Forgotten space pioneer: 50th anniversary Alan Shepard’s historic flight

Fifty years ago today Alan B. Shepard Jr., became the first American in space when he flew in the Freedom 7 mission. He got 116.5 miles up and his flight lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds. He made history, but has been generally forgotten.

Why? Because he was the second man in space. Yuri Gagarin made it into space 23 days earlier and won the second round of the US-Soviet space race. The Soviets won the first round too, when they got the first satellite into orbit in 1957.

Neither man achieved full orbit, but they did prove you could survive the trip and they paved the way for future space missions. Both deserve to be remembered.

NASA has an excellent interactive webpage about the mission and the capsule he flew in is on display at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Shepard was an alum (Class of 1945) so needless to say they’re pretty proud of him over there.

Shepard later landed on the Moon in the Apollo 14 mission and drew laughs and criticism when he played golf in low gravity. You can see the Apollo 14 command module at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

[Photo courtesy NASA]

Space tourism celebrates tenth anniversary

Space tourism
is ten years old this week. On 28 April 2001 millionaire Dennis Tito became the first person to go into space as a tourist and not an astronaut or scientist.

In an interview with BBC today he talked about how thrilled he was and called his eight days being in orbit “paradise.”

While space tourism is the ultimate in high-cost adventure travel–only seven people have done it so far and Tito is said to have paid $20 million for the privilege–private companies are hoping to make it more widely available. They also want to make it more comfortable. Tito was crammed “elbow to elbow” in a Russian capsule after NASA refused to put him on one of the Space Shuttles. Not that he cared at the time. Check out this video of Dennis Tito’s arrival at the International Space Station. The guy’s euphoric!

A number of private companies are looking into commercial space travel. The most serious contender is Virgin Galactic, which has already built a spaceport and put their spaceship Enterprise through a test flight. The company hopes to push an orbital trip down to $200,000, just one percent of what Tito paid. Who knows? Maybe good old free-market competition will push the price even lower than that.

Even more ambitious is Excalibur Almaz, a company based in the Isle of Man that has bought some Russian space capsules that they’re refurbishing. They boast that they’ll offer trips around the Moon by 2015.

Best of luck folks, but I won’t be looking for a Lonely Planet Outer Space in the bookstores anytime soon.

[Photo courtesy NASA]


Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Enterprise flies first solo run

The world is one step closer to the era of space tourism after an historic flight in the Mojave desert yesterday.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Enterprise took its first solo flight, detaching from the mothership Eve and landing on its own power.

Enterprise can carry six passengers and two crew. The mothership Eve carries Enterprise up into the sky before the Enterprise detaches and ignites its rocket, shooting it above the atmosphere and into space, but not high enough to achieve orbit. The rocket was not fired on this test flight and no passengers were on board. The crew consisted of pilots Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury, who flew for 25 minutes before landing.

More than three hundred people have already signed up to take a suborbital ride on the Enterprise once it becomes operational. Rides cost $200,000 each and are scheduled to start in about eighteen months.

The British owner of Virgin, Sir Richard Branson, watched the test. The success of the operation came as good news after Virgin Galactic’s financial difficulties.

Would you fly into space if you had the money? Tell us what you think in the comments section!

Video of the week (3.26.10)

The Video of the Week for this week shows the first flight of White Night Two while carrying the Virgin Galactic “Enterprise” spacecraft. The flight took place just three days ago and is the latest step toward operating commercial passenger space flights in 2011.

Gadling was there when they unveiled SpaceShipTwo under very stormy skies. But they couldn’t have had a more beautiful day to accomplish this test flight. I can’t imagine what it’s like to sit in the far right side of the giant aircraft. Landing just a few feet from the right side of the runway must take some getting used to. According to a comment on the video, the left side may be used to take observers of the launch in the future. This could be nearly as exciting as going on a launch itself.

As for the experience of travelling weightless over California for a few minutes, would you join the over 330 people who have put down deposits on the $200,000 flights? Virgin Galactic claims another 80,000 people are on the waiting list.

So, if money were no object, would you take a ride?


Journey to the dark side of the moon

On this day fifty years ago, humanity got to see something it had never seen before.

On October 7, 1959, the Soviet space probe Luna 3 orbited the moon and took photos of the “dark side”.

Of course, everyone already knew that the dark side isn’t really dark. It gets just as much light as the side we see, but since it always faces away from Earth we’ve spent the last hundred thousand years wondering what’s over there. Luna 3 gave us the answer.

Some of Luna 3’s ghostly images and those from later Soviet probes can be seen here.

If you go to Moscow, you can learn the story of the Soviet space program at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, located in the base of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space, pictured here in this striking photo taken by AlphaTangoBravo and put in our Flickr photo pool. The museum has one of the most impressive buildings of any museum anywhere, being incorporated into the base of a 107 meter (350 ft.) depiction of a rocket and its contrail. A poem on the side of the monument declares, “And the reward for our efforts was that, having triumphed over oppression and darkness, we have forged wings of fire for our land and our century!”

Besides a bit of Soviet-style hypocrisy about “oppression and darkness” this poem is spot on. The Soviet Space program achieved a whole series of firsts–first satellite (1957), first animal in space (1957), first probes to Mars (1960) and Venus (1961), first man in space (1961), first woman in space (1963). . .the list goes on and on.

The museum has undergone three years of renovations and reopened on April 12 of this year, which happens to be Cosmonautics Day, celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s historic 1961 flight, the first time a human being ever left Earth. The Soviets put up a very cool statue to him in Moscow’s Gagarin Square, but sadly there’s no photo of it in the Gadling Flickr pool. The first person who puts one up there and tells me by leaving a comment will get a Soviet-era space program postcard as a thank you. You’ll also see the photo on Gadling, so upload your best!

If you want a sneak peek inside the renovated museum, this article (in Spanish) has an interesting slide show.