A Chrysler advert highlighting their involvement with the Saturn programme [IMG: Chrysler Corporation]
Few sights could be more synonymous with the space age optimism of the 1960s than the mighty Saturn V. Built to take Americans to the Moon at the culmination of a politically fuelled space race, it also represented the ultimate expression of von Braun’s long held desire to use rocketry to reach other worlds. But while the Saturn V is deservedly honoured for its historic role, much of the work to make this success possible was carried out during the development of its smaller, less well remembered predecessor – the Saturn I.
Often consigned to the footnotes of space history the Saturn I story began well before Apollo, the programme that provided its defining role. Saturn I’s early development spans the military power struggles of the pre-NASA age and indeed its development helped bring key capabilities to the nascent space agency that remain important and controversial to this day. Although understandably overshadowed by the mighty Saturn V, for a while it looked like the Saturn I and subsequent variants might become among the most important workhorses of America’s expansion into space, a flexible and ubiquitous launcher with a life way beyond the lunar landings. Unfortunately, as with so many of the ambitious plans of the 1960s, the Saturn I never fully realised this potential. Continue reading →
At the dawn of the space age, there appeared to be two viable routes to spaceflight, each with their roots firmly in German wartime research. On one hand there was the ballistic missile and on the other, the winged spaceplane.
The famed Peenemünde group led by von Braun and working for the German Army had created the world’s first practical ballistic missile, the A4, but by the latter years of the war had also begun to look at extending the missile’s range through the addition of wings. Independently of the Peenemünde group, Austrian scientist Eugene Sänger and his mathematician partner Irene Bredt were working on concepts for a rocket boosted Antipodal bomber for the German Air Ministry.
As the two global superpowers emerged in the immediate aftermath of World War II, these aerodynamic and ballistic concepts as well as the key protagonists behind their creation became the subject of huge military interest on both sides of the Iron Curtain. While the initial desire for exoatmospheric vehicles was based squarely around a requirement for long range weapons systems, the vehicles and techniques that resulted from these initial development programmes helped lay the groundwork for the space launch systems of the future.
Two contemporary advanced weapons projects carried out for the United States Air Force during the 1950s, namely BOMI and Atlas, illustrate these differing approaches well but endured very different fortunes. Continue reading →
Frank Borman leads the crew of Apollo 8 to the transfer van on December 21st 1968 [IMG: NASA]
Sometimes it can be easy to get so immersed in the detail of spaceflight, the documentation, the politics and the technical minutiae, that we lose sight of the very real emotional connection that our achievements can have.
Occasionally when things come together just right, for a brief moment we can all pull together and feel a collective human wonder at events we see unfolding. I suspect many of us have our own ‘special mission’, indeed one of the great pleasures of meeting fellow space enthusiasts is to swap stories of these pivotal moments, the wonder they gave us and the lasting glow that keeps us wanting to learn more. Increasingly these may be missions we only learn about decades after their completion – we come new to these experiences, yet they can affect us just as they affected the generation that witnessed them first-hand.
As NASA came to grips with the enormity of the task handed to them by President Kennedy in his May 1961 congressional address, the list of hurdles standing between America and a manned moon landing was long and formidable. Although NASA’s senior management felt confident that the task could be accomplished before the end of the decade, the finer details of how this would be achieved were far less certain.
Much of the initial focus of Project Apollo fell on the fundamental question of which mission mode should be employed. Some favoured Direct Ascent – launching one huge spaceship directly to the Moon where it would land before returning to the Earth. Others argued Earth Orbit Rendezvous was far more achievable given the limitations of American rocketry at the time. A third group suggested Lunar Orbit Rendezvous may hold significant advantages, but all three approaches had one thing in common – they would involve the controlled landing of a spaceship subject to the Moon’s reduced gravity and lack of atmosphere. Continue reading →
When the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft set down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on September 30th 2016, it marked the official completion of a 12-year mission covering almost 8 billion kilometres. Whilst analysis of the data returned by Rosetta and its diminutive lander Philae will continue for decades, the journey is at an end for two beloved social media personalities spawned by the mission, for as tough as chasing down a comet may be, the Rosetta team had another objective that seemed almost as elusive – how to re-engage the interest of the general public following Rosetta’s lengthy hibernation and communicate the mission’s key goals and context. Continue reading →
Recently I returned from a trip to California. While this was a family vacation, it did give me the chance to visit some fantastic space and aviation related attractions reflecting the state’s rich aerospace heritage. Here’s a quick roundup of what I saw… Continue reading →
With hindsight, it is now popular to view the Space Shuttle as a flawed concept, born out of political compromise and budget constraints. Never able to maintain anything like the original projected flight rates, hugely expensive and time consuming to maintain, the shuttle can seem like something of a developmental dead end or, as some have claimed, proof that reusability can never be economically viable.
As we enter an era where both SpaceX and Blue Origin aim to prove that Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing rockets can offer a sustainable route to Earth orbit and beyond, it’s interesting to look back at a reusable spaceplane concept that predated NASA’s shuttle studies and could, had things been different, have ended up being America’s national launch system from the 1970s onwards. But this is also the story of the man behind the concept, Max Hunter, a visionary who – along with contemporaries such as Philip Bono (see more on Bono’s SSTO designs) – helped define the desirability of reusable launch vehicles at a time when the world was still focused on the short-term spectaculars of Apollo’s race to the Moon. Continue reading →