Think you know everything there is to know about the famous Canadarm, and the story of the Canadian space program? A new book out next month delves deep into the fascinating backstory of the Canadian Space Agency.Continue reading “Review: Canadarm and Collaboration by Elizabeth Howell”
Apollo 11 was the first mission to land people on the lunar surface. But Apollo relied on a lot of predecessor missions to lay the groundwork for the successful mission to the Moon. One of them was Apollo 10, the fourth crewed mission in the Apollo program.
Apollo 10 was an almost complete mission that including everything that Apollo 11 had, except for an actual landing on the Moon. It was a dress rehearsal, and was the second Apollo mission to orbit the Moon. It even had an Apollo Lunar Module that was flown to within 15 km of the lunar surface. But that module never landed, and eventually, after it rendezvoused with the command module and the crew disembarked, it was sent into orbit around the Sun.
And up until now, nobody knew where it was.Continue reading “Apollo 10’s “Snoopy” Lunar Lander May Have Been Found in Space”
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Today, people take it for granted that they live in a world that isn’t threatened with imminent nuclear annihilation. A little more than half a century ago, that was the kind of world people lived in, where the United States and Soviet Union were locked in a constant game of one-upmanship that revolved around the development of nuclear weapons.
At the same time, this competition extended to include sports, politics, and the race to reach space. And on October 4th, 1957, the Russians were the first to accomplish this goal with the launch of Sputnik-1, an unmanned research and communications satellite whose appearance ignited the “Space Race” and forever altered the course of history.
During the early 1950s, the Russians had conducted extensive orbital research using rockets. However, these efforts were limited by the fact that conventional rockets could only achieve orbit for a maximum of a few minutes before falling back to Earth. The next step seemed obvious: placing a research satellite into space that could maintain its orbit and therefore conduct scientific research for an extended period of time.
Beginning in March of 1954, Russia’s three top scientists – Mstislav Keldysh, Sergei Korolev and Mikhail Tikhonravov – began discussing the idea of creating an artificial satellite that could be placed into orbit. According to Tikhonravov, such a move would be the next necessary step in the development of rocket technology.
Their efforts received a boost when, on July 29th, 1955, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisinhower announced the US’ intent to launch an artificial satellite during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) – an international scientific project that lasted from July 1st, 1957, to December 31st, 1958.
Because of this, the Soviet Politburo approved of the plans for an artificial satellites and aimed for a launch date that would take place before the beginning of the IGY. The project was approve and the task of creating it was divided between various ministries and the USSR Academy of Sciences.
Keldysh was given control of a commission to oversee develop the “automatic laboratory” aboard the satellite, Tikhonravov and his team of engineers would be responsible for designing the satellite, and Korolev – as head of the Ministry of Defense Industry’s primary design bureau (OKB-1) – would be responsible for building it.
Design and Construction:
Initially, the Soviet plan for an satellite (known as Object D) was planned to be completed in 1957–58, and called for the creation of a spacecraft that would have a mass of 1,000 – 1,400 kg (2,200 – 3,100 lb) and would carry 200 – 300 kg (440 – 660 lb) of scientific instruments.
In terms of tasks, the mission would seek to measure the density of the atmosphere and its ion composition, solar wind, the Earth’s magnetic field, and cosmic rays (largely for the sake of future missions). A system of ground stations was also called for in order to collect data transmitted from the satellite, as well as observe its orbit and transmit commands.
By the end of 1956, it had become clear that the specifications called for were too ambitious to be accomplished within the established time frame. Fearing the US would launch a satellite before the USSR, Korolev and the OKB-1 suggested that a simpler, lighter satellite could be launched in April-May 1957, before the IGY began.
This satellite would weight about 100 kg (220 lbs) and would forgo heavy scientific instruments in favor of a simple radio transmitter. On February 15th, 1957, the Council of Ministers of the USSR approved this simple satellite, designated “Prosteyshiy Sputnik” – Russian for “Simplest Satellite” – (aka. Object PS), and made arrangements to launch two versions (PS-1 and PS-2) using R-7 rockets.
