Rare and Unpublished LIFE Photos of Alan Shepard’s Historic Flight


If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen how I was oohing and aahing about a wonderful set of rare and never-seen photographs of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and the other Mercury astronauts released by LIFE.com in honor of the 50th anniversary Alan Shepard’s flight on May 5. Maybe LIFE saw my Tweets, too, as they contacted us, giving Universe Today permission to publish a few. Above, Shepard strides to the launchpad early on May 5 1961, with Gus Grissom close behind. Shepard reportedly joked to technicians who rode with him to the launch pad: “You should have courage and the right blood pressure” if you want to succeed as an astronaut. “And four legs … You know, they really wanted to send a dog, but they decided that would be too cruel.” In Shepard’s right hand: a portable air conditioner to cool the inside of his pressure suit before he enters the capsule.

See more below.

John Glenn crouches near Shepard's capsule, Freedom 7, along with technicians prior to launch. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.

In this previously unpublished photo, John Glenn crouches near Shepard’s capsule, Freedom 7, prior to launch. In the book “Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard,” author Neal Thompson portrayed the fierce competitiveness between Shepard and Glenn over who would be the first astronaut in space, which sometimes bordered on the two disliking each other. But as the first flight approached, Shepard and Glenn spent a lot of time together training, and formed a bond. Glenn even put a few items in Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule as a joke to lighten the intensity of the day, and this image shows Glenn’s excitement and joy as his fellow astronaut enters the spacecraft. LIFE photographer Ralph Morse said of NASA’s choice for who was making the first flight: “You know, I presumed, at that point, that they were saving Glenn, that having him circling the Earth for the first time would be better press for NASA. But you don’t know about these things. They had their own reasons, of course — complicated reasons, based on skills and personality and temperament — for choosing one man ahead of another.”

The Redstone rocket on which Alan Shepard flew into space, May 5, 1961. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission.

This previously unpublished image shows Shepard’s Redstone rocket before liftoff. “I never have been my own favorite subject,” Shepard once told LIFE, when asked how he felt about the rewards and dangers inherent in Project Mercury. “And I don’t think I’ve found anything new about myself since I’ve been in this program. We were asked to volunteer, not to become heroes. As far as I’m concerned, doing this is just a function of maturity. If you don’t use your experience, your past is wasted, and you are betraying yourself.”

Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom share a laugh after Shepard splashed down following his successful flight. Credit: Paul Schutzer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Used by permission.

This is my absolute favorite image of this set: Shepard shares a laugh with fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (right) and Deke Slayton upon his arrival at Grand Bahama Island, shortly after his successful flight and splashdown. Oh to be a fly on the wall to know what they were laughing about!

Read all about it! The Mercury astronauts read of their colleague Alan Shepard's heroics, Florida, May 1961. Credit: Ralph Morse/TIME & LIFE Pictures. Used by permission

No internet, no instant messaging, no Twitter or Facebook. The Mercury astronauts and the rest of the world had to wait for the next day’s newspapers to come out to read of Alan Shepard’s heroics. “Though the U.S. still has far to go to catch up with the Russians in space,” LIFE magazine noted in its May 12, 1961 issue, “Shepard went a long way toward lifting American heads higher.”

See many more images on the LIFE.com gallery. Thanks again to LIFE for allowing us to post these images.

Jethro Tull in Space

I’ve had this song in my head ever since Sunday when I first saw this video, so finally decided I had to post it. Astronaut (and flautist) Cady Coleman on board the International Space Station hooked up with Ian Anderson, founder of the rock band Jethro Tull, to collaborate for the first space-Earth duet. The song, “Bourree in E Minor,” was written by Johann Sebastian Bach, but Jethro Tull made the song famous (again) with their own arrangement of the tune back in 1969, the same year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon. Coleman and Anderson played the song in recognition of 50 years of human spaceflight and the anniversary of the first launch of a human to space by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.

Coleman played her part from 220 miles above Earth late last week. Anderson played his part while on tour in Perm, Russia, during the weekend. The two parts were then joined.

Just see if you can keep this song out of your head for the rest of the day!

What Did Gagarin See on His Historic Flight?

