Splashdowns are iconic of the Apollo era. Pictures of astronauts being plucked out of the water or waving from recovery carriers are synonymous with the successful end of a mission. But have you ever wondered just how many men it took to pluck one astronaut out of the water?

A lot. The answer is a lot.

Al Shepard being hoisted out of the water after his Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. NASA.

Splashdowns

Before we can talk about how many men were involved in splashdown recovery efforts, we need to understand why NASA selected splashdowns in the first place.

When the space age dawned in the late 1950s, there were two vehicle types up for consideration: aircraft…


The Voyager spacecraft famously flew by the giants in the 1970s and 1980s. NASA.

Gravity assists, sometimes called flybys, are a big part of space exploration. These precision maneuvers involve harnessing a planet’s gravity to accelerate and direct a spacecraft to some far-flung destination so the spacecraft can go further without a big and heavy propulsion system. It’s a key element in both human and robotic space explotration.

What is a Flyby?

A flyby, also called a gravity assist, is a manoeuver that allow a spacecraft to gain velocity or delta-V from passing by a planet, and in some instances, use that planet’s gravity to bend its trajectory to change direction. No matter the specific flyby’s outcome, it…


In the mid-1960s, NASA began planning what audacious goal it could take on after successfully landing on the Moon. One idea that gained a fair amount of traction was a manned mission to Venus, or a manned mission to Venus and Mars with a single launch, depending on the specific launch window. It sounds like science fiction, but studies showed it was a perfectly viable next step for the space agency.

An artist’s concept of the Apollo spacecraft in Earth orbit before going to the Moon. It would like very similar going to Venus. NASA.

Apollo Applications Program

1965 was an interesting time for NASA. The Agency was just beginning the Gemini program, which was testing some of the most vital technologies the Agency would use on…


In August of 1956, CIA and Air Force planners began exploring a follow-up plane to the U-2. On February 28, 1962, that plane, the A-12, arrived at Area 51 to begin flight testing. But by then, the U-2 had been exposed to the world after Gary Powers’ downing and public trial, and spy satellites were taking over the reconnaissance mission. Nevertheless, the A-12 represented beyond-the-state-of-the-art aviation and espionage technology, but on the cusp of its deployment for active missions, the CIA’s latest spy plane’s future was in jeopardy.

NASA.

This is the final part in a series about Cold War aerial…


The U-2 was meant to be America’s greatest espionage asset against the Soviet Union, invisible to radar and out of reach of missiles. But its first flights in July of 1956 revealed it was neither invisible nor, likely, invincible. To maintain a technological edge over the Soviets, the CIA and Air Force began defining a new American reconnaissance program to take its place. That program was OXCART, the program that gave us both the A-12 and the SR-71. This is the story of how that U-2 follow-up aircraft was doomed before it even left the ground.

The US Air Force iteration of the A-12 in flight. USAF.

This is part 5…


After Gary Powers’s U-2 was downed on May 1, 1960, it became impossible for the United States to continue photographing the Soviet Union. But the need for Soviet intelligence didn’t change — it remained paramount to American national security to know what was happening beyond the Iron Curtain. Luckily for the United States, there was a new technology ready to take over the job of aerial reconnaissance within months of the Powers’ Incident: the Corona spy satellites.

NRO

This is part of my Cold War aerial espionage series. Part 1 about the U-2 plane’s genesis is here. Part 2 about the…


The U-2 spy plane was supposed to disintegrate in a crash. It was supposed to leave no debris that could be traced back to the United States, and the pilot was expected to the be killed. Nothing was meant to survive a fall from 70,000 feet with secrets intact. It was, in effect, a security measure U-2 program managers were banking on. But then one did. Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 survived being downed over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960. The famous May Day Incident had effects on the Cold War beyond what anyone could have imagined.


Chuck Yeager, best known as the first man to fly faster than sound, passed away this week. The aviation community felt the loss of this giant, though, at 97, no one could say he didn’t live life to the fullest. In researching my latest book, Fighting for Space, I teased out the new-to-me friendship between Jackie Cochran and Chuck Yeager, and in the process, uncovered a lot of less familiar pictures of both aviation legends. So in honour of Chuck’s life, I thought it’d be fun to share this facet of his life. (A number of these pictures I took…


This is part two in my five-part series on Cold War aerial espionage. Part 1 is here.

By the time the U-2 aerial reconnaissance plane was ready to fly in the spring of 1956, President Eisenhower was still unconvinced that okaying the mission was the right move. He worried that if a plane was somehow downed over Soviet territory — even though everyone involved said it couldn’t happen — the Soviets would have a field day claiming unfairness, aggression, and ruthlessness on the part of both himself and the United States. He worried an incident would start another world war…


This is the first in a five-part series I’m doing about Cold War aerial espionage.

During the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States were united against fascism, but that cooperation deteriorated once the common enemy was defeated. With the war over, the nations’ ideological differences surfaced — the United States’ democracy marked by capitalism and the Soviet Union’s communist system — and a new conflict was born. The Cold War became a standoff with both nations positioning themselves as technological leaders, and both needed ways to check and see if the other was telling the truth…

Amy Shira Teitel

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]

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