The Mars Project! Von Braun’s Ideas for a Mars Mission. Collaboration with Vintage Space

Humans to Mars!

Did you know that it’s been almost 45 years since humans walked on the surface of the Moon? Of course you do. Anyone who loves space exploration obsesses about the last Apollo landings, and counts the passing years of sadness.

Sure, SpaceX, Blue Origins and the new NASA Space Launch Systems rocket offer a tantalizing future in space. But 45 years. Ouch, so much lost time.

What would happen if we could go back in time? What amazing and insane plans did NASA have to continue exploring the Solar System? What alternative future could we have now, 45 years later?

In order to answer this question, I’ve teamed up with my space historian friend, Amy Shira Teitel, who runs the Vintage Space blog and YouTube Channel. We’ve decided to look at two groups of missions that never happened.

In her part, Amy talks about the Apollo Applications Program; NASA’s original plans before the human exploration of the Moon was shut down. More Apollo missions, the beginnings of a lunar base, and even a human flyby of Venus.

In my half of the series, I look at Werner Von Braun’s insanely ambitious plans to send a human mission to Mars. Put it together with Amy’s episode and you can imagine a space exploration future with all the ambition of the Kerbal Space Program.

Keep mind here that we’re not going to constrain ourselves with the pesky laws of physics, and the reality of finances. These ideas were cool, and considered by NASA engineers, but they weren’t necessarily the best ideas, or even feasible.

So, 2 parts, tackle them in any order you like. My part begins right now.

Werner Von Braun, of course, was the architect for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts during the space race. It was under Von Braun’s guidance that NASA developed the various flight hardware for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions including the massive Saturn V rocket, which eventually put a human crew of astronauts on the Moon and safely returned them back to Earth.

Wernher von Braun. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Von Braun was originally a German rocket scientist, pivotal to the Nazi “rocket team”, which developed the ballistic V-2 rockets. These unmanned rockets could carry a 1-tonne payload 800 kilometers away. They were developed in 1942, and by 1944 they were being used in war against Allied targets.

By the end of the war, Von Braun coordinated his surrender to the Allies as well as 500 of his engineers, including their equipment and plans for future rockets. In “Operation Paperclip”, the German scientists were captured and transferred to the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where they would begin working on the US rocket efforts.

Von Braun and others standing in front a V-2 rocket engine at White Sands. Credit: U.S. Army/ Ordway Collection/Space Rocket Center

Before the work really took off, though, Von Braun had a couple of years of relative downtime, and in 1947 and 1948, he wrote a science fiction novel about the human exploration of Mars.

The novel itself was never published, because it was terrible, but it also contained a detailed appendix containing all the calculations, mission parameters, hardware designs to carry out this mission to Mars.

The Mars Project

In 1952, this appendix was published in Germany as “Das Marsproject”, or “The Mars Project”. And an English version was published a few years later. Collier’s Weekly Magazine did an 8-part special on the Mars Project in 1952, captivating the world’s imagination.

Here’s the plan: In the Mars Project, Von Braun envisioned a vast armada of spaceships that would make the journey from Earth to Mars. They would send a total of 10 giant spaceships, each of which would weigh about 4,000 tonnes.

Just for comparison, a fully loaded Saturn V rocket could carry about 140 tonnes of payload into Low Earth Orbit. In other words, they’d need a LOT of rockets. Von Braun estimated that 950 three-stage rockets should be enough to get everything into orbit.

Ships being assembled in orbit. Credit: Collier’s

All the ships would be assembled in orbit, and 70 crewmembers would take to their stations for an epic journey. They’d blast their rockets and carry out a Mars Hohmann transfer, which would take them 8 months to make the journey from Earth to Mars.

The flotilla consisted of 7 orbiters, huge spheres that would travel to Mars, go into orbit and then return back to Earth. It also consisted of 3 glider landers, which would enter the Martian atmosphere and stay on Mars.

Once they reached the Red Planet, they would use powerful telescopes to scan the Martian landscape and search for safe and scientifically interesting landing spots. The first landing would happen at one of the planet’s polar caps, which Von Braun figured was the only guaranteed flat surface for a landing.

A rocket-powered glider descending towards Mars. Credit: Collier’s

At this point, it’s important to note that Von Braun assumed that the Martian atmosphere was about as thick as Earth’s. He figured you could use huge winged gliders to aerobrake into the atmosphere and land safely on the surface.

He was wrong. The atmosphere on Mars is actually only 1% as thick as Earth’s, and these gliders would never work. Newer missions, like SpaceX’s Red Dragon and Interplanetary Transport Ship will use rockets to make a powered landing.

I think if Von Braun knew this, he could have modified his plans to still make the whole thing work.

Landed at the polar cap. Credit: Collier’s

Once the first expedition landed at one of the polar caps, they’d make a 6,400 kilometer journey across the harsh Martian landscape to the first base camp location, and build a landing strip. Then two more gliders would detach from the flotilla and bring the majority of the explorers to the base camp. A skeleton crew would remain in orbit.

Once again, I think it’s important to note that Von Braun didn’t truly understand how awful the surface of Mars really is. The almost non-existent atmosphere and extreme cold would require much more sophisticated gear than he had planned for. But still, you’ve got to admire his ambition.

Preparing the gliders for rocket-powered ascent. Credit: Collier’s

With the Mars explorer team on the ground, their first task was to turn their glider-landers into rockets again. They would stand them up and get them prepped to blast off from the surface of Mars when their mission was over.

The Martian explorers would set up an inflatable habitat, and then spend the next 400 days surveying the area. Geologists would investigate the landscape, studying the composition of the rocks. Botanists would study the hardy Martian plant life, and seeing what kinds of Earth plants would grow.

Zoologists would study the local animals, and help figure out what was dangerous and what was safe to eat. Archeologists would search the region for evidence of ancient Martian civilizations, and study the vast canal network seen from Earth by astronomers. Perhaps they’d even meet the hardy Martians that built those canals, struggling to survive to this day.

Once again, in the 1940s, we thought Mars would be like the Earth, just more of a desert. There’d be plants and animals, and maybe even people adapted to the hardy environment. With our modern knowledge, this sounds quaint today. The most brutal desert on Earth is a paradise compared to the nicest place on Mars. Von Braun did the best he could with the best science of the time.

Finally, at the end of their 400 days on Mars, the astronauts would blast off from the surface of Mars, meet up with the orbiting crew, and the entire flotilla would make the return journey to Earth using the minimum-fuel Mars-Earth transfer trajectory.

The planned trajectories to and from Mars. Credit: Collier’s

Although Von Braun got a lot of things wrong about his Martian mission plan, such as the thickness of the atmosphere and habitability of Mars, he got a lot of things right.

He anticipated a mission plan that required the least amount of fuel, by assembling pieces in orbit, using the Hohmann transfer trajectory, exploring Mars for 400 days to match up Earth and Mars orbits. He developed the concept of using orbiters, detachable landing craft and ascent vehicles, used by the Apollo Moon missions.

The missions never happened, obviously, but Von Braun’s ideas served as the backbone for all future human Mars mission plans.

I’d like to give a massive thanks to the space historian David S.F. Portree. He wrote an amazing book called Humans to Mars, which details 50 years of NASA plans to send humans to the Red Planet, including a fantastic synopsis of the Mars Project.

I asked David about how Von Braun’s ideas influenced human spaceflight, he said it was his…

“… reliance on a conjunction-class long-stay mission lasting 400 days. That was gutsy – in the 1960s, NASA and contractor planners generally stuck with opposition-class short-stay missions. In recent years we’ve seen more emphasis on the conjunction-class mission mode, sometimes with a relatively short period on Mars but lots of time in orbit, other times with almost the whole mission spent on the surface.”

What’s on the Surface of Venus?

What's On the Surface of Venus?

