Once upon a time, courageous people climbed into tin cans mounted atop thin metal tubes filled with high explosive cryogenic liquids. The tubes and tin cans were amazingly complex machines with hundreds of thousands of parts and separate processes, every one of which had to work perfectly or failure was probable and catastrophic disaster was  likely.

The larger tubes were so big (such as the US Saturn V or the failed Soviet N2) that an explosion on the pad would be the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb, killing anyone within hundreds of yards and injuring for much farther. One such explosion (of an R-16) early in the “space race” killed the head of the Soviet rocket program along with many engineers. It was a blow they never truly recovered from.

Calculated gambles are often fatal if your calculations are off.

The US took longer to get satellites, living creatures and people into orbit than the Soviets. This led to much hand wringing and fears of being left behind in a vital area. The people who felt this way were either unaware of what was going on or seizing upon a political opportunity.

It wasn’t because our engineers were inferior or communism was better at such things than capitalism. The Navy was tasked with getting the first US satellite up. The result was the Vanguard program. That didn’t work so well. Three of 11 launches suceeded.


It was the US Army that put the first US satellite into orbit using the Jupiter IRBM, Explorer I. Unlike Sputnik,  which merely sent back regular radio pings,  Explorer had a suite of instruments to record and return data. As a result it was the first useful satellite – which also made the first great discovery of the space age, the Van Allen radiation belts. (The Army had the help of a dude by the name of Von Braun.)

The Soviets managed to put the first living creature into orbit, Laika, the space dog. Once up there it was left to die of heat and radiation sickness within hours with no data recovered. By US standards sending an animal up just to die was a miserable failure and a waste of money. You proved nothing and you learned nothing. We sent up monkeys, dogs and rabbits on high suborbital launches long before Laika and prided ourselves in getting every one of them back alive. It was a fundamantal difference in how space exploration was being approached. We were conservative and cautious, nervous about the possibility of losing life. They simply got things up there as quick as they could for bragging rights.

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, not Alan Shepard, as many people think. The Soviet apprach mirrored its political system. Everything was controlled centrally from North_American_X-15ground control. The cosmonaut was just along for the ride.

Some of our astronauts went up in the X-15 space plane rather than a capsule. The X-15 was carried to a high altitude by a B-52 bomber, launched itself into suborbital space and then returned, entirely under manual control.

I had the honor of becoming friends with one of those early astronauts, Pete Knight, back in the 1992 when we were both running for political different offices. in 1967 he set the record for fastest level flight at Mach 6.72. In order to earn astronaut wings you have to fly above 50 miles where the atmosphere is thin enough to be considered vacuum. He did this in an aircraft that was disintegrating even while he was flying it. He topped 280,500 feet to gain his astronaut’s wings, one of only five X-15 pilots to do so.

Another time he was climbing at 107,000 feet and he had a total electrical failure. After reaching 173,000 feet he glided down with no flight information to a perfect dead stick landing. Most of my readers would not have liked his conservative political philosophy but he was an incredibly brave and kind man in person.

The same concept is used today by NASA in the Pegasus rocket for smaller low altitude satellite launches and by Space-X and Virgin Orbital for their new tourist rocket planes. It is the first space tourism vehicle licensed for mass production and public transport.

The big difference between NASA and the military was a guy named Wernher Von Braun. The German rocket scientist who designed the V-2 was in a hurry to surrender to the US after WWII because he definitely did not want to end up in the Soviet Union. The V-2 was a magnificent piece of machinery for its time, a short range ballistic missile. It suffered repeated failures – mainly because it was being produced by slave labor who made many mistakes, accidental and quite intentional. This was a good thing for the allies as many V-2s never got to target.

Crash, bang, boom and finally a good launch. Slave labor often sabotaged the rockets.

The US Army captured many of those missiles and the man who designed them was smart enough to run west before war’s end. We grabbed the missiles and parts based in France. The Russians got the Peenemunde test site, the rest of the missiles and many other engineers. Eventually they reverse engineered the V-2 to get the new and improved R2 with a range of 750 miles, the Soviet Union’s first strategic nuclear missile.

R2 Missile
Source: Wikipedia

China got their hands on them after the communists consolidated power and eventually created the Dongfeng 1 missile from the design.

You can hate on Von Braun for being part of the German war machine all you want but it won’t get you far. Von Braun was no “final solution” enthusiast. At the beginning of the war he saw himself as a patriot serving his country and also saw an opportunity to advance his work (his dream: a man on the moon) and get 2 birds with one stone.

Later in the war, he came to hate Hitler, saw the reality of concentration camps and was even arrested by the Gestapo for a while. He was thought too important to the war effort to end up in a camp, so it was back to the drawing board for him.

