A lot has been going on over at Vintage Space in the last few weeks. Here’s a brief recap of recent articles. (Left, President Kennedy and Wernher von Braun with a model Saturn IV rocket.)
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. Three weeks later, the United States entered the manned space race with Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight. The mission put a man in space, but it was suborbital. The Soviets were still well ahead of the Americans where development in space was concerned. Nevertheless, the elation that swept through the US after Shepard’s flight was infectious, and President was certainly not immune. He sought to prolong the national pride associated with NASA’s accomplishment.
On May 25, 1961, he publicly committed the US to putting a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the decade. A bold move, certainly, but a strategic one as well.
The ensuing push for a manned lunar landing wreaked havoc on other NASA ventures. Specifically, the tight time frame was one of the factors that killed the Rogallo wing, the innovative landing system that promised pilot-controlled land landings for the Gemini program.
In more recent news, the Mars Science Laboratory is still on track to launch in November 2011. It will land with the fantastically complicated Sky Crane. The worst case scenario is that the lander (and mission) will be lost with no way of knowing what went wrong. A better worst case scenario is that enough telemetry will be gathered during entry, descent, and landing to allow the engineers to determine the problem and never repeat it.
In either case, it would be history repeating itself. The European Space Agency lost the Beagle 2 Mars lander in 2003. It’s been almost eight years and still its fate is unknown. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander was a different story. It was also lost, but there was sufficient data collected during the mission and plenty of pre-launch test results to use as benchmarks that engineers were able to determine the problem. The two missions are an interesting comparison of how failed landing aren’t always total failures.