The Paresev: The Winged Tricycle Pilots Built

I’ve devoted a fair bit of time to discussing landing methods in the 1960s, particularly with respect to the Gemini program. Splashdowns were unsuitable as a long-term method of returning from space, and NASA’s second generation manned spaceflight program presented an opportunity to develop a new landing system. (Pictured, the Paresev 1B – a later version of the paraglider test vehicle. 1964.)

From the multiple proposed land landing systems, NASA chose the Rogallo wing – a paraglider-style inflatable wing that would deploy from the ballistic spacecraft during descent to turn it into a glider. The system would give the pilot considerable directional control, and a land landing would spare him from the dangers associated with a splashdown. It would also cut down on NASA’s reliance on the Navy for recovery of its astronauts.

Gemini never used the Rogallo wing despite considerable time and money spent developing the system. Development began in 1961 before the system was cut from Gemini in 1964. In the intervening three years, however, the system was sufficiently promising that the astronauts had to learn to fly it. Thus was born the paraglider research vehicle or Paresev – built by pilots, for pilots, literally in their own back yard. [Read more…]

Losing Rogallo from Gemini

Landing methods and the Gemini program are two of my favourite topics, and I’ve previously posted about landing methods in Gemini. The Mercury program demonstrated sufficient reason to move away from splashdowns, and the second generation Gemini manned spaceflight program gave NASA an opportunity to do so – it was the first to actively pursue a pilot-controlled land landing system. NASA reviewed multiple proposals before selecting the Rogallo paraglider wing. (Left, a model Gemini spacecraft with a Rogallo wing. 1963.)

Beginning with its initial development in 1961, the Rogallo wing had a long and interesting history within NASA. For the moment, I will limit myself to its inclusion in Gemini, putting the system’s research and development timeline against the Gemini program as a whole. This will begin to unravel why, in spite of NASA’s best efforts, all Gemini missions ended in splashdown. [Read more…]

The Man Who Chose the Moon

I’ve recently posted two articles about the first men in space. After the Soviet Union launched the space age with the artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, the nation achieved another first with Yuri Gagarin’s Earth-orbital flight on April 12, 1961 in Vostok 1. Three weeks later, NASA evened the score when Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. (Left, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 1961.)

But the US barely caught up to the Soviet Union with Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission – the 15-minute suborbital first flight of the Mercury program was less impressive and demonstrated less technological power than Gagarin’s orbital flight. Nevertheless, Americans were elated at finally putting a man in space. President Kennedy was also aware of, and sought to capitalize on, the pride that swept through the nation in the wake of the Mercury flight. And so he set a new goal twenty days later: to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. [Read more…]

A Tale of Two Landers

In previous posts about Mars and the difficulties of landing on other planets, I’ve mentioned that the red planet is a veritable graveyard for unmanned spacecraft – two-thirds of all Mars-bound missions have failed. In some cases, engineers are able to figure out why. The key is telemetry and a thorough understanding of the spacecraft. With the right tools, the failures act as lessons, illuminating unknown challenges so mistakes aren’t repeated. But the data doesn’t always come back, leaving engineers with little to go on if a mission fails. The worst-case scenario, and not an altogether uncommon occurrence, is the total loss of communication with a spacecraft with no indication of what went wrong. (Left, an artist’s rendition on the ESA’s Beagle 2 as it enters the Martian Atmosphere.)

Two missions in the last 12 years have failed rather spectacularly: NASA’s Mars Polar Lander (MPL) and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Beagle 2. Their failures were in very different circumstances, however, and a comparison of events illustrates the importance of pre-launch testing and constant telemetry for the success of a mission. These two cases also demonstrate the amount of work needed to successfully land a spacecraft, especially when the target is millions of miles away. [Read more…]

Shepard: First American in (Suborbital) Space

I’ve talked in previous posts about the first manned Soviet space program, Vostok, and Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. One aspect neither of these posts touched on, however, was the reaction in the United States. Understandably, Americans were less jubilant about Gagarin’s flight than the Soviets. But the feelings of defeat, frustration, and in some cases fear soon disappeared when on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

In the grand scheme of the space race, the first man in space almost pales in comparison to the feat of placing a man on the moon. But the race for manned flight was extremely important in the early 1960s. Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight was, like Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission, the climax of years of preparation and training, and it set in motion a chain of events that set the course of the space race. The flight was a fifteen-minute suborbital hop, officially classified as a pre-orbital training flight, but Americans didn’t care. An American had been in space. (Pictured, Shepard in Freedom 7 the morning of launch. May 5, 1961.) [Read more…]