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.

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Apollo’s Youthful Glow

Ferdowsi’s mohawk in JPL’s mission control during Curiosity’s landing. Credit: Associated Press

Since Curiosity landed on Mars last Sunday night, the internet has been buzzing not about the Sky Crane that delivered the rover to the surface but about “Mohawk Guy.” Bobak Ferdowsi is a 32-year old flight director at JPL who looks more like a rock star than an engineer. Consensus on the internet is that Ferdowsi – specifically his mohawk – has made NASA cool, young, and relevant; the most common refrain is along the lines of “this isn’t your father’s/grandfather’s NASA.” But Ferdowsi is actually older than most engineers of the Apollo era. In fact, the average age in mission control has risen since the Apollo days as engineers stay with the agency over multiple long-term programs. Though 1960s engineers may look old fashioned, your father’s or grandfather’s NASA was a fairly young one.   [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.

Carpenter versus Aurora 7

Carpenter during water egress training before his flight in 1962. Photo credit: NASA

Scott Carpenter died on October 10, 2013, and in writing an article about his legacy I thought more about the context surrounding his flight. I used the same sources I did for this article, but merged it with a further year and a half of research and thinking about NASA’s early culture. My new article is on Vintage Space at Popular Science, and while I stand by the research in this article I will say that my more recent work is the more balanced and neutral version of the story. Perhaps I ought to have title this article “Kraft vs. Carpenter and Aurora 7.” I urge you to read the article at Popular Science and consider the sources of both articles before calling my merits as an historian into question. 

On May 24, 1962, NASA narrowly escaped its first fatality in space. When Scott Carpenter reentered the atmosphere at the end of his Aurora 7 orbital flight, no one in mission control knew where he was going to land. They didn’t even know whether he’d be dead or alive when they found him. [Read more...]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Rorschach Tests

When faced with a Rorschach test – the famous inkblots cards that are supposed to give a psychologist deep insight into your psyche – how are you supposed to answer? For the Mercury astronaut candidates, they knew their answers could make or break their careers. Most read the cards as truthfully as possible while others gave answers they assumed the doctors wanted. Pete Conrad took a different approach. (Left, Conrad enjoys down time during water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico. September 1969.) ‘Vintage Space Fun Facts’ are a new feature. These occasional shorter articles will be a great way to share the anecdotes and human stories I come across in my research.  [Read more...]

A Return to the Right Stuff?

In previous posts I’ve talked about the changing culture of risk at NASA and about the qualities and characteristics that make astronauts stand apart from the rest of the population. Recently, I’ve begun to notice a correlation between these two facets of spaceflight. In the 1960s when the astronauts were test pilots routinely facing death, NASA took more risks. In recent years as the astronaut corps has grown to include more scientists as well as everyday people like school teachers, the missions have become more routine – low Earth orbit has become a comfort zone throughout the shuttle program. (Left, the Mercury astronauts. 1959.)

Over the past half-century, NASA’s astronauts have gone from heavy drinking and fast driving fighter jocks riding in cobbled together capsules to engineers and scientists in sophisticated spacecraft. Tied up in this shift, is there an expectation that NASA will never let anything bad happen to its astronauts? Is the growing need for safety potentially standing in the way of bold manned missions that assume the same risk as 1968s Apollo 8? [Read more...]

The Right Stuff at Heart

In a previous post, I’ve talked about some of the challenges facing the Mercury program managers in selecting the first group of astronauts. No one knew with any certainty what the first men in space would be up against. As such, the search for the perfect men was a multi-stage process taking into consideration as many possible scenarios as program managers could envision. One of the more interesting problems in selecting NASA’s Mercury astronauts was their level of fitness – they obviously had to be in physical shape to survive the challenges of spaceflight, but how physically demanding was a mission in a capsule too small to afford the astronaut much movement? (Pictured, Wally Schirra examines his chest x-rays. 1962.) [Read more...]

Mapping Vintage Space

Regular readers of Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I have a tendency to link newer posts to older ones. This reflects the interrelation of all the topics I have (and will) discuss in this blog. I find this era of history to be complex (as most big historical eras are) with aspects that can be treated independently, but need to be contextualized by one another.

And so I thought I would begin mapping Vintage Space, building a sort of narrative roadmap that will give the more casual reader a better idea of where in the history of space and spaceflight each individual episode belongs. This is in no way a complete chronology, but rather a framework for my content. (Pictured, the sun rise above the gulf of Mexico as seen from orbit by Apollo 7. 1968.) [Read more...]

Designing a Bridge to the Moon

The Gemini program is often passed over in popular accounts of NASA’s race to the Moon. Perhaps understandably so. Gemini doesn’t carry the excitement of the Mercury Program with America’s first steps into space and it lacks the climactic excitement of the Apollo program with a lunar landing. The major accomplishments of the Gemini Program are usually highlighted in the greater scheme of the space race, such as America’s first extravehicular activity (EVA) or the first docking of two spacecraft. (Pictured is Gemini 7 in orbit as seen from Gemini 6. 1965.)

On the whole, however, Gemini is often treated like NASA’s overlooked middle child of the space race, a sad fate for the program I would argue is actually the most interesting of the era. As such, this promises be the first of several posts focussing on various aspects of the Gemini program. What fascinates me the most is that Gemini exemplifies the pioneering spirit and technological “go for broke” attitude NASA embodied in the 1960s. Even the genesis of Gemini is an interesting as it forced NASA to design a program in support of an as-of-yet- undesigned lunar program. The fundamental design choices of Apollo shaped Gemini. [Read more...]