Monday, 23 March 2015

Celebrating 50 Years Since the First Flight of Gemini

Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6, December 15, 1965. NASA photo

Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first walk in space, performed by the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft. That week in 1965 also marked a turning point in the 1960s space race that is largely forgotten today but remains vivid to me.

Leonov's space walk was the last of the string of unbroken Soviet 'firsts' in space that began with the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite of the Earth, Sputnik. The first animal, the first man and the first woman in space were all Soviet. Rockets from Russia were the first to hit the Moon, to see the Moon's far side, and the first to go into orbit around the sun. Soviet cosmonauts had flown longer and higher than American astronauts, and the first three-member and two-member crews were Soviet. 

As a youngster seeing the grainy newspaper photos of Leonov flying in space that mid-March weekend a half century ago, I wondered when U.S. astronauts would reply to the latest Russian feat. It had been nearly two years since the last U.S. astronaut had flown, and there was no internet, spotty newspaper coverage, and only two television channels. Then the local TV guide arrived, promising coverage of the first crewed flight of a new American spacecraft called Gemini that could carry two astronauts.

Soon it was March 23, and I got up early to watch Walter Cronkite live from Cape Kennedy describe the launch of Gemini 3, which carried Mercury veteran Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and John W. Young, the first of a new group of astronauts, into space for three orbits. 

Three orbits was just five hours - no more than John Glenn had flown three years earlier. But Grissom and Young were the first astronauts to change the orbit their spacecraft was travelling in. And their flight opened the door to nine more flights by Gemini spacecraft over the next twenty months that would give America the clear lead in the race to the Moon, a lead that it would never relinquish.

The next Gemini flight included America's first space walk and then was followed by flights of up to two weeks in length that broke Soviet endurance records and proved that astronauts could live in weightlessness for the time it took to get to the Moon and back. Two Gemini spacecraft became the first to rendezvous in space. In 1966, Gemini spacecraft chased, caught and joined up with Agena rockets, and Gemini astronauts found out how hard it was to work in space. The final Gemini flight in November 1966 showed how the earlier difficulties encountered by spacewalking astronauts could be overcome.

Along the way, Gemini saw target vehicles explode during launch, a Gemini crew calmly sit through an emergency launch vehicle shutdown on the launch pad, and two astronauts named Neil Armstrong and David Scott survive America's first emergency in space when their Gemini 8 spacecraft spun out of control. Both went on to command trips to the Moon.

The skills that served American astronauts and the soon-to-be-legendary flight control teams in Houston during Apollo were honed during the Gemini program.

Today Gemini lives in the shadow of the Apollo flights that followed. 

Years later, I would discover an important fact about Gemini that had almost been lost. The Gemini spacecraft was designed by a Canadian aerospace engineer named Jim Chamberlin.

Chamberlin, born in Kamloops B.C. one hundred years ago and raised in Toronto, had been chief aerodynamicist for the highly advanced but ill-fated CF-105 Avro Arrow. When the Arrow was cancelled in 1959, Chamberlin led the team of 31 Canadian and British engineers who went from Avro to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States. First, he brought his badly needed aircraft production experience to NASA's Mercury spacecraft that carried America's first astronauts into space.

In 1961 Chamberlin began work on what was supposed to be an advanced Mercury spacecraft capable of carrying two astronauts. Instead he proposed major changes that led to the creation of the Gemini program, and Chamberlin became Gemini's first program manager.

Although the new spacecraft resembled Mercury, it contained many improvements that made it easier to build, service and fly. U.S. astronauts of the time said Gemini was their favourite spacecraft. While Mercury was the Model T, Apollo an SUV and the shuttle a large truck, Gemini was the sports car of American spacecraft.

I learned about Chamberlin's work while researching my first book Arrows to the Moon. Although Chamberlin was removed as Gemini program manager before the spacecraft flew, he was recognized by NASA and many leaders of the U.S. space program for his work creating Gemini, and later for  his contributions to Apollo and the space shuttle prior to his death in 1981. 

After I wrote Arrows to the Moon, I have heard a great deal about what most Canadians consider to be the sad story of the Avro Arrow. But I think there's a happy ending - the Avro Arrow had an offspring called Gemini. 
Jim Chamberlin in the 1960s.

Friday, 6 March 2015

2015: The Year of the Dwarf Planets

Dawn image of Ceres taken February 19, 2015 from a distance of 46,000 km. NASA image

Today a NASA spacecraft called Dawn settled into orbit around the gigantic asteroid Ceres, having already sent back intriguing photos of the cratered body.

