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?”
On Thursday April 9, 1959, the seven Mercury astronauts were introduced to the world at a press conference. Six nervous men sat shifting in their seats at a long table facing a room full of press; John Glenn was the only one smiled at the cameras, pleased as punch to be there. Sitting in alphabetical order, Deke Slayton sat on the far left of the table, fingers intertwined on the table in front of him looking up at the room with only his eyes. On his right sat Alan Shepard, leaning back looking much more calm. Slayton’s mannerisms could be chalked up to nerves, or it could be discomfort after a prank Shepard played moments earlier. (Left, Shepard and Slayton as the press conference began on April 9, 1959.) Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: Slayton’s Bow Tie”
On March 23, 1965, Gus Grissom and John Young launched on the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3. First planned as a followup to Mercury known as Mercury Mark II, development of the Gemini spacecraft took nearly six years. The finished product was an expression of what Grissom wanted in a spacecraft, from the cockpit layout to the placement of each switch and instruments. It was, in many ways, his baby. Grissom’s close hand in its design prompted many of his fellow astronauts to call NASA’s second-generation spacecraft the Gusmobile. (Left, the Gemini 3 crew, Gus Grissom and John Young in 1965.) Continue reading “The Unsinkable Gusmobile”
In the early days of the Mercury program, John Glenn looked like the perfect astronaut. Tall with boyish good looks, he was always smiling and happy to share his love of family, country, and God with the media. (Left, the Mercury astronauts.)
America loved him, but he wasn’t the favourite among his fellow astronauts. He set himself apart as the one among them who wasn’t cool and laid back like a test pilot ought to be. He didn’t hide his eagerness to fly in space, and when he was passed over for the first launch, he fought to have the flight assignment changed. In the end, he was at the right place in the flight lineup at the right time to make the first orbital flight and secure his place in history. But it was never certain to be his flight, and it’s a very interesting story. Read the full article on Scientific American’s Guest Blog. Continue reading “John Glenn: the Man Behind the Hero”
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”
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”
Flight director Gene Kranz is perhaps best known as the man behind the team that got the Apollo 13 crew home safely. He is also known for his trademark flattop hair style and his vests. In training and during missions, he was rarely seen without a vest over his button down shirt. But these vests were more than just a fashion statement. Inseparable from the man who wore them, Kranz’s vests became symbolic of the “can-do” attitude mission controllers adopted when dealing with emergencies in space. (Left, Kranz eats at his console in the Mission Operations Control Room in Houston. 1965.)
So just how did a vest become such a powerful symbol? Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: Gene Kranz’s Vests”
Each of the Mercury missions had a name followed by the number 7. Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7, Gus Grissom in Liberty Bell 7, John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 (pictured), Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7, Wally Schirra flew Sigma 7, and Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7. Deke Slayton never flew because of a heart condition, but had he flown his mission would have been Delta 7.
So, what’s with all the ‘7’s? Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: The Mercury ‘7’s”
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”