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”

On Newt Gingrich on the Moon

Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a bold claim: “By the end of my second term [2020], 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.)

Read the whole article on Scientific American’s Guest Blog.

Vintage Space Fun Fact: How to Not Swear on the Moon

In the 1960s, NASA’s astronauts were the cool, calm, and collected faces of the space program who represented American values — most were married and had some sort of religious affiliation. NASA’s public affair office took great pains to keep its astronauts’ images clean, but they were still men who occasionally cursed when faced with a bad situation. As NASA gathered steam and took a firm place in the public eye, the organization had a job covering up some of the less radio- and family-friendly transmissions. (One of the surface shots taken by the crew of Apollo 10. 1969.) Continue reading “Vintage Space Fun Fact: How to Not Swear on 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”

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”

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”