We’re always talking about Mars here on the Guide to Space. And with good reason. Mars is awesome, and there’s a fleet of spacecraft orbiting, probing and crawling around the surface of Mars.

The Red Planet is the focus of so much of our attention because it’s reasonably close and offers humanity a viable place for a second home. Well, not exactly viable, but with the right technology and techniques, we might be able to make a sustainable civilization there.

We have the surface of Mars mapped in great detail, and we know what it looks like from the surface.

But there’s another planet we need to keep in mind: Venus. It’s bigger, and closer than Mars. And sure, it’s a hellish deathscape that would kill you in moments if you ever set foot on it, but it’s still pretty interesting and mysterious to visit.

Would it surprise you to know that many spacecraft have actually made it down to the surface of Venus, and photographed the place from the ground? It was an amazing feat of Soviet engineering, and there are some new technologies in the works that might help us get back, and explore it longer.

Venera 10 image of Venusian surface (1975). 174-degree raw 6-bit logarithmically encoded telemetry seen above. Linearized and aperture corrected view in center, including data from a second 124-degree panorama. Bottom image had missing portions in-painted with Bertalmio’s algorithm.

Today, let’s talk about the Soviet Venera program. The first time humanity saw Venus from its surface.

Back in the 60s, in the height of the cold war, the Americans and the Soviets were racing to be the first to explore the Solar System. First satellite to orbit Earth (Soviets), first human to orbit Earth (Soviets), first flyby and landing on the Moon (Soviets), first flyby of Mars (Americans), first flyby of Venus (Americans), etc.

The Soviets set their sights on putting a lander down on the surface of Venus. But as we know, this planet has some unique challenges. Every place on the entire planet measures the same 462 degrees C (or 864 F).

Furthermore, the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is 90 times greater than Earth. Being down at the bottom of that column of atmosphere is the same as being beneath a kilometer of ocean on Earth. Remember those submarine movies where they dive too deep and get crushed like a soda can?

Finally, it rains sulphuric acid. I mean, that’s really irritating.

Needless to say, figuring this out took the Soviets a few tries.

Venera 1
The Venera 1 spacecraft

Their first attempts to even flyby Venus was Venera 1, on February 4, 1961. But it failed to even escape Earth orbit. This was followed by Venera 2, launched on November 12, 1965, but it went off course just after launch.

Venera 3 blasted off on November 16, 1965, and was intended to land on the surface of Venus. The Soviets lost communication with the spacecraft, but it’s believed it did actually crash land on Venus. So I guess that was the first successful “landing” on Venus?

Before I continue, I’d like to talk a little bit about landing on planets. As we’ve discussed in the past, landing on Mars is really really hard. The atmosphere is thick enough that spacecraft will burn up if you aim directly for the surface, but it’s not thick enough to let you use parachutes to gently land on the surface.

Landing on the surface of Venus on the other hand, is super easy. The atmosphere is so thick that you can use parachutes no problem. If you can get on target and deploy a parachute capable of handling the terrible environment, your soft landing is pretty much assured. Surviving down there is another story, but we’ll get to that.

Venera 4 came next, launched on June 12, 1967. The Soviet scientists had few clues about what the surface of Venus was actually like. They didn’t know the atmospheric pressure, guessing it might be a little higher pressure than Earth, or maybe it was hundreds of times our pressure. It was tested with high temperatures, and brutal deceleration. They thought they’d built this thing plenty tough.

The Venera 4 spacecraft. Venera spacecraft 3 to 6 were similar. Image supplied by NASA

Venera 4 arrived at Venus on October 18, 1967, and tried to survive a landing. Temperatures on its heat shield were clocked at 11,000 C, and it experienced 300 Gs of deceleration.

The initial temperature 52 km was a nice 33C, but then as it descended down towards the surface, temperatures increased to 262 C. And then, they lost contact with the probe, killed dead by the horrible temperature.

We can assume it landed, though, and for the first time, scientists caught a glimpse of just how bad it is down there on the surface of Venus.

Venera 5 was launched on January 5, 1969, and was built tougher, learning from the lessons of Venera 4. It also made it into Venus’ atmosphere, returned some interested science about the planet and then died before it reached the surface.

Venera 6 followed, same deal. Built tougher, died in the atmosphere, returned some useful science.

Venera 7 was built with a full understanding of how bad it was down there on Venus. It launched on August 17, 1970, and arrived in December. It’s believed that the parachutes on the spacecraft only partially deployed, allowing it to descend more quickly through the Venusian atmosphere than originally planned. It smacked into the surface going about 16.5 m/s, but amazingly, it survived, and continued to send back a weak signal to Earth for about 23 minutes.

For the first time ever, a spacecraft had made it down to the surface of Venus and communicated its status. I’m sure it was just 23 minutes of robotic screaming, but still, progress. Scientists got their first accurate measurement of the temperatures, and pressure down there.

Bottom line, humans could never survive on the surface of Venus.

Venera 8 blasted off for Venus on March 17, 1972, and the Soviet engineers built it to survive the descent and landing as long as possible. It made it through the atmosphere, landed on the surface, and returned data for about 50 minutes. It didn’t have a camera, but it did have a light sensor, which told scientists being on Venus was kind of like Earth on an overcast day. Enough light to take pictures… next time.

The Venera 9 spacecraft. Image supplied by NASA

For their next missions, the Soviets went back to the drawing board and built entirely new landing craft. Built big, heavy and tough, designed to get to the surface of Venus and survive long enough to send back data and pictures.

Venera 9 was launched on June 8, 1975. It survived the atmospheric descent and landed on the surface of Venus. The lander was built like a liquid cooled reverse insulated pressure vessel, using circulating fluid to keep the electronics cooled as long as possible. In this case, that was 53 minutes. Venera 9 measured clouds of acid, bromine and other toxic chemicals, and sent back grainy black and white television pictures from the surface of Venus.

In fact, these were the first pictures ever taken from the surface of another planet.

Images from Venera 9 (top) and Venera 10 (bottom). Public Domain Images, courtesy of NASA/National Space Science Data Center.
Images from Venera 9 (top) and Venera 10 (bottom). Public Domain Images, courtesy of NASA/National Space Science Data Center.

Venera 10 lasted for 65 minutes and took pictures of the surface with one camera. The lens cap on a second camera didn’t release. The spacecraft saw lava rocks with layers of other rocks in between. Similar environments that you might see here on Earth.

Venera 11 was launched on September 9, 1975 and lasted for 95 minutes on the surface of Venus. In addition to confirming the horrible environment discovered by the other landers, Venera 11 detected lightning strikes in the vicinity. It was equipped with a color camera, but again, the lens cap failed to deploy for it or the black and white camera. So it failed to send any pictures home.

Venera 12 was launched on September 14, 1978, and made it down to the surface of Venus. It lasted 110 minutes and returned detailed information about the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, both its camera lens caps failed to deploy, so no pictures were returned. And pictures are what we really care about, right?

Venera 13 was built on the same tougher, beefier design, and was blasted off to Venus on October 30, 1981, and this one was a tremendous success. It landed on Venus and survived for 127 minutes. It took pictures of its surroundings using two cameras peering through quartz windows, and saw a landscape of bedrock. It used spring-loaded arms to test out how compressible the soil was.

The surface of Venus as captured by Soviet Venera 13 lander in March of 1982. NASA/courtesy of

Venera 14 was identical and launched just 5 days after Venera 13. It also landed and survived for 57 minutes. Unfortunately, its experiment to test the compressibility of the soil was a botch because one of its lens caps landed right under its spring-loaded arm. But apart from that, it sent back color pictures of the hellish landscape.

And with that, the Soviet Venus landing program ended. And since then, no additional spacecraft have ever returned to the surface of Venus.

It’s one thing for a lander to make it to the surface of Venus, last a few minutes and then die from the horrible environment. What we really want is some kind of rover, like Curiosity, which would last on the surface of Venus for weeks, months or even years and do more science.