Launch and Mission:
On October 4th, at 19:28:34 hours Greenwich Mean Time, Sputnik-1 was launched into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The satellite orbited the Earth for three months and emitting radio signals which were monitored by amateur radio operators throughout the world. The signals continued for 22 days until the transmitter batteries ran out on October 26th, 1957.
Before finally burning up during reentry on January 4th, 1958, the satellite traveled a total of about 60 million km (37.28 million mi) and completed 1,440 orbits around the Earth. Sputnik-1 also helped to identify the density of the atmosphere’s upper layer, provided data on radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere, and allowed for the first opportunity for meteoroid detection.
Apart from its value as a technological first, Sputnik also had the effect of expediting both Soviet and American efforts to explore space. News of the launch triggered a great deal of fear in the United States, as many worried that Sputnik could represent a threat to national security, not to mention America’s technological leadership.
As a result, Congress urged then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take immediate action, which resulted in the signing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29th, 1958, officially establishing NASA. Immediately, NASA became dedicated to researching hypersonic flight and taking the necessary steps towards creating crewed spacecraft.
The Soviets did the same, taking drastic steps towards the creation of rockets and crew capsules as part of the Vostok Program. This would culminate in the first man being launched into orbit space – cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin – on April 12th, 1961. The pace of this competition would continue until July 20th, 1969, when the US made the historic first of landing astronauts on the Moon.
Decades later, Sputnik-1 is still viewed as a groundbreaking achievement. Despite its diminutive size and simplicity, its launch was a major breakthrough for the Soviets, and caused no shortage of fear and consternation in the west. In many ways, we are lucky to be living in an age where cooperation has taken the place of competition. Today, such breakthroughs are the result of a world coming together, and not enmity between nations.
We have written many articles about the satellites and Space Age here at Universe Today. Here’s Who was the First Dog to go into Space?, Who was the First Monkey to go into Space?, Who was the first Man to go into Space?, Who was the First Woman to go into Space? and Who Are The Most Famous Astronauts?
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the History of Astronomy. Listen here, Episode 187: History of Astronomy, Part 5: The 20th Century.
Spacewalks have been described by astronauts as magical, amazing, and “holy moly!” This new 30-minute NASA documentary called “Suit Up!” celebrates 50 years of extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks. 50 years ago this year, the first spacewalks were conducted by Russian Alexei Leonov in March 1965 and then American astronaut Edward White followed soon after in June 1965. The documentary features interviews with astronauts past and present, as well as other astronauts, engineers, technicians, managers from the history of spacewalks.
They share their personal stories and thoughts that cover the full EVA experience — from the early spacewalking experiences, to spacesuit manufacturing, to modern day spacewalks aboard the International Space Station as well as what the future holds for humans working on a tether in space.
“Suit Up,” is narrated by actor and fan of space exploration Jon Cryer.
For more info, NASA has a special page with images and more recollections. Also, here is a list of some of the most memorable spacewalks, and here are some 3-D views of humanity’s first spacewalk by Leonov.
To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, Universe Today is featuring “13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13,” discussing different turning points of the mission with NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill.
During the first two days of the Apollo 13 mission, it was looking like this was going to be the smoothest flight of the program. As Capcom Joe Kerwin commented at 46:43 Mission Elapsed Time (MET), “The spacecraft is in real good shape as far as we are concerned. We’re bored to tears down here.”
Everything was going well, and in fact the crew was ahead of the timeline. Commander Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise had entered the Aquarius Lunar Module 3 hours earlier than the flight plan had scheduled, wanting to check out the pressure in the helium tank – which had given some erroneous readings in ground tests before the launch. Everything checked out OK.
Opening up Aquarius early may have been one more thing that saved Apollo 13, says NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill.
“The first time the hatches between both vehicles are opened is a time consuming process,” Woodfill told Universe Today. “It’s as though a bank teller is requested to provide a customer access to a safety deposit box behind two locked vault doors.”
