When the Space Race against the Soviet Union started in 1957 we entered into a period of great technological progress. We discovered things that had never been discovered, designed things that had never been designed, and went were mankind had ever gone before. It was an exciting time to watch what we could do, both as a nation and as a species, when we put our collective mind to a singular task. NASA became the preeminent research and engineering organization on the planet.
When we think of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions we inevitably think of the rockets and space capsules and lunar landers that were the stars of the show. That wasn’t all NASA did, however, and behind the scenes they were building new structures purpose designed to build, test, house, and launch the new wonder machines. When they weren’t pushing the boundaries of space exploration they were working to push our broader understanding of flight into uncharted territory.
It's no secret that I'm enamored with the Saturn V rocket. For my generation (read: old fogies) the Saturn V defined the United States; it was big, bad, and cemented our belief in our technical superiority over the Evil Empire (read: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.) To this day it is the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever to be deployed and holds the record for launching the heaviest payload into space. It's also the most reliable, because in its 13 launches it never lost a crew member or payload.
The Saturn V was the rocket that took us to the moon, and there was nothing like the giant fireball of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines in its first stage to ignite our nationalistic pride on liftoff. Those godless Soviets may have been first, but by golly we were the BEST!
In the 2 minutes and 41 seconds those engines burned they took the Saturn V to an altitude of 42 miles and a speed of over 6,000mph. At that point the first stage was jettisoned and the five Rocketdyne engines would tumble into the sea, to be forgotten by the American people.
There was a time when Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy, for those who grew up in the late '60s) was the center of national and international attention. That's where all of our manned space launches happened: the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects, as well as the Space Shuttle missions. It drew throngs of tourists and resulted in a long-lived boom in the region. It was a place where real magic happened.
With the close of the Shuttle era, however, the infrastructure of Cape Canaveral is being idled. The thousands of technicians, engineers and scientists who worked there have dwindled, and along with them the tourists. The Cape is slowly turning into a ghost town, complete with empty attractions and shuttered businesses. The structures on launch pad LC-39B at the Kennedy Space Center were demolished in 2011, while the fate of sister pad LC-39A is uncertain.
Photographer David Ryle has spent some time there chronicling the decline of what has been called "Space Coast". A selection of his pictures are up at Fast Company, and are worth a look if you - like me - were ever fascinated by the idea of human beings being rocketed into space.
Last week's Surprise was about space, so I thought "why not keep the theme going?"
The Space Shuttle, as you probably heard, has been grounded forever. In total, we built six of them: The Enterprise, which was used for atmospheric tests only and never made it to space; the Columbia, which broke up on re-entry in 2003; the Challenger, which blew up shortly after lift-off in 1986; and Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor, which were all retired and are even now in the process of being moved to museums.
There was one Shuttle, however, which preceded even Enterprise. It's been sitting, nearly forgotten, in an unlighted warehouse in Downey, CA since 1972. There's now a movement underway to restore it and put it on display.
So, why doesn't anyone remember it? After all, it was the model - literally - for all that would follow. If you can think of a word that rhymes with "follow", and put it together with the other clues I’ve worked into this post, you’ll get the rest of the story. Alternatively, you could take the easy way out and just click on this link and read about it at the Los Angeles Times.
In the fall of 1977 I was starting my junior year in high school (we had actual high schools back then; no junior high nonsense, and we didn't refer to ourselves as being in the "eleventh grade".) I was something of a math and science geek, and along with that came an abiding interest in space travel. NASA was like Mecca.
For anyone who followed the goings-on at Cape Canaveral, it was an exciting time. The launch of the Voyager space probes - Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 - was imminent. They were destined to do exploration of Saturn and Jupiter and hopefully give us new information about those planets, information which we couldn't get from telescopes on earth.
The launch went perfectly and the Voyagers did their jobs at both planets. We learned many new things from their close fly-bys, but the machines were still operating. NASA extended both missions, with Voyager 2 being sent to Uranus and Neptune and Voyager 1 being sent on a mission to explore the outer limits of the sun's influence. Voyager 2, if it were to be operating after the passes over Uranus and Neptune, would join that mission.
Today Voyager 1 is the furthest man-made object from earth: 1.8x10^10 kilometers, or 120 astronomical units, or roughly 11,154,696,873 miles. It is now in a part of space that we've never explored, a region known as the heliosheath. This is the narrow area between our solar system (heliosphere) and interstellar space, where solar winds slow and cosmic rays start to penetrate. This was an unimaginable achievement when the Voyagers were launched, and unless Voyager 1 collides with something it is expected to reach the heliopause - the very boundary between the solar system and open space. When? We don't know, because we don't know how thick the heliosheath is. That's something else the Voyager missions will be able to tell us!
Voyager 1 is expected to continue to function until about 2020, at which point it will be 43 years old and its systems will finally run out of power, many years past its original design life. We may not have been able to make very good automobiles back then, but we sure knew how to make spacecraft!
Today marks the final scheduled launch of our Space Shuttle. While one can argue about the merits of the program, it was a great example of what our country could do if we simply decided to do it. Back in '79 I could not have conceived that space launches would be so common that people would scarcely pay attention to them, yet that's exactly what happened.
As it turned out most of the Shuttle's jobs could be just as easily (and usually less expensively) be done using expendable rockets. Still, despite my avowed position as a critic of government involvement in most areas of life I'm glad that my tax dollars went to fund the Shuttle.
Sometimes, folks, you've got to do something outlandish just to prove you're alive. NASA has given us a collective way to be outlandish, the national equivalent of your local municipality's fireworks display.