Ceres, which is about 950 kilometres in diameter depending on where the measurement is taken, was discovered in 1801 and for a time was thought to be the widely rumoured planet that was supposed to orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Instead Ceres became known as the greatest of the asteroids, most of which lie in a belt between the two planets.

Ceres is no longer an asteroid - today it's classified as a dwarf planet. It gained that distinction as part of the more controversial decision made in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union to designate Pluto a dwarf planet rather than a full planet. But back to Pluto in a minute.

As Dawn has drawn closer to Ceres, it has revealed the once mysterious face of this body, including its many craters and unusual bright spots, including two right next to each other in the same crater. When looking at these bright spots, it must be remembered that Ceres is actually a fairly dark body and the brightness of the spots is just relative to the darkness of the rest of Ceres' surface. 

The Dawn spacecraft, which is equipped with an ion propulsion system, was launched by NASA  in 2007 and on its way to Ceres paused at the giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months. In a few weeks, Dawn will lower its orbit around Ceres and deliver even higher resolution photos of this dwarf planet.

By then other NASA scientists should be looking at images that will bring Pluto into focus for the first time. The New Horizons spacecraft, launched nine years ago, is closing in for its July 14 flyby of Pluto. Already New Horizons is sending back photos that match the resolution of the best photos of Pluto available so far from the Hubble Space Telescope. The latest New Horizons photos show Pluto and three of its five known moons. 

Just as Dawn is revealing the face of Ceres, New Horizons will unveil Pluto and its moons, starting with its largest moon Charon. Dawn's findings will help reveal how the solar system was formed, and New Horizons will, in the words of co-investigator William McKinnon, give us our first glimpse at the solar system's "third zone," the dwarf planets inhabiting the Kuiper Belt on the fringes of oursolar system. 

Astronomers have discovered more than 200 objects in the Kuiper Belt, and with Hubble's help, New Horizons will be directed toward another Kuiper Belt object after it passes by Pluto this summer.

So keep an eye out for the images and other data coming to us from Dawn and New Horizons. 2015 is going into the books as the Year of the Dwarf Planets.

1996 Hubble Space Telescope Images of Pluto. Space Telescope Science Institute image

Monday, 2 March 2015

CSA's New President May Be The Only Change

The rotunda in the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in St. Hubert, Quebec. CSA Photo

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled Walter Natynczyk from the presidency of the Canadian Space Agency last October to try to bring order to the troubled and politically sensitive Veterans Affairs Department, I predicted that interim CSA president Luc Brûlé would remain in place until after the next federal election.

I was proven wrong on Friday when Harper appointed longtime civil servant Sylvain Laporte to the top job at the CSA, effective March 9.

Laporte, educated in computer engineering at the Royal Military College, served in the air force and the Department of National Defence before working a number of years at the Canada Post Corporation, where he headed marketing efforts. In 2007 he moved on to Industry Canada, the department that includes the CSA. Since 2011, he has been Commissioner of Patents and Registrar of Trademarks at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

Like Natynczyk, a former chief of the defence staff, Laporte has a background in defence unrelated to the work of the CSA, which allows him to approach his new job with fresh eyes. But while Natynczyk was well known to the public and the politicians in Ottawa, Laporte is not so well known.

As Chuck Black notes in his Commercial Space Blog, Laporte's appointment suggests that CSA will put a greater emphasis on commercialization and marketing.

Natynczyk had barely two years at the helm of the space agency, and during that time the CSA began to be pulled out of the policy ditch with a space policy framework announced a year ago following the Emerson Report into Canada's aerospace sector.

The framework is still short of being a full policy, and changes in the U.S. space program mean that the leadership of the CSA and the government must soon make decisions about the future directions of Canada's space program.

In the meantime, the agency has struggled under the Harper government's budget cuts, and the lack of Canadian government business is forcing Canadian space contractors to look outside our borders for business.

Even though Laporte enters office ahead of a federal election that is due to take place in October but could happen sooner, any new directions the agency might take will await the counting of the votes.

Canada's space program has never been a factor in a federal election, and expectations that this year would be different have been dashed.

A year ago, hopes were expressed that the Liberal party would put a greater emphasis on space than has been the case in the past. One of the leading figures on the Liberal team going into the election is veteran MP Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut and also a former CSA president. But two other strong candidates with space program backgrounds failed to win Liberal nominations last fall.

The NDP has been quiet on space issues. And while a backbench Conservative MP from the North Bay area, Jay Aspin, announced the formation of a Parliamentary Space Caucus last November, nothing has been heard about this initiative since then.

While the Canadian space sector awaits the outcome of the election, Laporte will have time to learn the ropes of his new job. But like his predecessors, Laporte will probably have to deal with a government that is not interested in the work of his agency.