January 2, 2013
On this day in 1959, the Soviet Union launched a 4-foot-diameter metal ball — a close copy of the Sputnik satellite that had kicked off the space age two years earlier — in the direction of the moon. On January 4 Luna 1, also known as “Mechta” or Dream, passed within 6,000 kilometers of the lunar surface. The Soviets had meant for it to hit the moon, and had loaded commemorative “pennants” on board that were supposed to scatter in every direction at the moment of impact. But a faulty rocket burn caused the probe to miss its target. Fifty-three years later, Luna 1, the first object to escape Earth’s gravity, is still in orbit around the sun.
In 1959, such a demonstration of Soviet rocket power didn’t sit well with American notions of technological superiority, and there was much fretting in the Western press. LIFE magazine editorialized about “The Warning of Mechta,” and pointed fingers at the politicians and bureaucrats. One writer named Lloyd Mallan took it a step further, claiming, in an article titled “The Big Red Lie,” published in the April 11, 1959 issue of True magazine, that the Soviets had made up the whole story about Luna 1.
After a long fact-finding trip (“14,000 miles behind the Iron Curtain”), Mallan concluded not only that “Lunik [the somewhat derisive nickname used in some American reports] does not exist and never did” but that “the Russians do not have any ICBMs,” and that the striking power of the Red Air Force had been greatly exaggerated. Mallan based his conclusions partly on the mistaken idea that no Westerners had heard signals from the Russian moon probe.
In August of that year, a Congressional fact-finding committee alarmed by Mallan’s claims heard different from people who actually knew what they were talking about. William Pickering, head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told the committee that the Goldstone tracking antenna had detected signals from a spacecraft moving away from the moon on January 4. According to the committee report, “Dr. Pickering said there was no doubt in his mind that the object being tracked was the Soviet Moon rocket.” None of the expert witnesses doubted it, in fact.
During the hearings Mallan’s patriotism even came into question, based on his past involvement with communist-sympathizing groups during the Spanish Civil War. Although the hearings put to rest any serious possibility of Luna 1 being a hoax, Mallan went on to a dubious career debunking (usually erroneously) other Russian space achievements.
As for the Russians, they scored again later that year with Luna 3, the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the moon. Boris Chertok, a veteran of the cold war space race, wrote in his multi-volume memoir about those early days when his country was briefly ahead of the United States:
You can criticize the utopian plans for building communism, the trampling of human rights, and the Communist Party’s dictatorship in a totalitarian state all you want. But it is impossible to erase from the history of the Khrushchev era the favorable conditions created for developing cosmonautics and its related sciences. Cosmonautics did not arise simply from militarization, and its aims were more than purely propagandistic. During the first post-Sputnik years, the foundations were laid for truly scientific research in space, serving the interest of all humankind. All Soviet people, not just those of us who were directly involved in the missile and space programs, felt proud and were thrilled to be citizens of the country that was blazing the trail for the human race into the cosmos.
December 14, 2012
Fifty years ago today, we became interplanetary explorers. NASA’s 447-pound Mariner 2 probe zipped past Venus at a distance of 21,564 miles, sending back data on temperature and magnetic fields — the first successful visit to another planet.
In December 1962 that was quite an engineering triumph, and the spacecraft — modeled after the then-disaster-prone Ranger lunar probes — barely survived its ordeal at Venus. In fact, it’s still amazing that a small team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who had never done any of this stuff before, was able to design, build, launch, and execute a successful planetary flyby, almost from scratch, in just a few months.
The project manager for Mariner 2 was Jack James, a Texas-born electrical engineer who had previously worked on missile programs at JPL. James wrote a memoir before he died in 2001; the following anecdotes from the Mariner 2 chapter are used here by permission of his son, Jack James.
In the rush to carry out the crash effort, errors were made. An error I actually enjoyed had to do with the quick rewriting of the Air Force contracts with [its launch contractors]. The young Air Force lieutenant who rewrote, negotiated, and had the contracts signed had been given verbal instructions. He apparently wasn’t too clear on the ultimate destination of this new mission. He had listed in the objectives of the contracts that they were to carry out a mission to Venice.
The flyby depended on the spacecraft’s ability to refine its course on the way to Venus, and one of James’ team doubted that the midcourse correction system could be ready in time to hit the summer 1962 launch window for Venus.
I consulted Dr. Homer Joe Stewart, who was serving in two posts: he was a key senior advisor to JPL, and at the same time a professor of aeronautics at Caltech. He was a man I thought a great deal of. I asked if we would be able to conduct a meaningful mission if we had no mid course correction system. In typical Homer Joe fashion—with a cigarette dangling from his lips and wearing a seersucker suit and tennis shoes—he went to a blackboard and started scribbling a lot of computations and drawings, most of which I did not follow. He concluded that the Atlas Agena injection accuracy alone would result in little chance of the spacecraft getting close enough to Venus to measure the magnetic fields or to make temperature measurements. He estimated that the mission would be primarily for national prestige by being the first spacecraft to go into the vicinity of a planet, but would not produce much in the way of scientific data.
James and another JPL manager, Bob Parks, then went to Washington and got NASA Headquarters’ permission — and the funding — to attempt the first American planetary mission.
Bob and I were staying in some old hotel I am certain was one that Lincoln had slept in. It had no air conditioning, but in those days hotel windows could be opened. To cool off a bit and celebrate, Bob and I, in our undershirts, took a bottle of Vodka, a bucket of ice, and some glasses, and walked up the staircase out onto the roof of the building. We gazed out at that great D.C. skyline and celebrated what we had accomplished and the uncertainties of what was about to begin.
