Tag Archives: NASA

John W. Young

John W. Young (1930)

Across the years, only a few humans have had the honor of being able to say that they walked on the moon – and John Watts Young is one of them. In 1972, he became the ninth man to walk on the Moon as the Commander of the Apollo 16 mission. However, his life has spanned much more than even this, and he truly is one of the most fascinating people within the entire history of NASA’s Astronauts Corps.

Born on September 24, 1930, he grew up in both San Francisco and Orlando. He stayed in Orlando until he graduated from the Orlando High School in 1948. Four years later, he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering, and joined the Scabbard & Blade national military honor society.

It was this degree that would help John Young become one of the most decorated engineers of his time. Having enlisted in the United States Navy, he completed a tour in the Sea of Japan during the Korean War. It was during this time in the Navy that Young would initiate his flight training. He showed immense adaptation in his flight training and in 1962, he actually set the record for time-to-climb in a F-4 Phantom II fighter jet. He retired from the Navy as a decorated Captain in 1976, with 25 years of military service behind him.

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Having joined NASA in 1962, he was the first of the Astronaut Group 2 to actually fly in space when he replaced Thomas Stafford as the pilot of Gemini 3. Young caused controversy when he snuck a corned beef sandwich – Mission Commander Grissom’s favorite – onto the Gemini flight in 1965, which was the first manned flight of the craft. He presented the sandwich to a pleased crewmate but NASA was furious about the “contraband” and ordered Chief Astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton to control his troops. While the Appropriations Committee meeting following the mission showed the seriousness of the incident, it didn’t seem to have damaged Young’s career as he came off with a reprimand and was in command of the Gemini 10 mission a year later, where he was joined by Michael Collins (whose second spaceflight took him to the Moon on Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin).

Originally assigned as part of the backup crew for the second manned Apollo mission, both crews took part in the Apollo 7 mission in October 1968 after the fire of Apollo 1. That Apollo 7 mission, where Young was the backup Command Module Pilot, was commanded by no one less than Walter M. Schirra, who was the provider of that notorious sandwich mentioned earlier. Young went on to fly the Command Module himself as part of the Apollo 10 crew, the first crew to fly to the Moon. He also played a key role in the Apollo 13 problems, helping the team develop a procedure which eventually re-activated the Command Module.

Arguably his greatest achievement, though, was to be the commander of the Apollo 16 crew who landed on the Moon. He made three separate moon walks on April 21st, 22nd and 23rd, in 1972. He became the ninth person to ever walk on the Moon, and the first person to have been in space six times as he later was also Commander of STS-1 (the first space shuttle mission) and STS-9.

John Young worked with NASA in a wide variety of capacities until his retirement in December 2004, retiring at the age of 74. He published his autobiography, Forever Young, in 2012 and today still stands as one of the most inspirational figures space has ever seen.


Today In History – November 20

Today In History – December 21

NASA‘s second manned mission launched exactly 45 years ago, in 1968. Apollo 8, its crew being made up of Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, was the first manned mission orbiting the Moon. A pivotal milestone in U.S. President JFK’s plans to have a man walk on the surface of the Moon before the end of the decade (which was accomplished with Apollo 11 only seven months later), it took the crew three days to travel there. They orbited it ten times (each orbit taking around two hours) and came as close as 70 miles from its surface, before setting on a course for Earth. It was also the first time manned mission using the enormous Saturn V rocket as you can see in below’s video.

Nearly two decades later, another notable event took place… On December 21, 1987, three Soviet cosmonauts started their record-long space trip on board the Mir space station. Captain Vladimir Titov, Onboard Engineer Musa Manarov and researcher Anatoly Levchenko were taken to the Mir by the Soyuz TM-4 space craft. While Levchenko returned earlier, both Titov and Manarov spent just shy of 366 days (365 days, 22 hours and 39 minutes) onboard of the Mir space station. It was only upon the couple’s return that they were informed of Levchenko’s passing away in the meantime. Titov was later awarded the Order of Lenin, and the Golden Star Order for successfully completing the mission he was in command of.

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin (1930)

Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. was born on January 20th, 1930 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. The son of an Air Force Colonel, he followed in his father’s footsteps by enrolling in West Point and joining the United State Air Force – ending up being a decorated Air Force pilot with 66 combat missions in the Korean War under his belt. Shortly after the war, Buzz enrolled to earn his doctorate degree in astronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He applied to join the astronaut corps shortly after but believe it or not, was initially rejected for not being a test pilot. Luckily NASA altered the program’s requirements and so in October 1963 Buzz joined the third astronaut group.