The removable hatch in the Odyssey Command Module had to be tied down and stowed before entering the tunnel for access to the second door, the lander’s entry hatch. Time was required for pressure equalization process so that the tunnel, command ship and lander were at one uniform pressure.
Often, there was a putrid, burnt insulation odor when the hatch to the LM was first opened, as previous crews described, so normally time was allowed for the smell to dissipate. All of these tasks were dealt with by about 55 hours MET, much earlier than originally planned. For some reason, the LM Pilot even brought the lander’s activation check list back into the command ship for study, though activation was scheduled hours away.
“Perhaps, this would be Fred Haise’s bedtime book to read preparing himself for sleep,” Woodfill said.
But first, the crew provided a 49-minute TV broadcast showing how easily they moved about in weightlessness in the cramped spacecraft.
Then, it happened. Nine minutes later, at 55:54:56 MET, came the explosion of the oxygen tank in the Service Module. Despite ground and crew efforts to understand the problem, confusion reigned.
13 minutes after the explosion, Lovell looked out one of Odyssey’s windows and reported, “We are venting something out into space,” and quickly the crew and ground controllers knew they were losing oxygen. Without oxygen, the fuel cells that provided all the power to the CM would die. Tank 2, of course, was gone with the explosion and the plumbing on Tank 1 was severed, so the oxygen was bleeding off from that tank, as well.
At one hour, 29 seconds after the explosion, the new Capcom Jack Lousma said after instructions from Flight Director Glynn Lunney, “[The oxygen] is slowly going to zero, and we are starting to think about the LM lifeboat.” From space, astronaut Jack Swigert replied, “That’s what we have been thinking about too.”
At that point, only fifteen minutes of power remained in the Command Module.
“Fifteen minutes more and the entire assemblage might have been a corpse with no radio, no guidance, no oxygen flowing into the cabin to keep Lovell, Haise and Swigert alive,” said Woodfill. “Certainly, it was fortuitous circumstances that led to opening the LM early. Simply consider how much time it would have taken to remove both hatches, stabilize and inspect the tunnel and lander interior. Add to this the time required to power up the lander’s life support systems. As it was, they had an open pathway into a safe haven, a lifeboat, called the lunar lander, crucial to survival.”
If the LM had not been opened, the crew would have likely run out of time before the Command Module’s batteries died, which would have created several problems.
As we discussed five years ago in one of the original “13 Things” articles, all the guidance parameters which would help direct the ailing ship back to Earth were in Odyssey’s computers, and needed to be transferred over to Aquarius. Without power from the fuel cells, they kept the Odyssey alive by using the reentry batteries as an emergency measure. These batteries were designed to be used during reentry when the crew returned to Earth, and were good for limited number of hours during the time the crew would jettison the Service Module and reenter with only the tiny Command Module capsule.
“Those batteries were not ever supposed to be used until they got ready to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere,” said Woodfill. “If those batteries had been depleted, that would have been one of the worst things that could have happened. The crew worked as quickly as they could to transfer the guidance parameters, but any extra time or problem, and we could have been without those batteries. Those batteries were the only way the crew could have survived reentry. This is my take on it, but the time saved by not having to open up the Lunar Module helped those emergency batteries have just enough power in them so they could recharge them and reenter.”
By 58:40 MET, the guidance information from the Command Module computer had been transferred to the LM guidance system, the LM was fully activated and the Command and Service Module systems were turned off.
Mission Control and the crew had successfully managed the first of many “seat of the pant” procedures they would need to do in order to bring the crew of Apollo 13 back home.
Additional articles in this series:
On March 18, 1965 Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov made the first spacewalk in history, floating outside his Voskhod 2 capsule. Leonov made the walk when he was just 30 years old, and later wrote that he felt “like a seagull with its wings outstretched, soaring high above the Earth.” His spacewalk lasted just 12 minutes but that was long enough to prove that humans in space could work outside a spacecraft.
