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...]

Wernher Von Braun’s Smoke and Mirrors Escape from Germany

On their journey out of Germany, von Braun’s driver fell asleep at the wheel but he escaped with just a broken arm. Centre, with other high ranking rocket engineers right after they surrendered to American soldiers in 1945. Credit: NASA

That the rockets that launched America’s space program had Nazi roots was never a secret. They came to America under Operation Overcast and Project Paperclip before building rockets for the US military but didn’t become citizens until the 1950s. The US Army had them travel to Mexico then walk back onto US soil so they’d have immigration dates that weren’t confidential. But the really interesting part of the story, and the question a lot of people have when they hear about Wernher von Braun and his immigration to the US, is how a group of engineers and technicians managed to move through Germany to find American soldiers to negotiate their transfer to the states with more than a decade of research in tow. It’s a pretty phenomenal story involving quick thinking, clever deceptions, and a fair amount of luck. Read the whole story on Motherboard.

Carnival of Space #265

The “New Nine.” From upper right, in clockwise order: Frank Borman, John Young, Tom Stafford, Pete Conrad, Jim McDivitt, Jim Lovell, Elliot See, Ed White, Neil Armstrong. Credit: NASA via Retro Space Images

It’s time for another Carnival of Space! The biggest news this past week is of course Neil Armstrong’s death. It’s a loss for the world and the space community in particular. In this week’s carnival we have a number of articles paying tribute to the man synonymous with Apollo, news from the planets, and a reminder about neat technologies on the horizon. For this week’s fun vintage image, it’s one of my new favourites of the “New Nine” surrounding a Gemini capsule, the program they were recruited to fly. Top left is Armstrong, already looking skyward.

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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...]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Animals in Space Before NASA

For most people, early biological testing in space brings to mind Ham the chimp, angrily trying to bit any hand that came near him after his suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket. But Ham was launched on January 31, 1961, nearly a decade after the first monkeys survive surborbital flights. Biological testing in space goes back even further. In the late 1940s, fruit flies became the first animals to survive exposure to spaceflight conditions. (Left, Ham ready for launch in 1961. The system in his capsule designed to reward or shock him for his inflight performance malfunctioned and he was shocked for pushing the right buttons. He was, understandably, irate.)  [Read more...]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Cape Canaveral Monsters

Last weekend, I saw Cape Canaveral Monsters. The 1960 sci-fi release epitomizes B movie with awful effects, emotionless acting, and a paper-thin plot that attempts to explain the high fail rate of America’s launch vehicle by the presence of aliens (and, oddly, not monsters). So this post isn’t really a “fun fact.” It’s more just fun, with a little bit of fact to back it up. (Left, the movie poster for Cape Canaveral Monsters. The tagline reads “You humans with your puny minds! You must not learn the secrets of space!”) [Read more...]

Painting Rockets

I recently built my first model — a 1:144 scale Saturn V. I posted this picture of the painted but unassembled rocket online, and it wasn’t long before I got an email from a fellow space-enthusiast. He asked about the paint scheme I used. He used the same design on a model years ago, and neither of us followed the paint scheme of any Saturn V that actually flew. I’d been so distracted following the directions and getting the lines straight that I didn’t stop to look at where the lines were going. It got me thinking about the Saturn V’s design scheme, which might be one of the more interesting histories of paint. Turns out, most of the readily accessible information is geared towards model builders. That’s all well and good, but it didn’t tell me why German-built launch vehicles have always varied their paint scheme.  [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...]

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...]

NASA’s Manned Mission to Venus

In the mid-1960s, NASA was already looking ahead to what it would do after the Apollo program. Where could the organization send astronauts after the moon that would make use of everything it had learned getting them to our satellite? What emerged was the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), a program designed to give the technologies generated from Apollo direction towards long term objectives in space. AAP goals were varied. They ranged from Earth orbital research, an extended and more permanent lunar exploration program, and manned planetary missions. Within this latter category, Mars was on the table but wasn’t the only target. In 1967, NASA looked at what it would take to send men to Venus (pictured).

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