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.

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…]

Apollo 8 and Inspiration Mars: Context Matters

AS08-earthrise

The Earth as seen from the Moon by the crew of Apollo 8. Credit: NASA

We have an amazing ability to selectively read history, and it’s something that happens a lot with the Space Race. We see the inspirational effects of bold missions to the Moon and use them as a benchmark for future exploration. But too often these bold missions are taken out of context. Most recently the Inspiration Mars Foundation announced in a press conference its plan to send a married couple on a free-return trajectory around Mars in 2018, citing the mission as a sort of Apollo 8 for a new generation. It struck me that not one person spoke to the motivation behind Apollo 8; the refrain was that it’s the outcome that matters in this case, an influx of students interested in the sciences and a nation wide love-in about America’s “can-do” spirit.

But context does matter. If we’re going to point to history as our guide for the future it’s important to understand where these big decisions came from and equally important to understand the context in which, in the case of spaceflight, a certain mission was so inspirational. We need history in context to have a clear understanding of where we were, where we are, and how we can possibly move forward. I’ve put Apollo 8, history’s inspirational first manned mission to the Moon, in context in my latest article for Al Jazeera.

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.