Wernher Von Braun’s Smoke and Mirrors Escape from Germany

On their journey out of Germany, von Braun’s driver fell asleep at the wheel but he escaped with just a broken arm. Centre, with other high ranking rocket engineers right after they surrendered to American soldiers in 1945. Credit: NASA

That the rockets that launched America’s space program had Nazi roots was never a secret. They came to America under Operation Overcast and Project Paperclip before building rockets for the US military but didn’t become citizens until the 1950s. The US Army had them travel to Mexico then walk back onto US soil so they’d have immigration dates that weren’t confidential. But the really interesting part of the story, and the question a lot of people have when they hear about Wernher von Braun and his immigration to the US, is how a group of engineers and technicians managed to move through Germany to find American soldiers to negotiate their transfer to the states with more than a decade of research in tow. It’s a pretty phenomenal story involving quick thinking, clever deceptions, and a fair amount of luck. Read the whole story on Motherboard.

Painting Rockets

I recently built my first model — a 1:144 scale Saturn V. I posted this picture of the painted but unassembled rocket online, and it wasn’t long before I got an email from a fellow space-enthusiast. He asked about the paint scheme I used. He used the same design on a model years ago, and neither of us followed the paint scheme of any Saturn V that actually flew. I’d been so distracted following the directions and getting the lines straight that I didn’t stop to look at where the lines were going. It got me thinking about the Saturn V’s design scheme, which might be one of the more interesting histories of paint. Turns out, most of the readily accessible information is geared towards model builders. That’s all well and good, but it didn’t tell me why German-built launch vehicles have always varied their paint scheme.  [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…]

The Enigmatic Vostok 1

In previous posts, I’ve talked a little bit about how the Soviet Space Program designed its perfect cosmonaut and outlined some of the differences between Soviet and American spaceflight in the early 1960s. In both cases, Yuri Gagarin (left) has been a focal point, though I’ve never expressly treated his own mission. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; his mission lasted 108 minutes and he made one orbit around the globe. Upon his return to Earth, he was lauded as a hero and the Soviet Union enjoyed its continued position as the leading power in space.

But in the years and decades that followed, details of the flight revealed a very different picture of this historic Soviet accomplishment. Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, documentation was slowly released to reveal the secretive nature of the Soviet Space Program as a whole. In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, I thought I’d unravel some of the mystery. For those steeped in the history of spaceflight, these anecdotes may not be new. But for the casual reader, I hope to shed some light on the lesser-known aspects of the launch heard ‘round the world. I don’t in any way intend to denigrate the Soviet accomplishment; if anything I hope to add some depth to the stories most people find in history books surrounding Gagarin and Vostok 1. [Read more…]

The Lost Art of the Saturn V

I’ve previously mentioned that once the Shuttle program ends this year, there will be no way for NASA to launch manned missions. It simply doesn’t have the necessary rockets to launch such a heavy payload into orbit, let alone a rocket capable of launching a heavy payload to another planet. A good example is the case of Mars. The Delta II hit its payload limit with the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and that’s with each rover launched separately. The upcoming Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity is significantly larger and will use an Atlas family launch vehicle. For NASA’s Martian exploration plan to progress, as well as for the continuation of manned spaceflight, the organization needs a heavy lifting vehicle. (Pictured, the first Saturn V to launch: Apollo 4, 1967.)

But NASA doesn’t necessarily need a new launch vehicle. The organization had the means to launch a manned mission to Mars in the 1960s using only technology of the day. The whole mission, however, depended on the titanic Saturn V rocket, a technology that is lost to the current generation. [Read more…]

V-2: The Vehicle that Launched the Space Age

Two of my previous posts tease out the main differences in the landing methods employed by both NASA and the Soviet Space Program as a means of illustrating the contrast between the two programs. What these posts don’t draw attention to is the large number of similarities between the two conflicting powers in their respective approaches to spaceflight.

In the early space age, both the US and the USSR pursued accelerated methods to get a man in space. Both achieved initial flights with capsule-style spacecrafts on top of ballistic missiles. This similar method had a common root: both countries based their launch vehicles, at least in part, on the Nazi V-2 rockets. Both had access to and exploited this technology in the wake of the Second World War. Admittedly the history of the V-2 is slightly on the fringe of the history of spaceflight proper, but a familiarity with the roots of the rocketry that launched the space age adds a dimension to the American and Soviet programs that is otherwise lost. [Read more…]