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.

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...]

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...]

The Real Story Behind Yuri Gagarin’s Death

Two guards stand by Gagarin’s grave, right, and Vladimir Seryogin’s who was in the same plane. Credit: RIA Novosti

After he returned from his Vostok 1 flight, the Soviet government kept Yuri Gagarin busy touring the world and kept him out of the flight rotation. He was a national treasure who couldn’t be injured or killed on a mission. So when the cosmonaut died in a plane crash on March 27, 1968, it seemed unthinkable. In the years since the accident, his death has remained shrouded in mystery with rumoured causes ranging from political sabotage to alcoholism. Finally, after nearly 50 years, the report on Gagarin’s death has been released. And former cosmonaut Alexei Leonov has been given a ‘go’ to talk about how his friend and former colleague died. The full article is over on Discovery News.

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...]

The Gemini Paraglider on SciAm’s Space Lab

The Gemini paraglider; I believe this is a half-scale model in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: NASA (archives)

The Gemini paraglider; I believe this is a half-scale model in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: NASA (archives)

Most regular readers of Vintage Space will know that I’m obsessed with the Gemini Paraglider, the landing system that should have made splashdowns obsolete starting in the early 1960s but (to make a long story short) just couldn’t keep pace with Apollo. I’ve written about landings and the paraglider extensively in old blog posts: I’ve dealt with landings generally; discussed splashdowns as an imperfect landing methodtalked about the paraglider’s inclusion in the Gemini program and the training vehicle astronauts flew to practice making paraglider landings; I’ve written about the paraglider’s cancellation from the Gemini programit’s fate after Gemini; and even plans to use the paraglider to land the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. (And yes, there’s more, and I am working on bringing all of these pieces into something much larger.)

I brought my love of the paraglider to Scientific American this month. The latest episode of “It Happened in Space” gives a very brief overview of the Gemini paraglider landing system.

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.