Cluster’s Last Stand: The Saturn I/1B

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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.
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Space Trucks! Big G and the TKS

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1985 Department of Defence concept shows Buran approaching a Soviet Space Station with 2 TKS and 1 Soyuz craft attached[IMG: US DoD via National Archives]
Towards the end of the 1960’s both the USA and Soviet Union had their eyes firmly on the Moon, but away from the lunar race plans were beginning to take shape for longer duration flights within Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Designs for Space Stations came into focus both for civilian and military purposes and these studies led to a need for a new generation of ships that could perform the logistical roles that would be generated by these orbital outposts.

Here we’ll take a look at two contemporary concepts from that era. They were designed to carry out broadly similar roles, yet one had its feet firmly in the earlier days of the space race, while the other created an enduring legacy that lasts to this day in the biggest space construction of them all, the International Space Station (ISS).
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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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A Cosmonaut on the Moon: Korolev’s N-1/L3 plan

The monumental LK-3 lunar lander (engineering model, 1969) in the Cosmonauts exhibition ©Science Museum
The monumental LK-3 lunar lander (engineering model, 1969) in the Cosmonauts exhibition ©Science Museum
On May 25th 1961 President John F. Kennedy took to the floor of Congress and announced that the United States would land a man on the Moon and return him safely before the decade was out. As he spoke, NASA’s total manned spaceflight experience amounted to Alan Shepard’s 15 minute sub-orbital flight in Freedom 7. The President, in consultation with his advisors, had determined that this goal gave the United States its best chance of catching and surpassing Soviet space capabilities.

In 1961 this seemed like quite a gamble with the Soviet Union announcing a succession of space firsts, but as the history books show Kennedy’s goal was met and America put a man on the Moon before both the end of the decade and the Soviets. But how much of a race was it? For decades the Soviet Union officially denied that it had ever engaged in a manned lunar programme. In the West, only those with access to classified satellite photography knew this wasn’t the case but it was only following the collapse of the Soviet Union that the true story would emerge.

The Soviet Union had indeed intended to land Cosmonauts on the Moon, but whereas NASA spent a decade working steadily towards the triumphs of Apollo, the Soviet situation was very different.

This is the story of the Soviet response to Apollo: the N-1/L3.
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Dream Chaser DNA: A story of spaceplane evolution

The SNC Dream Chaser Flight Test Article
The SNC Dream Chaser Flight Test Article [IMG: Wikipedia CC licence]
Since the earliest days of the space age there has been something inherently attractive in the idea of a spacecraft that could glide back after its mission and land like an aeroplane. From Sanger’s Silbervogel onwards, a succession of spaceplanes sporting various shapes and configurations have flowed from the minds of aerospace designers.

Sierra Nevada Corporation recently announced that it is preparing its Dream Chaser spaceplane for a new round of flight tests. If Dream Chaser makes it into space, it will mark the culmination of a long evolution for a wingless ‘lifting body’ shape going back over 50 years and involving both Cold War superpowers…

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How the race was won

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This piece was written as a response to the question “How did the United States win the space race if it was behind the USSR?” posted on Quora and appears in an edited form there. For the purposes of my response I’ve chosen to define the space race as beginning with Sputnik 1 and ending with the successful return to Earth of Apollo 11.

I’m aware this is a definition that many may not agree with, but I feel it serves to frame the argument I wished to make. Please feel free to comment with your opinions, I’m happy to hear them just as you are giving me the time to express mine here!
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