50 years ago, April 12th, Yuri Gagarin became the world’s first human to go into space. What did he see? He described it fairly well, but there are limited pictures and no video from his time in orbit. Now, through a unique collaboration between a filmmaker and ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli on board the International Space Station, high definition video of what Gagarin might have seen has been woven together with historic recordings of the flight (subtitled in English) to create a new, free film that will be released on the 50th anniversary titled First Orbit. Above is the trailer for the film. What a perfect way to celebrate this historic moment.

“Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it!” — Yuri Gagarin.

Continue reading “What Did Gagarin See on His Historic Flight?”

50 Years of Human Spaceflight: Yuri’s Night Video Contest

On April 12, 2011, everyone with the least bit of interest in space should be rockin’ the house. It’s the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight, the first human to launch to space. As of this writing there are 109 Yuri’s Night events in 27 countries on 5 continents on 2 worlds (#2 is in Second Life.) Take a look at the Yuri’s Night website to see if there is an event near you. If not, start your own!

There is also a Yuri’s Night 2011 Video Contest, which is an open source competition to engage the public to create tribute videos for this 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight. The best videos will be shared at events around the world and the winners will receive $500. The deadline for submission is April 1, 2011. There will be online voting for the winner.

Find out more info about the contest at: http://videocontest.yurisnight.net/
And get more info about Yuri’s Night: http://yurisnight.net/

More Space Anniversaries: Apollo 14 and Ham

Forty years ago today, the Apollo 14 crew launched on their Saturn V rocket, the 6th human flight to the Moon and the third that landed. Following the heart-stopping problems of Apollo 13, almost ten months elapsed before Commander Alan Shepard (the first American in space), Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell set off on January 31, 1971. They reached the Moon on February 5, and Shepard and Mitchell walked the Fra Mauro highlands, originally been the target of the aborted Apollo 13 mission. The two astronauts had to scrap a planned rock-collecting trip to the 1,000 foot wide Cone Crater when they became disoriented and almost got lost. Interestingly, recent images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter revealed they were only a little over 30 yards from the crater’s rim when they gave up the search. But they did have many successes as well.

You can read more about Apollo 14 on this NASA website.


Also on this date 50 years ago was the flight that made Alan Shepard’s suborbital Mercury flight possible: the Mercury-Redstone 2 (MR-2) mission carrying Ham, a four-year-old male chimpanzee. The suborbital flight lasted a total of 16 minutes and 39 seconds, and carried the spacecraft 422 nautical miles from the launch site at Cape Canaveral, FL, reaching a maximum altitude of 157 statute miles. The flight reached all its objectives, paving the way for human flights.

When you think about it, 10 years from Ham to Apollo 14 is pretty amazing. But we’re not likely to ever see anything like that again.

Read more about Ham’s flight and see more pictures on NASA’s Life Sciences Database website.

Was the Apollo Program an Anomaly?


How often have you heard (or thought) the sentiment that all NASA really needs is a President who will issue a bold challenge for the space agency, like Kennedy did in 1961, initiating the Apollo program to the Moon? Can we ever expect to witness such a call to action again?

“It is very unlikely,” said space historian and author Andrew Chaikin, who believes Apollo was an historical anomaly. “I think for many decades people saw Apollo as a model for how to do a space program; that you get a President to get up and make a challenge and the country follows along and does great things. But that was only true that one time in the context of the Cold War.”

We went to the Moon when we did not because we were a nation devoted to exploration, Chaikin believes, but because it seemed a politically important course of action in the context of our Cold War with the Soviet Union. “Once that was accomplished, then that political imperative evaporated,” he said.

On May 25, 1961, Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program as part of a special address to a joint session of Congress:

Likely, we won’t hear any bold space-related challenge in tonight’s State of the Union Address by President Obama. Given the state of the economy, NASA might be facing a cut or freeze on their budget, a fact which might emphasize how unique an event the Apollo program ended up to be.

“What is required now is the development of technologies that will allow us to explore space in a sustainable way,” said Chaikin, author of “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts,” who I interviewed for the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast, “a way that won’t break the bank and will allow us to do more and more with reliable transportation systems that get us up into low Earth orbit. Then perhaps we can build the machines that can actually be stored in space to allow us to venture beyond low Earth orbit to the Moon and even further, to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.”

