Felix Baumgartner: Unwitting Role Model

Felix Baumgartner. Not the role model I’d hoped he’d be. Oh well. Credit: REX

Two weeks ago, Austrian daredevil and skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped 120,000 feet from a balloon. It was neat, but that’s about it. It was a stunt funded by RedBull. My opinion on the jump as a whole can be found in full here.

Yesterday, I woke up to Baumgartner’s first interview since the jump. In the last two weeks, he’s become something of a celebrity. Across social media sites, he’s been lauded as the Neil Armstrong for a new generation (a view I strongly disagree with but will save for another rant). With a worldwide audience hanging on his words, I’d hoped Baumgartner would emerge as a spokesman for the value of the technology coming out of our space program and the need to study space to learn about the Earth. Instead, he accused NASA of wasting money exploring Mars. I finished reading the interview, got really irritated before 7 o’clock in the morning (far too early), then calmed down. My measured response to Baumgartner’s interview is over at AmericaSpace.

Laika (Muttnik) on SciLogs

Laika in her capsule before her November 3, 1957 launch. Credit: NASA

On Saturday, October 5, 1957, word that the Soviets had put a 184-pound satellite, Sputnik, into orbit the night before spread throughout the United States. Fear and paranoia spread throughout the country while the Soviet Union celebrated, specifically the scientists who had built and launched the small satellite. Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev allowed his men to take a brief vacation at the seaside resort of Sochi, the first in many years, but he didn’t rest himself. Instead, he met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to plan the next Soviet coup in space – launching a dog into orbit in time for the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution on November 7. The whole story is up over at SciLogs.

Another Use for Rogallo: Saturn Recovery

A Rogallo wing attached to a Mercury capsule, around 1961. Credit: NASA

Regular readers are doubtless aware that I love the Rogallo paraglider wing. NASA had had no shortage of uses for this triangular, two-lobed sail design in the 1960s. It was the system that should have landed the Gemini spacecraft on a runway (if it had worked), it briefly was considered as the landing system for both Mercury and Apollo, and the U.S. Air Force was interested in the paraglider for its Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. But there were non-piloted applications of this technology as well. In the early 1960s, NASA studied how it might use the Rogallo wing to bring the first stage of a Saturn rocket to a runway landing for refurbishment and relaunch. I’ve given an overview of the Rogallo Saturn recovery system Discovery News.

RedBull’s Stratos Stunt

Baumgartner, covered in RedBull logos, begins his fall at just over 128,000 feet. Credit: Handout/Getty Images via The Guardian

According to YouTube, eight million people watched Felix Baumgartner’s high altitude jump on Sunday morning. It was exciting and death-defying, but at the end of the day it was a just an elaborate publicity stunt that will likely see RedBull sales skyrocket this month. But I’d argue that the event wasn’t entirely a success from a publicity standpoint. RedBull, who sponsored the jump, wasted an incredible opportunity. It had  an eight million person audience captivated, but did nothing to teach that audience about the context behind Baumgartner’s jump. Joe Kittinger’s 1960 jump was amazing, the heritage behind these types of tests is fascinating, but without any context the audience just saw a daredevil break a record for record-breaking’s sake.

I realize I sound like an irritated historian, but I also have a background (albeit a brief one) in publicity. Not taking advantage of an opportunity to teach eight million people a few awesome things about science is a terrible waste, from an historian’s standpoint and a public relation’s standpoint. [Read more...]

When Yeager Eased Through the Sound Barrier

Yeager in the cockpit of the Bell XS-1. Credit: National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution

It’s an interesting historic parallel. Weather permitting, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner is set to break Joe Kittinger’s high altitude jump record this morning by sky diving from 120,000 feet. On the way down he’s going to break the sound barrier without the benefit of an aerodynamic shell like a fuselage, 65 years to the day that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. On October 14, 1947, Yeager ushered in a new era of supersonic aviation where faster planes started reaching the fringes of space.  [Read more...]

Engine Failures Don’t Mean Mission Failures

Apollo 11 launches towards the Moon on July 16, 1969. This Saturn V isn’t one that experiences a premature engine shutdown. Credit: NASA

Last Sunday (October 7), SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket. This one carried a cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on the first formal mission under the Commercial Resupply Service contract with NASA. It was the fourth launch of a Falcon 9, the ninth overall launch for SpaceX, and was a partial failure. One of the nine Merlin engines shut down prematurely, just 79 seconds after launch. The rocket managed to get the Dragon into orbit but missed its secondary objective of putting a commercial satellite into the correct orbit. The whole story, and why the Falcon was able to fly with one engine out, is over at Motherboard. In the press release addressing the failed engine, SpaceX singled out the Saturn V as another rocket that had engine failure problems. The Saturn V had more than just engines fail – one was struck twice by lightning – but two launches did have engine failures in the second stage. The story of both these missions is over at Discovery News.

The Psychological Impact of Sputnik

A technician with Sputnik in 1957. Credit: NASA

Today marks 55 years since the Soviet Union launched history first artificial satellite, Sputnik. It was, by all accounts, an innocuous satellite; it weighed about 184-pounds and it beeped. It wasn’t broadcasting secret messages or pinpointing the locations of major U.S. cities. But it was big, which meant the Soviets had a big rocket to launch it. No one could deny the implications of the Soviets’ having big rockets.

Sputnik came on the heels of a successful Soviet ICBM test in August of 1957 and was followed into orbit by the 1,120 pound Sputnik 2. Also in November, the presidential-ordered “Gaither Report” was released and warned that the Soviets might have substantial ICBM capabilities. All of these individual events, compounded with the Cold War mentality, created panic among Americans. Read more about the psychological impact of Sputnik on Discovery News, and how the story of Sputnik broke in the Soviet Union and America on Motherboard.