When Soviets Roved the Moon

The Lunokhod Rover, 7.5 feet long and just under 5 feet tall. Credit via NASA

Between Curiosity stretching its wheels and heads for its first big target site, Glenelg, and Opportunity finding new “blueberries,” concretions left by ancient mineral-laden water flowing through rocks, rovers are pretty hot right now. But Mars isn’t the first body to be explored remotely by a rover. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union sent two rovers, Lunokhod 1 and 2, to the Moon as part of the Luna program. The team remote controlling the rovers from Earth gained confidence quickly, and covered an impressive amount of the lunar surface in a short time. Though rudimentary compared to our modern Mars rovers, the Lunokhod’s are the pair that started it all. Read their full story at DVICE.

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…]

Are China and the USSR Equivalent Opponents to the US in Space?

The Shenzhou-9 crew in a simulator during training. Credit: Xinhua news agency / Qin Xian’an

Last week, China’s Shenzhou 9 landed after a successful mission that included the nation’s first docking with its Tiangong 1 prototype space station. The rapid development of its space program suggests that China is poised to become a powerful new player in space, and this is giving rise to speculation that the nation could turn out to be enough of a threat to the United States to spark a new space race. Perhaps some of these reactions are rooted in the similarities between China’s space program and the Soviet space program of the 1960s. Both are built on a similar model that’s very different from NASA. [Read more…]

First Woman

Valentina Tereshkova. Credit: RIA Novosti

China’s Shenzhou 9 spacecraft successfully reached orbit yesterday, and tomorrow it will dock with the Tiangong 1 prototype space station the nation launched last September. But it’s the crew that’s commanding the most attention on this mission, namely pilot Liu Yang who became the first female taikonaut (Chinese astronaut) yesterday.

There’s another woman to celebrate for her role in space today: on June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became history’s first woman in space. Her flight has been called little more than a propaganda stunt; launching a woman outwardly showed that the Soviet Union placed equal value on its women as it did its men. This isn’t to say she wasn’t highly intelligent and a skilled parachutist (her standout qualification for the spaceflight) when she was selected for the job, but, like Gagarin before her, it was Tereshkova’s pedigree that made her the ideal candidate for the historic flight. For more about the first woman in space, read my full article on Motherboard.

Plan X; or, Planning White’s Small Step

The Gemini 4 crew in training, White on the left and McDivitt on the Right. Photo credit: NASA

In 1964, the launch schedule for the Gemini program was set and it was tight. Missions with new objectives would launch every eight to ten weeks taking NASA a step closer to the Moon each time. But hardware setbacks and some surprising feats by Soviet cosmonauts took a toll on the schedule. In the first half of 1965, NASA developed a plan that would see Gemini match and begin to overtake the Soviet Union in space. It was done largely in secret and known internally as Plan X.  [Read more…]

NASA’s LRO: Shedding New Light on Old Mysteries

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter keeps finding interesting things on the moon. Last week, LRO’s camera photographed the landing sites of Luna 23 and 24, two Soviet probes that landed in the 1970s. The images have enabled scientists to solve mysteries about these missions, specifically what happened to Luna 23 and why the samples returned by Luna 24 were drastically different than anticipated. It seems these nearly 40-year-old missions are still unfolding. Read the full article on Motherboard. (Left, the Soviet Luna 16 spacecraft. One of many in the long-lasting program.)

Soyuz 1: Falling to Earth

The Russian Soyuz program is the longest-running spaceflight program — variations of the spacecraft have flown consistently since 1966. It isn’t perfect; big technologies like spacecraft rarely are. There have been problems on recent missions where spacecraft have made hard landings. But overall its considered the safest and most reliable vehicle. But Soyuz hasn’t always been a reliable workhorse. The program got off to a very rocky start when the first mission, Soyuz 1, saw the launch of a fatally flawed spacecraft in 1966. (Left, the Soyuz 1 crew. Backup pilot Yuri Gagarin and prime pilot Vladimir Komarov. Source: The Russian Space Web.) [Read more…]

The Real Apollo 18

Conspiracy theorists have concocted some incredibly creative stories to explain why NASA has not returned to the moon since Apollo 17’s splashdown in 1972. Some suggest that aliens on the moon prevented or scared astronauts from ever returning while others claim that there were undocumented missions to the moon. The other end of the spectrum sees moon hoax theorists claiming we never went to the moon, but the ‘evidence’ of these claims is so great it really deserves its own post. (Left, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan was the last man to leave a boot print on the moon. December 1972.)

Last week, Dimension Films released Apollo 18. Conspiracy theorists are coming out of the internet’s virtual woodwork in droves, lauding the film for finally admitting to the decades-old cover up. The real story of Apollo 18 is interesting but much less exciting.  [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…]