Al Bean on the Moon. Credit: NASA
Among its notable accomplishments, Apollo 12 is famous for having returned no video of Pete Conrad and Al Bean exploring the lunar surface. Though the lunar landing crew carried a colour TV camera to bring their mission to the world live, transmissions failed after the lens was exposed to an excess of sunlight. The camera mishap came up when I met Bean in November, and he offered by far the best retelling of the story I’ve every heard. Continue reading
Polyus-Skif (the long black satellite) mated to the Energia rocket sits on the launch pad. Credit: Buran-Energia
On the evening of Wednesday, March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered a televised address about defense and national security. “Let me share with you a vision of the future,” the president began a last-minute addition to the half-hour speech. In Reagan’s vision, we would “embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive.” It was the first mention of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the plan to change America’s nuclear posture from offensive to defensive. Reagan’s admirers praised SDI while his critics scoffed, calling it a fantasy and assigning it the enduring nickname “Star Wars.”
The Soviet Union found itself in the rare position of joining Reagan’s admirers, fearing SDI was an American plot to disarm their nation or surreptitiously put a battle station in orbit. Reagan’s plan compelled them to act. The Soviet Leadership fast-tracked a space weapons system they hoped would disable US anti-missile satellites. This push culminated in the Polyus-Skif mission launched on May 15, 1987. The mission failed, but had Polyus-Skif succeeded, space would be a very different place—and the Cold War may have played out differently. Read my full article on the Polyus-Skif launch, which happened twenty-six years ago today, over at Ars Technica.
A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA
Most of NASA’s Apollo program files are publicly available, in many cases digitized and accessible online. But there’s one picture from the Apollo 12 files that I’ve never been able to find much information about: a picture of a suit technician packing what is unmistakably a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s left leg pocket the morning he, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean launched to the Moon. Last November, I asked Dick Gordon about this scarcely documented space sandwich. Continue reading
Posted in Apollo, Gemini, History of Space Science, Manned Spaceflight, Moon
Tagged Al Bean, Apollo, Apollo12, Dick Gordon, Gus Grissom, John Young, NASA, Pete Conrad
The Gemini paraglider; I believe this is a half-scale model in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. Credit: NASA (archives)
Most regular readers of Vintage Space will know that I’m obsessed with the Gemini Paraglider, the landing system that should have made splashdowns obsolete starting in the early 1960s but (to make a long story short) just couldn’t keep pace with Apollo. I’ve written about landings and the paraglider extensively in old blog posts: I’ve dealt with landings generally; discussed splashdowns as an imperfect landing method; talked about the paraglider’s inclusion in the Gemini program and the training vehicle astronauts flew to practice making paraglider landings; I’ve written about the paraglider’s cancellation from the Gemini program; it’s fate after Gemini; and even plans to use the paraglider to land the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. (And yes, there’s more, and I am working on bringing all of these pieces into something much larger.)
I brought my love of the paraglider to Scientific American this month. The latest episode of “It Happened in Space” gives a very brief overview of the Gemini paraglider landing system.
Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA
That he was responsible for both the deadly Nazi V-2 and NASA’s majestic Saturn V makes Wernher von Braun a controversial historical figure. Some hold that his participation in the Nazi war effort necessitates classifying him as a villain. But while his actions during the Second World War were monstrous, he wasn’t motivated by some inherent evil or personal belief in Nazi ideology. Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions in creating one of the War’s deadliest weapons. How can we treat someone who brought technological triumph to two nations, in one case as a purveyor of death and destruction and in the other a bringer of wonder and inspiration?
I’ve been wrestling with how to treat Wernher von Braun for a while, figuring out how to celebrate his accomplishments in space without apologizing for his actions during the Second World War. So while this is far from a complete look at his life, I’ve taken a stab at dealing with this controversial figure in my lastest opinion piece for Al Jazeera English.
“Cannibals on Mars” will clearly be a network sensation.
Three months ago I wrote this article about Mars One, the Netherlands-based non-profit organization that hopes to fund a one-way mission to build the first colony on Mars by broadcasting it as a reality show. The astronaut selection criteria had just been released, and when I put the article on Twitter and it sparked this conversation with two scientists who actually work on Mars. A discussions about the feasibility of Mars One’s proposed mission plan turned into a discussion about how quickly the whole thing would devolve into a “Survivor: Mars” type of show/mission with the crew resorting to cannibalism after running out of food. Mars One held another press conference last Monday, April 22. Between the handwritten name cards and the evasive answers about funding and hardware, my outlook on the mission unfortunately hasn’t changed. My latest thoughts on Mars One are up on Physics Focus.
Me, smiling like a goon, with Jim McDivitt.
Orbital mechanics and the challenges of orbital rendezvous isn’t a simple thing to explain, particularly as a non-scientist breaking it down for other non-scientists. But it’s a central part of the Apollo mission profile, so it comes up a lot in my line of work. To illustrate the problem, I typically tell the story of Jim McDivitt trying to rendezvous with the Titan II’s upper stage during the first orbit of Gemini 4 – the story goes that when McDivitt’s pilot instincts kicked in the whole exercise went to hell. I asked McDivitt about that first failed rendezvous when I met him in Florida in November. He promptly and candidly told me that this story, which he’s heard many times, is bull hockey. I learned from the man himself what really happened on Gemini 4. I also learned that Jim McDivitt is, and I say this with the utmost respect, a total firecracker. Continue reading