Tag Archives: 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

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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.

358. X-37b

This picks up where 343. Black Shuttles leaves off.

The Air Force has wanted space for a long time, since it’s beginning actually. NASA took its MISS program and turned it into Mercury. The Air Force wanted the Dyna-soar, but Gemini beat them out in a fight for appropriations. The Air Force coopted Gemini for a manned reconnaissance station, but unmanned satellites did the job sooner and cheaper. There were rumors that Skylab was largely an Air Force observation post disguised as a science station. Possibly true, but it seems doubtful. Finally they got the Space Shuttle, at least part time, but civilian cautions after the Challenger disaster threw off the Air Force schedule and they fell back on their own resources.

Luke Skywalker got to fly a spaceplane and blow up the Deathstar. The Air Force never did. Okay, maybe the Aurora will change that, if it exists.

(What the heck is Aurora? It is either a follow on to the SR-71 or a myth. Conspiracy theorists believe in it, and the rest of us aviation and space crazies want to. I’ll do a post on it some day.)

What the Air Force ended up with was a highly capable unmanned vehicle called the X-37b. So far it has only flown four missions, but they are all long duration. The latest ended early this month, May 7th, when the craft landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a mission of 718 days.

What can I tell you about the mission? That is a lot like the Aurora. Except for the fact that X-37b does exist, and the Aurora may not (probably doesn’t) exist, everything else is classified.

I gave you a link in Black Shuttles for more information, and warned you that it would be frustrating because of the secrecy involved. I have no such link for X-37b. Google it and chase down the conspiracy sites if you want entertainment. If you want facts, join DARPA. Then maybe you can find out which building houses the facts, but they still won’t tell you about them.

I can tell you a bit about the craft itself. It looks like a miniature space shuttle, about 29 feet long, about 10 feet tall, with a 15 foot wingspan. It is launched inside a streamlined shroud on top of an Atlas 5 missile. It has a payload bay about equivalent to a medium pickup bed.

The program started in 1999 and is closely linked to the X-40, which ultimately became a drop-model test bed for data needed to build the X-37b. NASA transferred the project to the military in 2004 and it disappeared into the black world.

X-37b is a scaled up version of the X-40, so early versions had to undergo additional drop tests, this time using a Scaled Composites White Knight (mother ship for the SpaceShipOne program).

To date, there have been four missions, all launched from Cape Canaveral. The first three landed at Vandenberg. The fourth mission landed on the old Space Shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.

The future of manned space fighters does not look promising. Most of the new X craft (X-40 through X-57, so far) are unpiloted, but that is simply a cost issue. However, the X-45/46 and X-47 are pilot programs (yes, pun intended) for unpiloted operational fighter jets.

Would-be Luke Skywalkers need not apply. Sorry.

343. Black Shuttles

Atlantis, first launch, DOD mission.

Regular readers will notice that these posts are coming later in the day.

During the planning stage of the Space Shuttle, some changes were called for by the National Reconnaissance Office. That is an organization which, at that time, was not acknowledged to exist, but which is the home of sophisticated space hardware and a big budget. Specifically, NRO wanted the cargo bay on the shuttles to be bigger, presumably to accommodate their oversized spy satellites. They got their way, and the money they provided helped keep the struggling shuttle program afloat during the hard early days.

We’ve been looking at the Air Force in space this week and NRO isn’t the Air Force — quite. However, the head of NRO has traditionally been an undersecretary or Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. So, close enough.

It would not be unreasonable to think of the Air Force as an organization run by pilots and ex-pilots. MISS was a program designed to put men into space; so were the Dyna-soar and the MOL. But none of them ever succeeded in putting Air Force astronauts into space.

During this period of public failure, there were secret successes in the form of more and more military satellites. One of the earliest class of mission was reconnaissance, and the Air Force/NRO success with unmanned satellites was the primary reason MOL was abandoned. Through the sixties and into the seventies, these satellites used sophisticated film cameras, and their findings came back to earth via film canisters dropped from satellites and snagged out of the air by military aircraft. After digital imaging came to maturity, that was no longer necessary.

