Category Archives: Today in Space History

Throwback Thursday: US Army Rejects Free Wonder Weapon: the Rocket

On May 28, 1940 representatives from the U.S. Army met with super-genius Robert Goddard and they talked about rockets.  At the time Professor Goddard was the world’s foremost expert on liquid-fueled rockets. How do I know this? Because he, um, invented the the first liquid-fueled rocket and had only spent his entire life working with them? Duh.

The father of rocketry, hard at work in his lab.
The father of rocketry Robert Goddard, working in his lab.

In the meeting Mr. Goddard offered all his research data, patents, and facilities for use by the military.  For free. We can only presume he did this to not only advance the development of the technology (something he was passionate about) but also because war had broken out in Europe and maybe a giant tube filled with explosives might be useful in a future war?

What did the military say? They sort of scratched their heads, thought about it, and couldn’t figure out any good uses for rocket technology.  They basically said no thanks.  Seriously.

 But you know who was interested in rockets? The Nazis. Germany had it’s own rocket genius (Hermann Oberth) who had independently developed a lot of the same stuff Goddard had. Being a bunch of homicidal maniacs bent on world domination, the Nazis instantly recognized the value of rockets as an offensive weapon. As such, Hitler’s government authorized full production of the V2 missile in September 1939, only months before the U.S. military rejected Goddard.  Highly classified at the time, the V2 would become the world’s first ballistic missile.  After five years of intense research and development, the V2 was ready to reign terror on the Allies.  Thousands were fired on London and Antwerp in the last months of the war.  It was awful.
Damage caused by V2 rockets in London, 1945.
Damage caused by V2 rockets in London, 1945.

How might the world have been different if the military had accepted Goddard’s offer? Might World War 2 have ended sooner?  Would nuclear-tipped ICBMs have been developed faster, putting the world at greater risk? Might humanity have reached the moon earlier?


Throwback Thursday: NASA buzzes an Alien World

On May 21, 2005 the NASA space probe Cassini performed a fly-by maneuver in the vicinity of the moon Enceladus.  Enceladus is a moon around the planet Saturn.

Saturn and its moons are like a little mini-Solar System.  Credit: NASA.
Saturn and its moons are like a little mini-Solar System. Credit: NASA.

Why do we care about little ol’ Enceladus?  Well, as a result of this fly-by (and other fly-bys as well as a ton of scientific analysis) we learned that Enceladus has an ocean of salty water underneath the ice on its surface. It’s also very seismically active, so active in fact that ‘cryovolcanoes’ shoot geysers of mineral-laden water thousands of miles up into space. It’s these cryovolcanoes that are feeding material into space that eventually coalesce to form one of the rings of Saturn. How cool is that?!?

Cryo-volcanoes shooting ice into space.  Credit: NASA
Cryo-volcanoes shooting ice into space. Credit: NASA

You might be saying, Well, yeah that’s cool but so what?! Here is the bottom line:  Because of all this water and seismic activity, scientists think that Enceladus is a prime candidate for hosting extraterrestrial microbial life.  In short, Enceladus may be home to aliens!  Little creepy crawly bacteria sized aliens, but aliens nonetheless.

This is why we care about Enceladus. Cassini is still active and the probe continues to study the Saturn ‘system.’  Who knows what other incredible discoveries it may make?

hat tip: Encyclopedia Astronautica

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Throwback Thursday: Inspiring Young Minds by Blowing Stuff Up

On May 14, 1933 a bunch of crazy science fiction writers built a rocket and launched it from a beach in Staten Island, NY. The group, known then as the American Interplanetary Society, would later become the American Rocket Society, a premier association of rocket scientists.

At the time, though, they were all amateurs with a crazy dream to go into space.  So, over the objections of their significant others, they built their own rocket and fueled it with gasoline and liquid oxygen.  Not surprisingly their first rocket, AIS-1, blew up during ground tests.  But the second one went a little further before blowing up.  It launched successfully and reached an altitude of 240 feet.  This was one of the earliest rocket launches in the United States, and probably the first by a group of relative amateurs. It almost certainly inspired many young Americans to pursue rocketry and, eventually, aerospace engineering.

