As I write, there is a mock-up of Nasa’s new Orion spacecraft on display on the Washington Mall. So today I will add a post about manned spaceflights. The definition of a spaceflight is passing the psychologically important 100 km altitude. Some call this the end of the atmosphere, which in fact is a load of nonsense as the atmosphere continues up to five times that altitude in general and most of the atmospheric phenomena I study are well above it. But it is an important stepping stone. To reach orbital velocity requires around 60 times the energy needed to hit 100 km, so I will begin this post with the suborbital fliers – the space planes.
The first man to make it past 100 km in a plane was also the first man to make it to space (officially) twice. Joe Walker reached for the stars on the 19th of July and 22nd of August 1963 in an American X-15 rocket plane (shown below). Taking off from Edwards Air Force Base, Walker flew one of just two spaceplanes in this category.
The other space faring plane is SpaceShipOne, a current design and the only private manned craft to make it into space. SpaceShipOne flew from the Mojave spaceport, the only privately funded spaceport in the world, next to the Edwards Air Force Base. Two pilots have broken the 100km level in SpaceShipOne, all in 2004, firstly Mike Melvill on the 21st of June and on September 29th, then Brian Binnie on October 4th. After this date, SpaceShipOne was retired in order to preserve the Ansari X prize winning craft from any adverse conditions that might arise.
The First Age of the Rockets
One thing that came out of the second world war was a surplus of rockets and a glut of engineers capable of servicing and improving them. These were both put to peacetime use in the development of the early space race, and from the earliest times the attempt to replace the warhead with satellites and human cargo was at the forefront of people’s minds.
The first rocket program to achieve manned spaceflight took up the Vostok spacecraft. Designed as a dual use camera or human carrying device, Vostok took the first man into space on April 12th 1961, carrying Yuri Gagarin. Another five human flights took place before the rockets were retired, the final one taking Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, on June 16th 1963, a month before the first X-15 broke the space barrier. Vostok was pretty much a ball with a cone of instruments. The Cosmonauts leapt from the descending craft and came to Earth via parachute.
The American versions, the Mercury capsules, were conical in shape and designed to be a bit safer. These too carried out six flights to space, though only four were orbital flights. The first American in space was Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr, on the 5th of May 1961, and the first American in orbit (to achieve Gagarin’s level) was John Herschel Glen Jr on the 20th February 1962. The final Mercury flight was on the 15th of May 1963. The Mercury capsule could re-enter and deploy its own parachute with astronauts safely tucked inside. It also included and extended safety tower to punch the capsule away from the launch rocket if ever there was a problem – though this was never needed, and in the astronauts’ views unlikely to be fast enough to save them.
The X-15s were the next vehicle to make it into space (see above). The Soviet Union’s second manned spacecraft was the Voskhod capsule. These were similar to Vostoks, though adapted to be more like Mercury capsules, with an extra rocket and the crew descending inside the capsule. The ejector seat was removed and seating for more than one person put in to old Vostok spaceframes. These cramped conditions meant the first Voskhod launch involved three crew members (the first multi-crew launch) and no spacesuits. This took place on the 12th October 1964. The second and final launch on the 18th of March 1965 included the first ever spacewalk by Alexy Leonov.
Meanwhile America had been developing the next stage of the Mercury program – Apollo. The original idea had been to send humans into space, make sure they could control the craft, then reach for the Moon. It became apparent, however, that some more complex procedures such as rendezvous and docking would need to be practised first. As a result, a new capsule – Gemini – was developed and Apollo was placed on the back burner. Gemini was an advanced multi-crew capsule, a testbed for new processes that would be retrofitted into Apollo. The first Gemini flew on the 23rd of March 1965 and the tenth and final Gemini flew on the11th of November 1966.
The Soviet Union again updated their spaceframes for a third type of spacecraft. The Soyuz Spacecraft contained a spherical orbital module, much larger than the Apollo command capsule in development, a cylindrical re-entry module beneath it and a solar panel powered instruments cylinder beneath that. Over the course of its continuing missions, the basic Soyuz design has undergone many upgrades, though still retaining the original functions. The first generation launched on April 23rd 1967. Sadly, the crash landing of Soyuz one meant the single cosmonaut inside, Colonel Vladimir Komarov, became the first fatality of spaceflight. This disaster set back the following launches of the first generation Soyuz craft. A further ten launches of Suyoz craft followed, nine manned, but Soyuz 2 unmanned as a test vehicle for docking. By the time this generation was at an end, the USA had landed on the Moon and sights turned to orbital matters – space stations. Soyuz 11, the last of the first generation, became the first spacecraft to dock with a space station. 22 days later it headed towards re-entry, but due to a failure of the air pressure balancing mechanism (meant for use on the ground) all three of the (unsuited) Cosmonauts on board died. This led to a rethink on Soyuz and a new generation, now reshaped for two rather than three cosmonauts in space suits and better docking equipment. The final generation 1 Soyuz design flew on June 7th 1971.
