Tag Archives: spaceflight

474. They Never Flew (1)

Continuing from 472. Teaching Space, this and the upcoming April 5 post will discuss the manned space programs that never happened.

Wikipedia lists seven manned pace programs which were canceled before they were launched, but this list is only technically accurate.

MISS, Man in Space Soonest, was a project from the early days when the Air Force planned to dominate space. The preliminary work was transferred to NASA when it was formed and became Project Mercury. Technically, MISS never flew; looked at more reasonably, MISS became Mercury, which was quite successful.

Dyan-Soar was a follow up Air Force project which planned to put a winged craft into low earth orbit, and subsequently turn that into an ultra-long range space bomber. It was contemporary to Project Mercury. There was not enough money or will to keep them both, so Dyna-Soar was cancelled, only to be reborn, in a manner of speaking, as the Space Shuttle. For details see 342. Dyna-Soar.

The Manned Orbital Development System, Blue Gemini, and the Manned Orbital Laboratory were successive names for the same secret project, designed to use modified Gemini craft to service an early one-use space station as an orbital observation post. It got to the point of one unmanned launch before being cancelled. It was made obsolete before it went into service by advances in unmanned reconnaissance satellites. For details see 256. The Space Station that Never Was.

By the time I started teaching, the era of manned space exploration was over, but there were plenty of manned space flights. The shuttle had 135 manned missions; Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz combined had only flown 35 manned mission. However, none of the Shuttle flights were explorations.

The early Shuttle flights were exciting and technologically innovative, but they only went where Mercury had gone two decades earlier. The flights quickly became routine. They were dangerous — Challenger and Columbia proved that — but danger alone does not bring excitement. Commuting on a freeway is dangerous, but only exciting during moments of imminent disaster.

The Space Shuttle was supposed to be a cost saving way to space, but it proved quite expensive. It was supposed to be reusable, but that turned out to be only partially true. It was supposed to be single stage to orbit, but it never was. Each launch had four components, not one. The fuel tank was only used once. The two solid fuel boosters had to be recovered from the ocean and refurbished each time. Only the orbiter was fully reusable, and it had massive problems with failing tiles.

A vast number of its flights were spent building and maintaining the International Space Station. Many scientists tried to stop the construction of the ISS, claiming that not much science would be done there, but the cost would cripple other exploration. They were not listened to. Politically, the ISS was a demonstration that the cold war was over and the US and Russia were now pals. You know how well that turned out.

From the viewpoint of science, plenty of exploration was going on in my kids’ era, but it all involved unmanned craft. From the viewpoint of a teacher trying to excite middle school kids, a Mars rover landing was great, but if it couldn’t be followed up by a statement like, “You may go there someday,” if fell relatively flat. None of the kids I taught in the eighties are going to Mars; by the time anyone gets there, those kids will be retired, and they knew it at the time.

The only manned space craft of my kids’ generation was the Space Shuttle, and it was only flying to low earth orbit. A lot of good science got done by the shuttle (and a lot of political nonsense) but it wasn’t the same. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were like going down the Amazon in a dugout canoe, with adventure around every corner. The shuttle was like driving to Sacramento on Highway 99. Dangerous, yes, but not exciting.

But every year there was hope. New manned space projects kept being proposed, and I studied all of them so I could teach my kids something that would excite them.

Regan had NASP; Clinton had VentureStar; Bush Two had Project Constellation. We’ll look at all three on April 5, and try to recapture the genuine excitement they generated, before they faded into history


472. Teaching Space

I am writing this on February 10, three days after the first launch of Falcon Heavy. I’m impressed by the achievement, and amused by a mannequin in a Tesla floating through space. You would never have seen that during the days of Apollo.

For all the shift from government to private space flight, some things remain the same. All rockets have always been made by private companies, and the primary customer has always been the government. The degree of participation by private industry on the consumption side has changed considerably. Still, if it were not for the government contract to supply the International Space Station, it is unlikely that the original Falcon would have lived long enough to beget Falcon Heavy.

Falcon Heavy is a big deal, but not a total revolution. That doesn’t keep me from doing handsprings at its launch.

