Mapping Vintage Space

Regular readers of Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I have a tendency to link newer posts to older ones. This reflects the interrelation of all the topics I have (and will) discuss in this blog. I find this era of history to be complex (as most big historical eras are) with aspects that can be treated independently, but need to be contextualized by one another.

And so I thought I would begin mapping Vintage Space, building a sort of narrative roadmap that will give the more casual reader a better idea of where in the history of space and spaceflight each individual episode belongs. This is in no way a complete chronology, but rather a framework for my content. (Pictured, the sun rise above the gulf of Mexico as seen from orbit by Apollo 7. 1968.)

Modern rocketry has its roots in three turn-of-the-twentieth-century men: Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Rumanian-born German Hermann Oberth, and American Robert Goddard. These men pioneered liquid fuelled rocketry and were some of the first to present plausible methods for manned and unmanned journeys into space. (Pictured, Goddard with the first liquid propelled rocket in Massachusetts. March 1926.)

Oberth had a particularly important role as the main inspiration for one of the more recognizable figures in twentieth-century rocketry: Wernher von Braun. He and a group of contemporaries equally passionate about rocketry formed the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for interplanetary travel) in Germany in the 1920s.

This innocuous technological society took a sinister turn when Hitler caught wind of the Society’s successful launches – he saw in the rockets a loophole in the clause that prohibited Germany from building its weaponry with limitations as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles. Von Braun and his rocketeers were inducted into the Nazi party in the early 1930s. The group’s primary products were the V-1 and V-2 missiles that rained down on England in the final phases of the Second World War. (Pictured, a V-2 launch.)

Once Hitler had fallen and the war was coming to a close, the allied powers of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union began a divvying up the remaining resources in Germany. One item on each country’s radar was the rocket scientists. The benefit of possessing such technology was obvious.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States procured substantial pieces of the V-2 puzzle, but the US got the main prize of the so-called rocketeers. In the late 1940s, one hundred and eleven men were brought into the United States under Operation Overcast and Project Paperclip and formed the US Army’s Ballistic Missile Association under von Braun (pictured).

As the ‘peaceful’ post-war period developed into the Cold War, both the USSR and the US began developing ballistic missiles capabilities. Each nation’s rocket program had a leader that would retain a central role throughout the space race. In the USSR it was Sergei Korolev, who was known to the public only as the mysterious Chief Designer; in the US, Wernher von Braun.

In the 1950s, conquest of space became a military matter for the newly formed US Air Force, which had separated from the Army in 1947. The USAF began developing a high altitude research aircraft in cooperation with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The X-15 – which acted both as an aircraft and a space plane – was first proposed in 1954 (pictured).

Both the US and the USSR pursued a more peaceful rationale for venturing into space in the 1950s. An increase in solar activity yielding interesting high altitude phenomena, the International Council of Scientific Unions declared 1957 an International Geophysical Year, or IGY. Both nations pledged to launch a satellite that year purely for research purposes.

Despite this foreknowledge, the US was blindsided when the USSR launched Sputnik (left) on October 4, 1957. America launched its own research satellite Explorer 1 (right) four months later in February 1958.

There was a sudden need to develop veritable space capabilities in both nations. In the US, President Eisenhower consolidated efforts in space by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The new organization took the place of the NACA, and gradually grew to include the ABMA as well as a host of independent research sites across the country.

In both the US and the USSR, building a space program was a complete unknown. There were a number of factors to take into consideration and problems to solve relating to the two streams of spaceflight – manned and unmanned.

A manned program has two components – the spacecraft and its pilot. The relationship between these two co-dependent elements has bred one of the classic imbalances in spaceflight; the ‘fight’ for control between the men (the pilot-astronauts or cosmonauts) and the machine (the engineers).

In both nations, the launch was atop a converted ballistic missile or a rocket derived from the same. One of the principle unknowns was how to land. Both nations chose the simplest methods that aligned with their natural resources and geography – NASA chose splashdowns while the Soviet Space Program chose land landings.

