Vintage Space Favourites of 2012

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The past twelve months have been very good ones. I’ve met and worked with some incredible people, ventured into the (often awkward) world of podcasts and webcasts, and have read and written more than I ever did in grad school. Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written, a few stand out as favourites. And so, in no particular order, here are my top picks of 2012. These aren’t the big news items or the articles that got the most traffic. These are the ones that were fun to research and write, and the ones that taught me something new. [Read more...]

John Glenn: the Man Behind the Hero

In the early days of the Mercury program, John Glenn looked like the perfect astronaut. Tall with boyish good looks, he was always smiling and happy to share his love of family, country, and God with the media. (Left, the Mercury astronauts.)

America loved him, but he wasn’t the favourite among his fellow astronauts. He set himself apart as the one among them who wasn’t cool and laid back like a test pilot ought to be. He didn’t hide his eagerness to fly in space, and when he was passed over for the first launch, he fought to have the flight assignment changed. In the end, he was at the right place in the flight lineup at the right time to make the first orbital flight and secure his place in history. But it was never certain to be his flight, and it’s a very interesting story. Read the full article on Scientific American’s Guest Blog[Read more...]

Fun Facts and Finds About John Glenn

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight. The first orbital mission of the Mercury program, which launched on February 20, 1962, was a major achievement for NASA and a significant milestone to the American people. The flight marked the US finally matching the Soviet Union in space and was a major step towards the lunar landing goal Kennedy had set the year before.

My article commemorating the mission will appear tomorrow on Scientific American’s Guest Blog, but I thought it might be fun to share some of the interesting facts and bizarre finds I came across during my research. (Left, Glenn trains in a simulator. 1959.) [Read more...]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: The Mercury ‘7’s

Each of the Mercury missions had a name followed by the number 7. Alan Shepard flew Freedom 7, Gus Grissom in Liberty Bell 7, John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 (pictured), Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7, Wally Schirra flew Sigma 7, and Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7. Deke Slayton never flew because of a heart condition, but had he flown his mission would have been Delta 7.

So, what’s with all the ‘7’s?  [Read more...]

Shepard: First American in (Suborbital) Space

I’ve talked in previous posts about the first manned Soviet space program, Vostok, and Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. One aspect neither of these posts touched on, however, was the reaction in the United States. Understandably, Americans were less jubilant about Gagarin’s flight than the Soviets. But the feelings of defeat, frustration, and in some cases fear soon disappeared when on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

In the grand scheme of the space race, the first man in space almost pales in comparison to the feat of placing a man on the moon. But the race for manned flight was extremely important in the early 1960s. Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight was, like Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission, the climax of years of preparation and training, and it set in motion a chain of events that set the course of the space race. The flight was a fifteen-minute suborbital hop, officially classified as a pre-orbital training flight, but Americans didn’t care. An American had been in space. (Pictured, Shepard in Freedom 7 the morning of launch. May 5, 1961.) [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...]

Not Exactly Rocket Science

A while ago, I talked about NASA’s invention of landing methods for the Mercury program – what to do when finding a solution for an entirely unknown problem. Tied into the question of landing methods for NASA’s first manned program was the design of the capsule. The basic constraints were laid out fairly early on in the program. Mercury would use a ballistic design proposed by Langley engineer Maxime Faget and splashdown in the ocean. This was the simplest method. In returning from space, NASA was content to let gravity do most of the work. (Pictured, Mercury model makers Richard Altimus and Arthur Lohse with model finisher John Wilson. 1960.)

With the basic capsule design set, there remained smaller design questions needing answers. What ballistic design would fare best against the heat of reentry? Throughout the descent stage, would one ballistic shape have better inherent stability than another or would the astronaut have to control the capsule’s attitude all the way down? Once the capsule was in the ocean, would it float? If the astronaut had to get out of the capsule, would it still float with a hatch open? In the 1950s, NASA sought answers to these questions in an age before computer programs could immediately generate answers. And so they did the next best thing. They tested model capsules, each shape designated by a letter, and picked the best design through trial and error. [Read more...]

Designing the Perfect Cosmonaut

In a previous post, I talked about how NASA designed the perfect astronaut – the qualities that were considered vital in selecting the first generation Mercury astronauts. The Soviet Space Program was no different. The organization held its candidates to an equally stringent set of standards as well as a host of unspoken ideal qualities. A cursory look at the Mercury Astronaut selection and the first Soviet Cosmonaut selection reveal two greatly similar processes. But of course, different countries with different resources use different methods. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union’s selection and training prior to selecting Yuri Gagarin as its first cosmonaut differs from NASA’s, and some of the main differences between programs are fairly striking. When compared, the agenda of both nations are evident as they determined which man (or men) would represent them as the space age began. So, what makes the perfect Cosmonaut? (Left are three images of the first spacewalk, Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. 1964.) [Read more...]

Sailors, Ships, and Splashdowns

I’ve been posting a lot about landing methods – NASA’s use of splashdowns, why the method was not a long-term solution to the problem of returning from space, and a comparison to Soviet methods. The former, splashdowns, have been a focus of a number of posts. I have previously focussed on the complexity of splashdowns and the significant resources involved as driving force behind NASA’s pursuit of land landing methods with its second-generation manned spaceflight program. But this only tells half the story. A look at the numbers of men and ships involved offers a different illustration of the reasons to pursue a land landing method. (Pictured: The crew of the USS Champlain cheer on Alan Shepard following his Freedom 7 splashdown, 1961.) [Read more...]

Genesis of a Lunar Christmas

I am not generally one to commemorate a holiday with a themed post. Nevertheless, I thought it would be an appropriate occasion to discuss the only Apollo mission to fly on Christmas – the 1968 lunar orbital mission of Apollo 8. (Left: the first view of the Earth taken by Apollo 8 on its way to the moon. 1968.)

I’ve mentioned before that the sheer speed at which NASA accomplished the steps leading to and culminating in a lunar landing is one of the fascinating aspects that led me to study the era in the first place. The methods of choosing, launching, and bringing home the astronauts were all determined based on what could be done fastest and easiest, with the goal of staying one step ahead of the Soviets in the background.

The first flight to the moon was no different. Apollo 8’s lunar orbital flight was not in the initial Apollo schedule. It was undertaken, like so many aspects of the early space program, as a crash response to an immediate need. The story of its origin is as interesting as the flight itself. [Read more...]