Sidebar.      Just how successful those satellites were, and how rich the NRO is, became embarrassingly obvious in 2012. The NRO gave NASA two Hubble-quality space telescopes that they had ordered, but weren’t using. One of these is slated to become the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, due for launch in 2024.

At the same time that the Air Force, through NRO, arranged to have the shuttle’s cargo bay expanded, it began to build a shuttle launching facility at Vandenberg Air Base in California. To understand what this means requires knowledge that every space nerd had in the sixties, but which is never talked about these days.

Why do we launch space missions from Florida? Because it is the only place in the US which is both far south and on the eastern seaboard. Rockets are typically launched as close the the equator as practical so that the rotation of the Earth is added to the rocket’s speed — something vitally important when crude, early craft were being launched. They are launched from the eastern seaboard to provide thousands of miles of open ocean for first stages — or fiery, falling failures — to land in.

Vandenberg is situated on the western edge of the nation, ideally located for launching rockets north or south into polar orbit — that orange-peel path spy satellites need. Advanced Titans and Atlases launch from there as needed, without fanfare. But not with complete secrecy. It is a California cliché for a UFO scare to be debunked as “just another night launch from Vandenberg”.

The Johnson Space Center is in Huston because Texan LBJ was President when it was built. Orbital physics had nothing to do with it.

No shuttle was ever launched from Vandenberg. Shortly after the second classified Department of Defense shuttle mission, the Challenger was lost. Important secret launches were delayed by the hearings that followed.

The relationship between NASA and the Air Force had never been a happy one, and the Air Force shifted as quickly as possible back to its own resources. They used the shuttle to take up satellites too large to be launched by other means, and otherwise returned to using their own missiles, typically out of Vandenberg.

The Luke Skywalker picture of Air Force pilots in their space fighters has never come about. The closest to that idea is the robot X-37b, which we will look at in some future post.

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The Smithsonian Air & Space magazine carried an article in 2009 on the eleven black shuttle missions. Since most details are still classified, the article is frustrating, but will provide about as much as you will find anywhere outside of alien-influence websites.

342. Dyna-soar

Regular readers will notice that posts are now coming later in the day.

MISS, Man in Space Soonest, was a USAF project to put a man into a capsule and boost him into space on top of a converted ICBM. It was cancelled, resurrected, and passed on to the new organization NASA, where it became Project Mercury.

Times were tense. The Soviets had launched a satellite into orbit in 1957, beating America into space by a few months. They added to the humiliation by beating the US again in 1961, this time with a man in space. Worse than either accomplishment, was they booster that was used. It was far more powerful than anything America had in service, or in development. A booster that powerful presented all kinds of doomsday scenarios.

Eisenhower had plenty of problems at the time. He was using U-2 spy planes to illegally overfly the Soviet Union, and recognized that it was only a matter of time before that blew up in his face — which it did in 1960 when one of the U-2s was shot down while spying. MISS being transferred to NASA made it a civilian project, and less objectionable. The same logic led the Navy originated Project Vanguard to be passed on to NASA, and also to the use of underpowered rockets to launch it because they were not military hardware.

Sputnik and the Soviet manned missions were on top of a military booster, rendering that concern moot.

NASA went on to success in manned space flight, but in the fifties and early sixties, that was not a foregone conclusion. The Air Force moved on to the Dyna-soar.

Project Dyna-soar (from the phrase dynamic soaring) had begun in 1957, when it was to be the next step after MISS. It was based on the theories of Eugen Sänger, who had a suborbital bomber on the drawing board for the Germans during WWII.

The basic idea was to send a winged vehicle above the atmosphere on top of a rocket, whether in a sub-orbital flight or returning from orbital flight. That craft would skip repeatedly off the upper atmosphere on returning, dissipating the heat of reentry, and ultimately land as a glider.

