Tag Archives: spaceflight

“We stand for freedom.”

Kennedy's speech

Fifty years ago today, John Kennedy stood before Congress and the nation and declared that the United States was going to the Moon. Amazingly, though this is by far the most remembered speech Kennedy ever gave, very few people remember why he gave the speech, and what he was actually trying to achieve by making it.

Above all, going to the Moon and exploring space was not his primary goal.

The Context

For Kennedy — whose presidential campaign included an aggressive anti-communist stance against the Soviet Union — the months before the speech had not gone well. Five weeks earlier, for instance, the CIA-led attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro’s communist government had ended in total failure. When Kennedy refused to lend direct military support to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1,200 man rebel force was quickly overcome. “How could I have been so stupid as to let them go ahead?” Kennedy complained privately to his advisors.

In Berlin, the tensions between the East and the West were continuing to escalate, and would lead in only a few short months to Khrushchev’s decision to build the Berlin Wall, sealing off East Berlin and the citizens of East Germany from the rest of the world.

In the race to beat the Soviets in space, things were going badly as well. NASA had announced the United States’ intention to put the first man into space sometime in the spring of 1961. The agency hoped that this flight would prove that the leader of the capitalist world still dominated the fields of technology, science, and exploration.

Originally scheduled for a March 6, 1961 launch, the short fifteen minute sub-orbital flight was repeatedly delayed. The Mercury capsule’s first test flight in January, with a chimpanzee as test pilot, rose forty miles higher than intended, overshot its landing by a hundred and thirty miles, and when the capsule was recovered three hours later it had begun leaking and was actually sinking. Then in March another test of the Mercury capsule included the premature firing of the escape rocket on top of the capsule, the unplanned release of the backup parachutes during descent, and the discovery of dents on the capsule itself.

These difficulties caused NASA to postpone repeatedly its first manned mission. First the agency rescheduled the launch to late March. Then early April. Then mid-April. And then it was too late.
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Kennedy’s Moon speech, May 25, 1961

An evening pause: Fifty years ago tomorrow, on May 25, 1961, John Kennedy spoke to Congress about the world situation and the war between freedom and tyranny. “We stand for freedom,” he began, and finished by committing the United States to sending a man to the Moon and bringing him back safely by the end of the decade.

The clip below shows the first five minutes of that speech. It makes it clear that Kennedy’s main point was not to send the United States to the stars, but to stake out our ground in the battle for freedom and democracy. I will write more about this tomorrow.

To see the whole speech, go to the following link at the Miller Center for Public Affairs.

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NASA announces Orion program will continue

NASA announces that the Orion program will continue, though under a different name.

This is a non-announcement, made to appease those in Congress who are requiring NASA to build the program-formerly-called-Constellation. NASA will do as Congress demands, and in the process will build nothing while spending a lot of money for a rocket and space capsule that can’t be built for the amount budgeted.

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Want to go to an asteroid?

A paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph preprint website has taken a close look at identifying the best nearby asteroids ideal for mounting a manned mission. The conclusion: our survey of such asteroids is very incomplete (only 65 known), and due to their location in Earthlike orbits they are very difficult to study.

Ultra-low delta-v NEOs are not readily found. Their closely Earth-like orbits mean that most of the time they are in the daytime sky, as seen from the Earth, and so are effectively undetectable. As they approach within <1AU of the Earth they start to lie near quadrature, and so come into the dawn or dusk sky on Earth. The strong scattered sunlight background makes optical surveys toward the dawn or dusk much less sensitive and, in practice, surveys do not look in these directions, preferring to observe where the sky is dark, within 45 degrees, and at most 60 degrees, of the anti-Sun, opposition, direction. As a consequence the lowest delta-v NEOs are undercounted by current surveys, and the factor by which they are undercounted is not yet known.

The paper proposes building a dedicated unmanned infrared mission and placing it in a Venus-like orbit where it would be better placed to see these difficult but important objects.

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Chinese Journalists Barred From Shuttle Launch

Chinese journalists were barred from all official press areas during the Endeavour launch.

A NASA spokesperson says the agency was simply following instructions in last month’s 2011 spending bill that averted a government-wide shutdown. The legislation prohibits NASA from using any resources to host visits by a Chinese official to any NASA facility as well as for collaborations with any Chinese government entity. The Chinese journalists work for Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, and thus are considered government employees.

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Gouges and dings found on the tiles on Endeavour’s belly

Seven damage sites, mostly small gouges and dings, have been found on the tiles on Endeavour’s belly.

“This is not cause for alarm, it’s not cause for any concern,” said [LeRoy Cain, chairman of NASA’s Mission Management Team]. “We know how to deal with these things in terms of how to assess them. We know that if we get to the point where we need some more data for our assessment, we have a plan for going and doing that.”

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If you schedule a launch they will come

We arrived at Space View Park in Titusville at around 9 pm, bringing with us camp chairs, a softside cooler with food, cameras, tripods, and light jackets. I also brought a light fleece sleeping bag for additional warmth. Even though it was still twelve hours before launch, the entire shoreline was occupied by a line of people either sitting or lying on blankets or pads. Back from the water and under the trees there were more than a dozen small tents set up.

We found a spot where the line was only one deep and set up our chairs. In front of us were a group of Floridians who had never seen a launch up close, though they told us how they had often watched shuttle launches from their front door. As one of them said, “There won’t be many more chances to see this, so we decided we better come down.”

Also set up in the park under a tarp was a electronic setup with television feeds and speakers linked to NASA TV, run by the Space Walk of Fame Foundation, a volunteer organization that maintains Space View Park and the monuments to space that are on display there.

Christmas lights and VAB

Looking east out across the Indian River was Merritt Island, with the launchpad lit up like a Christmas tree eleven miles distant. To the right was the VAB.
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The launch

After fifty years of following space, I finally saw a big rocket launch today. Below is one of the pictures I took of Endeavour as it roared into the sky.

The experience was immensely satisfying, to put it mildly. Watching the shuttle rise up on a column of flame and smoke made me feel young again, my heart racing with excitement. Then Endeavour disappeared into the clouds, and we stood waiting for the roar of liftoff to travel the eleven miles to us. The long wait made this experience far different from what one sees on television. Then the rumble arrived, deep and low, but not as loud as I expected. One experienced launch-watcher explained that the low clouds and humidity might have muffled the sound. Bob Rose said that it was what he expected for this location, and that my expectations were based on those who experienced the launch from the press site at three miles. I think Bob is almost certainly right.

Later today I will put up a longer post, describing what it was like to stand among like-minded space nuts who had traveled from far and wide to see a crew of humans leave the Earth’s gravity and help trace a warm line of life across barren space.

Endeavour's launch

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At Space View Park

We have now set up at Space View Park in Titusville, Florida. The picture below shows what we found when we went by earlier today to scout out the location. As you can see, several people were already there. There were also people who had put up tents, as well as two food vendors.

The launchpad is the tiny spike visible on the horizon directly at the end of the pier. You can also see the VAB to the right.

Space View Park

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