This Apollo Rocket Stage was Smashed for Science

By Amy Shira Teitel | December 14, 2017 12:19 pm

Apollo 11 leaving the Earth. NASA.

Within 10 minutes of a Saturn V launch, the first two stages had fallen away as the spacecraft settled into Earth orbit. Within another 10 minutes, both stages had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. They weren’t recovered for reuse; their jobs were done before the half hour mark on any lunar flight. But the third stage of the Saturn V lived on, following crews all the way to the Moon. Once there is was also left to crash, but this time it was smashed for science.  Read More

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Meet the LEGO Women of NASA

By Amy Shira Teitel | December 2, 2017 11:54 am

IMG_9346It’s not too often that a toy depicts a real-life unsung hero in science, but the LEGO Women of NASA kit does that four times over. A couple of the names should be familiar — Sally Ride is the go to name for women in space and Margaret Hamilton’s picture has been making the rounds for a while now. Mae Jamison and Nancy Grace Roman, on the other hand, are probably less recognizable. But all four are incredible women whose mini-likeness you can now add to your own home decor.

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Astronauts Didn’t Sleep So Well on the Moon

By Amy Shira Teitel | November 17, 2017 11:15 am
Inside the cramped and tiny Lunar Module. NASA/Hancock.

Inside the cramped and tiny Lunar Module. NASA/Hancock.

The habitable volume of the Apollo lunar module was just 160 cubic feet. That might sound like a lot for two men, but when you consider that it was filled with the bulky lunar EVA suits and life support systems, rocks collected from the surface, and all the other things needed for a lunar stay it wasn’t exactly roomy. Add the noises of the environmental control system and the light streaming in the window and it might be the least restful place for a nap. Read More

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Laika’s Lasting Gift to American Spaceflight

By Amy Shira Teitel | November 3, 2017 3:20 pm
Laika before her flight. via Wikipedia.

Laika before her flight. via Wikipedia.

“Dog in Second Satellite Alive; May be Recovered, Soviet Hints; While House is Calm Over Feat” The headline blared across the front page of the New York Times on November 4, 1957. The story continued on page 8 with followup articles on pages 9 and 10. The space age was only a month old and the satellite both excited and terrified Americans who feared bombs would start dropping from space.

But one US Air Force flight surgeon was fascinated by the biometric data. Four years later, Duane Graveline would turn his fascination with Laika into the beginnings of a career in Soviet intelligence that helped NASA’s own man in space program.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics

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
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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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