Another problem was determining who would actually pilot the spacecraft. Both countries consolidated its ideal characteristics to find the perfect pilots. NASA designed the perfect astronauts (pictured) while the USSR designed the perfect cosmonauts, both of which had been selected and were in training by mid-1959.

By 1960, both the US and the USSR had plans for manned flight under development for their astronauts and cosmonauts respectively. It was the USSR, however, that won the race to put a man in space with the simple Vostok 1 mission first flown by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.

Again, NASA took a while to catch up; Alan Shepard became the first American in space in May 1961 and John Glenn the first American in orbit in February 1962. By the time of Glenn’s mission, however, the game had changed and the space race had begun in earnest. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy had committed the United States to landing a man on the moon within the decade.

While the manned space race was building steam, an unmanned planetary space race was developing as well. In the early 1960s, the US began sending probes to Mars while the USSR focussed its interplanetary efforts on Venus.

But the manned lunar landing goal dominated the efforts of both NASA and the Soviet Space Program throughout the 1960s. In the US, the programs moved at an alarming pace: Mercury quickly yielded the interim program Gemini, which paved the way for Apollo. As the end of the decade neared, NASA took increased risks with daring decisions such as immediate full-scale testing of the Saturn V and sending Apollo 8 to the moon with only half its spacecraft. (Pictured, a Saturn V launched Apollo 8 to the moon. 1968.)

At the same time as America was honing its capabilities in space, splashdowns, which were an awkward and cost-inefficient method at best, fell further out of favour. The organization sought to move towards land landings. The development of the chosen system – the Rogallo paraglider wing – lasted over a decade without ever leaving the ground.

Also at the same time, the Soviet Union all but fell out of the race for the moon sending no more than one unmanned spacecraft, Zond 5, into lunar orbit before returning it to the earth. Part of their loss of steam has been attributed to the death of Korolev in 1965.

The US ‘won’ the space race in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon; the program was completed, with five further landings, in 1972. In 1975, the US and the Soviet Union completed a cooperative mission in space with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program.

Throughout the 1970s, one of NASA’s main projects was the development and testing of the space shuttle, the program that is now coming to an end. It was expected to be the heavy lifting reusable vehicle that would make spaceflight a viable enterprise. The design for this new vehicle came full circle from where America’s space program had begun. NASA scrapped the capsule design of the space race era for an aircraft inspired vehicle that landed like a glider. The shuttle’s landing pattern is almost identical to that of the X-15. (Pictured, Space Shuttle Discovery launch. March, 2009.)

With the emphasis somewhat removed from the manned program with the end of Apollo, NASA also began to focus its energies on planetary exploration. Mars, the planet that has long held sway over man’s imagination, was first visited from earth in 1976 with the arrival of the twin Viking landers.

The 1980s and 90s saw a tapering off in interest in the red planet in favour of a more grand mission. Two twin Voyager spacecraft were launched on a tour of the solar system. Voyager 2 has only recently left the boundaries of our solar system.

Mars has enjoyed renewed attention in the late 20th and early 21st century. 1997 saw the first robotic rover, Sojourner, on the surface of another planet. In 2004, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity began their own tours of the planet; Spirit is still working and in contact with NASA. In 2008, the Mars Phoenix Lander reached the surface. (Pictured, Sojourner on Mars. 1997._

A bold program is focussed on further exploration of Mars at least for the coming decade. The Mars Science Laboratory is set to launch late in 2011 and will be the first phase in eventual sample return missions from the red planet. One-way human missions, colonization, and terraforming Mars, however, remain science fiction. At least for the time being.

Suggested Reading

William Burrows. This New Ocean. Modern Library, 1999.

Tom Wolfe. The Right Stuff. Picador, 2008.

Richard Corfield. Lives of the Planets. Basic Books, 2007.


  1. says

    Hi Amy, great that you know and name Bill Burrows’ “This New Ocean”, it’s one of my all time favourite space history reference books.
    I just discovered your blog and I am thoroughly enjoying reading it. being immensely interested in space history myself, it really is a little treasure to come by. Thanks for sharing!


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