The Life and Death of Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle

The unfinished Buran, left, during pad tests, and the space shuttle Atlantis on the right. Credit: energia-buran.com and NASA respectively.

The unfinished Buran, left, during pad tests, and the space shuttle Columbia on the right. Credit: energia-buran.com and NASA respectively.

Looking at NASA’s space shuttle orbiter and the Soviet Buran orbiter side by side, it’s not hard to see the similarities. And the most common knee-jerk reaction, in light of the fact that NASA’s shuttle flew seven years before Buran, is that the Soviets copied the American design. There ‘s a fair bit of truth to this; the Soviets did borrow heavily from the American design. Suspecting that NASA’s shuttle was first and foremost a military vehicle – the agency announced that there would be a shuttle launch facility built at Vandenberg Air Force Base to facilitate Department of Defense launches and public documents said the orbiter would have a 1,242-mile cross-range landing capability – the Soviets decided that copying it to have the same capabilities as the Americans in space was the safest bet. The story of Buran is a fascinating one about how Cold War paranoia led the Soviet Union to abandon its own plans in space to match an unknown American threat, and it’s the subject of my latest feature article at Ars Technica.

For more on Buran, check out buran-energia.com and Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis’ Energiya-Buran

Starfish Prime and Apollo: How Nuclear Testing Almost Killed the Moon Shot

Afterglow from the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test explosion of July 9, 1962. Credit:  US Government Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Afterglow from the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test explosion of July 8, 1962. Credit: US Government Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Nine seconds after 11 o’clock on the night of July 8, 1962, a 2,200-pound W-49 nuclear weapon detonated 248 miles above a tiny island to the west of Hawaii. The blast, which yielded 1.4 megatons, instantly turned the night sky daylight-bright. As the flash dissipated, electrons from the explosion interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field to create an artificial aurora thousands of miles long. The residual light danced across the sky for seven minutes. The blast’s accompanying electromagnetic pulse knocked out street lamps 800 miles away.

The explosion that night wasn’t hostile; it was an American weapons test called Starfish Prime. The Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission were running a program designed to study the effects of nuclear warfare on the atmosphere. The effects the program found were far more profound than a light show. Starfish Prime created an artificial radiation belt that enveloped the Earth and intensified the Van Allen belts, fallout NASA quickly realized could threaten its Apollo program in the race to the Moon. For a brief period, it wasn’t clear whether manned space flight could continue at all.

The full story of Operation Dominic, the Starfish Prime event, and the impact Cold War nuclear testing had on the manned spaceflight program is fascinating, and it’s the subject of my latest article over at Ars Technica.

Skylab and Miss Universe: An Unlikely Pairing

Skylab's recovered oxygen tank with Miss United States and Miss Australia. Credit: National Archives of Australia (NAA: A6135, K19/7/79/2)

Skylab’s recovered oxygen tank with Miss United States and Miss Australia. Credit: National Archives of Australia (NAA: A6135, K19/7/79/2)

On stage at the Perth Entertainment Centre, among the glitz and glamour of the 1979 Miss Universe pageant, was the charred remains of Skylab, NASA’s first space station. It might seem like an odd juxtaposition to place a foreign hunk of metal in the same venue as international beauty queens, but the host nation had as much a feeling of ownership over the remains of Skylab as did the United States. Four days earlier, the station had fallen from orbit and broken up as it reentered the atmosphere over Western Australia.  [Read more...]

The Soviet Intersection with Apollo 11

Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle during rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia. This would be about the time Luna 15 was beginning its landing sequence.

Apollo 11′s Lunar Module Eagle during rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia. This would be about the time Luna 15 was beginning its landing sequence.

When Apollo 11 landed at the Sea of Tranquility 44 years ago today, eight years and two months after Kennedy challenged the nation to a manned lunar landing, it marked the end of the Space Race as defined by the race to the Moon. But there’s a little known facet of this historic event: whether or not NASA would be able to send Apollo 11 on it’s planned mission was called into question just three days before launch when the Soviet Union launched Luna 15 on a lunar sample return mission. The worry wasn’t that Luna 15 would overshadow Apollo or somehow physically prevent it from reaching its goal. Rather, NASA was concerned that communications between Luna 15 and Moscow would disrupt communications between Apollo 11 and Houston. It was Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman who saved the day, securing the flight plan of Luna 15 and assuring NASA the two missions wouldn’t cross paths. The whole story, including astronomers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory listening in on both missions, is detailed in my latest article at DVICE. (You can listen to the Jodrell recording here.)

