NASA’s Manned Venus Orbital Mission

Venus seen from orbit. Photo credit: NASA/STS-30 Crew

In the late 1960s, NASA was considering future applications for its Apollo hardware under the aptly named Apollo Applications program. One popular target for an AAP mission was Venus, our cosmic neighbour that was a scientific enigma at the time; admittedly our knowledge of Venus still isn’t complete. The space agency briefly looked at a plan that would see a crew of astronauts sent into orbit around Venus.  [Read more…]

Carpenter versus Aurora 7

Carpenter during water egress training before his flight in 1962. Photo credit: NASA

Scott Carpenter died on October 10, 2013, and in writing an article about his legacy I thought more about the context surrounding his flight. I used the same sources I did for this article, but merged it with a further year and a half of research and thinking about NASA’s early culture. My new article is on Vintage Space at Popular Science, and while I stand by the research in this article I will say that my more recent work is the more balanced and neutral version of the story. Perhaps I ought to have title this article “Kraft vs. Carpenter and Aurora 7.” I urge you to read the article at Popular Science and consider the sources of both articles before calling my merits as an historian into question. 
 

On May 24, 1962, NASA narrowly escaped its first fatality in space. When Scott Carpenter reentered the atmosphere at the end of his Aurora 7 orbital flight, no one in mission control knew where he was going to land. They didn’t even know whether he’d be dead or alive when they found him. [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…]

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…]

Losing Rogallo from Gemini

Landing methods and the Gemini program are two of my favourite topics, and I’ve previously posted about landing methods in Gemini. The Mercury program demonstrated sufficient reason to move away from splashdowns, and the second generation Gemini manned spaceflight program gave NASA an opportunity to do so – it was the first to actively pursue a pilot-controlled land landing system. NASA reviewed multiple proposals before selecting the Rogallo paraglider wing. (Left, a model Gemini spacecraft with a Rogallo wing. 1963.)

Beginning with its initial development in 1961, the Rogallo wing had a long and interesting history within NASA. For the moment, I will limit myself to its inclusion in Gemini, putting the system’s research and development timeline against the Gemini program as a whole. This will begin to unravel why, in spite of NASA’s best efforts, all Gemini missions ended in splashdown. [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…]

Not Exactly Rocket Science

A while ago, I talked about NASA’s invention of landing methods for the Mercury program – what to do when finding a solution for an entirely unknown problem. Tied into the question of landing methods for NASA’s first manned program was the design of the capsule. The basic constraints were laid out fairly early on in the program. Mercury would use a ballistic design proposed by Langley engineer Maxime Faget and splashdown in the ocean. This was the simplest method. In returning from space, NASA was content to let gravity do most of the work. (Pictured, Mercury model makers Richard Altimus and Arthur Lohse with model finisher John Wilson. 1960.)

With the basic capsule design set, there remained smaller design questions needing answers. What ballistic design would fare best against the heat of reentry? Throughout the descent stage, would one ballistic shape have better inherent stability than another or would the astronaut have to control the capsule’s attitude all the way down? Once the capsule was in the ocean, would it float? If the astronaut had to get out of the capsule, would it still float with a hatch open? In the 1950s, NASA sought answers to these questions in an age before computer programs could immediately generate answers. And so they did the next best thing. They tested model capsules, each shape designated by a letter, and picked the best design through trial and error. [Read more…]

Bringing Down a New Bird: Landing Gemini

I’ve previously discussed NASA’s invention of a landing system for the Mercury program – with little time and almost no prior experience, engineers determined that splashdowns were the simplest and least risky method to bring an astronaut home. But, as I’ve also previously discussed, splashdowns were far from an ideal landing method; inherently dangerous to both astronaut and capsule alike. (Left, a half-scale Rogallo wing mated to a half-scale Gemini spacecraft. NASA Archives.)

NASA’s second-generation Gemini program opened the door for a change in landing methods. Though incepted in early 1962, work on the program began late in 1961 when the end-of-decade lunar landing goal was seemingly far away. Gemini, then, had a more open schedule at the outset, allowing engineers to undertake some major design changes. One of the first aspects of Mercury to go was splashdown. The original goals for Gemini stated that a pilot-controlled land landing was paramount. So the program began seeking an answer to the question of how to invent a land landing system. [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…]

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…]