This sounds a lot like the Space Shuttle, but there are two main differences. STS was designed as a single stage to orbit vehicle, and it dissipated heat by shock waves while being protected by insulated tiles, much like the Mercury through Apollo missions had used shock waves off ablative heat shields. Dyna-soar was designed to ride into orbit on top of a military rocket and to lose its heat by skipping — that is, by dipping into the atmosphere, then bouncing back into space to radiate away the heat it had built up, followed by repeat, repeat, repeat, until cool enough to finally land as a glider.

That would make for a long, hard, bumpy ride. If you are simply thinking of reentry, it would be a unnecessarily tough way to go. To understand why the skip-glide method was so inviting, you have to project yourself back to dawn of the 1960s when rockets were small and space exploration was new. With skip-glide, a relatively small and not particularly powerful rocket could send the Dyna-soar anywhere on Earth.

When Alan Shepard made his sub-orbital flight, he traveled 116 miles above the Earth but landed only about 300 miles downrange. With that initial altitude, Dyna-soar could probably have circled the Earth before landing.

Dyna-soar was developed as a reconnaissance and bombing vehicle. It was, after all, an Air Force project.

Had it gone to completion, the Dyna-soar (also called the X-20 later in its development) would have been the most sophisticated space craft of its era. Unfortunately, money was scarce, and while in orbit, the Gemini could do anything the Dyna-soar could do.

Gemini was a monumentally successful project (see Gemini) that sucked up all of America’s attention. In December of 1963, the Dyna-soar project was cancelled.

Again, the Air Force had lost out to its civilian counterpart. It didn’t give up. The next time around, the Air Force co-opted the Gemini. That third chapter in the Air Force’s bid for space was told here last November as The Space Station That Never Was. We’ll cover the rest of the story – so far –  tomorrow.

341. Air Force in Space, Almost

Regular readers will note that posts now come later in the day.

See if you can find anything wrong with this sentence:

Throughout 1943, U. S. Air Force  B-17 bombers carried out raids over Germany.

Give up? The place is right, the time is right, the B-17s are right, but the United States Air Force did not exist yet. The service in question was the United States Army Air Force, previously called the United States Army Air Corps. From the beginning of American military aviation, planes flying from ships belonged to the Navy and planes flying from air fields belonged to the Army.

That changed with post-war reorganization. The War Department became the Department of the Army, which then joined the Department of the Navy and the newly created Department of the Air Force to become the Department of Defense.

The Air Force was new and hungry, and it soon found plenty to feed on.

By dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the United States had changed the face of warfare. A bombs, and soon H bombs, became our first line of defense against expected Soviet aggression, and it was the Air Force’s job to deliver them if needed. Within a decade, missiles were ousting planes as the primary means of delivery, and the Air Force became the proprietor of such missiles as the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman.

But not of all missiles. The United States Army developed the Redstone IRBM which launched the first two American astronauts into space, if not orbit. The Redstone was later succeeded by the Pershing which was a cornerstone of the defense of Europe until the eighties. The Navy developed the Polaris and then the Poseidon submarine launched missiles, which were probably, due to their stealthy deployment, a greater deterrent than the missiles developed by the Air Force.

Meanwhile, the Army continued to maintain some aircraft for support missions, and with the onset of war in Korea and later Viet Nam, Army helicopters became a major force in the air. Naval jets launched form aircraft carriers were the equal of Air Force planes. Soon the Marine Corps came to maintain what amounts to a mini-air force all its own.

It looked like everybody has aircraft and everybody had missiles.

The Air Force had additional, more ambitious plans. They intended to launch manned Air Force vehicles into space, first on top of a Thor, then atop an Atlas. The project was called MISS, Man in Space Soonest. The Air Force announced its nine astronauts on June 25, 1958. They included X-15 pilots Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, John McKay, Robert Rushworth, Robert White — and Neil Armstrong.

A month later, MISS was cancelled.

Two months later a new government organization called NASA was formed and took up the concepts pioneered by the Air Force. MISS became Project Mercury.

The Air Force, however, was not through trying for space. More on that tomorrow.