Chaikin said he’s actually very excited about the work being done in the private sector, such as by SpaceX, one of several commercial space companies trying to develop new transportation systems to provide sustainable hardware and sustainable architecture. “That can allow us to really get back in the game of exploring, not only with robots as we have been doing all along, but with humans again,” Chaikin said.

But Apollo’s uniqueness doesn’t mean it wasn’t important, or hasn’t left a lasting legacy for human spaceflight, and the human race in general.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon for Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

“Simply put Apollo was the opening act in a story that has no end,” Chaikin said. “It’s a story of human beings leaving their home planet and venturing out into the universe, and as far as we go into space in some distant epoch, when we are living in other star systems and venturing throughout the galaxy, Apollo will have been the first step, so it is absolutely monumental when you look at it in that scale. I think Apollo is a lasting inspiration about what humans can accomplish when they work together.”

Apollo also showed people that anything was possible. “There was a phrase that went into our language after Apollo, and that was ‘If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we…’ fill in the blank,” said Chaikin. “The spirit that humans can overcome monumental challenges by working together, I think, is a valid legacy of Apollo culturally.”

Chaikin said Apollo was also important because of the technology development it spurred.

“A lot of the challenges that Apollo presented forced the industries to accelerate their development,” he said, “particularly in microelectronics. It is not that NASA invented all of the microelectronics that we use today but rather that the requirements of building a moon-ship and cramming it with all of the electronics that it needed to do its job required the electronics industry to miniaturize at a faster pace, it required the development of computers that could fit on a spacecraft, it required all kinds of analytical techniques and real-time tracking of the spacecraft as it went to and from the Moon. The legacy today is all the communications technologies and information processing technology that we are surrounded by. That really got an amazing jump start as part of the Apollo program.”

Earthrise from Apollo 8
Earthrise from Apollo 8

And Apollo also affected our culture, in unique ways we observe even today. How often have you seen the “Earthrise” image taken by Apollo 8 or the picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon or other Apollo-related imagery in non-space-related venues?

“We got to a place where humans had never been before,” Chaikin said, “and the other lasting legacy is the view that we got from that ‘mountaintop,’ of our Earth as a very precious oasis of life in space, and a world that really is to be cherished and protected.”

We knew even as it was happening, Chaikin said, that seeing our world floating alone in space was perhaps the most profound impact of the voyage.

“In fact, if you look at the front page of the New York Times the very day after Frank Borman and his crew became the first humans to orbit the Moon,” Chaikin said, “you will see an essay by a poet named Archibald MacLeish talking about the impact of that view and the perspective of us as ‘brothers in the eternal cold riding on spaceship Earth.’ So this is one of the things sets Apollo apart from other earlier explorations is that we were experiencing it as it happened through live television and we were actually absorbing and processing the impact in real time.”

Launch of Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission
Launch of Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission

But then, humans being as attention-challenged as we are, it didn’t take very long for all of it to become old hat and to kind of recede into history. “And that is where we are today,” Chaikin said.

That being said, Chaikin does not see the Moon as a “been there, done that” world.

“As you know, we’ve been finding frozen water at the poles of the Moon and this is a completely different view of the Moon than we had 40 years ago,” Chaikin said. “And there are more and more intricacies that we are finding all the time. The Moon itself is a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the history of the solar system, and is profoundly valuable world for us on so many levels. And it is a spectacular place. The Apollo astronauts – I’ve spent hours talking to all of them about the Moon, about the experience of being on the Moon and they just say it is a spectacular place.”

“It is too bad that the political impetus for going to the Moon was so short-lived because it was part of the Cold war,” Chaikin continued, “and looking back we can see why that was the case. It is too bad we lost interest in the Moon and it has taken us so long to turn our attention back to the Moon and all it has to offer.”

Listen to the entire interview with Chaikin on the NLSI podcast, which can also be heard on the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

For more information about Andrew Chaikin, see his website, andrewchaikin.com

Darwin vs. the Sun


Today, we take it for granted that the Sun produces energy via nuclear fusion. However, this realization only came about in the early 1900’s and wasn’t confirmed until several decades later (see the Solar Neutrino Problem). Prior to that, several other methods of energy production had been proposed. These ranged from burning coal to a constant bombardment of comets and meteors to slow contraction. Each of these methods seemed initially plausible, but when astronomers of the time worked out how long each one could sustain such a brightness, they came up against an unlikely opponent: Charles Darwin.

