The Wearable Reentry Spacecraft of Yesteryear

By Amy Shira Teitel | October 12, 2017 10:29 am
The MOOSE concept. GE.

The MOOSE concept. GE.

Imagine an astronaut on board a dying spacecraft in orbit. The vehicle is losing power and there’s no way it will be able to make it safely back through the atmosphere. There’s no evacuation system in place and no other spacecraft ready to send up on a rescue mission. Without a way to get home, without some life boat of sorts, that astronaut is going to die in space…

This was the nightmare scenario General Electric had in mind when it developed a space lifejacket of sorts — basically the space equivalent of putting on a life jacket and jumping off a burning ship into the ocean. The solution was a one-man escape pod of sorts called a Man Out of Space Easiest, later renamed Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment, and it was little more than a wearable reentry vehicle.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
MORE ABOUT: NASA, Space

Sputnik was the Soviets’ Backup Satellite

By Amy Shira Teitel | October 4, 2017 1:53 pm

Sputnik_asmWernher von Braun popped briefly back into his office before heading out to a pre-dinner reception. He’d spent the day giving General Bruce Medaris, head of the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and Neil McElroy, incoming Secretary of Defense, a tour of the facilities where his team was building America’s first intermediate range ballistic missile. But what von Braun really wanted was to use the same IRBM to launch a small satellite into orbit, ideally before the Soviet Union did the same. He had the mission worked out and even had a rocket — RS-29 — in storage ready to deploy on what he called Project Orbiter. What he didn’t have was political blessing. That honour had gone to the US Navy’s Vanguard program, the all-American effort von Braun thought had about a snowball’s chance in hell of beating the Soviets, if it managed to launch at all. The upcoming dinner was his last chance to convince McElroy to give his team the green light to ready their rocket for a shot at space once the Navy failed.

He was still in his office when the phone on the desk rang. A British voice on the line asked what he thought about it. Von Braun didn’t know what “it” was, and so the man tried again: “What do you think of the Soviet satellite that has just launched into orbit?”

Von Braun might have been more shocked if he hadn’t been reading the writing on the walls. For months reports from the Soviet Union had been hinting that a satellite program was under development, that scientists were closing in on a launch date. He’d been trying to American decision makers that space was a vital part of national defense, that a huge psychological victory would go to the first nation in orbit; within 24 hours he would be proved right on that count as well.

On the other side of the world, Soviet scientists in Khazakstan celebrated the news that was slowly sweeping around the world. Their satellite — SP-1 to them but Sputnik to the outside world — was in orbit. Though it was very early in the morning of October 5, the world would remember the date as it was on Moscow time. It took more than three years of planning and development, but late at night on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the space age.

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We Almost Had Jet Packs on the Moon

By Amy Shira Teitel | September 28, 2017 1:45 pm

The Apollo lunar landing missions had limitations. The personal life support system backpacks moonwalking astronauts wore didn’t have replenishing stores of consumables. Once their power and oxygen supplies were low, there was no choice but to return to the lunar module, which itself could only support two men for three days. But in early 1969 NASA was already thinking ahead to longer duration missions, and to get the most out of these lunar stays, the agency commissioned two studies into possible personal flying units that astronauts could use to cover more lunar ground. Yes, for a brief moment NASA was considering sending astronauts with jet packs to the Moon.  Read More

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Ivan Ivanovich Cleared the Way for Yuri Gagarin’s Spaceflight

By Amy Shira Teitel | September 21, 2017 12:15 pm
Ivan Ivanovich's face obscured by the sign proclaiming him a dummy. via Astronautix

Ivan Ivanovich’s face obscured by the sign proclaiming him a dummy. via Astronautix

The countryside near Perm in the Soviet Union was rocketed by what sounded like an explosion in the afternoon of March 25, 1961. A capsule was falling from the sky, and before it hit the ground an ejection seat shot out, sending a passenger to a soft landing not far away. When recovery crews and volunteer helpers finally reached the landing site they rushed to the lifeless figure lying on the snowy ground, eyes wide open staring at nothing in the distance. One man punched the body in the face.

It wasn’t a man at all. It was a humanoid dummy named Ivan Ivanovich.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

Apollo’s Life-Saving Q-Ball

By Amy Shira Teitel | September 15, 2017 5:15 pm
Apollo launch escape system diagram. NASA.

Apollo launch escape system diagram. NASA.