Earlier this month, the Military Channel aired the Apollo 11/Air Force One episode of “America: Fact vs. Fiction” for which I was interviewed along with author Francis French about the lunar landing. Here’s the (overly sensationalized) clip that talks about the intersection between Apollo 11 and Luna 15.

Zond 8 and the Plaster-like Moon

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Credit: redorbit.com

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Click for the full-size image. The detail, and plaster-like appearance, is incredible. Credit: redorbit.com

It happens occasionally that I come across a picture so striking that I stop what I’m doing to track down its backstory. This morning, it was this picture of the Moon taken by the Soviet Zond 8 spacecraft that sent me hunting through books for context. It incredible how much this picture of the Moon looks like the one in Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent movie “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” Unsurprisingly, the story behind Zond 8 is a fascinating if minor episode of the Space Race. [Read more...]

Sandwiches in Space

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

Most of NASA’s Apollo program files are publicly available, in many cases digitized and accessible online. But there’s one picture from the Apollo 12 files that I’ve never been able to find much information about: a picture of a suit technician packing what is unmistakably a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s left leg pocket the morning he, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean launched to the Moon. Last November, I asked Dick Gordon about this scarcely documented space sandwich.  [Read more...]

Is Wernher von Braun Spaceflight’s Most Controversial Figure?

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

That he was responsible for both the deadly Nazi V-2 and NASA’s majestic Saturn V makes Wernher von Braun a controversial historical figure. Some hold that his participation in the Nazi war effort necessitates classifying him as a villain. But while his actions during the Second World War were monstrous, he wasn’t motivated by some inherent evil or personal belief in Nazi ideology. Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions in creating one of the War’s deadliest weapons. How can we treat someone who brought technological triumph to two nations, in one case as a purveyor of death and destruction and in the other a bringer of wonder and inspiration?

I’ve been wrestling with how to treat Wernher von Braun for a while, figuring out how to celebrate his accomplishments in space without apologizing for his actions during the Second World War. So while this is far from a complete look at his life, I’ve taken a stab at dealing with this controversial figure in my lastest opinion piece for Al Jazeera English.

McDivitt’s Trials With Orbital Rendezvous

Me, smiling like a goon, with Jim McDivitt.

Me, smiling like a goon, with Jim McDivitt.

Orbital mechanics and the challenges of orbital rendezvous isn’t a simple thing to explain, particularly as a non-scientist breaking it down for other non-scientists. But it’s a central part of the Apollo mission profile, so it comes up a lot in my line of work. To illustrate the problem, I typically tell the story of Jim McDivitt trying to rendezvous with the Titan II’s upper stage during the first orbit of Gemini 4 – the story goes that when McDivitt’s pilot instincts kicked in the whole exercise went to hell. I asked McDivitt about that first failed rendezvous when I met him in Florida in November. He promptly and candidly told me that this story, which he’s heard many times, is bull hockey. I learned from the man himself what really happened on Gemini 4. I also learned that Jim McDivitt is, and I say this with the utmost respect, a total firecracker.  [Read more...]

The View from Apollo 4

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

Apollo 4 is one of the unsung heros of the Apollo program. Launched on November 9, 1967, it was the first flight of a Saturn V rocket, the first orbital test of a Command and Service Module, and an overall vital step on the way to the Moon. What we don’t often mention when we talk about Apollo 4 is that the Command Module had a camera on board that was programmed to take a series of picture beginning one hour before and ending one hour after the spacecraft reached it’s apogee, it’s furthest point from the Earth.  [Read more...]

Wernher von Braun Strolling on the Moon

Wernher von Braun walking along the lunar surface. It's not an April Fool's joke. Credit: United Press International

Wernher von Braun walking along the lunar surface. It’s not an April Fool’s joke. Credit: United Press International

I often post strange or fun space history pictures from NASA’s amazing archives on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. The other days I posted this one showing Wernher von Braun strolling casually across the Lunar surface. I didn’t realize until after it was up that the date was April 1st. Many who saw it assumed it was some clever April Fools photoshoppery. It isn’t; it’s a real picture.  [Read more...]