much more interesting than I realized. Like many of the unrealized programs of the early space age, its impact extends far beyond its immediate application. Dyna-Soar is typically referenced in passing as an upgraded version of the X-15, an aircraft capable of achieving orbiting, but this connection is misleading. Dyna-Soar came from an entirely different place than the X-15, and its story is much more complicated than a simple cancelled research program. (A worker inspects a full-scale mockup of Dyna-Soar. Reader’s Digest described the vehicle as a cross between a porpoise and a manta ray. Early 1960s. Photo: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.) Continue reading “A History of the Dyna-Soar”