Neil Armstrong OpEd in the Guardian

A smiling Armstrong inside the X-15’s cockpit. Credit: NASA

I was asked to write an opinion piece on Neil Armstrong’s passing for the Guardian. I thought a lot about the role he’s played in spaceflight history, not just because of the missions he flew but because of what he stood for in the space race. “With Armstrong’s death, the chapter of spaceflight history that opened with Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 has closed… we’ve lost the man who is recognised the world over as embodying Apollo’s triumph.”

 I think it’s up to historians to preserve Armstrong’s legacy within the context of the space race so he might serve as an inspirational figure to future generations. After all, he will always be the first man to have walked on the Moon and symbolic of Apollo’s success no matter what comes next. Read my full article on the Guardian.

Neil Armstrong: Ace Engineer and Hotshot Test Pilot

Armstrong enjoys a cigar in March, 1969. Credit: Ralph Morse/Life

I walked in the house this afternoon to find a heap of emails, text messages, and voicemails about Neil Armstrong’s death. I was shocked. My next thought was that Armstrong will never be truly gone. When he stepped on the Moon on July 20, 1969, he inspired a generation to pursue careers in science. A generation later, children reading about Apollo (including myself) were similarly inspired. I don’t think the effect will wear off in generations to come. But Armstrong’s legacy is so much more than just Apollo 11. His contributions to and role in some of the earliest and most innovative early spaceflight programs are significant. Preserving that legacy will keep him alive and is vital to doing his memory justice.

I can’t possibly sum up all the projects Armstrong was involved in in one article, so here’s a brief look at his career leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing with links to full stories I’ve covered elsewhere.   [Read more…]

The X-15’s First Glide

Crossfield stands in front of the X-15. Credit: The Scott Crossfield Foundation online

It was a chilly morning on June 8, 1959 when Scott Crossfield climbed into the cockpit of the X-15 rocket aircraft. By 8:30, he was airborne, and the aircraft  was nestled under the wing of the larger B-52 launch plane. Pilots Captain Charles Bock and Captain Jack Allavie kept a steady conversation with Crossfield about the X-15’s status. The B-52 was scheduled to launch the X-15 that morning at 8:40. More men than just the three in the air hoped nothing would prevent Crossfield making this maiden voyage.  [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…]

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…]

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 X-15 as Research Aircraft

In a previous post, I offered a brief summary of the X-15 program in which I highlighted its features that enabled it to take on the designation of a ‘space plane’. I also mentioned that its nature is two-fold; it is at once a space plane and a research aircraft. (Left, an engineer runs wind tunnel tests on a scale model of an X-15.)

For many involved with the X-15 program, the aircraft was the first space plane – it’s record altitude was above the 50-mile limit of space. The aircraft was poised to be the first in a line of orbit-capable space planes. The proposed follow-up X-20 program built on the basic space plane design. But as the space race gathered steam, the X-15 took a backseat to, and was eventually eclipsed by, the Mercury ballistic capsule. Thus, in the wake of Mercury’s success, the X-15 took on a second nature – the last in a long line of research aircraft. [Read more…]

The X-15 as Space Plane

A number of my previous posts have drawn attention to some of the central aspects in the history and development of land landings in the early space age. But the drawbacks of splashdowns and hazards of the Soviets’ method of ejection represent only a fraction of the story. A myriad of factors contributed to the decision of landing methods; in the United States no factor was perhaps as influential and tied to landing methods as the shape and design of the spacecraft. The X-15, which I’ve previously mentioned in passing, deserves more attention in this discussion of the link between spacecraft design and landing methods. In the 1950s, the X-15 represented space plane designs as an early contender for the design of spacecraft. (Pictured is the nose of an X-15 under the wing of a B-52 launch plane.) [Read more…]