I know that teachers all over America are going to be using Falcon Heavy as motivation for their students to work hard and get ready to join the movement into space. Students who are in middle school today will be walking on Mars in thirty years. Any kid who isn’t fired up about that, doesn’t deserve to go.

Exciting tomorrow’s astronauts is the job of science fiction writers and science teachers, as well as those who are doing the actual work of exploration. I’ve been involved in two and a half of those enterprises.

For me it started with science fiction, first Tom Swift, Jr. and Rick Brant, then all the glorious writers of the thirties through the fifties when I finally got access to a real library. By the time I reached my teens about 1960, I was hooked.

That was about the time real astronauts first appeared. (And the time the words astronaut and cosmonaut appeared, so that we had to give up that wonderful word spaceman.) I also became aware of the X-planes, which had been making aerospace history since my birth year. It was an exciting time, culminating in a series of moon landings.

High school kids like me didn’t get to work at NASA, but I did research at the level available to me. Since my two science loves were space and ecology (starting before ecology became part of the public consciousness), I developed an “Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness” as a junior and continued as a senior with “A Study of the Nutrient Uptake of Chlorella Algae”, both as science fair projects. That is the “and a half” from three paragraphs back. Those got me a summer job as a science intern and got me into college with a scholarship. I started in biology, switched to anthropology, got drafted, survived, went back to grad school then ended up being seduced by writing.

I wrote science fiction. I still do, but for twenty-seven years, a $ad lack of fund$ caused me to also teach middle school science.

Teaching math is teaching math, and teaching history is teaching history. Teaching science, however, is more than passing on skills and information; it is also firing up your students to become future scientists, or at least future citizens who understand and appreciate the role of science in our world. You really need to love your subject to do that, and I did.

It is also an easy subject to generate enthusiasm about. While others are teaching adverbs, food groups, the three branches of government, and quadratic equations, science teachers get to teach about explosions, dead animals rotting at the side of the road, poop, and the exploration of space. I pity my colleagues on a warm day in spring when every eye is out the window. I got to take my students out to throw baseballs into the air and analyze how the baseballs’ trajectories were the same ballistic path as a Redstone rocket with Alan Shepard aboard.

Middle school students are just the right age for this, and I loved teaching them. That probably tells you more about how my mind works that I should admit to.

The exploration of space, if you start about the time of Goddard and carry through Von Braun and his V-2s all the way to the moon, is the story of mankind in the twentieth century. You can’t teach it properly without including World War I and the rise of aircraft, the rise of the Soviet Union, World War II, the Cold War, the promise and danger of nuclear power, and the ugly political motivations behind the glorious achievements of Apollo.

History is a good starting point for firing up young scientists, but it has to be followed by a proper answer to the question, “All right, fine, but what will I get to do.” That part was tough. From the mid-eighties to the turn of the millennium was an era in which manned space exploration was undergoing a drought of imagination, will and accomplishment. Project after project failed to deliver, but those failures were not evident at the outset. Year after year I told my students, “This is your future.” And year after year, those futures faltered and died.

Maybe these non-starters don’t deserve to be remembered, but if you don’t know about the drought, you can’t appreciate the rain that follows. On March 26 and April 5 I’ll explore those projects which began with a flurry of excitement, then died quickly and quietly.

469. Joe Engle, Astronaut

Joe Engle missed his chance to go to the moon when he was bumped from Apollo 17 by Harrison Schmitt. It made sense. Schmitt was a geologist turned astronaut, and became the only one of the scientist-astronauts to get to the moon. He was, in fact, the only scientist to fly in space before the space shuttle program.

Joe Engle never became a household name like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, but fighter jet crazy and space crazy kids of my generation were already aware of him before Apollo began. Not through the internet, which was decades away, nor from books in the library which were always two generations out of date, but from Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. That was where my generation went to read about what was newer, faster, shinier, and cooler.

Iven Kincheloe, Mel Apt, Chuck Yaeger, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker — if those names don’t stir your blood, you missed out. They were test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base who flew the newest and the best, especially the X-1, X-2, and most especially the X-15.

Joe Engle was one of them. By the way, so was that other guy, Neil Armstrong.

