Science Sunday 11-26-17

A Brief History of Flight – The Rocket Age, Part 2

Telstar 1

On July 10, 1962, Bell Laboratories, in conjunction with NASA and other telecommunication organizations, launched the first true transatlantic telecommunication satellite from Cape Canaveral.

Launched from a Thor-Delta rocket, the satellite, known as Telstar 1, occupied a highly elliptical orbit, with perigee at 903 miles, and apogee at 3505 miles.  It weighed 170 pounds, was 3 feet in diameter, and ran on a mere 14 Watts of solar assisted power.

Telstar 1 was the first satellite to relay television images across the Atlantic Ocean.  The first image was that of the US transmission station in Andover, Maine.  Subsequent images included part of a Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, a press conference by then President John Kennedy, and a singing performance of the French legend Yves Montand.

Unfortunately, the satellite suffered irreparable radiation damage while travelling through the Van Allen Belts, radiation deposited there by a US high altitude nuclear bomb detonation.  It ceased functioning in November of 1962, a mere four months later.


Yuri Gargarin – First Man in Space

On April 12, 1961, a most remarkable event occurred.  Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.

It was not a routine journey.  Gargarin had only a 50 percent chance of returning safely to Earth.  He would orbit the Earth only once, travelling 25,000 miles, in 108 minutes, at an average speed of nearly 14,000 miles per hour.

Gargarin was chosen to be the first human in space in part because of his short stature, but also because he was athletic and a very level-headed person.  He had grown up in Nazi occupied Russia, and had to live for a while in a mud hut, while his older brothers were shipped off to a Nazi slave labor camp.

His capsule, the Vostok 1, did not fare as well as he did.  Part of the capsule was supposed to detach before reentry, but it failed to do so, causing his reentry to be virtually uncontrollable.

Fortunately, the unwanted part detached from his capsule because the tether connecting it burnt up in reentry.  Gargarin was able to eject from the Vostok 1, as planned, at 20,000  feet somewhere over Siberia.  The capsule, by contrast, crashed and burned up.

Unfortunately, Gargarin did not live very long after his successful orbiting of the Earth.  Just eight years later, on March 27, 1968, Gargarin died in a MIG-15 military jet aircraft training accident.

He was only 34 years old.


We Choose to Go to the Moon

On September 12, 1962, President John Kennedy gave a most extraordinary speech at Rice University in Houston, TX, where he challenged Congress, and the nation, to inspire the United States to become the preeminent agent in space travel, and all activities contingent to that goal.

Kennedy repeated the mantra “We choose to go to the Moon” three times, explaining that we, the United States will land on the Moon, in less of a decade, not because such a task is easy, but precisely because it is difficult.

As a result, the budget for NASA quadrupled, and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were set in motion, culminating in the landing of the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969, less than seven years later.