The Cost of Curiosity

Taken on Sol 32, this is the frist time Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on its arm to take this portrait of the top of its Remote Sensing Mast showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras. It’s as close to a headshot as Curiosity can take. Credit: NASA/JPL

The other day I was in a coffee shop, quietly writing and sharing a table with a woman also on a laptop. She caught me staring blankly out the window and asked what I was working on; apparently I looked troubled. I told her I was working on a new angle for my sixth or so Mars article that week. She seemed interested so I told her about Curiosity, the heritage technology that’s helped NASA make multiple successful Mars landings, and how the Sky Crane will open up a new future of exploration.

The idea that reusing technology saves money in spaceflight and that developing new technology now may cut costs on future missions caught her attention. She urged me to play up that angle because the amount of money NASA spends on these missions is stupid.  “Curiosity,” she said, “cost half the nation’s defense budget.” That’s when I noticed her cross necklace and asked what kind of writer she is; turns out she’s a Christian motivational writer. That’s when I wished I had the figures on hand to illustrate just how little we spend on space exploration. But I didn’t so I quietly got back to work. But I did decided that I ought to write a blog post putting Curiosity into perspective so that the next time someone tells me NASA wastes money I can tell them how wrong they are.  [Read more...]

A History of the Dyna-Soar

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing some research into the USAF Dyna-Soar or X-20 program, and its story is much more interesting than I realized. Like many of the unrealized programs of the early space age, its impact extends far beyond its immediate application. Dyna-Soar is typically referenced in passing as an upgraded version of the X-15, an aircraft capable of achieving orbiting, but this connection is misleading. Dyna-Soar came from an entirely different place than the X-15, and its story is much more complicated than a simple cancelled research program. (A worker inspects a full-scale mockup of Dyna-Soar. Reader’s Digest described the vehicle as a cross between a porpoise and a manta ray. Early 1960s. Photo: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.) [Read more...]

In Support of the X-15

I’ve recently delved back into the X-15 again. But instead of focussing on the aircraft and its role in America’s move into space, I’ve been looking into the structure of the program as a whole. I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, at the manpower involved each flight. Like the impressive number of men on hand to recover a single Mercury astronaut, each X-15 flight had a substantial crew both in the air and on the ground at multiple points – another similarity shared with Mercury recover efforts.  (Left, workers secure the X-15 after landing.)

In two previous posts, I’ve looked at the dual nature of the X-15. It was at once a cutting edge research aircraft as well as a precursor to orbiting space planes; the space shuttle’s roots in the X-15 is a connection I’ve previously pointed to. A closer look at the test program reveals just how complicated flying the unique vehicle was. During a single flight, the X-15 acted like a traditional jet, a spaceplane, and a glider. It accelerated to speeds upwards of Mach 5 in a minute of powered flight before landing without power on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Each flight lasted on average less than ten minutes. A successful flight demanded a lot happen in a very short time span. [Read more...]

What to Do After the Moon?

In previous posts I’ve mentioned, albeit in passing, the Apollo Applications Program (AAP) – it was one of the possible applications of the Rogallo paraglider wing after the system was cancelled from the Gemini program in 1964. AAP was the follow-up program to Apollo, the program that would reemphasize science over technology in spaceflight. The program intended to solidify man’s presence in space, expand his understanding of the solar system and the cosmos, and exploit space to satisfy our needs on Earth. This post gives only a cursory overview of the short-lived Apollo Applications Program, but it promises to be the first of many. Over time, I hope to put together a comprehensive picture of the program. (Pictured: Skylab. 1974.) [Read more...]

Rogallo After Gemini

In a previous post, I looked at the Rogallo paraglider wing landing system and its failed development as part of NASA’s Gemini program. I also mentioned that the landing system didn’t disappear right away. After its cancellation from Gemini, NASA attempted to salvage its research and incorporate the landing system in Apollo and its follow-up programs. The US Air Force also expressed interest in including the Rogallo wing into its own space program. Regardless of the extra attention, it would seem that the paraglider was doomed to never leave the ground. (Left, a model Gemini capsule with Rogallo wing in a wind tunnel test. 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...]

Spaceflight: Risky Business

One of the things that fascinates me about NASA’s early manned programs is the risks the organization took to achieve its goals. The Apollo Program is a great example: NASA had a goal, a time frame in which to achieve its goal, and a real need to succeed. The risks could be justified in the name of a successful end-of-decade lunar landing. But the organization also had the money needed to achieve such a technological feat – roughly 4 percent of the GDP in the mid-1960s instead of the less than 1 percent it has now. (Pictured, engineers and astronauts begin troubleshooting in the minutes after an explosion rocked Apollo 13. 1970.)

Still, it wasn’t just having enough money to run the tests needed to get the results. NASA made bold, daring decisions in the 60s. Since the end of Apollo, however, NASA has become more conservative in its approach to both manned spaceflight and unmanned planetary exploration. [Read more...]

The Space Shuttle Era, Winding Down

On February 24, 2011, the space shuttle Discovery launched for its final trip into orbit. The main objective of the STS-133 mission is to deliver and install a permanent multipurpose module (what NASA is calling a ‘floating closet’) to give occupants of the International Space Station increased storage. Discovery is also delivering Robonaut 2 to the ISS. It is the first human analogue to go in space; it will undergo a series of tests to see how well a robot can function in a zero gravity environment. (Pictured is Discovery on the launch pad the eve before launch. February 23, 2011.)

While this is Discovery’s last fight, the shuttle program as a whole has two more mission lined up: STS-134 will see Endeavour launch into orbit on April 19, and STS-135 will see Atlantis launch on June 28. Even taking into account possible delays and scrubbed launches, it’s safe to say the shuttle program will likely be finished by the end of 2011. So, what’s next? [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...]