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.

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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.

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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

It Took 83 Engines to Get to the Moon

By Amy Shira Teitel | January 15, 2018 1:59 pm
The five F-1 engines of the Saturn V in Florida. My own selfie.

The five F-1 engines of the Saturn V in Florida. My own selfie.

The first time the Saturn V launched in November of 1967, ceiling tiles in the nearby studio where Walter Cronkite was reporting from live fell to the floor. The power of the five F-1 engines was astonishing, and their combined 7.5 million pounds of thrust hasn’t yet been matched. But there were more engines than just those five biggest ones. All told, it took 83 engines to get an Apollo mission to the Moon and safely back to Earth.

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

Apollo 11’s “1202 Alarm” Explained

By Amy Shira Teitel | January 5, 2018 12:15 pm
ap11-S69-39601HR

Capcom Charlie Duke, and backup crewmembers Jim Lovell and Fred Haise in Mission Control during Apollo 11’s descent. NASA

“Got the Earth straight out our front window.” As the lunar module Eagle yawed into a windows up orientation, Buzz Aldrin looked away from the computer to see the Earth nearly a quarter of a million miles away.

“Sure do,” agreed Neil Armstrong, adding, “Houston, [I hope] you’re looking at our Delta-H.” The Earth wasn’t his main concern for the moment. The mission’s commander was laser focused on getting the spacecraft down onto the Moon’s surface for the first time in history. He had just 30,000 feet to go…

“That’s affirmative,” replied Capcom Charlie Duke. The room full of flight controllers listened to the exchange while keeping a close eye on the numbers filling their screens, looking for any little anomaly that could force an abort.

Then came Armstrong’s voice over the radio again, this time marked a slight note of urgency. “It’s a 1202… What is that? Give us a reading on the 1202 Program Alarm…” Read More

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

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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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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