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?”
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.’)
When President Kennedy promised America a Moon landing in 1961, getting there was only part of the challenge. The astronauts would need to go outside, explore the surface, and, to make to most of their time there, cover as much of the lunar surface as possible. On this last point, NASA considered multiple methods before settling on the lunar rover we all recognize from pictures of Apollo 15, 16, and 17. Read my full article at America Space. (Left, a prototype for the lunar bike is tested in a one-sixth gravity environment. 1969.) As an added source, here’s a great compilation of images of early rover concepts.
And speaking of America Space, I’m very happy to be joining the writing staff of this excellent website!
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.)
When people think about what NASA has done for the Earth-bound among us, most cite the invention of space foam and Tang among its greatest accomplishments. That’s not entirely true. Offshoots of technologies NASA has developed have given us things like LASIK eye surgery and the ability to turn on appliances remotely from our smartphones. Also, NASA didn’t invent Tang. But Tang’s story does run parallel to NASA’s. (Left, a 1960s advertisement for Tang with an image of a Gemini spacecraft in orbit that draws a comparison between the astronauts and the average consumer. Clever marketing.) Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: Tang in Space”
I recently built my first model — a 1:144 scale Saturn V. I posted this picture of the painted but unassembled rocket online, and it wasn’t long before I got an email from a fellow space-enthusiast. He asked about the paint scheme I used. He used the same design on a model years ago, and neither of us followed the paint scheme of any Saturn V that actually flew. I’d been so distracted following the directions and getting the lines straight that I didn’t stop to look at where the lines were going. It got me thinking about the Saturn V’s design scheme, which might be one of the more interesting histories of paint. Turns out, most of the readily accessible information is geared towards model builders. That’s all well and good, but it didn’t tell me why German-built launch vehicles have always varied their paint scheme. Continue reading “Painting Rockets”
Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a bold claim: “By the end of my second term , 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”
NASA’s Apollo program began with one of the worst disasters the organization has ever faced. A routine prelaunch test turned fatal when a fire ripped through the spacecraft’s crew cabin killing all three astronauts. Today marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, a tragic and preventable accident. There were warning signs, similar accidents that had claimed lives both in the United States and abroad. The Apollo 1 crew could have been saved from a gruesome death. (Left, the Apollo 1 crew, Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee jokingly say a little prayer for their problematic spacecraft in this unofficial crew portrait. 1966.)
In the 1960s, NASA’s astronauts were the cool, calm, and collected faces of the space program who represented American values — most were married and had some sort of religious affiliation. NASA’s public affair office took great pains to keep its astronauts’ images clean, but they were still men who occasionally cursed when faced with a bad situation. As NASA gathered steam and took a firm place in the public eye, the organization had a job covering up some of the less radio- and family-friendly transmissions. (One of the surface shots taken by the crew of Apollo 10. 1969.) Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: How to Not Swear on the Moon”
Apollo 8 is usually synonymous with Christmas — at least among spaceflight enthusiasts. In 1968, NASA made the daring decision to send Apollo 8 into lunar orbit in the name of getting American men to the moon ahead of the Soviet Union. On Christmas eve, the crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders – famously read from the book of Genesis. (Left, an artist’s concept of Apollo 8 firing its main engine to return to Earth.)
Sent with only a Command and Service module, the mission is often considered one of NASA’s greatest risks of the space race. But there were other equally audacious lunar missions in the planning stages long before NASA had a viable mission with Apollo 8. As early as 1961, the agency considered sending men to the moon, and even landing them on the surface, with a Gemini spacecraft. Continue reading “Taking Gemini to the Moon”