And computers don’t like this kind of heat. Go ahead, put your computer in the oven and set it to 850. Oh, your oven doesn’t go to 850, that’s fine, because it would be insane. Seriously, don’t do that, it would be bad.

Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center have developed a new kind of electrical circuitry that might be able to handle those kinds of temperatures. Their new circuits were tested in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig, which can simulate the surface of Venus. It can mimic the temperature, pressure and even the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere.

A before (top) and after (bottom) image of the electronics after being tested in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig. Credit: NASA

The circuitry, originally designed for hot jet engines, lasted for 521 hours, functioning perfectly. If all goes well, future Venus rovers could be developed to survive on the surface of Venus without needing the complex and short lived cooling systems.

This discovery might unleash a whole new era of exploration of Venus, to confirm once and for all that it really does suck.

While the Soviets had a tough time with Mars, they really nailed it with Venus. You can see how they built and launched spacecraft after spacecraft, sticking with this challenge until they got the pictures and data they were looking for. I really think this series is one of the triumphs of robotic space exploration, and I look forward to future mission concepts to pick up where the Soviets left off.

Are you excited about the prospects of exploring Venus with rovers? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

What was Sputnik One?

Sputnik 1

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.

A "Semyorka" rocket, part of the Soviet R7 rocket family. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Sergei Arssenev
Sputnik 1 was launched aboard a “Semyorka” rocket, part of the Soviet R7 rocket family. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Sergei Arssenev

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.

The Sputnik spacecraft stunned the world when it was launched into orbit on Oct. 4th, 1954. Credit: NASA
The Sputnik spacecraft stunned the world when it was launched into orbit on Oct. 4th, 1954. Credit: NASA

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.

Exploded view of the Sputnik 1 satellite. Credit: NASA
Exploded view of the Sputnik 1 satellite. Credit: NASA


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.

Yury Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok spacecraft. April 12, 1961 Credit: RIA Novosti
Yury Gagarin before a space flight aboard the Vostok spacecraft. April 12, 1961 Credit: RIA Novosti

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?

If you’d like more information on the Sputnik mission, here’s a link to NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Sputnik, and here’s the homepage for NASA History: Sputnik.

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.


How Many Dogs Have Been to Space?

Becoming an astronaut is a rare honor. The rigorous selection process, the hard training, and then… the privilege of going into space! It is something few human beings will ever be privileged enough to experience. But what about other species of animal that have gone into space? Are we not being just the slightest bit anthropocentric in singling out humans for praise?

What about all those brave simians and mice that were sent into space? What about the guinea pigs and rats? And what of “Man’s Best Friend”, the brave canines that helped pave the way for “manned” spaceflight? During the 1950s and 60s, the Soviets sent over 20 dogs into space, some of which never returned. Here’s what we know about these intrepid canines who helped make humanity a space-faring race!


During the 1950s and 60s, the Soviets and Americans found themselves locked in the Space Race. It was a time of intense competition as both superpowers attempted to outmaneuver the other and become the first to achieve spaceflight, conduct crewed missions to orbit, and eventually land crews on another celestial body (i.e. the Moon).

Albert II in preparation for his historic flight. Image Credit: NASA
Albert II in preparation for his historic flight. Image Credit: NASA

Before crewed missions could be sent, however, both the Soviet space program and NASA conducted rigorous tests involving animal test subjects, as a way of gauging the stresses and physical tolls going into space would have. These tests were not without precedent, as animals had been used for aeronautical tests in previous centuries.

For instance, in 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster when testing their hot air balloon to see what the effects would be. Between 1947-1960, the US launched several captured German V-2 rockets (which contained animal test subjects) to measure the effect traveling to extremely high altitudes would have on living organisms.

Because of the shortage of rockets, they also employed high-altitude balloons. These tests were conducted using fruit flies, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, frogs, goldfish and monkeys. The most famous test case was Albert II, a rhesus monkey that became the first monkey to go into space on June 14th, 1949.

For the Soviets, it was felt that dogs would be the perfect test subjects, and for several reasons. For one, it was believed that dogs would be more comfortable with prolonged periods of inactivity. The Soviets also selected female dogs (due to their better temperament) and insisted on stray dogs (rather than house dogs) because they felt they would be able to tolerate the extreme stresses of space flight better.


A safety module that was commonly used to send Russian "space dogs" into orbit. Credit: WIkipedia Commons/Bricktop/Russia in Space
Image of the type of safety module that was used to send Russian “space dogs” into orbit. Credit: WIkipedia Commons/Bricktop/Russia in Space


For the sake of preparing the dogs that were used for the sake of test flights, the Soviets confined the subjects in small boxes of decreasing size for periods of between 15 and 20 days at a time. This was designed to simulate spending time inside the small safety modules that would housed them for the duration of their flights.

Other exercises designed to get the dogs prepared for space flight included having them stand still for long periods of time. They also sought to get the dogs accustomed to wearing space suits, and made them ride in centrifuges that simulated the high acceleration experienced during launch.

Suborbital Flights:

Between 1951 and 1956, the Russians conducted their first test flights using dogs. Using R-1 rockets. a total of 15 missions were flown and were all suborbital in nature, reaching altitudes of around 100 km (60 mi) above sea level. The dogs that flew in these missions wore pressure suits with acrylic glass bubble helmets.

Model of R-1 rocket at Znamensk City, near Kapustin Yar missile range. Credit: Wikipdia Commons/
Model of R-1 rocket at Znamensk City, near Kapustin Yar missile range. Credit: Wikipdia Commons/

The first to go up were Dezik and Tsygan, who both launched aboard an R-1 rocket on July 22nd, 1951. The mission flew to a maximum altitude of 110 km, and both dogs were recovered unharmed afterwards. Dezik made another sub-orbital flight on July 29th, 1951, with a dog named Lisa, although neither survived because their capsule’s parachute failed to deploy on re-entry.

Several more launches took place throughout the Summer and Fall of 1951, which included the successful launch and recovery of space dogs Malyshka and ZIB. In both cases, these dogs were substitutes for the original space dogs – Smelaya and Bolik – who ran away just before the were scheduled to launch.

By 1954, space dogs Lisa-2 (“Fox” or “Vixen”, the second dog to bear this name after the first died), Ryzhik (“Ginger” because of the color of her fur) made their debut. Their mission flew to an altitude of 100 km on June 2nd, 1954, and both dogs were recovered safely. The following year, Albina and Tsyganka (“Gypsy girl”) were both ejected out of their capsule at an altitude of 85 km and landed safely.

Between 1957 to 1960, 11 flights with dogs were made using the R-2A series of rockets, which flew to altitudes of about 200 km (124 mi). Three flights were made to an altitude of about 450 km (280 mi) using R-5A rockets in 1958. In the R-2 and R-5 rockets, the dogs were contained in a pressured cabin

Credit: Wikipedia Commons (.ru)
Photo of Otvazhnaya and the Mafrusha, two of the three brave cosmonauts who flew together on July 2nd, 1959. Credit: Wikipedia Commons (.ru)

Those to take part in these launches included Otvazhnaya (“Brave One”) who made a flight on July 2nd, 1959, along with a rabbit named Marfusha (“Little Martha”) and another dog named Snezhinka (“Snowflake”). Otvazhnaya would go to make 5 other flights between 1959 and 1960.

Orbital Flights:

By the late 1950s, and as part of the Sputnik and Vostok programs, Russian dogs began to be sent into orbit around Earth aboard R-7 rockets. On November 3rd, 1957, the famous space dog Laika became the first animal to go into orbit as part of the Sputnik-2 mission. The mission ended tragically, with Laika dying in flight. But unlike other missions where dogs were sent into suborbit, her death was anticipated in advance.

