A Salute to Salyut, History’s First Space Station

The last Salyut station, Salyut 7, in orbit. Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The last Salyut station, Salyut 7, in orbit. Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

When we think about space stations, we typically think of the International Space Station, that football field-sized behemoth orbiting 200 miles above our heads. But long before the ISS there was the Russian Mir, and before that, the American Skylab. And before all of those, there was Salyut. Based on the space station the Soviet military hoped to use as its orbital outpost, the Salyut station not only pioneered long-duration stays in space, it proved a modular station design was the best way forward. I’ve given a brief history of the Salyut Space Station in my latest article at DVICE.

Zond 8 and the Plaster-like Moon

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Credit: redorbit.com

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Click for the full-size image. The detail, and plaster-like appearance, is incredible. Credit: redorbit.com

It happens occasionally that I come across a picture so striking that I stop what I’m doing to track down its backstory. This morning, it was this picture of the Moon taken by the Soviet Zond 8 spacecraft that sent me hunting through books for context. It incredible how much this picture of the Moon looks like the one in Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent movie “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” Unsurprisingly, the story behind Zond 8 is a fascinating if minor episode of the Space Race. [Read more…]

Tereshkova, Savitskaya, and Ride: the Beginnings of Women in Space

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Credit: NASA

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Credit: NASA

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. First American woman, but third woman overall; she was preceded into orbit by Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. But both these women were launched for political gain, a means for the Soviet Union to establish dominance or secure a first in space. This wasn’t a uniquely Soviet trait. Ride was among the six women selected as part of NASA’s 1978 astronaut class, a group of 35 that also included three African Americans and one Asian American. It was a sudden diversity that was at least in part politically motivated.

Politics and spaceflight have long been inseparable, and politically-driven launches are nothing new. Political motivation neither tarnishes the accomplishments of the first two women who reached orbit nor does it say anything about their abilities, careers, or characters. Rather, it’s the situation surrounding the individual flights that speaks volumes. When it comes to the relationship between women and space, Ride more than any other woman marks the turning point. I’ve scratched the surface of this idea in my latest article for Motherboard.

Yuri Gagarin’s Controversial Landing

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, after waterskiing in Dolgoprundy. Credit: Public doman via Wikipedia

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, after waterskiing in Dolgoprundy. Credit: Public doman via Wikipedia

Today marks the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight. On April 12, 1961, the unknown Soviet Air Force pilot became the first man to orbit the Earth. But there’s a controversy surrounding the flight that’s been lost in moden retellings: to ensure Gagarin’s flight would go down as history’s first manned spaceflight, Soviet space officials issued a false statement about his landing. It’s a bizarre twist, but there was a very brief moment when Gagarin was nearly stripped of the honour of being the first man in space.  [Read more…]

It Happened in Space – Mars PropM Rovers

A model Mars Prop-M rover. Credit: NASA

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!

Phantom Cosmonauts

Cosmonauts at the seaside resort at Sochi. In the photo on the right, Grigoriy Nelyubov has been airbrushed out. It’s just one of a number of doctored Soviet photographs from the early 1960s.

The Soviet Union was notoriously secretive about its space program in the early 1960s. Missions weren’t announced before they launched, and failures were covered up and  labeled as test flights or booster development flights. Adding to the mystery surrounding the Soviet space program were reports in the Western media of cosmonauts who may or may not have existed. Rehashing these Soviet-era mysteries in the present day, a Spanish artist created an exhibit in the 1990s around the idea of a cosmonaut killed in flight whose death was covered up.

Laika (Muttnik) on SciLogs

Laika in her capsule before her November 3, 1957 launch. Credit: NASA

On Saturday, October 5, 1957, word that the Soviets had put a 184-pound satellite, Sputnik, into orbit the night before spread throughout the United States. Fear and paranoia spread throughout the country while the Soviet Union celebrated, specifically the scientists who had built and launched the small satellite. Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev allowed his men to take a brief vacation at the seaside resort of Sochi, the first in many years, but he didn’t rest himself. Instead, he met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to plan the next Soviet coup in space – launching a dog into orbit in time for the 40th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution on November 7. The whole story is up over at SciLogs.

The Psychological Impact of Sputnik

A technician with Sputnik in 1957. Credit: NASA

Today marks 55 years since the Soviet Union launched history first artificial satellite, Sputnik. It was, by all accounts, an innocuous satellite; it weighed about 184-pounds and it beeped. It wasn’t broadcasting secret messages or pinpointing the locations of major U.S. cities. But it was big, which meant the Soviets had a big rocket to launch it. No one could deny the implications of the Soviets’ having big rockets.

Sputnik came on the heels of a successful Soviet ICBM test in August of 1957 and was followed into orbit by the 1,120 pound Sputnik 2. Also in November, the presidential-ordered “Gaither Report” was released and warned that the Soviets might have substantial ICBM capabilities. All of these individual events, compounded with the Cold War mentality, created panic among Americans. Read more about the psychological impact of Sputnik on Discovery News, and how the story of Sputnik broke in the Soviet Union and America on Motherboard.

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.

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.)