Author and space historian Andrew Chaikin created some unique 3-D views of Leonov’s spacewalk, made from individual frames from the movie of the walk. Above is a red-cyan anaglyph, but if you don’t have your 3-D glasses available, don’t worry: Chaikin has also created stereo pair 3-D images, which you can view by crossing your eyes (explanation below, if you need a little help).
Oxford University provides this explanation of how to cross your eyes to view a stereo pair as a 3-D image:
Hold a finger a short distance in front of your eyes and stare at it. In the background you should see two copies of the stereo pair, giving four views altogether. Move your finger away from you until you see the middle two of the four images come together. You should now see just three images in the background. Try to direct your attention slowly toward the middle image without moving your eyes, and it should gradually come into focus.
While the spacewalk was exhilarating, getting back into the spacecraft became dicey. Leonov’s spacesuit expanded so much in the vacuum of space that he had a hard time squeezing back into the spacecraft. He took a risk and opened a valve on the suit to let enough air escape, which allowed him to enter the airlock.
Leonov’s walk took place almost 3 months before American astronaut Ed White took his spacewalk on Gemini 4. The first European to do a spacewalk was the French spationaute Jean-Loup Chrétien, who flew to the Russian Mir space station in 1988.
Thanks to Andrew Chaikin for sharing these images with Universe Today.
Here is some color footage of the spacewalk:
MOAR rockets! As a followup to our recent post about the Rockets of the World (to scale), here’s another graphic posted on imgur, created by Alex Brown. While the earlier graphic only included rockets that had flown, this one has rockets that are also in development, such as the SLS, Falcon Heavy and the Long March 9. It’s also a great look back at the history of rocket development, including the V-2 ballistic, England’s Black Arrow and Korolyov’v wide-body Sputnik. All are shown to scale, as compared with an average human being.
As noted, this graphic is as of the present, February 2015.
45 years ago today — on July 16th, 1969 — the Apollo 11 crew left Earth for the first human mission to land on the Moon. Launching on at Saturn V rocket from Cape Kennedy, the mission sent Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin into an initial Earth-orbit, and then two hours and 44 minutes after launch, another burn of the engines put Apollo 11 into a translunar orbit.
If you want to re-live the launch and the mission, there are several ways you can participate. We’ve included here a few different replays of the launch, varying from a quick recap to a detailed look at the launch itself. Above is the newscast of the launch from CBS news with Walter Cronkite, and we’ve got more below.
Also below is information on several webcasts and other events that NASA has planned to commemorate the anniversary.
Here’s a detailed look at the launch in ultra-slow motion, with narration:
Here is some remastered high definition footage from NASA of the Apollo 11 launch, but there’s no audio.
And here’s a quick look at the entire Apollo 11 mission, all in just 100 seconds from Spacecraft Films:
Here are some ways to participate in the anniversary:
On Twitter, @ReliveApollo11 from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is reliving the highlights from Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in “real time” 45 years later.
Also @NASAHistory is tweeting images and events from the mission, and journalist Amy Shira Teitel (@astVintageSpace ) is tweeting out some interesting pictures, facts and quotes from the mission, in “real time” (again 45 years later).
To join the ongoing conversation on social media about the anniversary and NASA’s deep space exploration plans, use the hashtags #NextGiantLeap and #Apollo45.
On Friday, July 18 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (1:30 p.m. EDT), NASA TV will air a live conversation about the future of space exploration with actor, director and narrator Morgan Freeman. He will speak at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, about his personal vision for space. The event also will include NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman participating from the International Space Station.
If you don’t have NASA TV on your cable or satellite feeds, you can watch online here.
Also on Friday at 3:30 p.m. EDT, NASA will host a discussion with Buzz Aldrin and astronaut Mike Massimino at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York during the Intrepid Space and Science Festival. NASA also will have exhibits and activities at the festival Thursday, July 17 through Saturday, July 19. There’s more information about the festival here.
On Sunday, July 20 at 7:39 p.m. PDT (10:39 p.m. EDT), when Armstrong opened the spacecraft hatch to begin the first spacewalk on the moon, NASA TV will replay the restored footage of Armstrong and Aldrin’s historic steps on the lunar surface.
