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.’)
How NASA Didn’t Drive on the Moon
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!
NASA’s LRO: Shedding New Light on Old Mysteries
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter keeps finding interesting things on the moon. Last week, LRO’s camera photographed the landing sites of Luna 23 and 24, two Soviet probes that landed in the 1970s. The images have enabled scientists to solve mysteries about these missions, specifically what happened to Luna 23 and why the samples returned by Luna 24 were drastically different than anticipated. It seems these nearly 40-year-old missions are still unfolding. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, the Soviet Luna 16 spacecraft. One of many in the long-lasting program.)
On Newt Gingrich on the Moon
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”
Apollo 1: the Fire that Shocked NASA
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.)
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”
Vintage Space Fun Fact: High Flying Gemini
With the exception of Apollo flights, manned spaceflight has operated exclusively in low Earth orbit, the area in space that extends up to about 1,300 vertical miles. In 1966, the Gemini XI crew set an as-of-yet unbroken altitude record within low Earth orbital flights. Using the Agena’s engine, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon reached an apogee (peak distance from the Earth) of 850 miles; most Gemini missions, and missions since, have operated under the 200 mile altitude. (Left, Dick Gordon during an EVA. 1966.)
So why did Gemini XI get to fly higher than any other mission? In short, because Conrad wanted to. Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: High Flying Gemini”
Remembering Apollo’s Last Moonwalk
Today marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of the last Apollo mission’s, Apollo 17’s, final moonwalk. On December 13, 1972, Commander (and Apollo 10 veteran) Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt made their last of three lunar EVAs. NASA commemorated the anniversary by posted this image of Schmitt on the moon as its “Image of the Day.” I commemorated the anniversary with a look at some mission details and a few interesting facts about the lunar-walking crew members. Read the article at Universe Today.
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”