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The Soviet Union shocked the world when it successfully launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite on October 4, 1957. The Russians followed that triumph by launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, the first human to fly in space.

Under enormous pressure to catch up with the Russians on the high frontier, NASA launched Alan Shepard on May 5, 1961, and Virgil “Gus” Grissom on July 21 on suborbital flights lasting about 15 minutes each.

Finally, on February 20, 1962, 50 years ago today, John Glenn rode his tiny capsule, Friendship 7 aboard an Atlas rocket into American history. He circled the Earth three times in a flight that lasted about 5 hours.

Glenn returned to a hero’s welcome, meeting with President Kennedy at the White House and enjoying a ticker-tape parade in New York. Glenn expected to fly again, but NASA management would not assign him to a flight. In 1965, Glenn got tired of waiting and resigned from NASA. After a stint in private industry, Glenn went on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Senate.

Seven and a half years later, the adven­ture begun by Glenn culminated with Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, on July 20, 2009.

In the mid 1990s, Glenn lobbied for a flight aboard the space shuttle. Then NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin ultimately gave his blessing and Glenn blasted off a second time in October 1998 aboard the shuttle Discovery, becoming, at age 77, the world’s oldest space flier.

For Glenn, NASA’s transition from those lofty heights to forced reliance on the Russians to reach the $100 billion International Space Station — a project spearheaded by the U.S. space agency — is almost unimaginable, reports SpaceFlight Now.

“A class-C movie, not even a class-B movie,” Glenn said in an interview with CBS News. “Back in those days, one of the major driving forces in support of the program was the fact that we were in competition with the Soviets.

“And yet here we are these 50 years later, (paying) 60-some million dollars per astronaut to go up there and back. And this is supposed to be the world’s greatest space-faring nation.”

U.S. astronauts currently travel to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz-TMA spacecraft.

President Obama did not reverse the Bush decision to retire the shuttle, guaranteeing a long hiatus for U.S. launchings. SpaceX’s first test flight to the International Space Station is scheduled for April. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has had two successful missions so far, carrying the Dragon spacecraft that will deliver cargo and crews to the the 450-ton International Space Station.

Another commercial resupply ship, the Cygnus, is being built by Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va. Orbital Sciences holds a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for Commercial Resupply Services to serve the International Space Station with eight flights using the Antares rocket and their robotic Cygnus cargo freighter. SpaceX signed a similar agreement for 12 flights worth $1.6 billion. Human spaceflight will follow.

The United States is presently going through a difficult transition, switching from the Soviet-model of a government-run space operation to the American-model of many privately owned companies freely competing against each other for business.

The 2017 and 2021 missions, along with later flights, will lift off from Florida on the heavy-lift Space Launch System, a gargantuan booster under development by NASA. It can carry the Orion crew vehicle, built by Lockheed Martin, with a crew of four around the moon.

It’s a retooling of the defunct Constellation Moon program, moving the objective away from a moon base and more towards a Near-Earth object mission. Cynics say it will do little more than keep Lockheed’s retired generals on the payroll at taxpayer expense. The cost of the program through 2025 would total at least $41B for four, 70 metric ton launches starting in 2021.

Wikipedia’s Spaceflight Portal has more.

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