A History of Spaceflight

By Duncan Lunan

There’s satisfaction in coming to this topic, though it’s late in the day.  In the 1960s the first public talks I gave were on Manned Spaceflight, to Marr College Astronomy Society, when I was at University;  and the next ones were on rocket aircraft, and on launch vehicles, to various ATC squadrons by request a year or two later.  That material is all history now!  Chapter 2 of my book New Worlds for Old, begun in the early 70s, was a history of visual images of spaceflight, to introduce the artwork by Ed Buckley and Gavin Roberts which would dominate the later chapters and the next book.  In the North Lanarkshire Astronomy Project, in which my colleague Bob Graham and I did literally hundreds of talks to schools, we introduced spaceflight through the major personalities in its history.  Of 20 handouts for night classes I gave for Troon Learning Centre, back at Marr College, in 2012-13, the first 6 were updated for Space & Scotland Magazine, in 2016-17, and the first 8 were revised again when I was lecturing at Trinity College Dublin in 2019.  But the one I never got round to writing, under pressure to finish my book Incoming Asteroid! in 2013, was the history of spaceflight. 

Fig. 4. Galileo Galilei

For the Astronomy Project we took a decision to begin with actual contributors to the field, ignoring speculations by earlier writers.  We began with Copernicus  (Fig. 1), the first theorist in modern times to argue that the planets go round the Sun rather than Earth;  Kepler (Fig. 2), who deduced from observations of Mars that the planets moved in ellipses rather than perfect circles, and therefore were not mounted on impenetrable crystal spheres, making space travel possible;  Newton  (Fig. 3), whose Law of Gravitation explained why that was the case, and conducted ‘thought experiments’ concerning artificial satellites;  and Galileo  (Fig. 4), whose telescopic observations showed that the first three were correct.  The pictures gave the classes a laugh and got us to the 20th century within a couple of minutes, before they had time to get bored.

Fig. 5. Tsiolkovsky with spaceship model

The underlying theories of astronautics were worked out independently by three scientists, starting in the 1890s.  The first was unarguably Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia  (Fig. 5), who was unable to publish his work until after the Revolution in 1917, but had established that liquid-fuelled step-rockets were the only way to put people into space, into orbit and beyond.  As a victim of Tsarist persecution, his work found ready followers in the USSR, and rocket societies, scientific institutions and engineering groups all took it up from the 1920s on.

Fig. 6. Robert Goddard with the first liquid-fuelled rocket, 1926

Robert Goddard in the USA had worked out the same theories, but attracted the derision of the New York Times when he published a paper suggesting an uncrewed rocket could reach the Moon.  (The paper apologised on the day of the Moon landing.)  Goddard achieved the first liquid-fuelled rocket launch in 1926  (Fig. 6), and continued his research with backing organised by Charles Lindbergh, but avoided publicity and took little part in what followed.

Hermann Oberth from Transylvania (Fig. 7)  had also worked out the theories, and his book The Rocket into Interplanetary Space  (1924)  led to the formation of the world’s first spaceflight society, swiftly attracting the young Wernher von Braun  (Fig. 8).  The German Army realised that rocket research was not banned by the Treaty of Versailles, and moved von Braun’s team to Peenemünde on the Baltic, where they developed the A4  (V2), the first ballistic missile  (Fig. 9), which came close to turning World War 2 in favour of the Axis.  Had its bombardment begun only a little sooner, London would have been evacuated and the Channel ports would have been unusable for D-Day. 

Fig. 10. Sputnik 1 R-7 booster, October 1957

At the end of the war von Braun’s team defected en bloc to the Americans, narrowly missing the collection team sent for them by Stalin.  The prevailing myth of the 1960s, that “their Germans are better than America’s Germans”, had no basis in fact:  the few engineers captured by the Soviets were marginalised in the Soviet missile programme, and by 1955 they were all back in the West.  The true genius behind the Soviet programme was Sergei Korolev, creator of the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile, which launched Sputnik 1 in 1957  (Fig. 10), followed by Laika, the first living creature in orbit;  the first lunar and interplanetary probes, starting in 1959;  the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961  (Fig. 11);  and is still in use today, with only minor modifications, as the Soyuz booster which routinely delivers cosmonauts to the International Space Station  (Fig. 12).  Had his health not been damaged by imprisonment in a Gulag under Stalin, and had Khrushchev not pressured him to produce a series of space ‘spectaculars’ to stay ahead of the Americans, the Moon Race might have become a contest between von Braun and Korolev.  But Korolev died in what should have been routine surgery in 1966, leaving the Soviet space programme in disarray and giving victory to the USA.