At the very top of the Saturn V stack, at the top of the Launch Escape Tower, was a small ball bored with eight holes. These holes led to the Q-ball, an unassuming instrument that played a huge role in making Saturn V launches safe for astronauts.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
MORE ABOUT: Apollo, History, NASA, Saturn V, Space

This is Why the Apollo 11 Moonwalkers Look Ghostly

By Amy Shira Teitel | September 7, 2017 12:02 pm
Ghostly Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. NASA.

Ghostly Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. NASA.

A close look at the Apollo 11 EVA footage shows ghostly astronauts, which of course has launched speculation that the footage is faked. If NASA could get to the Moon, why couldn’t it capture good video?! The footage wasn’t faked. The poor quality and ghostly look is an artifact from the odd way NASA had to convert the lunar footage to a format that could be broadcast. To understand this, we have to unpack how exactly TVs worked in the mid 20th century.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

Only Three People Have Died in Space

By Amy Shira Teitel | August 20, 2017 8:03 am

On April 19th, 1971, the Soviet Union launch history’s first ever space station, Salyut 1. Days later the Soyuz 10 mission failed after a problem with the docking hatch meant the crew couldn’t actually board the station. Unwilling to let Salyut languish, Soyuz 11 launched on June 6 and Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev became the first men to live aboard an Earth orbiting station. Their mission wasn’t without its problems, but the problems were just beginning when the crew was brought home a week early. A valve opened early during the descent, and the crew, exposed to the vacuum of space, died from decompression. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

Sea Dragon is the Biggest Rocket We Ever Dreamed Of

By Amy Shira Teitel | August 11, 2017 10:58 am
Artist concept of the Sea Dragon in the water. NASA/Aerojet via Astronautix.

Artist concept of the Sea Dragon in the water. Aerojet via Astronautix.

Imagine standing among the small crowd in a viewing gallery aboard a command ship floating 35 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral. Five miles away you see the upper portion of a rocket bobbing gently, waves lapping at the fuselage. Though isolated at sea there’s a buzz of activity in the air. The conversation on board is punctuated by a loudspeaker booming status updates on the rocket in the water. Finally, an announcement crackles saying that the Cape has given a GO for launch. With NASA’s blessing, the launch director on board begins the final countdown. You hear a distant rumble as a massive engine roars to life under water and gets progressively louder as the rocket starts to rise. In just seconds the staggering, 400-foot behemoth leaves the ocean and disappears from view into the sky. In less than a half hour its 1.1 million pound payload will be in orbit around the Earth.

This was the future Aerojet foresaw with its 1963 proposal for the Sea Dragon rocket.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

The First Solar Eclipse Seen from Space was in 1966

By Amy Shira Teitel | August 3, 2017 7:33 pm
The solar eclipse seen from Gemini 12. NASA.

The solar eclipse seen from Gemini 12. NASA.

The Gemini program was sort of NASA’s overlooked middle child. It didn’t have the excitement of being the first time American astronauts flew in space like the Mercury did, and it didn’t have the glamour of going to the Moon like Apollo. Which means most people don’t know it happened. But the Gemini program was how NASA learned to fly in space, to perform rendezvous and docking maneuvers, change orbits, and test all the technologies it would need to complete the two-week long missions to the Moon. It was also the program that first gave astronauts a unique view of a solar eclipse from orbit. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
MORE ABOUT: Eclipse, Gemini, History, NASA

No, NASA Didn’t Invent Tang

By Amy Shira Teitel | July 26, 2017 1:11 pm
A Tang ad using a Gemini image. via General Foods/Kraft.

A Tang ad using a Gemini image. via General Foods/Kraft.

Tang, the orange flavoured breakfast drink, is so synonymous with NASA that people seem to think the space agency invented it. Even Homer Simpson somehow called up NASA to demand why he couldn’t get “no Tang ’round here!” But contrary to popular belief NASA didn’t invent Tang. That honour goes to William Mitchell, the guy who also invented Pop Rocks and Cool Whip. Read More

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Vintage Space

Vintage Space is all about digging into the minutia of the space age. Rather than retelling glossy stories of astronauts, Vintage Space peels back that veneer to look at the real stories -- the innovations that failed, the unrealized technologies, and the human elements that are less publicity-friendly so often remain buried. Gaining a clear picture of spaceflight's past ultimately helps us understand our present position in space and have a more realistic expectation of what the future might bring.
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