Apollo finally came into being at the end of the Gemini mission. The spacecraft was a thing of three parts, the familiar capsule (with red tower escape rocket on top) on top of an unpressurised service module containing instruments, on top of a Lunar Module, designed for Lunar descent and take-off. Like Soyuz, Apollo began with a disaster. A fire swept through a training command module and incinerated the three astronauts within. There then followed five unmanned missions before Apollo seven launched men into space on the 11th of October 1968. 7 tested the redesigned (and hopefully safer) command module. Apollo 8 was meant to test the Lunar Module, but it flew before the module could be brought to full functionality, instead taking a trip round the Moon, becoming the first manned mission to do so. As a result, 9 was the first Apollo mission with men in the command and lunar modules. Apollo was designed to be flown with three men on board. For the missions without a Lunar module, the three would remain the command module, for those with a lunar module, one would be the pilot for the command module, one for the lunar module and an overall mission commander would also sit in the lunar module. This is the set-up adopted by Apollo 11, launched on July 16th 1969. It dropped the first men on the Moon four days later. Neil Armstrong, the overall Commander, Buzz Aldrin the Lunar Module Pilot and Michael Collins, the Command Module Pilot took the trip to Lunar orbit, with the first two also making landfall whilst Collins remained in orbit. Apollo 12 also made satellite-fall. Apollo 13 suffered a catastrophic failure, but returned to Earth safely. Apollo 14-7 also landed on the Moon with the final three taking Moon Buggies with them to scout around a bit easier. Apollo 17 launched on December 7th 1972 and took men off the Moon for the last time to date on December 19th 1972, ending the Apollo program.
The Soyuz program continued with the second generation Soyuz Ferry craft, comprising Soyus 12-40. Soyuz 12 launched two suited cosmonauts to space on the 27th September 1973. Soyuz 40 ended this generation after a launch on May 14th 1981. During this time, the development of space stations took great strides and the intercosmos program took several Warsaw pact citizens into space. Soyuz-T, the third generation of the craft, flew alongside the ferry for a while. This craft had solar panels adding to batteries and had been redesigned for three suited cosmonauts. The first manned one, T-2, flew June 5th 1980 and the final one, T-15, flew to Mir on March 13th 1986.
The era of the shuttle
With the Soviet Union apparently satisfied with occasional upgrades to Soyuz, the USA launched an entirely new type of vehicle – the Space Transportation System, more commonly known as the Space Shuttle. Designed to be launched piggy-backed on booster rockets, the shuttle glides back to Earth unpowered and is reusable. The first and entirely unmanned shuttle was the Enterprise and the first manned mission was STS-1 by the space shuttle Columbia on April 12th 1981. There have been four other manned shuttles – Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor. Endeavor was built to replace Challenger, which disintegrated whilst launching on the 28th January 1986. Columbia disintegrated on re-entry on February 1st 2003. Both incidents killed all seven crew members. The first shut down the shuttles for 30 months, the second for 18 and hastened calls for their replacement. The remaining shuttles will remain in service until the International Space Station has been built up appropriately and will then be retired. For those noting how the STS mission numbers don’t match the launch date, they are assigned when the mission is approved rather than in order of launch.
The Soviet Union also built a shuttle – the Buran, but only flew one unmanned orbital flight before program cancellation. The shuttle that flew was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002. In 1986, the fourth generation Soyuz TM arrived, with improved rendezvous, docking, communication and emergency landing capabilities. TM flew until 2003.
The New Rocket Age
In 2003, the current version of Soyuz arrived – the TMA, or anthropometric TM (internally redesigned for differently shaped astronauts and cosmonauts). On the 15th of October 2003 a new superpower launched a manned vehicle, similar in conception to Soyuz, with a service, descent and orbital module, but bigger and more advanced. This was China’s Shenzhou spacecraft. China is presently approaching the ‘Gemini’ stage of development, having launched orbital spacecraft but not yet performed docking or rendezvous, a present target.
Even as the shuttle Atlantis rolls out to the launch pad – see Nasa’s youtube account for details – the next rocket borne capsule Orion has been paraded in Mock-up at least on the Washington, DC National Mall. The new rockets are almost here.