The First Payloads Returned from Space Were Spy Satellites

The Soviet launch site at Baikonur as seen by the Discoverer 14 satellite, one of the Corona missions, in 1960. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

The Soviet launch site at Baikonur as seen by the Discoverer 14 satellite, one of the Corona missions, in 1960. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

The U-2, America’s spy plane conceived by Lockheed Martin, was designed to cruise at 70,000 feet, an altitude that would allow pilots to photograph enemy nations safely out of range of anti-aircraft missile systems. But when the first U-2 flew over the Soviet Union on July 4, 1956, it was spotted right away. The flight returned a wealth of valuable information, but having lost the element of surprise, the US military was keen to develop a successor system that would be harder to detect and truly impervious to any future weapons. The advent of the space age presented the perfect opportunity: orbital reconnaissance satellites.

The first program to make use of this nascent technology was the Corona program, which found success in the fall of 1960. On those initial missions, Corona racked up another first in the space age: it was the first time a payload was safely recovered and returned from orbit. Film canisters from the satellites were recovered manually; the information was too sensitive to transmit by telemetry that could be interrupted by the very nation about which America was gathering reconnaissance.

The story of how the US military recovered film canisters from orbit is as interesting as the story behind the Corona program, and it’s all in my latest article on DVICE.

A Salute to Salyut, History’s First Space Station

The last Salyut station, Salyut 7, in orbit. Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The last Salyut station, Salyut 7, in orbit. Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

When we think about space stations, we typically think of the International Space Station, that football field-sized behemoth orbiting 200 miles above our heads. But long before the ISS there was the Russian Mir, and before that, the American Skylab. And before all of those, there was Salyut. Based on the space station the Soviet military hoped to use as its orbital outpost, the Salyut station not only pioneered long-duration stays in space, it proved a modular station design was the best way forward. I’ve given a brief history of the Salyut Space Station in my latest article at DVICE.

Exploring Space to Find Our Pale Blue Dot

The Earth is the tiny dot in the red ray of sunlight as seen from 4 billion miles away by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

The Earth is the tiny dot in the red ray of sunlight as seen from 4 billion miles away by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA

It might be at once the most common question anyone who works in the broad field of space is asked, and it’s also one of the hardest questions to answer: why keep exploring space? There really is no shortage of reasons. Exploring space lets us answer those burning questions about the cosmos around us while simultaneously developing the technologies that make our lives better on Earth. But perhaps the most compelling reason is the most selfish one. Everything we do in space, every mission we launch, gives us more insight into our humanity and our place in the universe.

After Cassini turned around and photographed the Earth from Saturn last month, I started thinking about the power of Pale Blue Dot images and how we so often find ourselves and our own planet when we go out exploring space. The full article is on Al Jazeera English.

A Slideshow of Voyager 2′s Grand Tour

A colour mosaic of Neptune's moon Triton, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA

A colour mosaic of Neptune’s moon Triton, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989. Credit: NASA

In 1977, NASA launched the twin Voyager spacecraft on parallel missions to visit Jupiter and Saturn. Lately, Voyager 1 has enjoyed the most press coverage as it’s racing inexorably closer to the edge of our solar system. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes history’s first interstellar spacecraft. But Voyager 2, the one we talk about less, arguable flew the more interesting mission. After leaving the vicinity of Saturn in 1981, it went on to become the only spacecraft to visit both Uranus and Neptune. To commemorate the 36th anniversary of Voyager 2′s launch, I’ve put together a slideshow of some of the mission’s most striking pictures on Discovery News.

The Navaho Missile and Its Supersonic Stand-In

The X-10 supersonic drone that proved the flight characteristics of the Navaho missile. Credit: USAF Museum

The X-10 supersonic drone that proved the flight characteristics of the Navaho missile. Credit: USAF Museum

In 1945, the US Army Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics contracted the Bell Aircraft Company to build an experimental supersonic aircraft. Taking its designation from its “experimental supersonic” description, the XS-1 – later renamed the X-1 – took to the air in 1946. A year later, Chuck Yeager flew the aircraft on the history’s first level supersonic flight.

