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.

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.

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.

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...]

The Infamous and Unknown Rubber Room

The door leading to the blast chamber and rubber room from underneath pad A. The yellow sign warns that access is restricted, and the orange sign declares the rooms artifacts. Credit: Amy Shira Teitel

This article is the first in a series about my trip to Florida November 1-4, 2012. Be warned, there will be no small amount of space nerd geekery throughout these articles.  
 

There are no shortage of things to see at the Kennedy Spaceflight Centre, particularly for space lovers – the place really is Disney World for space nerds. One of the most interesting sites for Apollo enthusiasts is the one thing on site that no one can see: the blast chamber and infamous rubber room underneath launch pad A. Not only is it underground and out of site, but it’s protected as an historical site and off limits to the public. But if you know the right people, which I happily do, you can make your way inside this fascinating piece of history.

[Read more...]

Engine Failures Don’t Mean Mission Failures

Apollo 11 launches towards the Moon on July 16, 1969. This Saturn V isn’t one that experiences a premature engine shutdown. Credit: NASA

Last Sunday (October 7), SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket. This one carried a cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on the first formal mission under the Commercial Resupply Service contract with NASA. It was the fourth launch of a Falcon 9, the ninth overall launch for SpaceX, and was a partial failure. One of the nine Merlin engines shut down prematurely, just 79 seconds after launch. The rocket managed to get the Dragon into orbit but missed its secondary objective of putting a commercial satellite into the correct orbit. The whole story, and why the Falcon was able to fly with one engine out, is over at Motherboard. In the press release addressing the failed engine, SpaceX singled out the Saturn V as another rocket that had engine failure problems. The Saturn V had more than just engines fail – one was struck twice by lightning – but two launches did have engine failures in the second stage. The story of both these missions is over at Discovery News.

The Psychological Impact of Sputnik

A technician with Sputnik in 1957. Credit: NASA

Today marks 55 years since the Soviet Union launched history first artificial satellite, Sputnik. It was, by all accounts, an innocuous satellite; it weighed about 184-pounds and it beeped. It wasn’t broadcasting secret messages or pinpointing the locations of major U.S. cities. But it was big, which meant the Soviets had a big rocket to launch it. No one could deny the implications of the Soviets’ having big rockets.

Sputnik came on the heels of a successful Soviet ICBM test in August of 1957 and was followed into orbit by the 1,120 pound Sputnik 2. Also in November, the presidential-ordered “Gaither Report” was released and warned that the Soviets might have substantial ICBM capabilities. All of these individual events, compounded with the Cold War mentality, created panic among Americans. Read more about the psychological impact of Sputnik on Discovery News, and how the story of Sputnik broke in the Soviet Union and America on Motherboard.

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...]

Wernher Von Braun’s Smoke and Mirrors Escape from Germany

On their journey out of Germany, von Braun’s driver fell asleep at the wheel but he escaped with just a broken arm. Centre, with other high ranking rocket engineers right after they surrendered to American soldiers in 1945. Credit: NASA

That the rockets that launched America’s space program had Nazi roots was never a secret. They came to America under Operation Overcast and Project Paperclip before building rockets for the US military but didn’t become citizens until the 1950s. The US Army had them travel to Mexico then walk back onto US soil so they’d have immigration dates that weren’t confidential. But the really interesting part of the story, and the question a lot of people have when they hear about Wernher von Braun and his immigration to the US, is how a group of engineers and technicians managed to move through Germany to find American soldiers to negotiate their transfer to the states with more than a decade of research in tow. It’s a pretty phenomenal story involving quick thinking, clever deceptions, and a fair amount of luck. Read the whole story on Motherboard.

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...]