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.

The Redstone in Grand Central Station

A Redstone Rocket on display in Grand Central Station in 1957. Public Domaine.

A Redstone Rocket stands on display in Grand Central Station in 1957. Public Domaine.

This year marks the centennial of Grand Central Station’s completion. In 1913, it stood as an awe-inspiring, Beaux-Arts landmark anchoring New York City’s commuter and long distance traffic in midtown Manhattan. It quickly became one of the most visited spots in the city, giving it a secondary role as one of the city’s best exhibition sites. In 1957, the Army exploited that capability by erecting a Redstone rocket in the main concourse. [Read more…]

Looking Behind the Legend of Friendship 7

Glenn inspects the artwork on his Friendship 7 capsule. Credit: NASA

Glenn inspects the artwork on his Friendship 7 capsule. Credit: NASA

Today marks the anniversary of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight, NASA’s first orbital mission that launched on February 20, 1962. Every year the mission is celebrated as the flight that, at least temporarily, leveled the playing field between the Soviets and the Americans in the early days of the Space Race. But there’s more to the story than its triumphs. When Friendship 7 launched, the Atlas rocket that took Glenn into orbit had a 51 percent success rate. Glenn was never assigned the first orbital flight; he landed the assignment by chance. And the mission nearly became NASA’s first fatality. A warning light suggested the spacecraft’s heat shield had separated, which, if true, meant certain death for the astronaut during reentry.

Schirra’s Stellar Navigation

John Glenn trains in a Mercury simulator, the Mercury Procedures Trainer. Credit: NASA

John Glenn trains in a Mercury simulator, the Mercury Procedures Trainer. Credit: NASA

Simulators have always been an integral part of spaceflight. In the case of the all important reentry and landing phase, simulators were like analogue versions Google Earth: reproductions of landscapes from specific altitudes taught astronauts to look for when lining up their spacecraft for reentry. But as Wally Schirra learned on his Sigma 7 flight, landing simulators can’t prepare you for everything.  [Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

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.

The Cost of Curiosity

Taken on Sol 32, this is the frist time Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on its arm to take this portrait of the top of its Remote Sensing Mast showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras. It’s as close to a headshot as Curiosity can take. Credit: NASA/JPL

The other day I was in a coffee shop, quietly writing and sharing a table with a woman also on a laptop. She caught me staring blankly out the window and asked what I was working on; apparently I looked troubled. I told her I was working on a new angle for my sixth or so Mars article that week. She seemed interested so I told her about Curiosity, the heritage technology that’s helped NASA make multiple successful Mars landings, and how the Sky Crane will open up a new future of exploration.

The idea that reusing technology saves money in spaceflight and that developing new technology now may cut costs on future missions caught her attention. She urged me to play up that angle because the amount of money NASA spends on these missions is stupid.  “Curiosity,” she said, “cost half the nation’s defense budget.” That’s when I noticed her cross necklace and asked what kind of writer she is; turns out she’s a Christian motivational writer. That’s when I wished I had the figures on hand to illustrate just how little we spend on space exploration. But I didn’t so I quietly got back to work. But I did decided that I ought to write a blog post putting Curiosity into perspective so that the next time someone tells me NASA wastes money I can tell them how wrong they are.  [Read more…]

Kennedy’s Public and Private Thoughts on Apollo

Kennedy during the famous speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962. The full video of the speech is at the end of this article. Image via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Online

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rice University in Texas proclaiming that Americans take on lofty goals like landing a man on the Moon not because it is easy but because it is hard. It’s a speech that still resonates with spaceflight enthusiasts half a century later, often considered indicative of a time when NASA had clear goals and the necessary support to achieve them. But Kennedy’s own feelings about going to the Moon might have been different than the stirring words he said at Rice. In private conversations in the months and years that followed, he expressed worries over the cost of Apollo, raised questions regarding NASA’s commitment to a lunar program, and disappointment that the lunar landing wouldn’t happen within his presidential tenure.  [Read more…]

Carnival of Space #265

The “New Nine.” From upper right, in clockwise order: Frank Borman, John Young, Tom Stafford, Pete Conrad, Jim McDivitt, Jim Lovell, Elliot See, Ed White, Neil Armstrong. Credit: NASA via Retro Space Images

It’s time for another Carnival of Space! The biggest news this past week is of course Neil Armstrong’s death. It’s a loss for the world and the space community in particular. In this week’s carnival we have a number of articles paying tribute to the man synonymous with Apollo, news from the planets, and a reminder about neat technologies on the horizon. For this week’s fun vintage image, it’s one of my new favourites of the “New Nine” surrounding a Gemini capsule, the program they were recruited to fly. Top left is Armstrong, already looking skyward.

[Read more…]