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.

Sandwiches in Space

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

Most of NASA’s Apollo program files are publicly available, in many cases digitized and accessible online. But there’s one picture from the Apollo 12 files that I’ve never been able to find much information about: a picture of a suit technician packing what is unmistakably a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s left leg pocket the morning he, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean launched to the Moon. Last November, I asked Dick Gordon about this scarcely documented space sandwich.  [Read more...]

Jack Schmitt’s Christmas Poem

Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt (upside down) during Apollo 17's 1972 mission. Credit: NASA

Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt (upside down) during Apollo 17′s 1972 mission. Credit: NASA

NASA didn’t give its Apollo astronauts too much free time during missions. Crews had to go through multi-stage checklists before any manoeuvre and had experiments to run during the three day transits to and from the Moon. Everything, down to meal times and sleep periods, was scheduled. But as Apollo 17’s Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt found out, you can’t schedule poetic inspiration. Even when you’re on the Moon.  [Read more...]

The Last Words on the Moon

LM Columbia's ascent from the lunar surface, caught remotely on video by the lunar rover's camera. Credit: NASA

LM Challenger’s ascent from the lunar surface, caught remotely on video by the lunar rover’s camera. Credit: NASA

We’ve just passed the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17 leaving the Moon. On December 14, 1972, commander Gene Cernan and lunar module pilot Jack Schmitt in the LM Challenger blasted off from Taurus-Littrow, ending the last manned lunar sojourn. It was a significant event, one worth commemorating with some well chosen words akin to Armstrong’s one small step on Apollo 11. So, what were the last words on spoken on the Moon 40 years ago?  [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...]

Apollo’s Rotor Reentry Revisited

The artist’s concept of a rotor reentry landing for Apollo I found in a box in NASA’s basement history office. The new version looks about the same. Credit: NASA

Regular readers of Vintage Space undoubtedly know that I love landing systems, particularly the creative ideas that were too complicated to gain traction in the 1960s. Among unrealized systems, my favourite has to be the Rogallo wing, the inflatable glider NASA tried to use as the runway landing system for Gemini. But there’s another that’s intrigued me for a while that I found while researching the Rogallo wing in NASA’s Washington archives and that’s the rotor reentry concept proposed for Apollo. It’s mysteriously absent from most program histories, but it seems to be making a comeback. NASA is once again looking at the rotor reentry as a way to land capsule-inspired spacecraft from the ISS. Read the full article over at Discovery News. 

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...]

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.