In a “Catholic Magazine and Review” from 1889, known as The Month, there is a good record of the development of the problem faced in an article titled “The Age of the Sun and Darwinism”. It begins with a review of the recently discovered Law of Conservation of Energy in which they establish that a method of generation must be established and that this question is necessarily entangled with the age of the Sun and also, life on Earth. Without a constant generation of energy, the Sun would quickly cool and this was known to be unlikely due to archaeological evidences which hinted that the Sun’s output had been constant for at least 4,000 years.

While burning coal seemed a good candidate since coal power was just coming into fashion at the time, scientists had calculated that even burning in pure oxygen, the Sun could only last ~6,000 years. The article feared that this may signal “the end of supplies of heat and light to our globe would be very near indeed” since religious scholars held the age of the Earth to be some “4000 years of chronological time before the Christian era, and 1800 since”.

The bombardment hypothesis was also examined explaining that the transference of kinetic energy can increase temperatures citing examples of bullets striking metal surfaces or hammers heating anvils. But again, calculations hinted that this too was wrong. The rate with which the Sun would have to accumulate mass was extremely high. So much so that it would lead to the “derangement of the whole mechanism of the heavens.” The result would be that the period of the year over the past ~6,000 years would have shortened by six weeks and that the Earth too would be constantly bombarded by meteors (although some especially strong meteor showers at that time lent some credence to this).

The only strong candidate left was that of gravitational contraction proposed by Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and Hermann von Helmholtz in a series of papers they began publishing in 1854. But in 1859, Darwin published the Origin of Species in which he required an age of at least two billion years. Thomson’s and Helmholtz’s hypothesis could only support an age of some tens of millions of years. Thus astronomy and biology were brought head to head. Darwin was fully aware of this problem. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that, “Thomson’s views of the recent age of the world have been for some time one of my sorest troubles”.

To back the astronomers was the developing field of spectroscopy in which they determined that the sun and other stars bared a strong similarity to that of nebulae. These nebulae could contract under their own gravity and as such, provided a natural establishment for the formation of stars, leading gracefully into the contraction hypothesis. Although not mentioned in the article, Darwin did have some support from geologists like Charles Lyell who studied the formation of mountain ranges and also posited an older Earth.

Some astronomers attempted to add other methods in addition to gravitational contraction (such as tidal friction) to extend the age of the solar system, but none could reach the age required by Darwin. Similarly, some biologists worked to speed up evolutionary processes by positing separate events of abiogenesis to shave off some of the required time for diversification of various kingdoms. But these too could not rectify the problem.

Ultimately, the article throws its weight in the camp of the doomed astronomers. Interestingly, much of the same rhetoric in use by anti-evolutionists today can be found in the article. They state, “it is not surprising to find men of science, who not only have not the slightest doubt about the truth of their own pet theories, but are ready to lay down the law in the realms of philosophy and theology, in science which with, to judge from their immoderate assertions, their acquaintance is of the most remote? Such language is to be expected from the camp-followers in the army of science, who assurance is generally inversely proportional to their knowledge, for many of those in a word who affect to popularize the doctrine of Natural Selection.”

In time, Darwin would win the battle as astronomers would realize that gravitational contraction was just the match that lit the fuse of fusion. However, we must ask whether scientists would have been as quickly able to accept the proposition of stellar fusion had Darwin not pointed out the fundamental contradiction in ages?

Spectroscopy in 1881


Presently, I’ve been reading a lot of very old papers and books in astronomy. The work I’m currently reading a portion of, is from 1881, and is a summary of all the findings of the year in all fields of Science. For those that aren’t familiar with that time period in astronomy, the big thing was spectroscopy. It was only ~30 years earlier that chemists and astronomers had begun to work out methods by which to investigate spectra and with the newly developed tools in hand, astronomers were pointing them at anything they could find sufficiently bright to get a spectra. Obviously, this meant the first target was the Sun. This work provides an interesting snapshot at a developing era in astronomical history.

The article describes a brief bit of background, noting that the pioneering work of spectroscopy was done by Fraunhofer, Kirchoff, Angstrom, and Thalen (but manages to leave out Kirchoff’s colleague, Robert Bunsen!). These early explorers noted that, although spectral lines may appear unique, several had lines that would appear in very nearly the same positions.