Down in Florida's Everglades, well hidden from casual view, is the remnant of an idea: to build solid fuel rocket motors for the Apollo space missions.
In 1963 the decision between solid or liquid fueled boosters for what would be the Saturn V rocket had not yet been made, and there was stiff competition between supporters of the two ideas. General Tire Company, which had a subsidiary named Aerojet General, was solidly (pardon the pun) on the side of solid fuel.
They put their money where their mouths were, investing millions to build a rocket assembly and test facility in what was the middle of nowhere. They built facilities to make the fuel and assemble the rockets, a 150-foot-deep silo to test fire the motors, and even a canal to transport the finished rockets through their swampy surroundings to the Atlantic ocean.
The Aerojet-Dade facility, as it was known, built and tested only three motors -- but they were the largest and most powerful solid fuel rocket motors ever made. Liquid fuel was eventually chosen for the Saturn V, and in 1969 the facility was abandoned. Aerojet walked away, leaving everything behind -- including the third rocket still sitting in the test silo!
While you may not be familiar with her work, Megan Prelinger has been busy chronicling America’s space initiatives, focusing on how they were sold to the public. She’s put together a great book: "Another Science Fiction,” which is largely a collection of advertisements for space contractors during the Cold War.
SImultaneously recruiting employees while dangling the lure of space exploration to the masses, these ads ran in such magazines as LIFE and National Geographic. I remember many of them, but Prelinger's book is the first to collect them and show how vital they were in shaping a new vision of space.
In this must-read interview at WIRED, Prelinger talks about the impact of space advertising, what could have been bigger than Apollo, and how countercultural utopias figured into the space race. Fascinating.
The LIFE website this week unveiled a photo retrospective of Project Mercury, America's first human spaceflight program. If you look at the picture captions, you'll notice one name on most of them: Ralph Morse. There's a good reason for that.
Ralph Morse was a staffer at LIFE (and later TIME) when he was assigned to cover a press conference in Washington in 1959. That event was the announcement of the Project Mercury astronauts. Sensing the long term importance of the announcement, Morse contacted his editor and told him that there would be a lot of public interest in these men. He suggested that the magazine assign someone permanently to NASA, which was then less than a year old. Morse got the job.
It was a good choice; Morse had already been with LIFE for over a decade, bringing back some of the most well known pictures in their archives. NASA was a fledgling agency, and Morse had gotten himself in on the ground floor of what would become the Space Race.
Over the next couple of decades, Morse would become an insider at NASA. He got exclusive access, and was even allowed to place his cameras in restricted areas his competition at NEWSWEEK couldn't even dream of. Along the way, he produced some of the most iconic images of the various NASA projects.
It all started at that press conference, where an idiot reporter (some things never change) asked the astronauts which of them expected "to come back alive." Morse grabbed this shot of the astronauts showing their mettle:
Some of his shots were very well known...
...while others weren't:
All of them, though, came from the camera of an inventive genius whose enthusiasm for his job knew no bounds. Were it not for his eye, his ingenuity, and his nose for news, we wouldn't have this great visual record of our nation's greatest achievements. George Hunt, at one time LIFE's Managing Editor, said “if LIFE could afford only one photographer, it would have to be Ralph Morse.”
Ralph is now 92, but unfortunately for us gave up photography some years ago.
In 1997, NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft to study the planet Saturn. It finally reached the ringed planet in 2004, and started sending back some positively amazing images. The craft continues to work perfectly, and as a result the mission has been extended to 2010.
I've previously mentioned my appreciation for the work that NASA has done over it's 50-year history. NASA grew up right along with me - or me with it - and NASA was always doing the exciting stuff boys of that era were smitten by: Astronauts. Fast planes. Rockets. The Moon.
(It wasn't just spectacle, though; NASA was the catalyst for technological progress that continues to be felt today. A surprising number of the things we now take for granted can be traced directly back to some NASA project.)
We learned about the exploits of the engineers, technicians and astronauts through NASA-supplied pictures in the magazines of the day. My early interest in science was kindled by those pictures, and some of them I still remember.
NASA documented everything, but not all of their photos were of general interest. A large percentage of their images were never seen by the general public because the media was understandably reluctant to publish anything of interest only to nerds. Through the magic of the internet, however, we now have ready access to some of those great pictures.
The agency has launched a new site just for NASA images. You can search or browse and download your selected pictures, drawings, and illustrations - some of them of quite high resolution. You'll find lots of astronomical images, of course, but you'll find all kinds of other things too.
Two of my favorites from the 1969 launch of Apollo 11, taking the first men to the moon:
Saturn V rocket FTW!
If you're a science buff like me, you can spend large amounts of time on their site. I recommend that you not try this a) at work, or b) when your significant other expects you to be paying attention to him/her/the kids/household chores/your dinner guests. You have been warned!
When I was a wee lad, America was at the forefront of space exploration. By the time I was old enough to know what was going on, we'd recovered from the shock of the Soviets beating us into space, and had responded in a big way with Gemini and Apollo programs.
In those days, our grade school classes would literally come to a halt as we gathered around a television set to watch a liftoff or a splashdown. The mighty Saturn V rockets - spewing a fireball that remains unequalled for sheer excitement - would take our astronauts into space for yet another thrilling mission. Landing men on the moon was our crowning achievement, watched by just about everyone in the country.
Space flights were national events on a scale that I haven't seen since - and probably never will again. The SuperBowl and American Idol Finals may draw larger audiences, but in terms of captivating our collective conscious, of instilling pride in our country and what we were capable of doing, they will ever equal the NASA of the mid 20th century.