Genesis of a Lunar Christmas

I am not generally one to commemorate a holiday with a themed post. Nevertheless, I thought it would be an appropriate occasion to discuss the only Apollo mission to fly on Christmas – the 1968 lunar orbital mission of Apollo 8. (Left: the first view of the Earth taken by Apollo 8 on its way to the moon. 1968.)

I’ve mentioned before that the sheer speed at which NASA accomplished the steps leading to and culminating in a lunar landing is one of the fascinating aspects that led me to study the era in the first place. The methods of choosing, launching, and bringing home the astronauts were all determined based on what could be done fastest and easiest, with the goal of staying one step ahead of the Soviets in the background.

The first flight to the moon was no different. Apollo 8’s lunar orbital flight was not in the initial Apollo schedule. It was undertaken, like so many aspects of the early space program, as a crash response to an immediate need. The story of its origin is as interesting as the flight itself. [Read more...]

The X-15 as Space Plane

A number of my previous posts have drawn attention to some of the central aspects in the history and development of land landings in the early space age. But the drawbacks of splashdowns and hazards of the Soviets’ method of ejection represent only a fraction of the story. A myriad of factors contributed to the decision of landing methods; in the United States no factor was perhaps as influential and tied to landing methods as the shape and design of the spacecraft. The X-15, which I’ve previously mentioned in passing, deserves more attention in this discussion of the link between spacecraft design and landing methods. In the 1950s, the X-15 represented space plane designs as an early contender for the design of spacecraft. (Pictured is the nose of an X-15 under the wing of a B-52 launch plane.) [Read more...]

Of Machines and Men

I recently published a post about the qualities that make up the perfect astronaut – the most physically and mentally fit men were the desired qualities of America’s first astronauts. The “strapping young Presbyterian lad” is certainly not the ideal of the modern astronaut, but what about future generations? This is also a continuation of a previous post about the end of Space Shuttle program – with the current manned spaceflight program coming to a close, what is the future, if any, for men in space? (Pictured is NASA’s Robonaut. 2001.)

I recently read Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy’s Robots in Space – Launius is senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum and McCurdy is a professor at the American University. The authors present an interesting possible future for men in space. Namely, they propose that manned spaceflight continue almost entirely without men. Their discussion, and this topic as a whole, borders on science fiction; bear with me as I navigate the murky waters of speculation. [Read more...]

Inventing Landings

A couple of weeks ago I published a post outlining the principle reasons why splashdowns were a not an appropriate long-term method for astronauts returning to earth. Pointing to the ease of splashdowns as the primary reason behind their use throughout the space race is, however, presenting half the story. NASA began pursuing land landings in 1959, well before the Space Shuttle was on the drawing board. The original goal was to use a land landing system from the start. (Pictured is a model Mercury spacecraft undergoing impact tests at Langley Air Force Base. 1958.)

When NASA’s inaugural Mercury program was in its infancy and the base decisions about the program were being made, one of the central unknowns in spaceflight was how to bring a spacecraft back to earth. Like designing astronauts, spacecraft, as well as launch vehicles, determining how to land a spacecraft was a new problem with precious little pre-existing knowledge on which to build. [Read more...]

Designing the Perfect Astronaut

The experimental, creative, and at times imaginative nature of the Mercury program has always fascinated me. The program and the decision that preceded it answer a totally unique question: what do you do when you suddenly need to put a man in space and you have no previous experience to build off of? [Read more...]

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. [Read more...]