Nukes in Space

In previous posts, I’ve talked about some of the challenges associated with a proposed manned mission to Mars, particularly the difficulty of landing on the red planet. But getting men to Mars is also difficult, although not impossible.Transit time for a mission to Mars is measured in months instead of days; the fastest transit is currently in the neighbourhood of 180 days or six months. For robotic landers and rovers, this transit time poses no great challenge. As long as batteries can keep the mechanical joints and systems from freezing, a robot doesn’t mind the wait.  (Pictured, an artist’s rendition of a nuclear pulse rocket nearing Jupiter.)

A manned mission is another story. Keeping that crew alive and in good physical form complicates a trip to Mars; its not as simple as providing the astronauts with a heat source. Six months is a long time for a crew to sit and wait in a small cramped spacecraft, exposed to radiation and in a zero-gravity environment.  There are ways to protect the astronauts with radiation shields and spinning the spacecraft to create enough gravity to prevent or at least limit the effects of muscular atrophy. But the best way to overcome the challenges of getting men to Mars is to simply shorten the transit time. This isn’t a new idea, it’s one NASA has been researching for over 50 years. The favoured method is a nuclear rocket.  [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...]

The Lost Art of the Saturn V

I’ve previously mentioned that once the Shuttle program ends this year, there will be no way for NASA to launch manned missions. It simply doesn’t have the necessary rockets to launch such a heavy payload into orbit, let alone a rocket capable of launching a heavy payload to another planet. A good example is the case of Mars. The Delta II hit its payload limit with the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and that’s with each rover launched separately. The upcoming Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity is significantly larger and will use an Atlas family launch vehicle. For NASA’s Martian exploration plan to progress, as well as for the continuation of manned spaceflight, the organization needs a heavy lifting vehicle. (Pictured, the first Saturn V to launch: Apollo 4, 1967.)

But NASA doesn’t necessarily need a new launch vehicle. The organization had the means to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 1960s using only technology of the day. The whole mission, however, depended on the titanic Saturn V rocket, a technology that is lost to the current generation. [Read more...]

V-2: The Vehicle that Launched the Space Age

Two of my previous posts tease out the main differences in the landing methods employed by both NASA and the Soviet Space Program as a means of illustrating the contrast between the two programs. What these posts don’t draw attention to is the large number of similarities between the two conflicting powers in their respective approaches to spaceflight.

In the early space age, both the US and the USSR pursued accelerated methods to get a man in space. Both achieved initial flights with capsule-style spacecrafts on top of ballistic missiles. This similar method had a common root: both countries based their launch vehicles, at least in part, on the Nazi V-2 rockets. Both had access to and exploited this technology in the wake of the Second World War. Admittedly the history of the V-2 is slightly on the fringe of the history of spaceflight proper, but a familiarity with the roots of the rocketry that launched the space age adds a dimension to the American and Soviet programs that is otherwise lost. [Read more...]