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.

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…]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Gemini’s Poetry

The Mercury capsule on the left clearly influenced the design of the Gemini spacecraft on the right (as did a number of technical and managerial factors). Credit: McDonnell

In 1960, a year before Al Shepard made his ballistic flight on Freedom 7 and two years before John Glenn went into orbit on Friendship 7, NASA was already planning what to do after the Mercury program wrapped up. Mercury was limited by the capsule’s on board power source and fuel store to short orbital flights, so for its next program NASA was looking to lay a foundation in space exploration.

By 1962, a program with focused goals had emerged: NASA’s main goal would be to prove that astronauts could manoeuver their spacecraft in orbit to rendezvous and dock with another vehicle. On January 3 the new program was publicly christened Gemini, an interestingly fitting moniker. [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…]

Neil Armstrong OpEd in the Guardian

A smiling Armstrong inside the X-15’s cockpit. Credit: NASA

I was asked to write an opinion piece on Neil Armstrong’s passing for the Guardian. I thought a lot about the role he’s played in spaceflight history, not just because of the missions he flew but because of what he stood for in the space race. “With Armstrong’s death, the chapter of spaceflight history that opened with Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 has closed… we’ve lost the man who is recognised the world over as embodying Apollo’s triumph.”

 I think it’s up to historians to preserve Armstrong’s legacy within the context of the space race so he might serve as an inspirational figure to future generations. After all, he will always be the first man to have walked on the Moon and symbolic of Apollo’s success no matter what comes next. Read my full article on the Guardian.

Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot

Armstrong enjoys a cigar in March, 1969. Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

I walked in the house this afternoon to find a heap of emails, text messages, and voicemails about Neil Armstrong’s death. I was shocked. My next thought was that Armstrong will never be truly gone. When he stepped on the Moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired a generation to pursue careers in science. A generation later, children reading about Apollo (including myself) were similarly inspired. I don’t think the effect will wear off in generations to come. But Armstrong’s legacy is so much more than just Apollo 11. His contributions to and role in some of the earliest and most innovative early spaceflight programs are significant. Preserving that legacy will keep him alive and is vital to doing his memory justice.

I can’t possibly sum up all the projects Armstrong was involved in in one article, so here’s a brief look at his career leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing with links to full stories I’ve covered elsewhere.   [Read more…]

NASA’s Other Peanuts Traditions

The Apollo 10 crew pets Snoopy on the nose for good luck as they walk towards their spacecraft the morning of launch. May 18, 1969. Credit: NASA

Three years after JPL started what’s become the tradition of eating peanuts during launches, NASA developed another peanuts-based tradition. This one centers on Peanuts the cartoon strip rather than the legume, specifically the beagle Snoopy. Since the Apollo program, Snoopy has been a spokesbeagle of humour and safety in America’s space program.

[Read more…]

How JPL’s Peanut Tradition Started

A bottle of peanuts in JPL’s mission control on August 5, 2012. Credit: NASA

Last Sunday night, everyone watching NASA’s feed of Curiosity’s landing saw engineers in JPL’s mission control eating peanuts before the rover entered Mars’ atmosphere. Eating peanuts at particularly nerve-wracking points during a mission is a long standing tradition at JPL that dates back to the Ranger program. Specifically Ranger 7. The first peanuts eaten in Mission Control were a distraction for engineers during that very tense launch on July 28, 1964. Read the whole story on Discovery News.

Are China and the USSR Equivalent Opponents to the US in Space?

The Shenzhou-9 crew in a simulator during training. Credit: Xinhua news agency / Qin Xian’an

Last week, China’s Shenzhou 9 landed after a successful mission that included the nation’s first docking with its Tiangong 1 prototype space station. The rapid development of its space program suggests that China is poised to become a powerful new player in space, and this is giving rise to speculation that the nation could turn out to be enough of a threat to the United States to spark a new space race. Perhaps some of these reactions are rooted in the similarities between China’s space program and the Soviet space program of the 1960s. Both are built on a similar model that’s very different from NASA. [Read more…]

Preserving Lunar History

Alan Bean carries two sub packages of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) during the first Apollo 12 EVA. November 19, 1969. Photo credit: NASA

Last year, NASA laid the groundwork to protect the Apollo landing sites as cultural and historic artifacts, and last week the Google Lunar X Prize Foundation agreed to respect these guidelines. This means the 26 teams trying to land the first private spacecraft on the lunar surface have to steer clear of Apollo sites.

There’s much more than just spent descent stages and lunar rovers on the surface. Neil Armstrong’s boots are up there along with other equipment used and worn by moonwalking astronauts. But there are also personal items on the surface that speak volumes about the men who made the journey and the Apollo program as a whole. Those are the artifacts and stories well worth preserving. Read my article on Discovery News for a look at a few of the personal stories preserved on the lunar surface.