It was believed Laika would survive for a full ten days, when in fact, she died between five and seven hours into the flight. At the time, the Soviet Union claimed she died painlessly while in orbit due to her oxygen supply running out. More recent evidence however, suggests that she died as a result of overheating and panic.

This was due to a series of technical problems which resulted from a botched deployment. The first was the damage that was done to the thermal system during separation, the second was some of the satellite’s thermal insulation being torn loose. As a result of these two mishaps, temperatures in the cabin reached over 40º C.

Animals in Space
The famous space dog Laika, pictured here  before her launch in 1957. Credit: AP Photo/NASA

The mission lasted 162 days before the orbit finally decayed and it fell back to Earth. Her sacrifice has been honored by many countries through a series of commemorative stamps, and she was honored as a “hero of the Soviet Union”. Much was learned from her mission about the behavior of organisms during space flight, though it has been argued that what was learned did not justify the sacrifice.

The next dogs to go into space were Belka (“Squirrel”) and Strelka (“Little Arrow”), which took place on Aug. 19th, 1960, as part of the Sputnik-5 mission. The two dogs were accompanied by a grey rabbit, 42 mice, 2 rats, flies, and several plants and fungi, and all spent a day in orbit before returning safely to Earth.

Strelka went on to have six puppies, one of which was named Pushinka (“Fluffy”). This pup was presented to President John F. Kennedy’s daughter (Caroline) by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 as a gift. Pushinka went on to have puppies with the Kennedy’s dog (named Charlie), the descendants of which are still alive today.

On Dec. 1st, 1960, space dogs Pchyolka (“Little Bee”) and Mushka (“Little Fly”) went into space as part of Sputnik-6. The dogs, along with another compliment of various test animals, plants and insects, spent a day in orbit. Unfortunately, all died when the craft’s retrorockets experienced an error during reentry, and the craft had to be intentionally destroyed.

The dogs Veterok and Ugoljok who took part in a scientific experiment, 22 day flight in space. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The dogs Veterok and Ugoljok, who spent 22 days in orbit as part of the Cosmos 110 mission. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Tekniska museet

Sputnik 9, which launched on March 9th, 1961, was crewed by spacedog Chernenko (“Blackie”) – as well as a cosmonaut dummy, mice and a guinea pig. The capsule made one orbit before returning to Earth and making a soft landing using a parachute. Chernenko was safely recovered from the capsule.

On March 25th, 1961, the dog Zvyozdocha (“Starlet”) who was named by Yuri Gagarin, made one orbit on board the Sputnik-10 mission with a cosmonaut dummy. This practice flight took place a day before Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12th, 1961, in which he became the first man to go into space. After re-entry, Zvezdochka safely landed and was recovered.

Spacedogs Veterok (“Light Breeze”) and Ugolyok (“Coal”) were launched on board a Voskhod space capsule on Feb. 22nd, 1966, as part of Cosmos 110. This mission, which spent 22 days in orbit before safely landing on March 16th, set the record for longest-duration spaceflight by dogs, and would not be broken by humans until 1971.


To this day, the dogs that took part in the Soviet space and cosmonaut training program as seen as heroes in Russia. Many of them, Laika in particular, were put on commemorative stamps that enjoyed circulation in Russia and in many Eastern Bloc countries. There are also monuments to the space dogs in Russia.

Laika, dog launched into space on stamp from Rumania Posta Romania , 1957. Credit: WIkipedia Commons
Romanian commemorate stamp showing Laika, the first dog launched into space, from Rumania Posta, 1957. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

These include the statue that exists outside of Star City, the Cosmonaut training facility in Moscow. Created in 1997, the monument shows Laika positioned behind a statue of a cosmonaut with her ears erect. The Monument to the Conquerors of Space, which was constructed in Moscow in 1964, includes a bas-relief of Laika along with representations of all those who contributed to the Soviet space program.

On April 11, 2008, at the military research facility in Moscow where Laika was prepped for her mission to space, officials unveiled a monument of her poised inside the fuselage of a space rocket (shown at top). Because of her sacrifice, all future missions involving dogs and other test animals were designed to be recoverable.

Four other dogs died in Soviet space missions, including Bars and Lisichka (who were killed when their R-7 rocket exploded shortly after launch). On July 28, 1960, Pchyolka and Mushka also died when their space capsule was purposely destroyed after a failed re-entry to prevent foreign powers from inspecting the capsule.

However, their sacrifice helped to advance safety procedures and abort procedures that would be used for many decades to come in human spaceflight.

We have written many interesting articles about animals and space flight here at Universe Today. Here’s Who was the First Dog to go Into Space?, What was the First Animal to go into Space?, What Animals Have been to Space?, Who was “Space Dog” Laika?, and Russian Memorial for Space Dog Laika.

For more information, check out Russian dogs lost in space and NASA’s page about the history of animals in space.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on space capsules.


North Korea Aims To Place Its Flag On The Moon

Space exploration was once considered the province of two superpowers, with only tertiary participation from other nations. But since the turn of the century, more and more nations are joining in. China and India, for example, have placed landers on the Moon, satellites around Mars, and are even working on a space station. And as if that weren’t enough, private industry is also making its presence felt, largely through SpaceX and Blue Origins‘ development of reusable rockets.

But in the latest announcement to come out of the world’s last Stalinist regime, it seems that North Korea also hopes to join the 100 mile-high club (the space race, not the other thing!) In a recent interview with the Associated Press, a North Korean official indicated that the country is busy working on a five year plan that will put more satellites into orbit by 2020, and mount a mission to the moon within 10 years time.

According to the official – Hyon Kwang Il, the director of the scientific research department of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration – the 5-year plan is focused on the deployment of more Earth observations satellites, as well as what will be the country’s first geostationary communications satellite.

Visitors takes photos of an illuminated model of a globe at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
Visitors takes photos of an illuminated model of a globe at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

He further indicated that universities in North Korea are expanding their programs to train rocket scientists, with the ultimate purpose of mounting an unmanned Moon mission sometime in the 2020s. If this statement is to be believed, then this plan would constitute significant steps being taken by the isolated regime to establish a foothold in space.

As Hyon indicated in an interview with AP on July 28th, this will all be taking place despite the ongoing embargo and attempts to stifle North Korea’s technological ambitions:

“Even though the U.S. and its allies try to block our space development, our aerospace scientists will conquer space and definitely plant the flag of the DPRK on the moon… We are planning to develop the Earth observation satellites and to solve communications problems by developing geostationary satellites. All of this work will be the basis for the flight to the moon.”

Considering the announcements to come out of this isolated, totalitarian state in the past – i.e. having a cure for HIV, Ebola and cancer, finding a unicorn lair, and having invisible phones – you might be asking yourself, “how seriously should I take this?” The answer: with cautious skepticism. Granted, North Korea’s state-controlled media frequently releases propaganda statements that are so outlandish that they make us laugh out loud.

Still, this latest claim does not seem so farfetched. Already, North Korea has deployed two Earth observation satellites as part of its Kwangmyongsong program, which began in earnest in 1998. Back in February, the fifth satellite in this program (Kwangmyongsong-5) was successfully launched into orbit. And while this was only the second successful launch, it does show that country is developing a certain degree of competency when it comes to space technology.

Image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of the rocket said to be carrying North Korea's Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, Feb.7, 2016. Credit: AP
Image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of the rocket said to be carrying North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, Feb. 7, 2016. Credit: AP

The Unha rockets that were used to deliver the satellites into orbit are also considered to be capable. An expandable carrier rocket, the Unha relies on a delivery system that is similar to the Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile (which is a modified version of the Russian Scud). What’s more, recent satellite images of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (located in the northeastern North Pyongan Province) has revealed that an enlarged launch tower is under construction.

