Category Archives: Spaceflight
We’ve all seen it in some form or another in science fiction movies: a character suddenly finds themself exposed, sans protective suit, to the vacuum of space. Maybe it was a crack in their suit or helmet, or they were caught in an open airlock, or they were sucked out of a hole in a spacecraft hull—possibly by their own fault or through the accidental or malicious actions of another. (If there’s one thing science fiction has taught us is that space is full of enemies.) From that point on, what happens to them seems to be up to the imagination of the director. Does their head swell and explode? Do they instantly freeze solid? Does the unfiltered UV light from the Sun fry them alive? Or do they just run out of oxygen and black out?
On this day in 1961, May the 5th at 9:34 a.m. Eastern time, NASA astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to travel into space with the launch of his Freedom 7 vehicle atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Shepard reached an altitude of 116.5 miles during his 15-minute suborbital flight before splashing down in the Atlantic, setting the stage for the first orbital spaceflight by John Glenn on Feb. 20 of the next year and all future Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo lunar missions (the 14th of which Shepard was commander in 1971.)
The video above from YouTube user lunarmodule5 shows Shepard’s historic flight from liftoff to splashdown with views from the pad as well as from inside the Freedom 7 capsule, showing film footage of Shepard and renderings of the capsule in position followed by photographs from splashdown and recovery.
The date of this important event is not coincidentally shared with the newly-dedicated National Astronaut Day, which celebrates America’s brave spacefaring heroes.
Want to learn more about the inimitable Al Shepard? Check out Neal Thompson’s excellent biography Light This Candle — read my review here.
On Monday, Feb. 27, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans for his company to send two privately-paying “space tourists” on a trip around the Moon in late 2018. According to Musk it’s a voyage that would send them, aboard SpaceX’s still-in-development Dragon 2 spacecraft, on a “long loop” past the Moon and out to about 400,000 miles before returning—farther than any of NASA’s Apollo missions and even farther into space than any humans have ever traveled.
This announcement came as a surprise to many people, especially those who know the amazingly enthusiastic nature of a late 2018 target and how much work yet remains for a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft, especially considering SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has yet to launch.
SpaceX’s news release on Monday was quickly met by one from NASA, with whom the company is currently under contract to develop human transportation capabilities for transport to the Space Station and whose taxpayer-provided funding is paying for development of the Dragon vehicle. SpaceX has yet to launch Dragon 2 or achieve human rating from NASA, even though it was slated to begin flying astronauts to Station next year.
“We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station,” said NASA’s representatives—somewhat pointedly—in a responsive press release.
This news also happened to come just a couple of weeks after a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested that delays by SpaceX and Boeing—the two companies contracted to provide astronaut transportation to the ISS for NASA—will likely push any U.S. launches past 2018, requiring yet more Soyuz seats for American astronauts.
I don’t have any insider information from either SpaceX or NASA, but I can’t help but wonder how the former plans to achieve a 2018 launch of a crewed Dragon 2, and if the latter wonders if its needs—and the needs of the country—are being overlooked in favor of additional profit (which, admittedly, SpaceX as a privately-funded company relies upon.) In addition, is this putting Dragon 2 in direct competition with NASA’s Orion spacecraft?
“By putting forth the idea that its Dragon spacecraft could essentially fly the same mission as Orion for much, much less than the government, SpaceX is boldly telling the Trump administration that the private sector could get the job done if Orion were axed from the space agency’s budget to cut costs,” writes space journalist Eric Berger on Ars Technica.
Read more in this story from Eric Berger here: SpaceX plans to send two people around the Moon in late 2018
If you’re in love with space then you’ll fall head over heels for this: it’s a picture of Earth taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it passed the orbit of Pluto back in 1990—on Valentine’s Day, no less. That image of our planet from almost 4 billion miles away inspired Carl Sagan to write his famous “Pale Blue Dot” passage, which reminds us that we are all just riding on “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
On Feb. 9, 1971, Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard, Jr., Stuart Roosa, and Edgar Mitchell returned to Earth, their command module Kitty Hawk splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at 21:05 UT (4:05 p.m. EST). They were recovered by the USS New Orleans (LPH-11) and returned to the U.S. by way of American Samoa. But the three men weren’t the only living creatures to return from space that day… in fact, human astronauts were in the minority.
Al, Stu, and Ed also shared their lunar voyage with nearly 500 trees.