Vintage Space Favourites of 2012

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The past twelve months have been very good ones. I’ve met and worked with some incredible people, ventured into the (often awkward) world of podcasts and webcasts, and have read and written more than I ever did in grad school. Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written, a few stand out as favourites. And so, in no particular order, here are my top picks of 2012. These aren’t the big news items or the articles that got the most traffic. These are the ones that were fun to research and write, and the ones that taught me something new.

In November, I finally made it out to Cape Kennedy. I had two wonderful, enthusiastic, and extremely knowledgeable guides who happened to have the keys to some of Kennedy’s more interesting features. Literally. The Rubber Room, the blast chamber underneath Pad A, is a relic of the Apollo era protected as an artifact and closed off from the public. But I got to go in.

Sitting on the flat trough at the base of the slide in the rubber room. It's not as well lit now as it likely was when it was actively used for emergency egress training. Credit: Pete Chitko

Me, sitting on the flat trough at the base of the slide in the rubber room. Credit: Pete Chitko

The space community and space-lovers worldwide mourned in August when Neil Armstrong passed away. I found out about his death when the BBC called me to do a live interview on the radio, which went terribly. But I was able to think through Armstrong’s impact on the space program and the nation as a whole before submitting the op-ed I was asked to write for the Guardian. I’m more proud of that article than anything else I wrote last year, and I was very pleased to hear it quoted on NPR.

Also in August, people worldwide held their breaths when NASA’s MSL rover Curiosity started its descent towards the Martian surface. At JPL that night, there were peanuts everywhere. I’d heard of the peanut thing before but didn’t know the genesis. No one else seemed to, either, except that it started with the Ranger program. So I read a book about Ranger to learn about the fixation on peanuts. It turned out to be a much more interesting story than I was expecting.

Shepard walking to the launch pad for his Freedom 7 flight.  Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

Shepard walking to the launch pad for his Freedom 7 flight. Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

There are a lot of moments in NASA’s history where a different decision – say, canceling a launch or adding an item to a mission – could have radically reshaped history. One of the more interesting decisions was NASA’s choice to run an additional unmanned Mercury flight in March of 1961. Had it been manned, Al Shepard would have beaten Yuri Gagarin into space.

We saw a number of major space race anniversaries in 2012. Among them, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University in September – “we choose to go to the Moon and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” But Kennedy wasn’t as sold on going to the Moon as his quotable orations would suggest. Privately, he thought Apollo was a waste of money and went as far as to suggest the nation abandon the program in favour of a joint lunar mission with the Soviet Union.

Apollo 12's engines ignite on a grey, rainy morning. Credit: NASA

Apollo 12’s engines ignite on a grey, rainy morning. Credit: NASA

Another 50th anniversary we celebrated last year was that of John Glenn’s first orbital flight. Glenn wasn’t NASA’s first choice for the historic mission; he was third in line to fly and the first orbital flight fell into his lap. But he hadn’t wanted to leave his mission assignment to chance. When he learned that Al Shepard and Gus Grissom were scheduled to fly before him, he fought to have the flight assignment changed. 

The Saturn V was a gorgeous rocket, and pictures of Apollo 12 lifting off through dark and stormy morning skies is visually stunning. Of course, the stormy launch also had the effect of generating lightning that knocked the rocket’s systems offline. I dug into the technical and human sides of this electrifying, and rather comical, launch. 

Don McCusker, top, during his tenure with the U. S. Air Force. Credit: U.S.A.F.

Perhaps the best perk as it were that comes with this job is meeting fascinating people. Over a year ago, I got an email from Mike McCusker, one of test pilot Don McCusker’s sons. As one of the three men to actually fly and land a Gemini-Rogallo spacecraft, I’d been looking for information on McCusker for a while when I got Mike’s email. I eventually spoke to McCusker’s widow, Helena, who shared her husband’s story with me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that my success in the past year is due in large part to my readers. You who read these articles are the reason I get to do what I love for a living. Here’s to a great 2013!

Leave a Reply