Engle decided to be a test pilot while in college, where he was in Air Force ROTC. Chuck Yeager recommended him for USAF test pilot school, and he subsequently attended Aerospace Research Pilot School. This was pre-NASA when the Air Force planned to put a man in space in a project called MISS (Man in Space Soonest). MISS morphed into Mercury after NASA took over the space program from the Air Force.

Engle served as a jet test pilot at Edwards and applied to NASA to be an astronaut. Instead, the Air Force chose him for the X-15 program. There he made sixteen flights; the fastest speed he recorded was 3887 mph. His highest altitude was 53.1 miles.

FAI (Fédération aéronautique internationale) in Switzerland maintains world records for human space flight. They set the limit of space at 100 kilometers. That’s 62.1 miles in the measurements Americans still use. In the days of the X-15, the Air Force set 50 miles as the edge of space and awarded an astronaut’s wings to any pilot exceeding that altitude. Engle exceeded fifty miles three times in the X-15.

(Fellow test pilot Joe Walker flew the X-15 above 100 kilometers twice, becoming the eighth American in space by the FAI’s more difficult criterion.)

Joe Engle applied to NASA again and was accepted. He was backup Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 14, and would have landed on the moon in Apollo 17. Engle then elected to transfer to the Space Shuttle program. He commanded one of the crews which flew multiple flight on the unpowered Enterprise. This near-shuttle was carried aloft on a Boeing 747 and dropped for a dead stick landing to evaluate its aerodynamic characteristics. NASA had to determine if the shuttle could land before it would launch it into space.

Engle was backup for the first Space Shuttle flight, and commander of the second flight. He later commanded STS-51-1.

Joe Engle is the only man to have flown two different types of winged vehicle into space. He is also the only remaining pilot of the twelve who flew the X-15, which he still calls his favorite aircraft.

468. Astronauts Left Behind

These poor guys got left behind when Apollo 17 went to the moon, and then I left them behind as well. This and the following post were originally planned for January but life got in the way.

When Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, ten astronauts lost their chance at the moon. They were:

joe Engle who was scheduled for Apollo 17, but was replaced on that mission by Harrison Schmitt. (see 444. Last Men on the Moon) He will get his own post on Wednesday.

Richard Gordon and Vance Brand, who were scheduled for Apollo 18 along with Schmitt.

Fred Haise, William Pogue, and Gerald Carr who were scheduled for Apollo 19.

Stuart Roosa, Paul Weitz, Jack Lousma, and Don Lind who were on the short list for Apollo 20, although the final choice of three had not been made at the time of cancellation.

Here are their individual stories:

Stuart Roosa had been the Command Module Pilot of Apollo 14, the third moon landing. It was his only mission in space. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Richard Gordon flew first on Gemini 11 where he and Pete Conrad set a record for the highest apogee earth orbit, while Gordon performed two space walks. He was Command Module Pilot of Apollo 12, the second moon landing. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Vance Brand was on the backup crew of Apollo 15 and scheduled for the cancelled Apollo 18. He was then backup on Skylabs 3 and 4, and was on the rescue team held in reserve for a possible Skylab disaster. He finally flew on space on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and later commanded the first fully operational Space Shuttle mission on the Columbia. He commanded Challenger on the tenth Space Shuttle flight and Columbia again on the thirty-eighth shuttle flight.

Fred Haise had gone around the moon on the ill-fated Apollo 13. On Apollo 19 he would have landed on the moon. He subsequently was a pilot on the ALT program (full title, Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests), where he piloted the unpowered Enterprise to three successful landings, after being dropped from a 747. He was scheduled to fly the second Space Shuttle mission to boost Skylab to a higher orbit, but that was cancelled when delays in the shuttle program allowed Skylab to fall.

Skylab plays a role in the stories of several of these astronauts. For details, go to posts 297   298  and  299.

William Pogue and Gerald Carr both shifted from Apollo to Skylab after the cancellation of Apollo 19. They were part of the Skylab 4 crew which spent 84 days in space.

