Vintage Space Fun Fact: Rorschach Tests

When faced with a Rorschach test – the famous inkblots cards that are supposed to give a psychologist deep insight into your psyche – how are you supposed to answer? For the Mercury astronaut candidates, they knew their answers could make or break their careers. Most read the cards as truthfully as possible while others gave answers they assumed the doctors wanted. Pete Conrad took a different approach. (Left, Conrad enjoys down time during water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico. September 1969.) ‘Vintage Space Fun Facts’ are a new feature. These occasional shorter articles will be a great way to share the anecdotes and human stories I come across in my research.  Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: Rorschach Tests”

A Return to the Right Stuff?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the changing culture of risk at NASA and about the qualities and characteristics that make astronauts stand apart from the rest of the population. Recently, I’ve begun to notice a correlation between these two facets of spaceflight. In the 1960s when the astronauts were test pilots routinely facing death, NASA took more risks. In recent years as the astronaut corps has grown to include more scientists as well as everyday people like school teachers, the missions have become more routine – low Earth orbit has become a comfort zone throughout the shuttle program. (Left, the Mercury astronauts. 1959.)

Over the past half-century, NASA’s astronauts have gone from heavy drinking and fast driving fighter jocks riding in cobbled together capsules to engineers and scientists in sophisticated spacecraft. Tied up in this shift, is there an expectation that NASA will never let anything bad happen to its astronauts? Is the growing need for safety potentially standing in the way of bold manned missions that assume the same risk as 1968s Apollo 8? Continue reading “A Return to the Right Stuff?”

The Right Stuff at Heart

In a previous post, I’ve talked about some of the challenges facing the Mercury program managers in selecting the first group of astronauts. No one knew with any certainty what the first men in space would be up against. As such, the search for the perfect men was a multi-stage process taking into consideration as many possible scenarios as program managers could envision. One of the more interesting problems in selecting NASA’s Mercury astronauts was their level of fitness – they obviously had to be in physical shape to survive the challenges of spaceflight, but how physically demanding was a mission in a capsule too small to afford the astronaut much movement? (Pictured, Wally Schirra examines his chest x-rays. 1962.) Continue reading “The Right Stuff at Heart”

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”

Designing a Bridge to the Moon

The Gemini program is often passed over in popular accounts of NASA’s race to the Moon. Perhaps understandably so. Gemini doesn’t carry the excitement of the Mercury Program with America’s first steps into space and it lacks the climactic excitement of the Apollo program with a lunar landing. The major accomplishments of the Gemini Program are usually highlighted in the greater scheme of the space race, such as America’s first extravehicular activity (EVA) or the first docking of two spacecraft. (Pictured is Gemini 7 in orbit as seen from Gemini 6. 1965.)

On the whole, however, Gemini is often treated like NASA’s overlooked middle child of the space race, a sad fate for the program I would argue is actually the most interesting of the era. As such, this promises be the first of several posts focussing on various aspects of the Gemini program. What fascinates me the most is that Gemini exemplifies the pioneering spirit and technological “go for broke” attitude NASA embodied in the 1960s. Even the genesis of Gemini is an interesting as it forced NASA to design a program in support of an as-of-yet- undesigned lunar program. The fundamental design choices of Apollo shaped Gemini. Continue reading “Designing a Bridge to the Moon”

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”

A One-Way Ticket to Mars?

A couple of months ago, I published a post outlining a few historical viewpoints of the planet Mars. Philosophers and scientists have considered it to be a cold and lifeless world, a planet teeming with life, as well as a formerly flourishing planet that now holds only the vestiges of an intelligent and resourceful society. No matter the time period, the red planet has maintained a constant hold over the imaginations of men and scientists alike – it has always been a point of fascination and more recently an achievable goal.  The lure and romance of Mars had led many to propose the exploration the red planet in a variety of fashions. Some focus on robotic exploration while others proposed staged manned missions. The most radical proposal merges the two on a strict time frame: a one-way manned mission to Mars within the first quarter of the 21st century. (Pictured is the Mars Pathfinder lander. The landing bag, petal or ramp that facilitated the rover Sojourner’s descent to the surface, and a meteorology mast are visible against the Martian landscape. 1997.) Continue reading “A One-Way Ticket to Mars?”