Looking Behind the Legend of Friendship 7

Glenn inspects the artwork on his Friendship 7 capsule. Credit: NASA

Glenn inspects the artwork on his Friendship 7 capsule. Credit: NASA

Today marks the anniversary of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight, NASA’s first orbital mission that launched on February 20, 1962. Every year the mission is celebrated as the flight that, at least temporarily, leveled the playing field between the Soviets and the Americans in the early days of the Space Race. But there’s more to the story than its triumphs. When Friendship 7 launched, the Atlas rocket that took Glenn into orbit had a 51 percent success rate. Glenn was never assigned the first orbital flight; he landed the assignment by chance. And the mission nearly became NASA’s first fatality. A warning light suggested the spacecraft’s heat shield had separated, which, if true, meant certain death for the astronaut during reentry.

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…]

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.

Vintage Space Fun Fact: NASA’s Canadian Contingent

Director of the Space Task Group Robert Gilruth (second from left) with, from left to right, chief assistants Charles Donlan, Maxime Faget, and Robert Piland. Here, these original members of the Space Task Group discuss contractors to study feasibility of a manned circumlunar mission. August, 1960. Credit: NASA

On February 20, 1959, 14,000 Canadians found themselves suddenly unemployed. Weeks previously, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had cancelled continued work on the Arrow, a high performance interceptor aircraft built by A.V. Roe (AVRO) poised to break speed records. Fortunately for the 4,000 who had designed and built the aircraft, their talents made them highly desirable in the aerospace market, particularly to the young American agency working on how to put a man in space. [Read more…]

Carpenter versus Aurora 7

Carpenter during water egress training before his flight in 1962. Photo credit: NASA

Scott Carpenter died on October 10, 2013, and in writing an article about his legacy I thought more about the context surrounding his flight. I used the same sources I did for this article, but merged it with a further year and a half of research and thinking about NASA’s early culture. My new article is on Vintage Space at Popular Science, and while I stand by the research in this article I will say that my more recent work is the more balanced and neutral version of the story. Perhaps I ought to have title this article “Kraft vs. Carpenter and Aurora 7.” I urge you to read the article at Popular Science and consider the sources of both articles before calling my merits as an historian into question. 
 

On May 24, 1962, NASA narrowly escaped its first fatality in space. When Scott Carpenter reentered the atmosphere at the end of his Aurora 7 orbital flight, no one in mission control knew where he was going to land. They didn’t even know whether he’d be dead or alive when they found him. [Read more…]

Was NASA’s First Launch Delay its Most Significant?

In January 1961, the pieces of the manned spaceflight puzzle were slowly coming together. NASA had a capsule, astronauts to ride inside it, and rockets to launch it. The capsule had even successfully launched on top of the rocket. The missing piece was the ‘go’  for a man to ride inside the capsule, but timid flight surgeons and rocket engineers were playing it safe. Had they been a little more bold, Alan Shepard could have been history’s first man in space. Instead, Wernher von Braun’s concern that his Redstone rocket might explode secured Shepard’s position as the first American in suborbital space. (Left, Alan Shepard on the morning of his May 5, 1961 suborbital flight.) [Read more…]

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Slayton’s Bow Tie

On Thursday April 9, 1959, the seven Mercury astronauts were introduced to the world at a press conference. Six nervous men sat shifting in their seats at a long table facing a room full of press; John Glenn was the only one smiled at the cameras, pleased as punch to be there. Sitting in alphabetical order, Deke Slayton sat on the far left of the table, fingers intertwined on the table in front of him looking up at the room with only his eyes. On his right sat Alan Shepard, leaning back looking much more calm. Slayton’s mannerisms could be chalked up to nerves, or it could be discomfort after a prank Shepard played moments earlier. (Left, Shepard and Slayton as the press conference began on April 9, 1959.) [Read more…]

The Unsinkable Gusmobile

On March 23, 1965, Gus Grissom and John Young launched on the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3. First planned as a followup to Mercury known as Mercury Mark II, development of the Gemini spacecraft took nearly six years. The finished product was an expression of what Grissom wanted in a spacecraft, from the cockpit layout to the placement of each switch and instruments. It was, in many ways, his baby. Grissom’s close hand in its design prompted many of his fellow astronauts to call NASA’s second-generation spacecraft the Gusmobile.  (Left, the Gemini 3 crew, Gus Grissom and John Young in 1965.) [Read more…]