This could be an indication that an enlarged version (Unha-X) might be under development, which is consistent with propaganda posters that are also advertising the new rocket. And this past Wednesday, the country test-fired what was believed to be a medium-range ballistic missile into the seas off Japan, which is the fourth reported weapons launch to take place in the past two weeks. Clearly, the regime is working to develop its rocket capabilities, which is essential to any space program.

Beyond that, the success other nations have had in recent years conducting unmanned mission to the Moon – like China’s Chang’e program –  could serve as an indication that the North Korean regime is entirely serious about planting a flag there as well. “Our country has started to accomplish our plan and we have started to gain a lot of successes,” said Hyon. “No matter what anyone thinks, our country will launch more satellites.”

Seriousness or not, whether or not North Korea can actually achieve their more ambitious goal of reaching the Moon in a decade remains to be seen. And it will only come with a whole lot of time, effort, and the country burning through another significant chunk of its GDP (as with its nuclear tests). In the meantime, we better get used to the idea of Low-Earth Orbit getting a bit more crowded!

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video from the Onion, which presents what is only a semi-satirical take on the regime’s space plans:

Further Reading: Associated Press

Falcon Heavy Vs. Saturn V

Its an Epic Rocket Battle! Or a Clash of the Titans, if you will. Except that in this case, the titans are the two of the heaviest rockets the world has ever seen. And the contenders couldn’t be better matched. On one side, we have the heaviest rocket to come out of the US during the Space Race, and the one that delivered the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. On the other, we have the heaviest rocket created by the NewSpace industry, and which promises to deliver astronauts to Mars.

And in many respects, the Falcon Heavy is considered to be the successor of the Saturn V. Ever since the latter was retired in 1973, the United States has effectively been without a super-heavy lifter. And with the Space Launch System still in development, the Falcon Heavy is likely to become the workhorse of both private space corporations and space agencies in the coming years.

So let’s compare these two rockets, taking into account their capabilities, specifications, and the history of their development and see who comes out on top. BEGIN!

Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station. Credit: NASA
Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station. Credit: NASA

Development History:

The development of the Saturn V began in 1946 with Operation Paperclip, a US government program which led to the recruitment of Wernher von Braun and several other World War II-era German rocket scientists and technicians. The purpose of this program was to leverage the expertise of these scientists to give the US an edge in the Cold War through the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Between 1945 and the mid-to-late 50s von Braun acted as an advisor to US armed forces for the sake of developing military rockets only. It was not until 1957, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik-1 using an R-7 rocket – a Soviet ICBM also capable of delivering thermonuclear warheads –  that the US government began to consider the use of rockets for space exploration.

Thereafter, von Braun and his team began developing the Jupiter series of rockets –  a modified Redstone ballistic missile with two solid-propellant upper stages. These proved to be a major step towards the Saturn V, hence why the Jupiter series was later nicknamed “an infant Saturn”. Between 1960 and 1962, the Marshall Space Flight Center began designing the rockets that would eventually be used by the Apollo Program.

After several iterations, the Saturn C-5 design (later named the Saturn V) was created. By 1964, it was selected for NASA’s Apollo Program as the rocket that would conduct a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LRO). This plan called for a large rocket to launch a single spacecraft to the Moon, but only a small part of that spacecraft (the Lunar Module) would actually land on the surface. That smaller module would then rendezvous with the main spacecraft – the Command/Service Module (CSM) – in lunar orbit and the crew would return home.

A Saturn IV launching the historic Apollo 11 mission. Image: NASA/Michael Vuijlsteke. Public Domain image.
A Saturn V launching the historic Apollo 11 mission. Credit: NASA/Michael Vuijlsteke. Public Domain image.

Development of the Falcon Heavy was first announced in 2011 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. In a statement, Musk drew direct comparisons to the Saturn V, claiming that the Falcon Heavy would deliver “more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program.”

Consistent with this promise of a “super heavy-lift” vehicle, SpaceX’s original specifications indicated a projected payload of 53,000 kg (117,000 lbs) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), and 12,000 kgg (26,000 lbs) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). In 2013, these estimates were revised to 54,400 kg (119,900 lb) to LEO and 22,200 kg (48,900 lb) to GTO, as well as 16,000 kilograms (35,000 lb) to translunar trajectory, and 13,600 kilograms (31,000 lb) on a trans-Martian orbit to Mars, and 2,900 kg (6,400 lb) to Pluto.

In 2015, the design was changed – alongside changes to the Falcon 9 v.1.1 – to take advantage of the new Merlin 1D engine and changes to the propellant tanks. The original timetable, proposed in 2011, put the rocket’s arrival at SpaceX’s west-coast launch location – Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – at before the end of 2012.

The first launch from Vandenberg was take place in 2013, while the first launch from Cape Canaveral was to take place in late 2013 or 2014. But by mid-2015, delays caused by failures with Falcon 9 test flights caused the first launch to be pushed to late 2016. The rocket has also been relocated to the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex in Florida.

Artist's concept of the SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launching to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018. Credit: SpaceX
Artist’s concept of the SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launching to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX also announced in July 0f 2016 that it planned to expand its landing facility near Cape Canaveral to take advantage of the reusable technology. With three landing pads now planned (instead of one on land and a drone barge at sea), they hope to be able to recover all of the spent boosters that will be used for the launch of a Falcon Heavy.


Both the Saturn V and Falcon Heavy were created to do some serious heavy lifting. Little wonder, since both were created for the sole purpose of “slipping the surly bonds” of Earth and putting human beings and cargo onto other celestial bodies. For its part, the Saturn V‘s size and payload surpassed all other previous rockets, reflecting its purpose of sending astronauts to the Moon.

With the Apollo spacecraft on top, it stood 111 meters (363 feet) tall and was 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter, without fins. Fully fueled, the Saturn V weighed 2,950 metric tons (6.5 million pounds), and had a payload capacity estimated at 118,000 kg (261,000 lbs) to LEO, but was designed for the purpose of sending 41,000 kg (90,000 lbs) to Trans Lunar Insertion (TLI).

Later upgrades on the final three missions boosted that capacity to 140,000 kg (310,000 lbs) to LEO and 48,600 kg (107,100 lbs) to the Moon. The Saturn V was principally designed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, while numerous subsystems were developed by subcontractors. This included the engines, which were designed by Rocketdyne, a Los Angeles-based rocket company.

Diagram of Saturn V Launch Vehicle. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Diagram of Saturn V Launch Vehicle. Credit: NASA/MSFC

The first stage (aka. S-IC) measured 42 m (138 feet) tall and 10 m (33 feet) in diameter, and had a dry weight of 131 metric tons (289,000 lbs) and a total weight of over 2300 metric tons (5.1 million lbs) when fully fueled. It was powered by five Rocketdyne F-1 engines arrayed in a quincunx (four units arranged in a square, and the fifth in the center) which provided it with 34,000 kN (7.6 million pounds-force) of thrust.

The Saturn V consisted of three stages – the S-IC first stage, S-II second stage and the S-IVB third stage – and the instrument unit. The first stage used Rocket Propellant-1 (RP-1), a form of kerosene similar to jet fuel, while the second and third stages relied on liquid hydrogen for fuel. The second and third stage also used solid-propellant rockets to separate during launch.

The Falcon Heavy is based around a core that is a single Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as boosters. While similar in concept to the Delta IV Heavy launcher and proposals for the Atlas V HLV and Russian Angara A5V, the Falcon Heavy was specifically designed to exceed all current designs in terms of operational flexibility and payload. As with other SpaceX rockets, it was also designed to incorporate reusability.

The rocket relies on two stages, with the possibility of more to come, that measure 70 m (229.6 ft) in height and 12.2 m (39.9 ft) in width. The first stage is powered by three Falcon 9 cores, each of which is equipped with nine Merlin 1D engines. These are arranged in a circular fashion with eight around the outside and one in th middle (what SpaceX refers to as the Octaweb) in order to streamline the manufacturing process. Each core also includes four extensible landing legs and grid fins to control descent and conduct landings.

