A Challenge From Within: Sending Gemini around the Moon

A Gemini above the lunar surface (composite of NASA images)

Project Gemini is rightly regarded as the programme that allowed NASA to catch and surpass the Soviet space spectaculars of the early sixties. The highly manoeuvrable 2 person spacecraft allowed astronauts to perform rendezvous, docking and long duration missions as well as providing a platform to test solutions to what became the difficult task of Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA). Gemini systematically proved many of the techniques required for Apollo to succeed in its lunar missions, while dispelling doubts the medical community had about the ability of astronauts to function effectively on longer, more challenging missions.

Coming between Mercury and Apollo, Gemini was a middle step taking NASA beyond short experimental flights and paving the way to meet Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing before the end of the 1960s, but many hoped Gemini could go further. From the earliest planning stages in the late 1950s through to the dawn of the 1970s, a steady stream of Gemini-based concepts crossed the desks of NASA and Air Force managers, but few ever reached the hardware stage. One of the more interesting, and persistent, of these ideas was using Gemini for a circumlunar flight before Apollo would be ready to undertake similar missions. To understand how these ideas came about and why they never came to fruition, we need to look back almost six decades to NASA’s earliest days.
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We can call it Apollo 50. Are you on board?

Behind Apollo 11, Norman Rockwell 1969 [via NASA]
2018 started on a sad note for space enthusiasts with the passing of John Young. 
Less than a week into the new year, news started to filter through that the veteran astronaut had left us for good – aviation records, 2 Gemini flights, 2 Apollo flights to the Moon, the ninth man to walk on the moon and commander of the first orbital shuttle flight, Young had spanned the initial eras of America’s spaceflight adventures. His achievements back on Earth were no less impressive. He served NASA faithfully for 42 years, staying with the agency whilst many of his Apollo contemporaries chose to move on and serving as Chief of the Astronaut Office for over a decade.

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Joe Walker: NASA’s Forgotten Spaceman


Joe Walker and the X-15 [IMG: NASA]

On August 22nd 1963 high above Smith Ranch Dry Lake in Nevada, NASA pilot Joe Walker dropped away from the NB-52 carrier aircraft in X-15 number 3. In the seconds that followed he successfully ignited the research plane’s powerful XLR-99 rocket engine and pulled back on the side-stick, aiming for the darker skies above. Three previous attempt to get this flight – the 91st of the programme – launched had been scrubbed for various reasons, but today everything had worked fine and the X-15 soon streaked upwards leaving the NB-52 and chase planes in its wake.
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Flying Without Wings: The Martin SV-5/X-24 Lifting Bodies


The Martin Marietta X-24A Lifting Body [IMG: NASA]

With the exception of the Space Shuttle, the high altitude flights of the X-15 and SpaceshipOne, all other human spaceflights have used capsules for reentry followed by descent under parachute. The capsule approach was originally adopted as the quickest way to get humans into space, but even during the 1950s other approaches were being considered – designs that would allow returning spacecraft a greater deal of control during reentry and more accurate landings than the first generation capsules could offer. 

One line of thought centred around a vehicle that could generate lift via the shape of its body alone, a ‘lifting body’, and one of the most effective of the configurations that followed was the Martin SV-5/X-24.
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SpaceX: To reusability…and beyond?


Liftoff for Falcon 9 [IMG: SpaceX]

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch, possibly as early as March 29th, will mark a major milestone for the company. Carrying the Luxembourg owned SES-10 communications satellite, it will be the first to reuse – and hopefully recover for a second time – a previously flown Falcon 9 core.

Since the first successful Falcon 9 landing on December 21st 2015, SpaceX have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to recover their first stages to both downrange droneship and Return To Launch Site pad landings. But while there can be no doubting how technically impressive this capability is, it will ultimately count for nothing unless they can refurbish and re-fly the recovered cores repeatedly, amortising their development costs and sustaining reduced launch costs for their customers.

SpaceX had originally hoped that this flight would take place in 2016, but that was before the launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the AMOS-6 satellite during a static-fire test on September 1st, 2016. Since Falcon’s return to flight in January this year, the company are pushing hard to regain lost ground across a number of fronts.
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Sentinel2Went! – A long night in Darmstadt

In a break from my usual posts I offer some thoughts on the launch event for Sentinel-2B held at the European Space Agency’s operations centre (ESOC) on the 6-7th March. All opinions expressed here are my own and I fully appreciate they may not shared by all readers (disclaimer over!)

As I write this, i’m sitting in a hotel room in Darmstadt, Germany after attending the ESA launch event for Sentinel-2B last night (and early this morning!)
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