The Forgotten Female Cosmonaut Class

By Amy Shira Teitel | June 8, 2018 3:51 pm
Valentina Tereshkova. NASA.

Valentina Tereshkova. NASA.

On June 16, 1963, Valeriy Bykovsky had been orbiting in Vostok 5 for a little under a day when he gained a companion: Valentina Tereshkova in Vostok 6. After more than a year of intensive training, she became, on that Sunday afternoon, the first woman in space.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

How the Search for Life on Mars Got Smarter

By Amy Shira Teitel | May 25, 2018 12:06 pm

Humans have been captivated by Mars almost as long as we’ve been watching the night sky.

The ancient Greeks and Romans watched nightly as a reddish dot moved among the stars, growing dimmer and brighter in a two-year cycle. Each named it for the god of war; the Roman version, “Mars,” stuck. Renaissance astronomers became fascinated with the planet’s apparent backward movement, the so-called retrograde motion that could only be explained with the Sun, not the Earth, at the center of the solar system. Modern scientists have looked to Mars as a potential home for extraterrestrial life, a search that has reshaped how we explore and think about other planets.

What is it about our celestial neighbor? Is it the planet itself that mesmerizes us? Or are we still, after centuries of speculation, hoping that learning more about Mars will tell us something more about ourselves? Read More

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Peanuts: The Traditional Space Launch Snack

By Amy Shira Teitel | May 4, 2018 3:25 pm
Holding the current bottle of peanuts in the MSA. Teitel.

Holding the current bottle of peanuts in the MSA. Teitel.

Next to the Deep Space Network’s main control room at JPL is the aptly named Mission Supply Area. It’s an area used for major mission events like launches, landings, and orbit insertion burns, and if you go there on a tour someone will offer you peanuts. It’s tradition, a tradition that gained a lot of popularity when the world watched engineers eating peanuts during Curiosity’s 2012 landing on Mars. There’s even a cardboard cutout of NASA’s very own mohawk guy, Bobak Ferdowsi, behind the glass-encased bottle of peanuts that was in the room that night! But the tradition is far older. It dates back to 1964 when America was desperate for a successful lunar mission.  Read More

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Why Apollo Flew in a Figure 8

By Amy Shira Teitel | April 21, 2018 1:35 pm

apollo8-flight-planIf you’ve ever looked at a schematic for an Apollo flight like the one on the left, you’ll notice right away that it traces out a figure 8, which leads many to wonder why? Surely it’s easier to go in a straight line, right? Turns out, it was the safest way to travel. Read More

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What if John Glenn had Died in Space?

By Amy Shira Teitel | April 6, 2018 1:58 pm
A healthy John Glenn after landing. NASA.

A healthy John Glenn after landing. NASA.

When NASA launched John Glenn on its first ever orbital mission in 1962, there was a pretty realistic chance that he was going to die. Not because the agency was taking an unnecessary risk. It wasn’t; every element of the flight was tested and proven to a point where everyone, Glenn included, was confident. But still, it was the early 1960s and rockets had a nasty habit of blowing up. With that in mind, a memo reached Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson on January 16, 1962. It was from O. B. Lloyd, director of NASA’s Office of Public Information, and it outlined exactly what would happen if Glenn was killed on his Friendship 7 mission.  Read More

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Eleven Deaf Men Helped NASA Leave Earth

By Amy Shira Teitel | March 17, 2018 1:05 pm
Peterson before a centrifuge test. Gallaudet University Archives.

Peterson before a centrifuge test. Gallaudet University Archives.

In the late 1950s when NASA was a brand new agency, the list of spaceflight unknowns was significantly larger than any list of knowns. And addressing that list called for some real creativity. When it came to dealing with space sickness, NASA turned to 11 deaf men for a baseline, and these men ultimately played a significant role in getting the first astronauts off the ground.

Read More

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Yes, Rockets CAN Fly in a Vacuum

By Amy Shira Teitel | February 25, 2018 4:56 pm
Artist concept of the S-IVB firing to send the crew to the Moon, aka the translunar injection burn. It fired in a vacuum. For real. NASA.

Artist concept of the S-IVB firing to send the crew to the Moon, aka the translunar injection burn. It fired in a vacuum. For real. NASA.

“Rockets can’t fly in space! There’s no air for the engine to burn in space! And there’s no air for the rocket to push against in space! WE’VE NEVER LEFT EARTH!”

So goes the cry of people who don’t believe we landed on the Moon — at least, this is one of their claims. But it’s wrong. In spite of what they think, rockets can and do fly in a vacuum. Fuel and oxidizer mix and ignite in a combustion chamber causing a controlled explosion that is directed out through the engine bell. This forceful expulsion of hot gas is thrust, and when that thrust is powerful enough to overcome the mass of the rocket, it lifts (ideally) smoothly off the ground.

So where does this misconception come from? Most likely, from cars. Read More

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

The How and Why of Rockets’ Staging

By Amy Shira Teitel | February 17, 2018 9:57 am
Apollo 11 staging; that's the first stage falling away before the second stage lit. NASA.

Apollo 11 staging; that’s the first stage falling away before the second stage lit. NASA.

When we talk about spaceflight — modern or vintage, manned or unmanned, orbital or deep space — launch vehicles all serve the same purpose: overcome gravity and get the payload off the Earth. Whatever the mission, it starts with a rocket launch. Even, because I can hear you asking about it, payloads that were launched from the payload bay of the space shuttle; that payload got to orbit via a shuttle launch. And because all rockets harness the same technology, they all share one common element. Whether they’re big or small, they all go through staging.  Read More

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Why Cosmonauts Have Never Splashed Down

By Amy Shira Teitel | February 10, 2018 9:38 am
The moment before Soyuz TMA-08 lands from Expedition 36, the retrorockets fire. NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The moment before Soyuz TMA-08 lands from Expedition 36, the retrorockets fire. NASA/Bill Ingalls)

When the Soyuz spacecraft returns from the ISS, a parachute slows its fall, but not enough for a safe landing. That’s why there are retrorockets on board that fire just moments before touchdown; they slow the spacecraft that extra little bit so the landing is slow and survivable for the crew. It works, but it seems a little counter-intuitive if you think about it. When NASA had capsule-type vehicles in the 1960s — the same kind it’s revisiting now with Orion and SpaceX is using with the Dragon — the vehicle’s splashed down. When NASA landed on land, the shuttle did it on a runway like an airplane. So why exactly did the Soviets adopt this retrofire landing system the Soyuz has been using for more than a half-century? It comes down to geography.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

How the Challenger Disaster Changed NASA

By Amy Shira Teitel | January 26, 2018 11:39 am
The moment of the Challenger orbiter's explosion has, sadly, become an iconic image of the space age. NASA.

The moment of the Challenger orbiter’s explosion has, sadly, become an iconic image of the space age. NASA.

By January of 1986 America was already bored with spaceflight.

It was, in part, NASA’s own fault. The government agency had debuted the space shuttle program five years earlier with an aggressive public-relations message that the reusable vehicles would make access to space both affordable and routine. Projected frequency: more than 50 flights a year.

But had space flight become… too routine? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
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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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