Chart comparing SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX
Chart comparing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX

The first stage of the Falcon Heavy relies on Subcooled LOX (liquid oxygen) and chilled RP-1 fuel; while the upper stage also uses them, but under normal conditions. The Falcon Heavy has a total sea-level thrust at liftoff of 22,819 kN (5,130,000 lbf) which rises to 24,681 kN (5,549,000 lbf) as the craft climbs out of the atmosphere. The upper stage is powered by a single Merlin 1D engine which has a thrust of 34 kN (210,000 lbf) and has been modified for use in a vacuum.

Although not a part of the initial Falcon Heavy design, SpaceX has been extending its work with reusable rocket systems to ensure that the boosters and core stage can be recovered. Currently, no work has been announced on making the upper stages recoverable as well, but recent successes recovering the first stages of the Falcon 9 may indicate a possible change down the road.

The consequence of adding reusable technology will mean that the Falcon Heavy will have a reduced payload to GTO. However, it will also mean that it will be able to fly at a much lower cost per launch. With full reusability on all three booster cores, the GTO payload will be approximately 7,000 kg (15,000 lb). If only the two outside cores are reusable while the center is expendable, the GTO payload would be approximately 14,000 kg (31,000 lb).


The Saturn V rocket was by no means a small investment. In fact, one of the main reasons for the cancellation of the last three Apollo flights was the sheer cost of producing the rockets and financing the launches. Between 1964 and 1973, a grand total of $6.417 billion USD was appropriated for the sake of research, development, and flights.

Looking at the business end of the Saturn V as it gets moved towards the barge that will transport it to Mississippi. Image: Infinity Science Center.
A Saturn V rocket viewed from the rear, showing its five Rocketdyne F-1 engines. Credit: Infinity Science Center

Adjusted to 2016 dollars, that works out to $41.4 billion USD. In terms of individual launches, the Saturn V would cost between $185 and $189 million USD, of which $110 million was spent on production alone. Adjusted for inflation, this works out to approximately $1.23 billion per launch, of which $710 million went towards production.

By contrast, when Musk appeared before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in May 2004, he stated that his ultimate goal with the development of SpaceX was to bring the total cost per launch down to $1,100 per kg ($500/pound). As of April 2016, SpaceX has indicated that a Falcon Heavy could lift 2268 kg (8000 lbs) to GTO for a cost of $90 million a launch – which works out to $3968.25 per kg ($1125 per pound).

No estimates are available yet on how a fully-reusable Falcon Heavy will further reduce the cost of individual launches. And again, it will vary depending on whether or not the boosters and the core, or just the external boosters are recoverable. Making the upper stage recoverable as well will lead to a further drop in costs, but will also likely impact performance.


So having covered their backgrounds, designs and overall cost, let’s move on to a side-by-side comparison of these two bad boys. Let’s see how they stack up, pound for pound, when all things are considered – including height, weight, lift payload, and thrust.

Saturn V: Falcon Heavy:
Height: 110.6 m (363 ft) 70 m (230 ft)
Diameter: 10.1 m (33 ft) 12.2 m (40 ft)
Weight: 2,970,000 kg
(6,540,000 lbs)
1,420,788 kg
(3,132,301 lb)
Stages:  3  2+
(1st Stage):
5 Rocketdyne F-1 3 x 9 Merlin 1D
   2nd stage 5 Rocketdyne J-2 1 Merlin 1D
   3rd stage 1 Rocketdyne J-2
(1st stage):
34,020 kN

22,918 kN (sea level);
24,681 kN (vacuum)

   2nd stage 4,400 kN 934 kN
   3rd stage 1,000 kN
Payload (LEO): 140,000 kg
(310,000 lbs)
54,400 kg
(119,900 lbs)
Payload (TLI):  48,600 kg
(107,100 lbs)

 16,000 kg
(35,000 lbs)

When put next to each other, you can see that the Saturn V has the advantage when it comes to muscle. It’s bigger, heavier, and can deliver a bigger payload to space. On the other hand, the Falcon Heavy is smaller, lighter, and a lot cheaper. Whereas the Saturn V can put a heavier payload into orbit, or send it on to another celestial body, the Falcon Heavy could perform several missions for every one mounted by its competitor.

But whereas the contributions of the venerable Saturn V cannot be denied, the Falcon Heavy has yet to demonstrate its true worth to space exploration. In many ways, its like comparing a retired champion to an up-and-comer who, despite showing lots of promise and getting all the headlines, has yet to win a single bout.

But should the Falcon Heavy prove successful, it will likely be recognized as the natural successor to the Saturn V. Ever since the latter was retired in 1973, NASA has been without a rocket with which to mount long-range crewed missions. And while heavy-lift options have been available – such as the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V – none have had the performance, payload capacity, or the affordability that the new era of space exploration needs.

In truth, this battle will take several years to unfold. Only after the Falcon Heavy is rigorously tested and SpaceX manages to deliver on their promises of cheaper space launches, a return to the Moon and a mission to Mars (or fail to, for that matter) will we be able to say for sure which rocket was the true champion of human space exploration! But in the meantime, I’m sure there’s plenty of smack talk to be had by fans of both! Preferably in a format that rhymes!

Further Reading: NASA, SpaceX

And a tip of the hat to ERB!

What Does NASA Stand For?

Chances are that if you have lived on this planet for the past half-century, you’ve heard of NASA. As the agency that is in charge of America’s space program, they put a man on the Moon, launched the Hubble Telescope, helped establish the International Space Station, and sent dozens of probes and shuttles into space.

But do you know what the acronym NASA actually stands for? Well, NASA stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As such, it oversees America’s spaceflight capabilities and conducts valuable research in space. However, NASA also has various programs on Earth dedicated to flight, hence why the term “Aeronautics” appears in the agency’s name.

The process of forming NASA began in the early 1950’s with the development of rocket planes – like the Bell X-1 – and the desire to launch physical satellites. However, it was not until the launch of Sputnik 1 – the first artificial satellite into space that was deployed by the Soviets on October 4th, 1957 – that efforts to develop an American space program truly began.

Fearing that Sputnik represented a threat to national security and America’s technological leadership, Congress urged then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower to take immediate action. This result in an agreement whereby a federal organization similar to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – which was established in 1915 to oversee aeronautical research – would be created.

Sputnik 1
Photograph of a Russian technician putting the finishing touches on Sputnik 1, humanity’s first artificial satellite. Credit: NASA/Asif A. Siddiqi

On July 29th, 1958, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which officially established NASA. When it began operations on October 1st, 1958, NASA absorbed NACA and its 8,000 employees. It was also given an annual budget of US $100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory) and two small test facilities.

Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the United States Naval Research Laboratory were also incorporated into NASA. A significant contribution came from the work of the Army Ballistic Missie Agency (ABMA), which had been working closely with Wernher von Braun – the leader of Germany’s rocket program during WWII – at the time.

In December 1958, NASA also gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a contractor facility operated by the California Institute of Technology. By 1959, President Eisenhower officially approved of A NASA seal, which is affectionately referred to as the “meatball” logo because of the orbs included in the design.

First designed in 1959, this NASA seal has commonly been known as the "meatball" logo. Credit: NASA
First designed in 1959, this NASA seal has commonly been known as the “meatball” logo. Credit: NASA

Early Projects:
NASA has since been responsible for the majority of the manned and unmanned American missions that have been sent into space. Their efforts began with the development of the X-15, a hypersonic jet plane that NASA had taken over from the NACA. As part of the program, twelve pilots were selected to fly the X-15, and achieve new records for both speed and maximum altitude reached.

A total of 199 flights were made between 1959 and 1968, resulting in two official world records being made. The first was for the highest speed ever reached by a manned craft – Mach 6.72 or 7,273 km/h (4,519 mph) – while the second was for the highest altitude ever achieved, at 107.96 km (354,200 feet).

