Can Russia Save ExoMars?

The latest budget for NASA for FY 2013 sees the agency’s Mars exploration program taking a huge hit – it will get $318 million less than FY 2012. This funding cut has forced NASA to withdraw from the ExoMars, the joint mission with the European Space Agency designed to culminate with a sample return. Without NASA, ExoMars is left in pieces and ESA is hoping the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos will take NASA’s place. This partnership could be without payoff since neither country has had great luck with Mars, particularly Russia whose missions have been thwarted by the mythical galactic ghoul. NASA’s withdrawal brings other questions to the forefront as well, like whether the agency has lost its way and will it soon lose its prestige in space. My whole article on the subject was published yesterday on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog. (Left, an artist’s concept of ESA’a Beagle 2 falling through the Martian atmosphere.)

The Life and Times of Don McCusker

I got an email from a reader a few months ago who was particularly pleased that an old post mentioned his father, Don McCusker. McCusker was a North American Aviation test pilot and one of the few men to fly the full scale Gemini manned Test Tow Vehicle (TTV), the full scale Gemini spacecraft mated to the paraglider wing. Some research in unusual places, and a fascinating correspondence with his wife Helena, gave me fairly good picture of McCusker’s life. So while my research isn’t quite finished, I thought I’d write a short overview of the very interesting life of a test pilot that almost no one knows about. (Left, the Martin-built B57 that was used in research and development tests of a guidance systems. Don McCusker is on top, at the time serving as manager of the simulated MACE program. USAF.)

Continue reading “The Life and Times of Don McCusker”

Taking Gemini to 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”

MSL Sky Crane on Scientific American’s Guest Blog

Regular readers of Vintage Space will know that I’m fascinated by landings – the challenges of both landing on Earth and on other planets. Within this latter vein, I’ve lately become completely mesmerized with the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL’s) Sky Crane. Finally, I’ve found a fantastic outlet for an article I’ve been wanting to write for months about the Sky Crane, where it came from, and how it works. With this pieces, I’m very pleased to be a contributing member to the Scientific American’ Guest Blog! Check out the full article, which includes a video of MSL’s recent launch, on Scientific American’s website. (Pictured, the Sky Crane lowering the SUV-sized rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars. Don’t you want to know all about it?)

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”

Before This Decade is Out: Robotic Mars Edition

Decades make great sales tools. Kennedy used a decade timeframe to sell American on the moon in 1961. Robert Zubrin recently tried the same pitch and called for a manned mission to Mars by the end of a decade (Zubrin’s been pitching a decade-long manned Mars program since the 1980s to no avail). A decade is a nice  round number, and when you’re at the start of a decade – like the year 1961 or 2011 – people (namely Congress and taxpayers) can easily contemplate the end of a decade as a timeframe. But it isn’t  only large-scale manned programs that use a round decade as a sales tool. Recently, the National Research Council’s Committee on Planetary Science in cooperation with NASA released an outline of its planetary goals for the coming decade. Where Mars in concerned, there is a pretty impressive program in the works from 2012 to 2023. But unlike the moon landing, bottomless funding isn’t going to achieve the goals at any cost. Instead, the next decade on Mars (pictured) will face certain challenges to meet the decadal goal.  Continue reading “Before This Decade is Out: Robotic Mars Edition”

Before This Decade is Out

As part of my ongoing interest and fascination with proposed manned missions to Mars, I finally made my way through Robert Zubrin’s ‘The Case for Mars’. In it, he outlines a plan for a mission called Mars Direct. Coming from the Mars Society, of which Zubrin is president, the mission outlines how we can get astronauts to Mars armed with everything they need for the journey, including a spare return vehicle. The plan was first proposed in the late 1980s; Zubrin’s ‘The Case for Mars’ was first published in 1996. In recent years, the Mars Society has become more forceful in its attempts to see Mars Direct (literally) take off. Zubrin has gone so far as to declare that we are now more prepared to go to Mars than we were to go to the Moon in 1961 when Kennedy pledged the nation to a landing on its surface. I’m not sure I agree. (An artist’s concept of a multi-manned mission after landing on Mars.) Continue reading “Before This Decade is Out”