Despite a shaky start, in the USA space development took a completely different path to the Soviet one.  Captured V2s were quickly pressed into service as high-altitude research vehicles, and in 1949 Project Bumper, the first large-scale step-rocket, reached an altitude of 250 miles, a record which remained unbroken for eight years.  The 8th launch in 1950 was from the US Air Force’s Eastern Test Range, later to become famous by its true name of Cape Canaveral  (Fig. 13).  The WAC Corporal second stage was produced by the newly created Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and its team made major strides in the early 50s before attracting the unwelcome attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy.  True Communists, who had committed themselves to rocket development to beat Hitler, they were more harshly treated than the atomic scientists like Oppenheimer, and thereby the USA lost a lot of its home-grown talent.  Dr. Fraser MacDonald of Edinburgh University has recently written an excellent history of these extraordinary events  (Fig. 14, Escape from Earth, A Secret History of the Space Rocket, Profile Books, 2019.)

From 1945 onwards US development of missiles and rocket aircraft was carried forward by a wide range of aerospace companies, among them Bell, Douglas, North American, Boeing, Martin, General Dynamics, Convair, Grumman and many more, as well as government facilities like JPL and von Braun’s Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, all seeking contracts from the three competing military services, and beyond that, funding from Senate and Congress.  This way of doing things was derided by the Soviets, and criticised by press and politicians, for waste and duplication of effort – maybe so, but it meant that there was a huge pool of expertise and talent, following many different design and technologies, to be drawn on when the USA finally got serious about space after Sputnik.

Prior to that, for the International Geophysical Year the Martin company was building the Vanguard booster, based on a US Navy research vehicle called Viking.  Because neither was a weapon, the scientific establishment preferred Vanguard to von Braun’s Redstone Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, which had been capable of launching satellites since 1956.  After a Vanguard test vehicle exploded ignominiously soon after Sputnik’s launch, von Braun’s team got the go-ahead and launched the first US satellite, Explorer 1, in January 1958.  The first attempts at lunar probes were made with the US Air Force Thor, but the first successful US lunar flyby was achieved with another von Braun IRBM, the Juno II.  (The 3-stage launchers based on Redstone and Juno went through multiple name changes in this period, so let’s not go there.)  von Braun then proposed to combine Redstone and Juno tanks to make the body of Saturn 1, with a cluster of more powerful engines, starting the line of development which would lead to Saturn V and the capability to put men on the Moon.

Fig. 15. Alan Shepard liftoff, Mercury-Restone 3, 1961

With the formation of NASA in 1958, Project Mercury was started as a crash programme to put American astronauts into space in one-man capsules  (see ‘Eyewitness:  Mercury Capsule’, ON 21st August 2022).  Alan Shepard was the first to fly one, in a 15-minute ballistic flight launched by a Redstone  (Fig. 15), soon after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space;  John Glenn became the first American in orbit, launched by a USAF Atlas ICBM in February 1962  (Fig. 16).  Scott Carpenter duplicated his mission, Wally Schirra flew six orbits, and Gordon Cooper did a 24-hour mission;  but that stretched the Mercury spacecraft to its limits, and the programme moved on to the more ambitious two-man Gemini programme, rehearsing for Apollo  (Fig. 17).  Geminis were launched by the Titan 2 ICBM  (derived from Vanguard and no longer a civilian programme), which became the liquid-fuelled mainstay of the US deterrent until replaced by solid-fuelled Trident and Minuteman missiles.  Titan 2s were to be launched from silos borrowed without alteration from Britain’s Blue Streak programme, and although phased out long ago they still sometimes feature on film and TV, as witness a recent episode of the Netflix series Scorpion.

Gemini-Titan missions achieved the first US space walk, space rendezvous, long-term mission, docking, and emergency return from space for good measure.  By Gemini 12 in November 1966, it was judged that NASA was ready to move on to Apollo.  But there was also a USAF military programme which included the Manned Orbiting Laboratory  (Fig.18), which would continue to use Gemini capsules, and had reached an advanced stage by the time it was cancelled in 1969.  Its Gemini capsules would have been used for inspection of Soviet satellites, or even sabotage.  Many of its details have only recently been de-classified, and there’s a good account of it in Rod Pyle’s book, Amazing Stories of the Space Age:  True Tales of Nazis in Orbit, Soldiers on the Moon, Orphaned Martian Robots, and Other Fascinating Accounts from the Annals of Spaceflight, Prometheus, 2017.

Fig. 18. Gemini B capsule separating from MOL

Despite the problems following Korolev’s death, the Soviet programme had reached the stage where they might still have been first on the Moon, if only by a few day or hours  (Fig. 19). 

