Mercury’s Staggering Recovery Crews

Splashdown landings, those iconic ends to Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, weren’t as simple as they seemed. While dropping a capsule into the ocean was a simple way to land, pulling the capsule and its crew out of the water was a multistage operation requiring a staggering number of men. Just how many men were involved in splashdown recoveries? Check out the latest Vintage Space Video for an answer.

Vintage Space Fun Fact: Animals in Space Before NASA

For most people, early biological testing in space brings to mind Ham the chimp, angrily trying to bit any hand that came near him after his suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket. But Ham was launched on January 31, 1961, nearly a decade after the first monkeys survive surborbital flights. Biological testing in space goes back even further. In the late 1940s, fruit flies became the first animals to survive exposure to spaceflight conditions. (Left, Ham ready for launch in 1961. The system in his capsule designed to reward or shock him for his inflight performance malfunctioned and he was shocked for pushing the right buttons. He was, understandably, irate.)  [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...]

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...]

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...]

Talking Vintage Space

I’ve recently found that good things come from using Twitter! Mark Ratterman approached me (via email) asked if I would like to join him and fellow hosts Gene Mikulka, Gina Herlihy, and Sawyer Rosenstein on their podcast Talking Space.

I joined the team this past Sunday for a very fun and interesting discussion. I answered questions and shared my opinions on the Space Shuttle, landing systems, and one-way trips to Mars.

Listen to the episode entitled “A New Look on ‘Vintage Space'”!

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...]