The V-2s themselves had no impact on the war. One would kill fewer people and consume more resources than a successful run by a German bomber, but by then German bombers weren’t going anywhere. Sure, he was using slave labor (starting in 1942) but he didn’t like it and certainly couldn’t prevent it. At any rate, those slaves were better off building V-2s than being gassed in Aushwitz, so there is that. He sleep-walked into a Faustian bargain with the Third Reich and ended up an unintentional and third-rate Schindler. Not an evil man but rather a coward.

These things work a lot better when you don’t use slave labor.

The Army hid most of his past and he cooperated. He didn’t publicly show much remorse for his actions until the 60 and 70s. But it is good to turn a weapon of war into an instrument of peace, is it not? None of his US creations were ever fired in anger.

Von Braun was the mastermind behind the US ballistic missile program and the US space program. Once NASA gave up trying to renivent the wheel, things started going much more smoothly. Thor and Jupiter ballistic missiles were used to successfully launch many satellites. (Although there were a few spectacular failures as well.)

Compare this tiny rocket with the mighty Saturn V, below.

Alan Shepard went into space on a modified Redstone ballistic missile in 1961 as the first American on a long suborbital flight. US flights have always left control of their vehicles in the hand of the astronaut piloting it with remote piloting being the backup. Soviet systems of the day were entirely ground controlled. The cosmonaut was just along for the ride.

Next we used Atlas ballistic missiles and later still, Titan II missiles to put men into orbit. The advantages of using missiles instead of custom made rockets was obvious. We already had dozens of missile in silos all across the US, we had spares sitting in warehouses and the production lines were still active. Missiles are cheap and there is a huge amount of test experience with them. If you can reliably drop a 20,000 lb nuke on Moscow, you can put half that into orbit and perhaps a very small package onto the moon.

Von Braun’s greatest achievements were not military. No missile in use by anyone could

Gemini-Titan launch

possibly be the basis for a manned moon shot. Not even the massive Soviet SS-18 which had twice the throw wight as the US Titan II. Von Braun was working for NASA now – not the military any more – and finally had the chance to acheive his dream, a manned flight to the moon. As a civilian he used all that military experience to build first the Saturn I and then the Saturn V rocket.

The Saturn I was the biggest rocket ever built at the time and was neccessary just to get the Apollo capsules into orbit for testing. The Saturn V was (and remains) the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. These rockets were designed mostly by people with slide rules and pen and paper. The on-board computer for the Apollo capsules (a new technology) had the power of a TRS-80 and used wires twisted thru metal rings for memory. The pilot had complete control of the craft and could ignore the computer and ground control if he wished.

In 1967 we lost an astronaut in X-15 flight 191 due to electrical failure. It was still being flown after 18 years as the cheapest way to get a package into suborbital space.

There were 3 fatalities in Apollo when Apollo 1 suffered a castrophic flash fire in the manned capsule as it sat on the pad for a launch rehearsal. The crew of three burned to death as Mision Control listened to their screams. It was a grim reminder that space exploration was dangerous, even when still on the pad. (A similar accident had happened in 1961 in a Soviet high altitude simulation chamber. If they had shared that info…) The number of Soviets who died in space was kept top secret. Today we know Soyuz 1 crashed when its parachutes failed to open.  Soyuz 11 suddenly decompressed in vacuum. There are probably others that we don’t know.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he had ignored mission control’s instructions and overridden the nav computer to do it. Everything told him that he lacked the fuel to successfully land and return.  His pilot’s gut instinct said he could do it better than the computer could and he did. In Apollo 13, disaster struck and they had to shut the computer down to conserve energy. Instead they used detailed notes scribbled on any available material and precision timing to bring the crippled ship home and their lives were literlly saved by duct tape.

Alfred A. Worden

Back in the 70s I had the honor of knowing Alfred Worden, who was the Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 15 lunar mission. On earth he was an engineer who managed energy management programs among other things and administered an energy management program at Northwood Institute where I attended for two years.

Yup. That’s my best candid photo of Alfred Worden. Back when I had dreams of being a professional photographer. Not that anybody would care (or even know what I was talking about) today… but that was Tri-X film pushed to 1600 ASA and shot hand held in available light with a No-Name 135 mm. lens at f 2.8 and 1/30 second exposure. Only an old timer would understand what that meant.

We landed on the moon, drove around, played some golf, left some experiments and broght back some samples. After 6 lunar landings, a couple of trans lunar injections and a few orbital and suborbital flights, politicians lost interest. We totally beat the Ruskies and no more need be said. And with all the things we could have done to explore and exploit, nothing came of it.


Next: Skylab and the Dawn of the Shuttle