The X-1 marked the beginning of the X-series of experimental aircraft. Only a few of each model was built, typically with the sole purpose of gathering data that couldn’t be collected in wind tunnels or with small-scale models. And X-planes were usually piloted; having a man at the controls would give engineers valuable perspective on how an aircraft handled in flight. An early exception to this piloted rule was the X-10. It was a drone, and unpiloted stand-in for North American Aviation’s Navaho missile that allowed engineers to study the weapon’s flight characteristics. And while the Navaho never flew, its history, as well as the X-10′s, is absolutely fascinating. I dug into the Navaho missile’s story for DVICE, and focused a little more closely on the X-10 supersonic drone for Motherboard.

A Photographic History of Our Pale Blue Dot

Earth from Cassini Rings NASA

The Earth as seen by NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft on July 19, 2013. Were the small dot, halfway down the image and slightly to the right. Saturn and its rings are in the foreground. The blue haze is sunlight refracting from Saturn E ring, which is made of material shot into space from the moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA

A couple of weeks ago, the Cassini spacecraft, currently in orbit around Saturn, turned to look back at the Earth. It took a picture, and the result is stunning. Images of the Earth as seen by distant spacecraft have become a staple of planetary missions; hardly any leave the Earth without turning around to take a picture on their way to some far flung planet or moon. I made a slideshow for Discovery News showing, chronologically, how the “pale blue dot” images have evolved since we first saw the Earth from space in 1946. Taken together, they offer breathtaking perspective of our planet, what Carl Sagan called the pale blue dot. Because really, if you’re far enough, that’s all we are.

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.

The 2,500 Year-Old Search for Another Earth Continues

 

A 2011 graphic of the stars Kepler has identified as hosting planets; the potential planets are the dark spots, transiting their stars. For scale, the Sun is shown below the top row of stars towards the right. The dot is Jupiter. Credit: Jason Rowe/NASA Ames/SETI

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009 with the express purpose of identifying exoplanets. A few weeks ago, it suffered a critical malfunction: the second of four reaction wheels that make up the spacecraft’s stability system failed, leaving Kepler unable to focus on its extrasolar targets. The public reaction was varied, some mourning the loss of the mission while others blamed NASA for launching imperfect hardware and called the mission a waste. What few seemed to focus on was how much this mission has changed how we think about the Universe around us. Kepler has found thousands of potential exoplanets – hundreds of which have been confirmed – giving us a Universe in which we are increasingly unlikely to be alone. This is a significant change of perspective. Thirty years ago, the idea of exoplanets was still a theory without proof. But it was an enduring, if unpopular, idea that dates back nearly 2,500 years. My latest article for Al Jazeera English gives an extremely brief overview of our millennia-old search for exoplanets and another Earth. (There’s a typo in the third paragraph. The last sentence should read: It was a cosmos that mimicked the perfection and simplicity of the divine mind, the view that had been propagated by Plato and picked up by Aristotle a century later.)

Tereshkova, Savitskaya, and Ride: the Beginnings of Women in Space

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Credit: NASA

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Credit: NASA

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. First American woman, but third woman overall; she was preceded into orbit by Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. But both these women were launched for political gain, a means for the Soviet Union to establish dominance or secure a first in space. This wasn’t a uniquely Soviet trait. Ride was among the six women selected as part of NASA’s 1978 astronaut class, a group of 35 that also included three African Americans and one Asian American. It was a sudden diversity that was at least in part politically motivated.

Politics and spaceflight have long been inseparable, and politically-driven launches are nothing new. Political motivation neither tarnishes the accomplishments of the first two women who reached orbit nor does it say anything about their abilities, careers, or characters. Rather, it’s the situation surrounding the individual flights that speaks volumes. When it comes to the relationship between women and space, Ride more than any other woman marks the turning point. I’ve scratched the surface of this idea in my latest article for Motherboard.

Tereshkova and Gagarin: Similarities Between the First Man and Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova in 1970. Credit: Ria Novosti

Valentina Tereshkova in 1970. Credit: Ria Novosti

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of women in space: on June 16, 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova launched into orbit as the pilot Vostok 6. Since her historic flight, Tereshkova has appropriately been a supporter of women’s right and women in science. But to regard her mission as a great early coup for women’s rights – which many are wont to do – is to take it out of context. As is usually the case, it’s important to look at the events surrounding a mission to gain a full perspective. My latest article at Al Jazeera English gives a more detailed look at Tereshkova’s selection, and my latest at Discovery News gives a brief overview of her flight. But before reading either article, it’s worth taking a minute to read a little about Yuri Gagarin’s background. The first man and first woman in space have a lot more in common than nationality and spacecraft. [Read more...]