Schirra’s Stellar Navigation

John Glenn trains in a Mercury simulator, the Mercury Procedures Trainer. Credit: NASA

John Glenn trains in a Mercury simulator, the Mercury Procedures Trainer. Credit: NASA

Simulators have always been an integral part of spaceflight. In the case of the all important reentry and landing phase, simulators were like analogue versions Google Earth: reproductions of landscapes from specific altitudes taught astronauts to look for when lining up their spacecraft for reentry. But as Wally Schirra learned on his Sigma 7 flight, landing simulators can’t prepare you for everything.  [Read more…]

Carnival of Space #278

Credit: NASA

It’s time, once again, to see what’s got the Internet buzzing (space-wise) this week with another Carnival of Space! Today’s unrelated spaceflight image is Wally Schirra boarding the gondola at the Navy’s centrifuge in Johnsville, Pennsylvania. This picture was taken on New Year’s Day in 1960. I’m not sure spinning in circles pulling multiple Gs is the best way to ring in a new year, but there are worse ways! [Read more…]

Another Use for Rogallo: Saturn Recovery

A Rogallo wing attached to a Mercury capsule, around 1961. Credit: NASA

Regular readers are doubtless aware that I love the Rogallo paraglider wing. NASA had had no shortage of uses for this triangular, two-lobed sail design in the 1960s. It was the system that should have landed the Gemini spacecraft on a runway (if it had worked), it briefly was considered as the landing system for both Mercury and Apollo, and the U.S. Air Force was interested in the paraglider for its Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. But there were non-piloted applications of this technology as well. In the early 1960s, NASA studied how it might use the Rogallo wing to bring the first stage of a Saturn rocket to a runway landing for refurbishment and relaunch. I’ve given an overview of the Rogallo Saturn recovery system Discovery News.

Venus’ Transits Through History

Venus passing into the disk of the Sun during the 2004 transit. Credit: NASA

In a matter of hours, lucky observers with clear skies will be able to watch Venus pass in front of the Sun. Transits of Venus are rare – this is the last one until 2117 – but that’s not the only reason you should find a way to watch it. This astronomical event is historically very significant. Since the 17th century astronomers have used Venus transits to better understand the Universe and our place within in, and the upcoming transit doesn’t break this centuries-old tradition.

Over the course of astronomy’s history, Venus transits have shaped and given size to our Solar System. Now, transits are helping us understand our place in the Universe relative not only to other planets and stars but to other possible worlds and life forms. Read my full article on the historical significance of Venus transits on Scientific American’s Guest Blog. Context, I firmly believe, gives us all a much greater appreciation for a cosmic event on such a huge scale.

Landings, NASA, and the Soviet Space Program

I recently wrote a blog post about NASA’s choice of using exclusively splashdowns landings during the space race and a (relatively brief) discussion of why this method was far less desirable than a land landing alternative. In retrospect, I realized that I only told half the story. Part of what makes the NASA “splashdown v. land landing” story an interesting one is a comparison to their Soviet counterparts who used exclusively land landing systems. (The image to the left shows cosmonaut Alexei Leonov during his spacewalk, Voskhod 2, March 1965.)

Throughout the Space Race, both the Americans and Soviets were launching capsule-style spacecraft. Try as they might, the Americans just couldn’t land their spacecraft on land. Which begs the question: what did the Soviets do that the Americans didn’t, or couldn’t? [Read more…]

Of Space Shuttles and Landing Systems

People keep asking me what I think about NASA’s Space Shuttle program coming to a close. Without fail, I unthinkingly answer, “Nothing. I don’t think much of it.” It’s true. I don’t really know all that much about the Space Shuttle. To be honest, I’ve never really found it all that exciting. [Read more…]

Splashdowns: Why Change a Good Thing?

I’ve recently begun the task of revisiting and reorganizing my master’s thesis in the hope of turning it into a book. The paper examines the push by NASA to incorporate a pilot-controlled land landing system into its second- and third-generation Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. Once I started getting into the research surrounding the land landing programs, I found the rationale behind the shift to be much more justified than at first glance, and certainly more than just a bunch of complaints from displeased astronauts. [Read more…]

Putting the Buck(s) Back in Buck Rogers

I have just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff for the third time. Unlike previous reads, however, this one was for a class. An interesting choice, I thought, since every time I’ve ever referenced the book in a paper I’ve been chewed out for using a non-academic source. My retort has always been that The Right Stuff fills a void that standard academic history texts can’t fill: Wolfe brings the human element to the forefront of his retelling of the Mercury program, not to mention brilliantly captures the surrounding excitement that gripped the nation.

In reading The Right Stuff, I kept the question of rationales for the pursuit of manned spaceflight in the back of my mind.  Though I’ve certainly been conscious of the enthusiasm within America during the early space program prior to this reading, it struck me that the collective will of a nation to achieve a technological end is something firmly in the past. I’ve said before that I am part of a generation for whom spaceflight is the norm; the Space Shuttle has always been around, longer than I have in fact. But how many people actually care? Spaceflight (and specifically NASA’s past, present, and future missions) is on my radar, but can the same be said for the average American who’s paying for it? [Read more…]