We can call it Apollo 50. Are you on board?

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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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Less than gravity: The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle

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The LLRV in Flight [IMG: NASA]
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.
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Once around the Moon: The Soviet circumlunar race

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The final leg of the race to the Moon as visualised by TIME magazine

Whilst the complexities and expense of a lunar landing mission always looked difficult for the Soviet space programme to achieve before the end of the 1960’s, the possibility of a simpler circumlunar flight certainly seemed within reach. Unfortunately one of the fundamental truths of the Soviet programme was that the so called Space Race was in reality always as much an internal  battle for influence and funding between the competing design bureaus as it ever was a clash between superpowers.

But in spite of missed opportunities, tragedies and political indecision this was a race that nearly went right down to the wire.
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