Vintage Space Favourites of 2012

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The past twelve months have been very good ones. I’ve met and worked with some incredible people, ventured into the (often awkward) world of podcasts and webcasts, and have read and written more than I ever did in grad school. Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written, a few stand out as favourites. And so, in no particular order, here are my top picks of 2012. These aren’t the big news items or the articles that got the most traffic. These are the ones that were fun to research and write, and the ones that taught me something new. [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...]

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...]

The Man Who Chose the Moon

I’ve recently posted two articles about the first men in space. After the Soviet Union launched the space age with the artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, the nation achieved another first with Yuri Gagarin’s Earth-orbital flight on April 12, 1961 in Vostok 1. Three weeks later, NASA evened the score when Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. (Left, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 1961.)

But the US barely caught up to the Soviet Union with Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission – the 15-minute suborbital first flight of the Mercury program was less impressive and demonstrated less technological power than Gagarin’s orbital flight. Nevertheless, Americans were elated at finally putting a man in space. President Kennedy was also aware of, and sought to capitalize on, the pride that swept through the nation in the wake of the Mercury flight. And so he set a new goal twenty days later: to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. [Read more...]

Shepard: First American in (Suborbital) Space

I’ve talked in previous posts about the first manned Soviet space program, Vostok, and Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. One aspect neither of these posts touched on, however, was the reaction in the United States. Understandably, Americans were less jubilant about Gagarin’s flight than the Soviets. But the feelings of defeat, frustration, and in some cases fear soon disappeared when on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

In the grand scheme of the space race, the first man in space almost pales in comparison to the feat of placing a man on the moon. But the race for manned flight was extremely important in the early 1960s. Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight was, like Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission, the climax of years of preparation and training, and it set in motion a chain of events that set the course of the space race. The flight was a fifteen-minute suborbital hop, officially classified as a pre-orbital training flight, but Americans didn’t care. An American had been in space. (Pictured, Shepard in Freedom 7 the morning of launch. May 5, 1961.) [Read more...]

Mapping Vintage Space

Regular readers of Vintage Space are doubtless aware that I have a tendency to link newer posts to older ones. This reflects the interrelation of all the topics I have (and will) discuss in this blog. I find this era of history to be complex (as most big historical eras are) with aspects that can be treated independently, but need to be contextualized by one another.

And so I thought I would begin mapping Vintage Space, building a sort of narrative roadmap that will give the more casual reader a better idea of where in the history of space and spaceflight each individual episode belongs. This is in no way a complete chronology, but rather a framework for my content. (Pictured, the sun rise above the gulf of Mexico as seen from orbit by Apollo 7. 1968.) [Read more...]

Designing a Bridge to the Moon

The Gemini program is often passed over in popular accounts of NASA’s race to the Moon. Perhaps understandably so. Gemini doesn’t carry the excitement of the Mercury Program with America’s first steps into space and it lacks the climactic excitement of the Apollo program with a lunar landing. The major accomplishments of the Gemini Program are usually highlighted in the greater scheme of the space race, such as America’s first extravehicular activity (EVA) or the first docking of two spacecraft. (Pictured is Gemini 7 in orbit as seen from Gemini 6. 1965.)

On the whole, however, Gemini is often treated like NASA’s overlooked middle child of the space race, a sad fate for the program I would argue is actually the most interesting of the era. As such, this promises be the first of several posts focussing on various aspects of the Gemini program. What fascinates me the most is that Gemini exemplifies the pioneering spirit and technological “go for broke” attitude NASA embodied in the 1960s. Even the genesis of Gemini is an interesting as it forced NASA to design a program in support of an as-of-yet- undesigned lunar program. The fundamental design choices of Apollo shaped Gemini. [Read more...]

Sailors, Ships, and Splashdowns

I’ve been posting a lot about landing methods – NASA’s use of splashdowns, why the method was not a long-term solution to the problem of returning from space, and a comparison to Soviet methods. The former, splashdowns, have been a focus of a number of posts. I have previously focussed on the complexity of splashdowns and the significant resources involved as driving force behind NASA’s pursuit of land landing methods with its second-generation manned spaceflight program. But this only tells half the story. A look at the numbers of men and ships involved offers a different illustration of the reasons to pursue a land landing method. (Pictured: The crew of the USS Champlain cheer on Alan Shepard following his Freedom 7 splashdown, 1961.) [Read more...]

The X-15 as Research Aircraft

In a previous post, I offered a brief summary of the X-15 program in which I highlighted its features that enabled it to take on the designation of a ‘space plane’. I also mentioned that its nature is two-fold; it is at once a space plane and a research aircraft. (Left, an engineer runs wind tunnel tests on a scale model of an X-15.)

For many involved with the X-15 program, the aircraft was the first space plane – it’s record altitude was above the 50-mile limit of space. The aircraft was poised to be the first in a line of orbit-capable space planes. The proposed follow-up X-20 program built on the basic space plane design. But as the space race gathered steam, the X-15 took a backseat to, and was eventually eclipsed by, the Mercury ballistic capsule. Thus, in the wake of Mercury’s success, the X-15 took on a second nature – the last in a long line of research aircraft. [Read more...]