The X-15 program also employed mechanical techniques used in the later manned spaceflight programs, including reaction control system jets, space suits, horizon definition for navigation, and crucial reentry and landing data. However, by the early 60’s, NASA’s primary concern was winning the newly-declared “Space Race” with the Soviets by putting a man into orbit.

Project Mercury:
This began with the Project Mercury, a program that was taken over from the US Air Force and which ran from 1959 until 1963. Designed to send a man into space using existing rockets, the program quickly adopted the concept launching a ballistic capsules into orbit. The first seven astronauts, nicknamed the “Mercury Seven“, were selected from from the Navy, Air Force and Marine test pilot programs.

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

On May 5th, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Freedom 7 mission. John Glenn became the first American to be launched into orbit by an Atlas launch vehicle on February 20th, 1962, as part of Friendship 7. Glenn completed three orbits, and three more orbital flights were made, culminating in L. Gordon Cooper’s 22-orbit flight aboard Faith 7, which flew on May 15th and 16th, 1963.

Project Gemini:
Project Gemini, which began in 1961 and ran until 1966, aimed at developing support for Project Apollo (which also began in 1961). This involved the development of long-duration space missions, extravehicular activity (EVA), rendezvous and docking procedures, and precision Earth landing. By 1962, the program got moving with the development of a series of two-man spacecraft.

The first flight, Gemini 3, went up on March 23rd, 1965 and was flown by Gus Grissom and John Young. Nine missions followed in 1965 and 1966, with spaceflights lasting for nearly fourteen days while crews conducting docking and rendezvous operations, EVAs, and gathered medical data on the effects of weightlessness on humans.

Project Apollo:
And then there was the Project Apollo, which began in 1961 and ran until 1972.  Due to the Soviets maintaining a lead in the space race up until this point, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress on May 25th, 1961 to commit the federal government to a program to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. With a price tag of $20 billion (or an estimated $205 billion in present-day US dollars), it was the most expensive space program in history.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history 45 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during the first human moonwalk in history, on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA

The program relied on the use of Saturn rockets as launch vehicles, and spacecraft that were larger than either the Mercury or Gemini capsules – consisting of a command and service module (CSM) and a lunar landing module (LM). The program got off to a rocky start when, on January 27th, 1967, the Apollo 1 craft experienced an electrical fire during a test run. The fire destroyed the capsule and killed the crew of three, consisting of Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, Roger B. Chaffee.

The second manned mission, Apollo 8, brought astronauts for the first time in a flight around the Moon in December of 1968. On the next two missions, docking maneuvers that were needed for the Moon landing were practiced. And finally, the long-awaited Moon landing was made with the Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon while pilot Michael Collins observed.

Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. Throughout these six Apollo spaceflights, a total of twelve men walked on the Moon. These missions also returned a wealth of scientific data, not to mention 381.7 kilograms (842 lb) of lunar samples to Earth. The Moon landing marked the end of the space race, but Armstrong declared it a victory for “mankind” rather than just the US.

Skylab and the Space Shuttle Program:
After Project Apollo, NASA’s efforts turned towards the creation of an orbiting space station and the creation of reusable spacecraft. In the case of the former, this took the form of Skylab, America’s first and only independently-built space station. Conceived of in 1965, the station was constructed on Earth and launched on May 14th, 1973 atop the first two stages of a Saturn V rocket.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA
Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

Skylab was damaged during its launch, losing its thermal protection and one electricity-generating solar panels. This necessitated the first crew to rendezvous with the station to conduct repairs. Two more crews followed, and the station was occupied for a total of 171 days during its history of service. This ended in 1979 with the downing of the station over the Indian Ocean and parts of southern Australia.

By the early 70s, a changing budget environment forced NASA to begin researching reusable spacecraft, which resulted in the Space Shuttle Program. Unlike previous programs, which involved small space capsules being launched on top of multistage rockets, this program centered on the use of vehicles that were launchable and (mostly) reusable.

Its major components were a spaceplane orbiter with an external fuel tank and two solid-fuel launch rockets at its side. The external tank, which was bigger than the spacecraft itself, was the only major component that was not reused. Six orbiters were constructed in total, named Space Shuttle Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Enterprise.

Over the course of 135 missions, which ran from 1983 to 1998, the Space Shuttles performed many important tasks. These included carrying the Spacelab into orbit – a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA) – running supplies to Mir and the ISS (see below), and the launch and successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope (which took place in 1990 and 1993, respectively).

Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA
Space Shuttle Columbia launching on its maiden voyage on April 12th, 1981. Credit: NASA

The Shuttle program suffered two disasters during the course of its 15 years of service. The first was the Challenger disaster in 1986, while the second – the Columbia disaster – took place in 2003. Fourteen astronauts were lost, as well as the two shuttles. By 2011, the program was discontinued, the last mission ending on July 21st, 2011 with the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center.

By 1993, NASA began collaborating with the Russians, the ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to create the International Space Station (ISS). Combining NASA’s Space Station Freedom project with the Soviet/Russian Mir-2 station, the European Columbus station, and the Japanese Kibo laboratory module, the project also built on the Russian-American Shuttle-Mir missions (1995-1998).

The ISS and Recent Projects:
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, crew members were delivered exclusively by Soyuz spacecraft. The Soyuz remains docked with the station while crews perform their six-month long missions, and then returns them to Earth. Until another US manned spacecraft is ready – which is NASA is busy developing – crew members will travel to and from the ISS exclusively aboard the Soyuz.

The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of STS-132 as they disembarked. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station, photographed by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-132). Credit: NASA

Uncrewed cargo missions arrive regularly with the station, usually in the form of the Russian Progress spacecraft, but also from the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) since 2008, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) since 2009, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft since 2012, and the American Cygnus spacecraft since 2013.

The ISS has been continuously occupied for the past 15 years, having exceeded the previous record held by Mir; and has been visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 15 different nations. The ISS program is expected to continue until at least 2020, but may be extended until 2028 or possibly longer, depending on the budget environment.

Future of NASA:
A few years ago, NASA celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Originally designed to ensure American supremacy in space, it has since adapted to changing conditions and political climates. It’s accomplishments have also been extensive, ranging from launching the first American artificial satellites into space for scientific and communications purposes, to sending probes to explore the planets of the Solar System.

But above all else, NASA’s greatest accomplishments have been in sending human beings into space, and being the agency that conducted the first manned missions to the Moon. In the coming years, NASA hopes to build on that reputation, bringing an asteroid closer to Earth so we can study it more closely, and sending manned missions to Mars.

Universe Today has many articles on NASA, including articles on its current administrators and the agency’s celebrating 50 years of spaceflight.

For more information, check out history of NASA and the history of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Astronomy Cast has an episode on NASA’s mission to Mars.

Source: NASA

Remembering John Houbolt: the Man Who Gave Us Lunar Orbit Rendezvous

The space community lost a colossus of the of the Apollo era last week, when John Houbolt passed away last Tuesday just five days after his 95th birthday.

Perhaps the name isn’t as familiar to many as Armstrong or Von Braun, but John Houbolt was a pivotal figure in getting us to the Moon.

Born in Altoona, Iowa on April 10th, 1919, Houbolt spent most of his youth in Joliet, Illinois. He earned a Masters degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1942 and a PhD in Technical Sciences from ETH Zurich in Switzerland in 1957. But before that, he would become a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1942, an organization that would later become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA in 1958.