On Monday, July 21 at 7 a.m. PDT (10 a.m. EDT) from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA TV will air live coverage of the renaming of the center’s Operations and Checkout Building in honor of Armstrong, who passed away in 2012. The renaming ceremony will include NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Center Director Robert Cabana, Apollo 11’s Collins, Aldrin and astronaut Jim Lovell, who was the mission’s back-up commander. International Space Station NASA astronauts Wiseman and Steve Swanson, who is the current station commander, also will take part in the ceremony from their orbiting laboratory 260 miles above Earth.
Kennedy’s Operations and Checkout Building has played a vital role in NASA’s spaceflight history. It was used during the Apollo program to process and test the command, service and lunar modules. Today, the facility is being used to process and assemble NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which the agency will use to send astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s and Mars in the 2030s.
On Thursday, July 24 at 3 p.m. PDT (6 p.m. EDT), which is the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11’s return to Earth, the agency will host a panel discussion — called NASA’s Next Giant Leap — from Comic-Con International in San Diego. Moderated by actor Seth Green, the panel includes Aldrin, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, JPL systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who will talk about Orion and the Space Launch System rocket, which will carry humans on America’s next great adventure in space.
The NASA.gov website will host features, videos, and historic images and audio clips that highlight the Apollo 11 anniversary, as well as the future of human spaceflight. Find it all here.
Also, the Slooh telescope team will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing with a high-definition broadcast of the lunar surface on Sunday, July 20th starting at 5:30 PM PDT / 8:30 PM EDT / 00:30 UTC (7/21) – (check International Times here) Slooh will broadcast the event live from a special feed located in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Viewers can watch the event unfold free on Slooh.com, or in the webcast below. The image stream will be accompanied by discussions led by Slooh host, Geoff Fox, Slooh astronomer, Bob Berman, Slooh Observatory Engineer, Paul Cox, along with numerous special guests, including documentary filmmaker, Duncan Copp, and science journalist, Andrew Chaikin. Viewers can follow updates on the show by using the hashtag #SloohApollo11.
The issue of “what to wear?” takes on an extra dimension of life and death when it comes to space travel. Upon exiting a spacecraft on a spacewalk, an astronaut becomes his very own personal satellite in orbit about the Earth and must rely on the flimsy layer of his suit to provide them with a small degree of protection from radiation and extreme fluctuations of heat and cold.
We recently had a chance to see the past, present and future of space suit technology in the Smithsonian Institutions’ touring Suited for Space exhibit currently on display at the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa, Florida.
Tampa Bay History Center Director of Marketing Manny Leto recently gave Universe Today an exclusive look at the traveling display. If you think you know space suits, Suited for Space will show you otherwise, as well as give you a unique perspective on a familiar but often overlooked and essential piece of space hardware. And heck, it’s just plain fascinating to see the design and development of some of these earlier suits as well as videos and stills of astronauts at work – and yes, sometimes even at play – in them.
One of the highlights of the exhibit are some unique x-ray images of iconic suits from space travel history. Familiar suits become new again in these images by Smithsonian photographer Mark Avino, which includes a penetrating view of Neil Armstrong’s space suit that he wore on Apollo 11.
Space suits evolved from pressure suits developed for high-altitude flights in the 1950’s, and Suited for Space traces that progression. It was particularly interesting to see the depiction of Wiley Post’s 1934 suit, complete with steel cylindrical helmet and glass portal! Such early suits resembled diving bell suits of yore — think Captain Nemo in a chemsuit. Still, this antiquated contraption was the first practical full pressure suit that functioned successfully at over 13,000 metres altitude.
No suit that has been into space is allowed to tour due to the fragility of many historic originals that are now kept at the Smithsonian, though several authentic suits used in training during the U.S. space program are on display. We thought it was interesting to note how the evolution of the spacesuit closely followed the development of composites and materials through the mid-20th century. You can see the progression from canvas, glass and steel in the early suits right up though the advent of the age of plastic and modern fabrics. Designs have flirted with the idea of rigid and semi-rigid suits before settling on the modern day familiar white astronaut suit.
