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.

Reducing, Recycling, and Reusing on Mars

An artist’s concept of the Phoenix lander landing. Landers with retrorockets, a tried and true technology for landing on Mars. Credit: NASA

Two weeks ago, NASA announced it’s next Discovery class mission, those low cost missions that focus on answering one question. The agency chose the InSight mission to Mars. In the press conference, the agency cited the mission’s low cost and relatively low risk as the rationale behind its selection. But this sparked a weird backlash. NASA didn’t exactly say why the mission was more likely to fly under its $425 million cost cap, and some news outlets in the days following the announcement suggested that there were hidden costs in a mission. Specifically that the technology reused from previous missions was a hidden cost. The fact is NASA has been reusing technology and old test data on Mars since the 1960s, and not starting from scratch each time keeps overall mission costs down. Here’s my full article on Discover’s The Crux blog.

Learning to Land on the Moon

Bringing anything airborne down for a safe landing takes considerable skill, but landing on other planets presents a whole world of new challenges. In preparation for the Apollo lunar missions, astronauts spent considerable time in simulators learning to land on the Moon. One vehicle, the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, was the closest approximation they had to the real thing.

Gearing Up for the Sky Crane

The first image from the surface of Mars taken by Viking 1 in 1976. Credit: NASA

This Sunday night around 10:31 PST, the Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane will deliver the rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars. It will land inside the geologically interesting Gale Crater, to be exact. Even among planetary landings it’s an exciting one, and for an historian it has some pretty interesting heritage. I’ve covered a few aspects of the mission’s history before, so here’s a small selection of articles to get you up to date on teh mission and excited about the most daring landing attempted to date on Mars. [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.

The X-15’s First Glide

Crossfield stands in front of the X-15. Credit: The Scott Crossfield Foundation online

It was a chilly morning on June 8, 1959 when Scott Crossfield climbed into the cockpit of the X-15 rocket aircraft. By 8:30, he was airborne, and the aircraft  was nestled under the wing of the larger B-52 launch plane. Pilots Captain Charles Bock and Captain Jack Allavie kept a steady conversation with Crossfield about the X-15’s status. The B-52 was scheduled to launch the X-15 that morning at 8:40. More men than just the three in the air hoped nothing would prevent Crossfield making this maiden voyage.  [Read more...]

Can Russia Save ExoMars?

The latest budget for NASA for FY 2013 sees the agency’s Mars exploration program taking a huge hit – it will get $318 million less than FY 2012. This funding cut has forced NASA to withdraw from the ExoMars, the joint mission with the European Space Agency designed to culminate with a sample return. Without NASA, ExoMars is left in pieces and ESA is hoping the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos will take NASA’s place. This partnership could be without payoff since neither country has had great luck with Mars, particularly Russia whose missions have been thwarted by the mythical galactic ghoul. NASA’s withdrawal brings other questions to the forefront as well, like whether the agency has lost its way and will it soon lose its prestige in space. My whole article on the subject was published yesterday on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog. (Left, an artist’s concept of ESA’a Beagle 2 falling through the Martian atmosphere.)

The Life and Times of Don McCusker

I got an email from a reader a few months ago who was particularly pleased that an old post mentioned his father, Don McCusker. McCusker was a North American Aviation test pilot and one of the few men to fly the full scale Gemini manned Test Tow Vehicle (TTV), the full scale Gemini spacecraft mated to the paraglider wing. Some research in unusual places, and a fascinating correspondence with his wife Helena, gave me fairly good picture of McCusker’s life. So while my research isn’t quite finished, I thought I’d write a short overview of the very interesting life of a test pilot that almost no one knows about. (Left, the Martin-built B57 that was used in research and development tests of a guidance systems. Don McCusker is on top, at the time serving as manager of the simulated MACE program. USAF.)

[Read more...]

Taking Gemini to the Moon

Apollo 8 is usually synonymous with Christmas — at least among spaceflight enthusiasts. In 1968, NASA made the daring decision to send Apollo 8 into lunar orbit in the name of getting American men to the moon ahead of the Soviet Union. On Christmas eve, the crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders – famously read from the book of Genesis. (Left, an artist’s concept of Apollo 8 firing its main engine to return to Earth.)

Sent with only a Command and Service module, the mission is often considered one of NASA’s greatest risks of the space race. But there were other equally audacious lunar missions in the planning stages long before NASA had a viable mission with Apollo 8. As early as 1961, the agency considered sending men to the moon, and even landing them on the surface, with a Gemini spacecraft. [Read more...]

MSL Sky Crane on Scientific American’s Guest Blog

Regular readers of Vintage Space will know that I’m fascinated by landings – the challenges of both landing on Earth and on other planets. Within this latter vein, I’ve lately become completely mesmerized with the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL’s) Sky Crane. Finally, I’ve found a fantastic outlet for an article I’ve been wanting to write for months about the Sky Crane, where it came from, and how it works. With this pieces, I’m very pleased to be a contributing member to the Scientific American’ Guest Blog! Check out the full article, which includes a video of MSL’s recent launch, on Scientific American’s website. (Pictured, the Sky Crane lowering the SUV-sized rover Curiosity to the surface of Mars. Don’t you want to know all about it?)