It was 1961 when Houbolt made what would be his most enduring mark on the space program. He was working as an engineer at the Langley Research Center, at a time when NASA and the United States seriously needed a win in the space race. The U.S.S.R. had enjoyed a long string of firsts, including first satellite in orbit (Sputnik 1, October 1957), first spacecraft to photograph the lunar farside (Luna 3 in October 1959) and first human in space with the launch of Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 in April 1961. A young President Kennedy would make his now famous “We choose to go to the Moon…” speech at Rice University later the next year in late 1962. Keep in mind, in U.S. astronaut John Glenn had just made his first orbital flight months before Kennedy’s speech, and total accumulated human time in space could be measured in mere hours. Unmanned Ranger spacecraft were having a tough time even getting off of the pad, and managing to crash a space probe into the Moon was considered to be a “success”. The task of sending humans “by the end of this decade” was a daunting one indeed…

NASA would soon have a mandate to sent humans to the Moon: but how could they pull it off?

Early ideas for manned lunar missions envisioned a single gigantic rocket that would head to the Moon and land, Buck Rodgers style, “fins first.” Such a rocket would have to be enormous, and carry the fuel to escape Earth’s gravity well, land and launch from the Moon, and return to Earth.

A second approach, known as Earth-orbit rendezvous, would see several launches assemble a mission in low Earth orbit and then head to the Moon. Curiously, though this was an early idea, it was never used in Apollo, though it was briefly resurrected during the now defunct Constellation Program.

Credit: NASA
Three plans to go to the Moon. Credit: NASA.

But it was a third option that intrigued Houbolt, known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. LOR had been proposed by rocket pioneers Yuri Kondratyuk and Hermann Oberth in 1923, but had never been seriously considered. It called for astronauts to depart the Earth in a large rocket, and instead, use a small lander designed only to land and launch from the Moon while the spacecraft for Earth return orbited overhead.

Houbolt became a staunch advocate for the idea, and spent over a year convincing NASA officials. In one famous letter to NASA associate administrator Robert Seamans, Houbolt was known to have remarked “Do we want to go to the Moon or not?”

It’s interesting to note that it was probably only in a young organization like the NASA of the early 1960s that, in Houbolt’s own words, a “voice in in the wilderness” could be heard. Had NASA become a military run organization — as many advocated for in the 1950s — a rigid chain of command could have meant that such brash ideas as Houbolt’s would have never seen the light of day. Thank scientists such as James Van Allen for promoting the idea of a civilian space program that we take for granted today.

Even then, selling LOR wasn’t easy. The idea looked preposterous: astronauts would have to learn how to undock and dock while orbiting a distant world, with no chance of rescue. There was no second chance, no backup option. Early plans called for an EVA for astronauts to enter the Lunar Module prior to descent which were later scrapped in favor of extracting it from atop the third stage and boarding internally before reaching the Moon.

Once Houbolt had sold key visionaries such as Wernher von Braun on the idea in late 1962, LOR became the way we would go to the Moon. And although Houbolt’s estimations of the mass required for the Lunar Module were off by a factor of three, the story is now the stuff of early Apollo era legend. You can see Houbolt (played by Reed Birney) and the tale of the LM and LOR in the  From Earth to the Moon episode 5 entitled “Spider”.

Credit: NASA
The ascent stage of the lunar module on approach to the command module with the Earth in the background. Credit: NASA.

Houbolt was awarded NASA’s medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement in 1963, and he was in Mission Control When Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.

He passed away in a Scarborough, Maine nursing home last Tuesday, and joins other unsung visionaries of the early space program such as Mary Sherman Morgan. It’s sad to think that we may soon live in a world where those who not only walked on the Moon, but those who also sent us and knew how to get there, are no longer with us.

Thanks, John… you gave us the Moon.

Virgin Galactic Ticket To Space Promised In New Reality Show Deal

Call it Space Survivor. Thirteen years after that now-classic desert island nightmare premiered on NBC, the executive producer behind Survivor is planning to host another reality competition that will land the winner a rocket trip to space.

We don’t know yet what feats of strength, endurance, intelligence or teamwork (or is that backstabbing?) will be needed to score a trip with Virgin Galactic. A press release simply promises a “groundbreaking, elimination competition series where everyday people compete for the ultimate prize”, but we sure hope a lot of the individual contests are space-related.

“For the past 10 years I have relentlessly pursued my dream of using a TV show to give an everyday person the chance to experience the black sky of space and look down upon mother Earth,” stated executive producer Mark Burnett, who heads One Three Media. Burnett seems to have chosen the Richard Branson-backed SpaceShipTwo (now doing powered flight tests) as the best chance of getting competitors into space in the near future.

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.
Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employees of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership”, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. Virgin Galactic hopes to become the first commercial space venture to bring multiple passengers into space on a regular basis.

“Last year, I spent time in New Mexico at the state-of-the-art facility and last week [I] spent time in the Mojave desert with Sir Richard and his impressive team. We got to see the spaceship up close and hear of Sir Richard’s incredible vision of how Virgin Galactic is the future of private space travel. I am thrilled to be part of a series that will give the everyday person a chance to see space, and that NBC has come on board too so that viewers at home will have a first-class seat.”

Virgin says its first spaceflight with SpaceShipTwo will be in 2014, and soon after it will open the manifest to the more than 600 folks who have purchased tickets.

As for when we’ll expect to see Space Race hit the airwaves, let’s just caution that this is just an agreement so far and nothing firm has been decided.

Recall that in 2000, Burnett announced another deal with NBC to host a space reality show (Destination Mir), with the winner visiting the Russian space station Mir. That idea fell apart when the cash-strapped Russian Federal Space Agency elected to deorbit the aging station in 2001 and focus its resources on the International Space Station.

Burnett subsequently proposed another show that would have brought ‘N Sync guitarist Lance Bass to the International Space Station, but that idea never got off the ground.

50 Years Ago: Explorer 1


The launch of Sputnik in October 1957 changed the world overnight. And with the Soviet Union’s second successful launch of Sputnik 2 the following month, Americans were feeling a little left behind in the dust, especially after the US’s first satellite launch attempt with the Vanguard rocket exploded on the launchpad. But space pioneer Werner Von Braun, shown in this picture with JPL Director William Pickering and scientist James Van Allen, came through with his Jupiter C rocket that launched the US’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into space on January 31, 1958.

Explorer 1 was not all that big, with a length of 203 centimeters (80 inches), a diameter of 15.9 centimeters (6.25 inches), and a weight of 14 kilograms (30.8 pounds). But it did its job, which was, first and foremost, to reach orbit, and then return scientific information.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory got the assignment of designing and building a scientific payload for the launch, which they accomplished in three months.

The primary science instrument on Explorer 1 was a cosmic ray detector designed to measure the radiation above the atmosphere. Dr. James Van Allen designed the experiment, which revealed a much lower cosmic ray count than expected. Van Allen theorized that the instrument may have been saturated by very strong radiation from a belt of charged particles trapped in space by Earth’s magnetic field. A subsequent launch by Explorer 3 two months later confirmed the existence of these radiation belts, which became known as the Van Allen Belts, in honor of their discoverer.

There were other scientific findings from Explorer 1 as well. Because of its symmetrical shape, Explorer 1 was used to help determine the upper atmospheric densities.

Two other instruments on board looked for micrometeorites in orbit: a micrometeorite detector and an acoustic microphone to detect the sound of an micrometeorite impact. The micrometeorite detector was made of a grid of electrical wires. A micrometeorite of about 10 microns would fracture a wire upon impact, destroy the electrical connection, and record the event. One or two of the wires were destroyed during launch. The equipment worked for about 60 days, but showed only one possible meteorite impact. Data from the acoustical sensor microphone were obtained only when an impact occurred while the satellite was over a ground recording station. However, over an 11-day period (February 1, 1958, to February 12, 1958), 145 impacts were recorded. The high impact rates on one portion of the orbit and the subsequent failures in the satellite’s electronic system were attributed to a meteor shower.

The batteries ran out on Explorer 1 on May 23, 1958 when the last signal was recorded. The US’s first satellite burned up in re-entry of the atmosphere in March of 1970.

Original News Source: Explorer 1