Fig. 19. N1-Lenin lunar booster, showing 30 first-stage engines

I have a detailed article about Project Apollo coming up, so I’ll say no more about it here.  Deplorably, the Soviet establishment decided to take the line that they had never been going to the Moon, and had fooled the USA into a race that never was.  Regrettably, some eminent British scientists were taken in, and Sir Bernard Lovell’s evidence would have been used in a serious attempt by some US politicians to have James Webb, the former NASA Director, tried and imprisoned for misleading the government and the public.  It took a very long time for the truth to come out, and one extraordinary revelations was that the technicians who were ordered to destroy the second-stage engines of the lunar N-1 Lenin booster  (Fig. 20), couldn’t bring themselves to do so.  They were still the most advanced rocket engines in the world, after years in hiding, and they ended up being used on the Atlas V booster  (Fig. 21), the final development of the missile which had been created to destroy the USSR, all the way back in the 1950s.  Sadly, the invasion of Ukraine has put an end to US-Russian cooperation on that level, putting back some aspects of space exploration for years, if not for good.

As part of the cover-up, the Soviets announced that their focus had been on space stations, all along, and the first of those was launched by a Proton booster in 1971.  The Proton would have been the booster for manned Russian lunar flybys and orbits, and despite occasional failures it has a good track record for launching space stations, the Vega flybys of Halley’s Comet, and other missions requiring heavier lift than the Soyuz booster can provide.  Seven ‘Salyut’ space stations were orbited, before the long-lasting multi-modular Mir one, and several missions were military, including Salyut 5, whose backup commander Michael Lisun I met in 1994.  The stations were equipped with telescopes and a joke of the time was, “What’s the difference between a military Salyut and a civilian one?  It depends which way the telescope is pointing.”  It turned out to be more true than we thought:  the military Salyuts were actually a different spacecraft called Almaz, equipped not only for espionage but for weapons testing, in case the threat of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory became a reality.  Retired astronaut Chris Hadley has written a novel about that, and I’m about to offer a review of it to Orkney News.

With the military US programme cancelled, and the Apollo programme likewise, the US Department of Defence insisted it had to have a stake in the upcoming Space Shuttle, the only remaining element of von Braun’s Post-Apollo Programme.  In the absence of a heavy lift booster, the Shuttle’s capability had to be extended to allow 29.5-tonne launches due east from Kennedy Space Centre – and as the late prof. Terence Nonweiler quickly spotted out, that was equivalent to the launch of a Big Bird spy satellite into polar orbit from Vandenburg Air Force Base on the west coast.  But Shuttle launches from Vandenburg were dispensed with soon after the loss of the Challenger  (see ‘Shuttle Trainer’, ON, August 14th 2022), and another use had to be found for the Shuttle.  It’s no coincidence that 1986 was the year that Ronald Regan finally gave the go-ahead for the US space station, which eventually evolved into the international one.  I’ll cover space stations in a later article.

Fig. 22. Space Shuttle Discovery launches the Hubble Space Telescope, STS-31, April 1990

Doubling the Shuttle payload created severe technical problems, and although it was a fantastic piece of engineering, it was ahead of its time and never fulfilled its intended role as a transport flying twice a month or more.  Between 1981 and 2011 it flew only 135 times, by comparison with the X-15 rocket aircraft which flew 199 missions in a decade – and two of its missions ended fatally for all hands, due precisely to design weaknesses which Terence Nonweiler had highlighted in a lecture of 1974, soon after the finalised design had been announced.  Still its achievements were outstanding:  as well as building the ISS, it launched the Hubble Space Telescope  (Fig. 22), the Magellan mission to Venus, the Ulysses solar probe, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and so many other missions that they defy counting.

What remains to be seen is to what extent its capabilities can be matched.  The current and upcoming space capsules such as Crew Dragon and Starliner can’t get near it  (though a Crew Dragon mission to service the Hubble telescope is now seriously being discussed).  If Elon Musk’s Starship succeeds  (Fig. 23), it will be a game-changer, intended to carry 100 people and to create permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars.  For its Super-Heavy booster, Musk had gone back to the principles of von Braun’s early 50s designs, and the N-1 Lenin:  Superheavy will take off with 33 engines firing  (Fig. 24), where the Lenin had 30).  To the moment of writing, Musk has fired only 7 of them together.  If he achieves what he hopes to achieve, he will be remembered in the same breath as the great named at the beginning of this article;  let’s hope it ends more happily than it did for Korolev, von Braun or Galileo.

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