Was NASA’s First Launch Delay its Most Significant?

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?”

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.)

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.’)

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Slayton’s Bow Tie

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”

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!

Recovering Apollo 11’s Engines from the Atlantic

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.)

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.)

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”

The Unsinkable Gusmobile

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”

Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?

On February 13, President Obama unveiled the proposed budget for NASA for the fiscal year 2013: $17.7 billion. That’s $59 million less than FY 2012, and a number that’s expected to remain constant over the next five years. Hardest hit was the Mars program, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of exploration on our cosmic neighbour. NASA has had great luck with creative and cost-efficient Martian missions in the past, so it’s possible that the next decade on Mars will be fruitful, it might also look different than anticipated. (Left, Mars’ atmosphere.) Continue reading “Should NASA Reconsider the ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ Approach to Exploring Mars?”