In 1977, NASA launched the twin Voyager spacecraft on parallel missions to visit Jupiter and Saturn. Lately, Voyager 1 has enjoyed the most press coverage as it’s racing inexorably closer to the edge of our solar system. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes history’s first interstellar spacecraft. But Voyager 2, the one we talk about less, arguable flew the more interesting mission. After leaving the vicinity of Saturn in 1981, it went on to become the only spacecraft to visit both Uranus and Neptune. To commemorate the 36th anniversary of Voyager 2′s launch, I’ve put together a slideshow of some of the mission’s most striking pictures on Discovery News.
Nine seconds after 11 o’clock on the night of July 8, 1962, a 2,200-pound W-49 nuclear weapon detonated 248 miles above a tiny island to the west of Hawaii. The blast, which yielded 1.4 megatons, instantly turned the night sky daylight-bright. As the flash dissipated, electrons from the explosion interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field to create an artificial aurora thousands of miles long. The residual light danced across the sky for seven minutes. The blast’s accompanying electromagnetic pulse knocked out street lamps 800 miles away.
The explosion that night wasn’t hostile; it was an American weapons test called Starfish Prime. The Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission were running a program designed to study the effects of nuclear warfare on the atmosphere. The effects the program found were far more profound than a light show. Starfish Prime created an artificial radiation belt that enveloped the Earth and intensified the Van Allen belts, fallout NASA quickly realized could threaten its Apollo program in the race to the Moon. For a brief period, it wasn’t clear whether manned space flight could continue at all.
The full story of Operation Dominic, the Starfish Prime event, and the impact Cold War nuclear testing had on the manned spaceflight program is fascinating, and it’s the subject of my latest article over at Ars Technica.
A couple of weeks ago, the Cassini spacecraft, currently in orbit around Saturn, turned to look back at the Earth. It took a picture, and the result is stunning. Images of the Earth as seen by distant spacecraft have become a staple of planetary missions; hardly any leave the Earth without turning around to take a picture on their way to some far flung planet or moon. I made a slideshow for Discovery News showing, chronologically, how the “pale blue dot” images have evolved since we first saw the Earth from space in 1946. Taken together, they offer breathtaking perspective of our planet, what Carl Sagan called the pale blue dot. Because really, if you’re far enough, that’s all we are.
Most of NASA’s Apollo program files are publicly available, in many cases digitized and accessible online. But there’s one picture from the Apollo 12 files that I’ve never been able to find much information about: a picture of a suit technician packing what is unmistakably a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s left leg pocket the morning he, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean launched to the Moon. Last November, I asked Dick Gordon about this scarcely documented space sandwich. [Read more...]
Orbital mechanics and the challenges of orbital rendezvous isn’t a simple thing to explain, particularly as a non-scientist breaking it down for other non-scientists. But it’s a central part of the Apollo mission profile, so it comes up a lot in my line of work. To illustrate the problem, I typically tell the story of Jim McDivitt trying to rendezvous with the Titan II’s upper stage during the first orbit of Gemini 4 – the story goes that when McDivitt’s pilot instincts kicked in the whole exercise went to hell. I asked McDivitt about that first failed rendezvous when I met him in Florida in November. He promptly and candidly told me that this story, which he’s heard many times, is bull hockey. I learned from the man himself what really happened on Gemini 4. I also learned that Jim McDivitt is, and I say this with the utmost respect, a total firecracker. [Read more...]
We have an amazing ability to selectively read history, and it’s something that happens a lot with the Space Race. We see the inspirational effects of bold missions to the Moon and use them as a benchmark for future exploration. But too often these bold missions are taken out of context. Most recently the Inspiration Mars Foundation announced in a press conference its plan to send a married couple on a free-return trajectory around Mars in 2018, citing the mission as a sort of Apollo 8 for a new generation. It struck me that not one person spoke to the motivation behind Apollo 8; the refrain was that it’s the outcome that matters in this case, an influx of students interested in the sciences and a nation wide love-in about America’s “can-do” spirit.
But context does matter. If we’re going to point to history as our guide for the future it’s important to understand where these big decisions came from and equally important to understand the context in which, in the case of spaceflight, a certain mission was so inspirational. We need history in context to have a clear understanding of where we were, where we are, and how we can possibly move forward. I’ve put Apollo 8, history’s inspirational first manned mission to the Moon, in context in my latest article for Al Jazeera.
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.
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...]
Long before the Sky Crane lowered Curiosity into Gale Crater, before the twin MER rovers Spirit and Opportunity bounced across the Martian surface, even before Sojourner was a glimmer in its designers’ eyes the Soviet Union launched the twin Prop-M rovers. Though neither rover made it to the surface, the technology stands as a brilliant example of the Soviet ingenuity that gave the nation an early lead in space. I tell the Prop-Ms’ story, in brief, in my first video for Scientific American.
Incidentally, I’m very excited to announce that I’m doing a monthly video series – “It Happened in Space” – for Scientific American!
Researching the U-2 spy plane the other day, I came across this stunning picture of the aircraft in silhouette. For the first time I noticed a yellow NASA stripe and an ID number – 55741 – on the tail, the same markings the agency put on the X-15’s tail when it assumed control of that program in 1958. Idly interested in NASA’s history with the U-2, I searched for records of the aircraft by its ID number. Turns out, these NASA markings were put on the aircraft entirely for show. [Read more...]