In a 1987 interview to mark the 25th anniversary of Mariner 2, James recalled how the team worked long hours during the four months that their probe operated in interplanetary space.
I’d get called at all times of the night, you know, or I might be on travel. I was continually being called and given a report on things. My nerves had become so taut by this time, that I instructed everyone that would call me to start out with one of two sentences: “There is no problem,” or, “There is a problem.” I mean, just get it over with….Quite often, I got calls, “There is a serious problem.”
Mariner 2 survived, though, and returned data proving that Venus was oven-hot, and devoid of life (just as a young, not-yet-famous postdoc named Carl Sagan had predicted). The United States had beaten the Soviets (who had tried and failed to make a similar flyby) to Venus, and JPL had established itself as the world leader in planetary exploration, a position it still holds today.
As James wrote years later:
The science community was happy.
The NASA people were happy.
The newspaper people were happy.
The Campus was happy.
We were all happy.
December 3, 2012
If you grew up near Bethpage, New York in the early 1960s, you probably were obsessed with the Apollo Lunar Module built by the Long Island-based Grumman Corporation. And if you were an extremely prescient teenager, you might have started amassing your own world-class collection of space-related items, including photographs, manuscripts, and prints.
This Wednesday, Bonhams is auctioning off one such private collection. In a video on Bonhams’ Website, the collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains that he grew up “during the height of the windup to the Apollo era,” just a few miles from Grumman, and many of the fathers in his neighborhood worked on the Lunar Module. “I was working towards a goal fairly early on,” he recalls in the video. “In my early- to mid-teens, what I wanted to do was to have an exhibition focusing on unmanned space travel.”
Many of the items are one-of-a kind. The lunar photomosaic above (see the full image here), was made as a five-foot-wide presentation piece in 1966, and was painstakingly assembled by Kay Larson of the U.S. Geological Survey using images captured by Surveyor 1. “I’m lucky to have found this—it would have been thrown in the trash, eventually,” the collector notes.
There are objects relating to Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, but Earth’s moon is the centerpiece of this show. Some of the items predate the space age. One particularly lovely object is a photograph made up of four large-format quadrants of the moon, taken in 1899, and probably created for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The photogravures, by Pierre Henri Puiseux and Maurice Loewy, were taken at the Paris Observatory. “It was only with NASA’s Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s,” reads the collection note, “that images substantially better than those of Loewy and Puiseux were obtained.” The plates are from Puiseux and Loewy’s Atlas photographique de la lune. The two men were able to photograph the moon only during perfect weather, the catalog notes, which meant just 50 or 60 nights each year—explaining why the Atlas took 14 years to complete. These may be the first oversize plates from the Atlas to come up for auction, and are expected to bring $12,000 to $18,000.
British pastel portraitist John Russell (the appointed painter to the King and the Prince of Wales) was so fascinated with the moon that he created a lunar globe in 1797, which he called a Selenographia. Russell spent many years drawing and observing the moon; his globe even accounts for lunar motion, or libration. No more than 11 Selenographias are believed to exist; six are in public collections. This example, lot number 23, is expected to fetch between $200,000 to $300,000.
November 28, 2012
NASA has published another one of their cool, interactive roadmaps, like the one from last February that we enjoyed. Be sure to click through to the interactive full-size version to learn where NASA is headed in technology fields ranging from space power to nanotechnology and, of course, new launch systems.
August 3, 2012
You have to give it to Mike Malin. He tried.
A couple of years ago, the planetary scientist who’s arguably the world’s foremost expert on Martian photography tried to convince NASA to include 3D video capability on the Curiosity lander that’s scheduled to touch down on Mars just after 1:30 am Eastern Monday morning. The 3D version of Malin’s Mastcam camera, as proposed by Avatar and Titanic director James Cameron, would have given us a “you-are-there” feeling of riding along with the rover as it trekked around the planet.
For defensible reasons, NASA decided not to include it.
But another Malin-built camera called MARDI — which, amazingly, was also initially axed by NASA cost-cutters — survived (barely — Malin had to put in his own money), and will film the rover’s descent as it drops to the Martian surface. Here’s NASA’s description of how it will work:
During the final few minutes of Curiosity’s flight to the surface of Mars, the Mars Descent Imager, or MARDI, will record a full-color video of the ground below. This will provide the Mars Science Laboratory team with information about the landing site and its surroundings, to aid interpretation of the rover’s ground-level views and planning of initial drives. Hundreds of the images taken by the camera will show features smaller than what can be discerned in images taken from orbit. The video will also give fans worldwide an unprecedented sense of riding a spacecraft to a landing on Mars.
MARDI will record the video on its own 8-gigabyte flash memory at about four frames per second and close to 1,600 by 1,200 pixels per frame. Thumbnails and a few samples of full-resolution frames will be transmitted to Earth in the first few days after landing….The full video — available first from the thumbnails in YouTube-like resolution and later in full detail — will begin with a glimpse of the heat shield falling away from beneath the rover. The first views of the ground will cover an area several kilometers (a few miles) across. Successive frames taken as the vehicle descends will close in and cover successively smaller areas. The video will likely nod up and down to fairly large angles owing to parachute-induced oscillations.
Many of the images may also be blurry, due to the motion of the camera. But hey, it’s video of a Mars landing, people!
I totally get that NASA has to draw the line somewhere at what to pack for its Mars expeditions, and Curiosity‘s managers struggled mightily even to stay within a bloated budget of $2.5 billion. But watch this video of the Huygens spacecraft descending to Titan’s surface in 2005, and tell me you don’t want to see the same thing (or hopefully better) on Mars.
August 6 update: Here’s a lo-res, incomplete version of the MARDI descent video. A much better version will eventually be released.
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