The Gemini Paraglider on SciAm’s Space Lab

The Gemini paraglider; I believe this is a half-scale model in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: NASA (archives)

The Gemini paraglider; I believe this is a half-scale model in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: NASA (archives)

Most regular readers of Vintage Space will know that I’m obsessed with the Gemini Paraglider, the landing system that should have made splashdowns obsolete starting in the early 1960s but (to make a long story short) just couldn’t keep pace with Apollo. I’ve written about landings and the paraglider extensively in old blog posts: I’ve dealt with landings generally; discussed splashdowns as an imperfect landing methodtalked about the paraglider’s inclusion in the Gemini program and the training vehicle astronauts flew to practice making paraglider landings; I’ve written about the paraglider’s cancellation from the Gemini programit’s fate after Gemini; and even plans to use the paraglider to land the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. (And yes, there’s more, and I am working on bringing all of these pieces into something much larger.)

I brought my love of the paraglider to Scientific American this month. The latest episode of “It Happened in Space” gives a very brief overview of the Gemini paraglider landing system.

McDivitt’s Trials With Orbital Rendezvous

Me, smiling like a goon, with Jim McDivitt.

Me, smiling like a goon, with Jim McDivitt.

Orbital mechanics and the challenges of orbital rendezvous isn’t a simple thing to explain, particularly as a non-scientist breaking it down for other non-scientists. But it’s a central part of the Apollo mission profile, so it comes up a lot in my line of work. To illustrate the problem, I typically tell the story of Jim McDivitt trying to rendezvous with the Titan II’s upper stage during the first orbit of Gemini 4 – the story goes that when McDivitt’s pilot instincts kicked in the whole exercise went to hell. I asked McDivitt about that first failed rendezvous when I met him in Florida in November. He promptly and candidly told me that this story, which he’s heard many times, is bull hockey. I learned from the man himself what really happened on Gemini 4. I also learned that Jim McDivitt is, and I say this with the utmost respect, a total firecracker.  [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…]

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…]

Mercury’s Staggering Recovery Crews

Splashdown landings, those iconic ends to Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, weren’t as simple as they seemed. While dropping a capsule into the ocean was a simple way to land, pulling the capsule and its crew out of the water was a multistage operation requiring a staggering number of men. Just how many men were involved in splashdown recoveries? Check out the latest Vintage Space Video for an answer.