Amateur Rocketeers Blow Up a Rocket on Staten Island, Inspire Thousands. Credit: Smithsonian
Amateur Rocketeers Blow Up a Rocket on Staten Island, Inspire Thousands. Credit: Smithsonian

Here’s a nice summary of the American Interplanetary Society from the Smithsonian:

A group comprised mostly of science fiction writers formed the American Interplanetary Society in New York City in 1930. The fact that science fiction writers predominated was unique to America. It reflected that genre’s flourishing and the dearth—with the exception of Robert Goddard—of serious space theoreticians in America.

This explosion of space fantasy in the 1920s and ’30s was a double-edged sword for spaceflight advocates. It inspired young people to believe in the possibility of space travel but convinced many adults that the idea was absurd.

Hmmm sort of sounds like the state of space settlement today…

Hat Tip: Encyclopedia Astronautica & The Smithsonian



Throwback Thursday: The Space Race Begins

Today is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. On May 7, 1945 the German military surrendered to the Americans.  The next day the Germans surrendered to the Soviets.

But, very shortly thereafter began a covert struggle by the erstwhile allies to evacuate as many German missile experts as possible to their respective countries.  Both sides were trying to deny the other access to the knowledge gained by the twisted Nazi scientists during the course of World War II.   The United States in particular hoped to use German rocket expertise to develop weapons that might be effective against the Japanese in the Pacific theater.  Thus today we mark the beginning of the first phase of what would later be called the Space Race.  A race that the United States would ultimately win – on the Moon.


The first space race: At the end of World War 2 both American and Soviet military planners coveted German missile expertise which had developed the fearsome V-2 rocket.
The first space race: At the end of World War 2 both American and Soviet military planners coveted German missile expertise which had developed the fearsome V-2 rocket.
The predecessor of the CIA would eventually evacuate over 1,500 German scientists and engineers to work on missile programs in the United States.  Many were sent to Fort Bliss, Texas and White Sands Proving Grounds to lay the groundwork for future rockets and spacecraft.  Most famous among them was the architect of the Saturn V (the rocket the astronauts would ride to the Moon): Wernher von Braun.
Seventy years ago the West and the Soviet Union celebrated their victory over fascist Germany.  Yet behind the scenes the groundwork was being laid for a future struggle – a struggle with echoes into the present.  Every rocket that takes off from Cape Canaveral or Baikonur Cosmodrome can trace at least a little bit of its heritage to the work done by those German engineers so many decades ago.
German rocket scientists in Fort Bliss, Texas in 1945.


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Today in Space History: A Failed Space Business is Born

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get high-speed internet anywhere? In the middle of the ocean, in the desert, on the mountains, literally anywhere?  Why hasn’t someone fixed this problem and built a global, high-speed satellite internet network?

Satellites provide global coverage. Duh.
Satellites provide global coverage. Duh.
On April 30, 1997 a company called Teledesic tried to do just that.  They placed a whopping $9 billion order with Boeing for 288 satellites.  This satellite network was intended to deliver the internet anywhere in the globe.  Five years later, after having launched only one satellite, Teledesic was out of business.
Teledesic had all the hallmarks of success.  Communications pioneer Craig McCaw was the brains behind the operation.  Start-up funding wasn’t an issue: both Bill Gates and a Saudi prince invested hundreds of millions.  Surely demand wasn’t the problem; who wouldn’t want to watch cat videos and update their status from anywhere in the world?
So what happened?  Opinions vary but basically Teledesic underestimated how much it would cost to launch all those satellites into space.  Another great business idea for space torpedoed due to launch costs.  Which is why it’s so important that launch costs are brought down.
Maybe this guy knows how to lower launch costs.
Maybe this guy knows how to lower launch costs.
A good lesson for SpaceX and Google as they try to replicate what Teledesic attempted almost 20 years ago. Hopefully they’ll be more successful this time around; I’d really like to watch Netflix on my next hiking adventure…