Paul Weitz also shifted to the Skylab project, where he was on the crew of Skylab 2, the first manned mission. Skylab was badly damaged during its unmanned launch, a mission that was called Skylab 1. Weitz along with Pete Conrad and Joseph Kerwin spent much of their mission doing repairs.  Weitz retired from NASA, then returned to fly the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Jack Lousma was on the crew of Skylab 3, where he spent 60 days in space. He subsequently was commander of STS-3, the third orbital test flight of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Don Lind once said he was “in the right place at the wrong time.” He was one of the scientist-astronauts brought into Apollo and would most likely have followed Schmitt in rotation had Apollo 20 not been cancelled. He moved to Skylab, where he was backup for Skylabs 3 and 4, on standby for a rescue mission that didn’t happen, and was scheduled for Skylab 5 mission, which also didn’t happen. He was under consideration for Skylab B, a second Skylab space station that was cancelled. He was under consideration for the Apollo-Soyuz mission, but was not chosen. He finally flew on STS-51-B in 1985 aboard Spacelab-3. Spacelab was a space lab, in module form, carried in the payload bay of a space shuttle. Lind had served nineteen years as an astronaut before his first and only spaceflight.

441. The Last Apollo

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”        Cernan’s closing words on leaving the moon at the end of Apollo 17

Forty-five years ago, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

It was a stunt from the get-go. Kennedy’s speech, setting a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth, was a Trump-worthy brag. If we had failed, it would be laughed at today as just another empty promise made by a politician.

One man laid down the challenge and thousands of men and women carried out the promise.

But it was still a stunt. When Kennedy made his speech on May 25, 1961, Russian had put a man into orbit. We had not, although we had managed a sub-orbital flight. Atlas boosters were still blowing up on launch, so a smaller Redstone was used for Alan Shepard’s flight on May fifth.

NASA had only been in existence for three years. By any real or imagined yardstick, the Russians were far ahead in space.

By herculean efforts, NASA forged ahead through Mercury and Gemini. The fire aboard “Apollo One” set American efforts back significantly, and when launches began again, it looked like the Russians were going to land on the moon first.

There were Soviet problems however, particularly the repeated failure of their N-1 rocket. These doomed their attempt to reach the moon first, but NASA was not aware at the time.

NASA had problems of its own. The lunar lander was not ready when Apollo 7, the first actual manned Apollo flight, left for low Earth orbit in October of 1968. Only a year remained on Kennedy’s timeline, and the Soviets — we thought — were poised to land on the moon ahead of us. Something had to be done.

That something was the Apollo 8 journey to and around the moon, without a lander, for the Christmas season of 1968. We had been to the moon first (by an ad-man’s stretch of the truth), even if the Soviets became the first to land.

Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in low Earth orbit. Apollo 10 (the most frustrating almost in human history) returned to the moon, deployed the lunar lander, and flew it to within wishing distance of the moon without landing.

Apollo 11 landed a man safely on the moon, and returned him safely to the Earth.

Now what?

For the Soviets, the answer was to turn away from the moon. Their N-1 mega-rocket had failed, and their manned modules and lander were stored away. The Soviets began a series of long flights and space stations, studying space from low Earth orbit.

For NASA there were nine more Saturn V rockets waiting to launch Apollo 12 through 20. It didn’t turn out that way. Apollo 12 landed in a different part of the moon, Apollo 13 suffered and explosion, didn’t land, and barely made it home.

Even before Apollo 13, Apollo 20 was cancelled so its Saturn V could be used to launch Skylab. Even before Apollo 14 landed, Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled. Why? Because it was a stunt from the get-go. Apollo 11 met the deadline. To coin-counting bureaucrats, that was enough.

For those of us who see space exploration as the future of humanity, Apollo 11 was only the  beginning. Lunar exploration, a moon base, Mars. Venus — there should have been no end.

Bureaucrats did not agree. On Thursday, 1972, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

more next Thursday, the anniversary of the last liftoff from the Moon

406. Arthur C. Clarke Invents the Modern World

If you hang a satellite over the equator, 22,300 miles up, it will appear to remain stationary. Everybody knows that, or should, since global communications is based on the fact. A generation ago, everyone in the science fiction world also knew that this cornerstone of modern society was “invented” or discovered by Arthur C. Clarke.

I’m not sure that Clarke is still generally remembered for this. The origins of everyday things tend to be forgotten.

Clarke’s observation first appeared  February 1945, in a letter written to the periodical Wireless World.