Another discovery around that time was the phenomenon of emission lines from the Sun’s corona. This had officially been discovered in 1868 during a solar eclipse, but now that astronomers knew about the occurrence, they began to explore it further and discovered that many of the features had no apparent explanation as the chemicals causing them had yet to be discovered on Earth. Incidentally, it would be a year following this publication that helium, one of the chief components of the Sun, would be found and isolated on Earth.

As the astronomers explored the corona, they inspected the various layers and found a bizarre thing: Magnesium appeared higher in the corona than sodium despite magnesium having a higher atomic weight which astronomers realized, should cause it to sink. While this is not explained, I should note that spectra often play tricks like this. It may well have been that magnesium simply emits better at the temperatures in that region given an overestimation of the abundance. This odd behavior, as well as the inconstant nature of the spectra on various portions of the Sun was described as “a great screw loose”.

Another portion of the paper provides another somewhat humorous snapshot of this moment in history as the writer remarks just how different the Sun is from the Earth. He states, “It was difficult to imagine a stronger difference to exist between any two masses of matter than the chemical constitution of the incandescent sun, and of the earth, which is now cooling.” He wonders if perhaps planets evolved from failed stars in which the Sun’s “immense temperature had not allowed a complex evolution of higher complex forms of chemical matter to take place”. While this may seem quaint, the periodic table had only been developed 12 years prior and the creation of heavy elements would not be well understood until the 1950’s.

Similarly, the confusion on the varying spectral lines between stars is apparent although the author shows that the answers were already being developed, although still not fully fleshed out. He cites Angstrom stating: “In increasing successively the temperature I have found that the lines of the spectra vary in intensity in an exceedingly complicated way, and consequently new lines even may present themselves if the temperature is raised sufficiently high.”

In this single flash of insight, Angstrom had predicted a methodology by which astronomers could have begun to classify stars. Unfortunately, the standard of classification had already been set and it would take until the next century for astronomers to begin classifying stars by temperature (thanks to the work of Annie Jump Cannon). However, the author demonstrates that investigation was underway as to the relationship between temperature and line intensity. This work would eventually connect to our modern understanding of stellar temperatures.

Happy Birthday Johannes Kepler!


December 27 is a day to celebrate the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler, who was born on this date in 1571, and is best known for his three laws of planetary motion. But also, coming up in 2009, The International Year of Astronomy (IYA) will celebrate the work of Kepler as well. Not only did Galileo begin his observations with a telescope almost 400 years ago in 1609, but also in that year Kepler published his book New Astronomy or Astronomia Nova. This was the first published work that documented the scientific method.

Kepler’s primary reason for writing Astronomia Nova was to attempt to calculate the orbit of Mars. Previous astronomers used geometric models to explain the positions of the planets, but Kepler sought for and discovered physical causes for planetary motion. Kepler was the first astronomer to prove that the planets orbited the sun in elliptical paths and he did so with rigorous scientific arguments.

An offshoot of Astronomia Nova was the formulation of concepts that eventually became the first two of Kepler’s Laws:

First Law: The orbit of a planet about the Sun is an ellipse with the Sun’s center of mass at one focus.

Second Law: A line joining a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal intervals of time.

And Kepler’s third Law: The squares of the periods of the planets are proportional to the cubes of their semi-major axes.

Kepler was also instrumental in the development of early telescopes. He invented the convex eyepiece, which allowed an expanded field of vision, and discovered a means of determining the magnifying power of lenses. He was the first to explain that the tides are caused by the Moon and the first to suggest that the Sun rotates about its axis. He also was the first to use stellar parallax caused by the Earth’s orbit to try to measure the distance to the stars.

While Kepler remains one of the greatest figures in astronomy, his endeavors were not just limited to this field. He was the first person to develop eyeglasses designed for nearsightedness and farsightedness, the first to investigate the formation of pictures with a pin hole camera, and the first to use planetary cycles to calculate the birth year of Christ. He also formed the basis of integral calculus.

Kepler’s many books provided strong support for Galileo’s discoveries, and Galileo wrote to him, “I thank you because you were the first one, and practically the only one, to have complete faith in my assertions.”

Original News Source: The Writer’s Almanac