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

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.

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 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.

Yuri Gagarin’s Controversial Landing

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, after waterskiing in Dolgoprundy. Credit: Public doman via Wikipedia

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, after waterskiing in Dolgoprundy. Credit: Public doman via Wikipedia

Today marks the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. On April 12, 1961, the unknown Soviet Air Force pilot became the first man to orbit the Earth. But there’s a controversy surrounding the flight that’s been lost in moden retellings: to ensure Gagarin’s flight would go down as history’s first manned spaceflight, Soviet space officials issued a false statement about his landing. It’s a bizarre twist, but there was a very brief moment when Gagarin was nearly stripped of the honour of being the first man in space.  [Read more...]