Spacesuit technology has also always faced the ultimate challenge of protecting an astronaut from the rigors of space during Extra-Vehicular Activity, or EVA.
Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov performed the first 12 minute space walk during Voskhod 2 back in 1965, and NASA astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space on Gemini 4 just months later. Both space walkers had issues with over-heating, and White nearly didn’t make it back into his Gemini capsule.
Designing a proper spacesuit was a major challenge that had to be overcome. In 1962, Playtex (yes THAT Playtex) was awarded a contract to develop the suits that astronauts would wear on the Moon. Said suits had 13 distinct layers and weighed 35 kilograms here on Earth. The Playtex industrial division eventually became known as the International Latex Corporation or ILC Dover, which still makes spacesuits for ISS crewmembers today. It’s also fascinating to see some of the alternate suits proposed, including one “bubble suit” with arms and legs (!) that was actually tested but, thankfully, was never used.
These suits were used by astronauts on the Moon, to repair Hubble, build the International Space Station and much more. Al Worden recounts performing the “most distant EVA ever” on the return from the Moon in his book Falling to Earth. This record will still stand until the proposed asteroid retrieval mission in the coming decade, which will see astronauts performing the first EVA ever in orbit around Earth’s Moon.
And working in a modern spacesuit during an EVA is anything but routine. CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield said in his recent book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth that “Spacewalking is like rock climbing, weightlifting, repairing a small engine and performing an intricate pas de deux – simultaneously, while encased in a bulky suit that’s scraping your knuckle, fingertips and collarbone raw.”
And one only has to look at the recent drama that cut ESA astronaut Luca Parmitamo’s EVA short last year to realize that your spacesuit is the only thin barrier that exists between yourself and the perils of space.
“We’re delighted to host our first Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service (SITES) and we think that Florida’s close ties to NASA and the space program make it a great fit for us,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, the Tampa Bay History Center’s Saunders Foundation Curator of History.
Be sure to catch this fascinating exhibit coming to a city near you!
-And you can see these suits in action on the up and coming future EVAs for 2014.
-Here’s the schedule for Suited for Space Exhibit tour.
-Astronaut Nicole Stott (veteran of STS-128, -129, -133, & ISS Expeditions 20 and 21) will also be on hand at the Tampa Bay History Center on March 2014 (Date to be Announced) to present Suited for Space: An Astronaut’s View.
– Follow the Tampa Bay History Museum of Twitter as @TampaBayHistory.
Amateur astronomers have done more than just watch the skies, they’ve been a national security asset. In the mid-1950’s, it was realized that the reality of the Space Age was at best only a decade away. Sub-orbital German V-2 rockets captured by the Soviets and the United States were reaching higher and higher altitudes, and it was only a matter of time before orbital velocity would be achieved.
Keep in mind, this was the age of backyard bomb shelters, “duck and cover” drills, and civil preparedness as Cold War fever reached a heightened pitch. Ground Observer Corps encouraged and trained citizen groups how to spot and report enemy bombers approaching the U.S coast in preparation for a nuclear confrontation. And remember, there was no reason to think that this build up wouldn’t extend to the militarization of space. It was in this era that Operation Moonwatch was born.
Conceived by Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple, Operation Moonwatch was the “Galaxy Zoo” of its day. The idea was simple; teams of observers around the world would track, time and record satellite passes over their location and feed this data back to the computation center at Cambridge, Massachusetts (telephone, Western Union or ham radio were the methods of the day) This data would give engineers information as to where to point their enormous Baker-Nunn cameras. These instruments were wide-field Schmidt cameras that could cover large swaths of the sky. They were to be positioned at 12 locations worldwide to keep tabs on satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO).