It wasn’t just Buzz who was lucky by the way because three years later, during the Gemini 12 mission of which he was the pilot, a broken radar connection threatened Gemini’s docking maneuvers with Agena, the vehicle it was scheduled to rendezvous with in orbit. Buzz got the chance (see 6:20 in the video) to prove his theories on orbital rendezvous using the strategies he’d outlined at MIT (hear the commentator at 7:10 in the video talking about the coincidence!), and ended up programming the computer to complete the docking successfully. He pulled of another feat on that mission when he spent over five hours outside of the craft, setting the record for longest EVA (extravehicular activity, basically a space walk) so far.

Check out the awesome video below, from 1966, showing not only parts of his EVA but also how he trained for it using underwater simulation. By the time of the mission he already had 9 years of diving experience – a hobby he got into after someone made a comment about how similar underwater and space are when it comes to the freedom of weightlessness.

And then there was obviously that milestone in human history called Apollo 11, where he became the second man to walk on the surface of the Moon. Although he was superseded in that task by Neil Armstrong, Buzz was the first man to hold a religious ceremony on the moon when he took communion.  A legend in his own right, he rescued probably the most complex thing mankind ever did up until that point, with a felt-tip pen from his flight suit’s pocket. Move over MacGuyer! If you want to read about this rather unbelievable fact, check out the “Low-Tech Trick” section about 2/3rds down this buzzaldrin.com page.

After returning from his mission to the moon, Aldrin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest American peacetime award. This was followed by a goodwill tour around the globe with his fellow astronauts, where he was awarded with numerous other awards and medals from various countries of origin. Upon retiring from NASA and the space program, Buzz Aldrin became Commandant of the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base and he retired from military service in 1972. He devised a plan for future space missions, including his mission to Mars plan known as the “Aldrin Mars Cycler” – more on that another time – and also received several patents that will hopefully contribute to future developments in space exploration.

In 2011, Buzz Aldrin, along with the entire Apollo 11 crew, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their significant contributions to country’s space program and scientific discoveries. He is an author of eight books including his New York Times best selling autobiography entitled, “Magnificent Desolation”, and in recent years has used his influence and experience to lobby for the expansion of the current US Space Program. May he live long and prosper!


Orbital's Antarest rocket

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Orbital Sciences Corporation (registered on the New York Stock Exchange as ORB, though commonly referred to as Orbital) is an American company which specializes in the manufacturing and launch of small- and medium-class space and rocket systems. Their client base includes the likes of the US Department of Defense and NASA. A pretty sizeable company, counting around 3800 employees of which half are engineers and scientists, Orbital was founded in 1982. The company conducted their 500th mission back in 2006 already and are currently projected to do more than a billion dollars in annual revenue.

Analysing the company very top-level, it consists of three segments. Launch Vehicles is where they develop rockets and engines of all sorts for different purposes, military and civilian. Satellite and Space Systems is where their geosynchronous Earth orbit communication satellites and other space-based communications service come from. Perhaps the most interesting – definitely for our focus here – is the Advanced Space Program where they besides developing small and medium class satellites for national security space systems also keep themselves busy with working on projects for human space flight and planetary exploration.

Orbital is involved with two prominent NASA programs: the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)/Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). More on those another time but the long story short, NASA started using private companies (both SpaceX and Orbital are contracted) recently for cost-effective supply missions to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. The Obama Administration is looking to expand this approach with partnerships to send NASA astronauts to the space station as soon as 2017.

Orbital launched its new Antares® rocket (a two-stage launch vehicle) for the first time in 2013 – see above for a fascinating time lapse video of its preparation for launch – and its Cygnus™ cargo logistics spacecraft is next scheduled to travel to the ISS mid December. They are pretty active on social media, and it is definitely worth checking out their YouTube channel as well where you can find gems like below’s highlights of their Cygnus demo mission – electronic dance tunes included. Definitely a company we will be following closely!


US Air Force X-37B

We all know that bureaucracy can lead to overcomplicated situations. If you’ve never heard of UNOOSA then rest assured you will not be the only one. The acronym stands for United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, it’s history can be traced back to the late fifties and early sixties. How does this relate to the X-37B? Well, the UNOOSA created *prepare yourself* the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which has been accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. You can read the content in its entirety here but the short summary would be that all space exploration will be done with good intentions and is equally open to all States that comply with international law… basically, don’t be the classroom bully shaking down or beating up the other kids.

So, interesting then that the US airforce is developing its own military shuttle, the highly secretive X-37B. Fully automated, launched atop a Boeing Atlas-V rocket and able to stay in orbit for months at a time, there don’t seem to be many actual facts about its purpose floating about. Commanded by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado, its official mission is “to provide resilient and cost-effective Space and Cyberspace capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.” Several times smaller than the retired Space Shuttles of which its aerodynamic design was derived, the project started in 1999 when NASA selected Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to design and develop an orbital vehicle. It was built by the California branch of Boeing’s Phantom Works whose primary focus is developing advanced military products and technologies, many of them highly classified. Five years later, the operation was  transferred from NASA to DARPA and became shrouded in mystery.

