Cluster’s Last Stand: The Saturn I/1B


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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Less than gravity: The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle

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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Apollo, I still love you but…

Eagle stands on the Moon as Apollo 11 accomplishes Kennedy’s goal in July 1969 [IMG: NASA]
I was born into the post-Apollo generation. Whenever I’ve looked at the Moon, it’s always been with the knowledge that humans have been there, walked on that surface, brought back rocks. As a child I became obsessed with space travel, devouring any book I could find on the subject. I memorised every detail about the rockets and spacecraft I read about, absorbed the stories of the brave astronauts and cosmonauts who flew them – these people became my heroes.

At the time I neither understood nor questioned why we stopped going to the Moon. The age of the Shuttle was here. Spaceflight would become safe and routine for my generation, no longer the preserve of steely test pilots – or so I thought as a small child, glued to the TV watching John Young and Bob Crippen take Columbia on her inaugural flight. They launched on April 12, 1981 – 20 years to the day since Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to experience spaceflight. How far we’d come in two decades! Where could we go in the next twenty years?
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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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