To be sure, there were obstacles to overcome. The Baker-Nunn cameras were well behind schedule, and the entire system was struggling to come online by mid-1958 in time for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). School and community groups had to be organized, trained, and equipped. Knowing precise location in the pre-GPS era had to be addressed. Many purchased optical kits available from Radio Shack, while many teams built their own. Then there was the dilemma of what a satellite would actually look like to an observer on the ground. Could a trained spotter even see it? Civil Air Patrol groups experimented with various trial substitutions, such as following aircraft, flocks of birds and bats at dusk and even tracking pebbles tossed into the sky!
Operation Moonwatch was also to play a part of the 1958 International Geophysical Year. Many doubted to effectiveness of amateur groups, but public interest ran high. Then on October 4th 1957, the world was caught off guard as Sputnik 1 lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The world was stunned that the Soviets had beaten the West into space. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later to become NASA in 1958) had yet to achieve a successful orbital launch, and the United States Naval Research Laboratory was still floundering to get the Vanguard program off the pad. The launch of Sputnik found a scant few Moonwatch teams at the ready to catch its first dusk passes over the United States. Keep in mind, the Sputnik satellite was too small and faint to see with the naked eye. What most casual observers in the general public saw (remember the opening scenes in the movie October Sky?) was actually the rocket booster that put Sputnik into space.
Moonwatch teams would “look up by looking down” using a bench mounted telescope that looked at a reflective plate aimed skyward. With observers arranged in a row aimed at a picket line, they would call out when the target satellite crossed the local meridian. This would in turn be documented by an onsite recorder for transmission.
With Sputnik, the Operation Moonwatch volunteers found themselves thrust into the spotlight. Newspapers & radio shows clamored to interview volunteers, as the public suddenly became obsessed with space. Moonwatchers followed and documented to launch of the dog Laika aboard Sputnik 2 on November 3rd, 1957, and when the U.S. finally launched its first satellite Explorer I on February 1st 1958 Operation Moonwatch tracked it. Magazines such as National Geographic and Boys Life ran articles on the project and told teams how they could participate. When Sputnik 4 reentered over the U.S. on September 1962, it was data from Operation Moonwatch observers that proved vital in its recovery.
Moonwatch was disbanded in 1975, but many volunteers continued tracking satellites and sharing data on their own. I always think that it’s fascinating that three very early satellites from the early days of Operation Moonwatch are still in orbit and can been seen with a good pair of binoculars and a little patience , Vanguards 1, 2 & 3. It could be argued that Operation Moonwatch provided a civilian means to monitor the goings on of governments in low Earth orbit and may have contributed to the Outer Space Treaty outlawing the use of nuclear weapons in space. Another fortunate occurrence of the era was the establishment of a civilian space agency in the U.S., argued for successfully by Dr. James Van Allen. How different would the course of history have been if the U.S. space program had become a “fourth branch” of the military?
Today, modern satellite trackers still follow, image and share information on satellites worldwide. This effort transcends borders; when hazardous payloads such as Russia’s failed Mars mission Phobos-Grunt reentered in early 2012 satellite trackers documented its final passage, and efforts are still underway to keep tabs on the USAF’s X-37 spy satellite. One can also see a stark contrast between the efforts to enlist civilian effort during the Cold War and the modern Global War on Terrorism. Interest in science was at an all-time high in the 1950’s, as it was realized the West might be lagging behind in science education. In a post-9/11 era, there almost seems to be a movement to isolate participation. Many model rocketry groups are under increased restriction, and even amateur astronomers may see essential tools such as green laser pointers restricted for use.
But the good news is, anyone can still track a satellite from the comfort of their own backyard all in the spirit of Operation Moonwatch. DARPA announced a project last year which may resurrect a program similar to Operation Moonwatch. Named SpaceView, this program seeks to augment the U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network. Keep an eye on the sky, and remember a dedicated few amateur observers that played a crucial role in modern history as you watch satellites drift silently by in the twilight skies.
For more on the fscinating hostory of Operation Moonwatch, read Patrick McCray’s Keep Watching the Skies!
See more of Ralf Vandebergh’s outstanding work at his site Telescopic Spaceflight Images.