• Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Home

    Fifty years ago today, at 16:50 GMT, the three men of Apollo 11 were home. But when it was was only a couple of hours away from re-entry, a US Air Force meteorologist checking weather satellite data saw that a major storm was headed for the exact area planned for the ‘splashdown’. That information, today routine, was in 1969 top secret because the information was only used to task the American reconnaissance satellites the Manned Orbiting Laboratory had been designed to supplant, to minimise the problem of cloud cover obscuring the target. Through some urgent, confidential networking, the warning (though not the method of detection – Nasa was a civilian body and not permitted to know the satellites existed) was passed on and the naval recovery task force to a new location 200 miles away where the weather was due to be clearer. Apollo 11 too was moved by being given a revised course,

    because the conical command module – once separated from the support module and in the outer atmosphere – could actually be flown. The ship’s centre of gravity was intentionally off-set, meaning it descended at a slight angle. This gave it a degree of aerodynamic lift. To steer, the computer or the pilot (via hand controls) fired jets of gas. This type of vehicle and its flightpath still generated a great deal of heat, needing special sacrificial shields that charred in a controlled fashion, and high g-forces, which is why the crew sat with their backs to the direction of travel. Such capsules were also only able to be used for a single trip and they didn’t have much space inside. What was needed for the future was something that gave a softer, more controllable landing, allowed the crew to face forward and removed the need for parachutes. Such a concept had been originated in the 1930s by Austrian aerospace

    engineer Eugen Sänger, who envisaged a rocket-boosted bomber that could reach the edge of space, ‘skip’ along the outer atmosphere using what he termed dynamic soaring and reach any target in the world before dropping back to earth and landing like a glider. Twenty years later the US Air Force adapted this idea for its abortive Dyna-Soar programme, whilst throughout and indeed beyond the period of the Apollo programme Nasa flight-tested an entire family of blunt-nosed, wingless aircraft resembling shuttlecocks sliced lengthways – the lifting bodies. Some of these had rocket engines and some could only glide, but the aim was to find the right combination of shape, angle of entry and energy management regime that might give birth to the next generation of space vehicle, one that would be flexible and fully controllable during re-entry. It would still need protection from the heat but this could be provided in a more sustainable, re-usable manner. Almost a decade after the last Apollo Moon landing, the new Space Shuttle was squat, heavy and the size of an airliner. It could be fired into space, orbit the Earth, re-enter on a delta wing and use that same surface to glide to a conventional landing on an airstrip. Its first flight was crewed by Bob Crippen and John Young; the former was an astronaut originally recruited for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the latter was a veteran of Apollo 16. Three men were home, but for hundreds of others the journey was just beginning.


Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

Ivy Press, 2018

ISBN 9781782405443

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