The Air Force stated it will “demonstrate various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology to be transported into space and back”, which could mean absolutely anything. Surely it will only be a matter of time before the public will start asking questions en masse – until someone else leaks a bundle of cables disclosing everything of course.

Lockheed Martin's Venture Star (aka X-33)

VentureStar, aka X-33 (Cancelled in 2001)

At the end of the 20th century, the United States government was already set to developing a reusable space plane to replace the aging Space Shuttle program. The resulting launch vehicle would be able to launch satellites into orbit as 1/10th of the cost, while also having the ability to carry passengers up. Funded by the federal government, it was Lockheed Martin who started development of the X-33 at its Skunk Works facility in 1996, the same facility that saw the development of the revolutionary U2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes . The space ship, which became known as the VentureStar, showed great promise. As a single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch system existing of a lifting body-wing design with no expendable parts, it would launch vertically. But the ship would return to Earth landing like an airplane and because it was lighter by design, it would be able to land at virtually any major airport in case of emergency unlike the Space Shuttle which required much longer runways than those publicly available.

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The design would mean considerable savings in time and materials as well as just being safer in general with maintenance happening similar to that of an airplane. Hard to believe, but the Shuttle required around 17,000 man-hours after every flight to check and if needed replace the thousands of heat-resistant ceramic tiles. The VentureStar on the other hand would use a new metallic thermal protection system, which would be much easier and cheaper to maintain. Then there was the basic design of the vehicle, which meant no more large external tank needed for launch, and neither did it need additional booster rockets that had to be recovered from the ocean after launch. Then there was the new engine technology. Unlike the Shuttle which relied on conventional nozzle engines, the VentureStar project would use linear aerospike engines that maintain thrust efficiency at all altitudes and were developed to have thrust reserve just in case things went wrong. Should one of the engines ever have failed, first the opposite engine would immediately shuf off to counterbalance and keep the vehicle going in the right direction. Next, that reserve would mean that the remaining engines were powerful enough to throttle up and ensure the space ship would still safely reach orbit.

Last but not least VentureStar’s main fuels would have been only liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, meaning the exhaust of its engines would have been composed of… water vapor. It was truly next-generation tech! Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Due to spiraling costs, and technical difficulties, NASA scrapped their support for the program in 2001. For Lockheed Martin it didn’t make sense anymore to continue the program on its own and so, VentureStar was scrapped with the prototype 90% complete. Perhaps it did show however that the future of space transportation and exploration would have to be corporate. Ironically that is what Lockheed Martin was attempting to achieve with VentureStar.

After suborbital flights kicking of next year with Virgin Galactic and XCOR to name a few, one of the next logical steps for these pioneers will be to reach orbit and who knows, maybe some day we will see another VentureStar rising from the ashes.

Space Shuttle Discovery on lift off

The Space Shuttle (1981 – 2011) – Part 3

Following from Hubble’s story in part two, the year is 1995 and in June of that year space shuttle Atlantis lifts off. It’s mission: to dock with MIR, the Russian space station that by some is seen as the predecessor to the International Space Station. This event led to what was at the time the largest spacecraft ever in orbit, with a total mass of almost 225 tons (around half a million pounds). The following five days saw joint U.S.-Russian operations including biomedical investigations, and transfer of equipment to and from Mir. The lessons learned from this and the following 10 orbiter flights to MIR would later pave the way for the ISS, a station operated by multiple partners.

In October of 1998 John Glenn, America’s first orbiting astronaut (in 1962) made history again by going up with the shuttle Discovery. This made him not only the oldest person to fly in space by serving as a payload specialist at the age of 77, but he also became the only person ever to have flown in both the Mercury and Shuttle programmes. The nine-day mission supported a variety of research, with Glenn spending most of his time in space participating in investigations on the aging process. As the effects of spaceflight on the human body show parallels to the natural changes that take place as a person ages, Glenn’s experiments were designed to test how his body responded to the microgravity environment.

The new millenium unfortunately saw another dark year for space flight. In January of 2003, space shuttle Columbia lifted off on a 17-day science mission featuring numerous microgravity experiments. Upon reentry however, Columbia suffered from a catastrophic failure due to a breach that occured during launch. As it turned out, falling foam from the external tank struck the reinforced carbon panels on the underside of the left wing due to which the heat shielding was compromised, and hot gases encountered on re-entry penetrated the hole and tore Columbia apart. The orbiter including its seven crewmembers were lost approximately 15 minutes before Columbia was scheduled to touch down at Kennedy Space Center. The loss underlined once again the vulnerabilities of the space shuttle. Again the fleet got grounded, and this time it led to President George W Bush announcing in January of 2004 that “In 2010, the space shuttle, after nearly 30 years of duty, will be retired from service.”

Stay tuned for the history of the programme’s retirement. Until next time!

The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum (New York City) – 2