When Wireless World began in 1913, wireless had a completely different meaning than it has today. It referred to wireless telegraphy, invented by Marconi, which used radio waves, interrupted by a telegraph key, to send messages. That allowed ships at sea to send and receive messages.

Wireless World remained on the cutting edge of electronic technology. so it was the right place for Clarke to write his February 1945 letter, which included these words:

An “artificial satellite” at the correct distance from the earth would make one revolution every 24 hours; i.e, it would remain stationary above the same spot . . . Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give . . . coverage to the entire planet.

In October of that same year, Clarke was back in print in Wireless World with his article Extra-Terrestrial Relays, in which he fleshed out his idea.

Fig 3. Three satellite stations would ensure complete coverage of the globe.
Illustration from the 1945 Wireless World article.

Clarke discussed the difficulties of early radio and television transmission. Radio, particularly the lower frequency AM radios in use then, were erratic. Sometimes they only carried a short distance from the transmitter; at other times, they would bounce off the ionosphere and travel for a thousand miles. Television signals, being higher frequency, did not bounce off the ionosphere and so were limited to line of sight.

Relaying through orbital repeaters was the answer to both range and reliability. An orbit of 42,000 kilometers above the center of the Earth would provide a geosynchronous station.

The figure given at the top of this post –23,300 miles — appeared in every early popularization of space travel. It is not only a switch to miles, but also that distance is above the surface of the Earth, not the center.

To power his satellite, Clarke suggests mirrors concentrating the sun’s rays to heat water in boilers for turbines to run generators. He also suggests that “photoelectric developments may make it possible to utilize the solar energy more directly”. That is exactly what happened; only thirteen years later, Vanguard became the first satellite to use solar cells.

Clarke then went on to specify what kind of rockets would be needed to place these geosynchronous satellites into orbit and predicted, correctly, that such rockets would soon be available.

He also said:

The advent of atomic power has at one bound brought space travel half a century nearer. It seems unlikely that we will have to wait as much as twenty years (i.e. 1965) before atomic-powered rockets could reach even the remoter planets with a fantastically small fuel/mass ration — only  a few per cent. The equations developed in the appendix still hold, but v(elocity) will be increased by a factor of about — a thousand.

Oh, if he had only been right about that, too. Then our world might come closer to resembling the world envisioned by Harold Goodwin in his Rip Foster novel.

402. Nuclear Spacecraft

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and always, whether I was supposed to or not, I taught the space program.

I grew up with space travel, first in fiction, then in fact. I loved it, and the kids I taught loved it, too. How much of that rubbed off from me, I’ll never know.

By the time I started teaching, the big show was over. When Gene Cernan stepped back into his LEM in 1972, it was the high water mark of manned space exploration. It’s been downhill since.

In the classic science fiction novel I had planned to serialize, Rip Foster is heading out toward the asteroid belt on the nuclear powered spacecraft Scorpius. That’s how we all thought the future would look. That’s how the future should have looked. Chemically powered rockets are simply not sufficient for exploring the solar system.

We have have nuclear power plants for electricity, nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers, even a nuclear cargo ship. Why not nuclear spacecraft? Weight? Do you really think we couldn’t have overcome that problem? Maybe it was the danger, but . . .

Here is a quiz for you. How many nuclear submarines are lying on the bottom of the ocean, tombs for sailors and ecological time bombs for the rest of us? Two from America and six from Russia. An additional Russian nuclear sub sank twice, but was raised both times.

How many nuclear and thermonuclear bombs have gone missing? The U.S. admits to eight. How many more are hidden under the umbrella of security? Your guess is as good as mine. How many have the Soviet’s lost? You ask them, I’m keeping my head down.

Did I mention Chernobyl and Fukushima?

Let me put it another way. When the Soviets launched Sputnik and initiated the space race, then followed up with a man in orbit before we could even launch a sub-orbital flight, we did an end-around and went to the moon.

If the Soviets had launched a nuclear powered space craft, we would have launched a nuclear powered space craft. Technology would not have stopped us. Fear of radiation would not have stopped us.

That was then, this is now. The best thing for manned space exploration today – though not for American interests or world peace – would be for the Chinese to launch a nuclear powered space craft. It wouldn’t even have to be a good one. Just the threat would be enough, and in a few decades ships like the Scorpius would be filling the solar system.