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.)

Fashioning Vostok 1

In a previous post, I unravelled some of the mystery surrounding Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 mission. One of the principle differences I tried to bring to the forefront in that post, as well as others discussing the Soviet Space Program, is the fundamental difference between its closed structure and NASA’s open one. The Soviet Union tightly controlled what information the public knew about the space program. They didn’t broadcast test launches live or introduce their cosmonauts to the country as heroes amid great fanfare. (Left, the launch of Vostok 1. 1961. Image source:

But the Soviet Space Program’s development from unmanned satellite to manned orbital flight was not all that different from NASA’s, and the variable successes and failures in developing manned spaceflight put both organizations on par. A closer look at the lead up to the launch of Vostok 1 almost humanizes the Soviet machine that presented perfect spaceflight with no mention of failures. Again, I have no interest in denigrating the Soviet accomplishments; I only hope to add dimension to the popular stories. Continue reading “Fashioning Vostok 1”

The Enigmatic Vostok 1

In previous posts, I’ve talked a little bit about how the Soviet Space Program designed its perfect cosmonaut and outlined some of the differences between Soviet and American spaceflight in the early 1960s. In both cases, Yuri Gagarin (left) has been a focal point, though I’ve never expressly treated his own mission. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; his mission lasted 108 minutes and he made one orbit around the globe. Upon his return to Earth, he was lauded as a hero and the Soviet Union enjoyed its continued position as the leading power in space.

But in the years and decades that followed, details of the flight revealed a very different picture of this historic Soviet accomplishment. Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, documentation was slowly released to reveal the secretive nature of the Soviet Space Program as a whole. In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, I thought I’d unravel some of the mystery. For those steeped in the history of spaceflight, these anecdotes may not be new. But for the casual reader, I hope to shed some light on the lesser-known aspects of the launch heard ‘round the world. I don’t in any way intend to denigrate the Soviet accomplishment; if anything I hope to add some depth to the stories most people find in history books surrounding Gagarin and Vostok 1. Continue reading “The Enigmatic Vostok 1”

Planetary Landings, Another New Frontier

Frequent visitors to Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I am fascinated with the problem of landing from space. Faced with this unknown, the US and Soviet Union developed very different methods, parachute-controlled descent and splashdown and Earth-landing via parachutes, retrorockets, and pilot ejection respectively. (Pictured, the view from Viking 1, the first successful robotic landing on Mars. 1976.)

Part of what interests me in studying landings is the lack of attention paid to this critical mission phase in favour of the more exciting launches. But there is one area were landings are not only a major focus but a vital aspect of a mission: robotic planetary exploration. Without a successful landing, there could be no robotic mission.

Like manned return from space, planetary landings have developed and become increasingly sophisticated over time.  The more scientists and engineers know about a planet, the better chance they have of successfully touching down on its surface. After all, each body in the solar system has different characteristics and presents difference challenged to the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) stage. Continue reading “Planetary Landings, Another New Frontier”

Bringing Down a New Bird: Landing Gemini

I’ve previously discussed NASA’s invention of a landing system for the Mercury program – with little time and almost no prior experience, engineers determined that splashdowns were the simplest and least risky method to bring an astronaut home. But, as I’ve also previously discussed, splashdowns were far from an ideal landing method; inherently dangerous to both astronaut and capsule alike. (Left, a half-scale Rogallo wing mated to a half-scale Gemini spacecraft. NASA Archives.)

NASA’s second-generation Gemini program opened the door for a change in landing methods. Though incepted in early 1962, work on the program began late in 1961 when the end-of-decade lunar landing goal was seemingly far away. Gemini, then, had a more open schedule at the outset, allowing engineers to undertake some major design changes. One of the first aspects of Mercury to go was splashdown. The original goals for Gemini stated that a pilot-controlled land landing was paramount. So the program began seeking an answer to the question of how to invent a land landing system. Continue reading “Bringing Down a New Bird: Landing Gemini”

Unraveling Venus

Whenever anyone gets me talking about space and spaceflight, they invariably ask what got me started on ‘all of this space stuff’ in the first place. The short answer is Venus. I became captivated by the planet researching a second grade science project and my interest has continued growing from there. It is a planet, sometimes referred to as Earth’s twin but really more like the Earth turned inside out, that and I can see in the sky! But it’s never been the object that truly captivates me; it’s the hunt to learn about the object. Continue reading “Unraveling Venus”

V-2: The Vehicle that Launched the Space Age

Two of my previous posts tease out the main differences in the landing methods employed by both NASA and the Soviet Space Program as a means of illustrating the contrast between the two programs. What these posts don’t draw attention to is the large number of similarities between the two conflicting powers in their respective approaches to spaceflight.

In the early space age, both the US and the USSR pursued accelerated methods to get a man in space. Both achieved initial flights with capsule-style spacecrafts on top of ballistic missiles. This similar method had a common root: both countries based their launch vehicles, at least in part, on the Nazi V-2 rockets. Both had access to and exploited this technology in the wake of the Second World War. Admittedly the history of the V-2 is slightly on the fringe of the history of spaceflight proper, but a familiarity with the roots of the rocketry that launched the space age adds a dimension to the American and Soviet programs that is otherwise lost. Continue reading “V-2: The Vehicle that Launched the Space Age”