U.S. Space Program History


U.S. Space Program History

By Gerard Hillenbrand, P.E.

That was the important subject of Met Section’s April 16, 2009 Technical Dinner Meeting at Con Edison Headquarters, 14th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan. The evening’s speaker was our good friend from ASME Headquarters, Burt Dicht. The complete title of Burt’s presentation was “From Goddard to Apollo – A History of the U.S. Space Program.” Burt Dicht currently serves in the position of managing director of ASME’s knowledge and community sector, and is an engineering graduate of Temple and California State Universities. Burt’s 28 year professional career included 15 years of employment with the NASA and its clients where he worked extensively on aircraft design, the space shuttle, and the Modular Moon Lander. During the last 13 years Burt has worked for ASME in various capacities all over the United States.

The Apollo Moon landing took place on July 20, 1969 when the manned module descended from an orbiting spacecraft 50,000 feet above the surface of the moon. The landing sequence experienced excessive speed and this resulted in an unexpected landing in a field with many hazards and sizeable boulders, adjacent to the intended sea of Tranquility Base. This successful landing was the culmination of the largest peacetime engineering project in history involving 20,000 separate organizations and 400,000 people.

The origins of space travel all go back to the developments and experiments of the scientist Robert H. Goddard in the early 20th century at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University. In 1919, after receiving a $5,000 grant, Dr. Goddard published several papers describing methods for reaching extreme altitudes. By 1926, using private funding, he had developed a liquid-fueled rocket, which attained a height of 184 feet. In the late twenties, he relocated to New Mexico and with funding from Charles Lindbergh and Industrialist Harry Guggenheim, by 1930 his rockets had achieved altitudes of 2000 feet and speeds of 500 miles per hour. Subsequent tests produced a maximum height of 7500 feet. During World War II Dr. Goddard worked for the U.S. Navy Research Laboratory and he passed away shortly after the war ended. By the various aspects of rocketry including such associated concepts as pressurized fuel tanks and lightweight turbo pumps. Because of their innovative concepts the U.S. Government for possible future use in weaponry purchased these patents.

However, Dr. Goddard’s work produced even greater interest overseas, where rearming totalitarian nations like Germany and the Soviet Union studied his patents and tested his concepts. This was particularly true in Germany where the treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I prohibited German Artillery development. By 1943 the Germans had developed their V1 and V2 Rockets with 70,000 pounds of thrust, speeds of 3500 miles per hour and ranges exceeding 200 miles. By 1945 Germany had fired 3745 V2 Rockets, most of which were outfitted with gyroscopic controls for accuracy. All of this development was located in East Prussia on the Baltic Sea coast at facilities employing more than 2000 men. The advancing Russian Army captured this location in 1945. But in a stroke of good fortune, the chief engineer of these facilities, Dr. Wehner Von Braun, and 125 associates secretly avoided capture by the Russians by retreating westward where they were captured by American Intelligence Service Personnel. The American Intelligence Service Personnel realized their value, and organized their illegal entry into the United States, where they were sent to locations in Texans and The White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico for debriefing.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s American Military Planners emphasized Long Range Bombers armed with Atomic Weapons rather than rocketry. However, despite of funding limitations caused by the Korean War, the Federal Government began to construct facilities at Cape Canaveral (1949), at Huntsville, Alabama (1950), and the Redstone Arsenal for the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (1956). In the meanwhile Von Braun and his associates publicly promoted and published many articles advocating space exploration and anticipation of the international geo-physical year scheduled for 1957/1958. All these efforts where somehow eclipsed when the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957 launched the first satellite, Sputnik which weighed 183 pounds and completed an elliptical path around the earth in 98 minutes. Then on November 3, 1957 the Soviet Union surprised the world again by orbiting Sputnik II, a satellite which carried a live dog into space. In response the Federal Government hurried and American Answer – The Vanguard Missile – designed by the U.S> Naval Research Laboratory into final testing. Then on December 6, 1957 the Vanguard Missile, carrying 3.5-pound satellite, exploded on the launching pad and, thus demonstrated to the world the American deficiency in Rocket Science. These shortcomings were further emphasized with the Soviets orbited a 2900 pound satellite in May 1958 (Sputnik III).

In the latter part of 1958 the American government formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an organization which combined the talents of the Von Braun Group, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and appointed Von Braun as Chief Engineer. NASA’s first success was the Explorer I Project, a space satellite which progressively traveled from planet to planet in the solar system. October 1958 saw the start of project Mercury (concluded in 1963) in which manned satellites orbited the Earth. By the time of the 1960 elections American Space deficiencies had become a serious issue and contributed to the victory of Senator John F. Kennedy to the Presidency. At this time there was also serious opposition from the medical community concerning the safety of human space travel, but inspite of this opposition, NASA appointed seven Air Force pilots and scientists to train as our first Astronauts. This time also saw the appointment of James Webb as NASA Administrator. Mr. Webb, a lawyer and financier by training, was instrumental in starting the Saturn Rocket Project for launching large, man carrying missiles into space. Then on April 12, 1961 the Russians stunned the world again by launching the Vostok I Satellite into space carrying a man and returning same safely to earth.

Two days later, April 14, 1961, President Kennedy addressed congress with a proposal to achieve a lunar landing in that decade and requesting an unprecedented $40 Billion appropriation to fund this project. Meanwhile, on May 5, 1961, an American Redstone Missile powered the first 15-minute flight of a Mercury Capsule into space and returned same safely to earth. By May 25, 1961 NASA committed its programs to achieve a manned Lunar landing with a guarantee to return the Astronauts safely to Earth. To achieve this Lunar landing, three concepts were proposed.

  • Direct assent onto the moon surface.
  • An Earth orbit rendezvous of two space ships with an outer space launching of a missile to the moon.
  • A direct launching of a missile into orbit around the moon, followed by a controlled decent onto the surface of the moon, and a subsequent rendezvous of the landing capsule and its command missile for the return trip to Earth.

After much controversy, the third concept was chosen ad project Gemini was initiated. This project consisted of twelve space flights, two of which were unmanned, between January 1962 and August 1962. The later flights in the Gemini Project consisted of two Astronauts each.

The Russian Space programs also progressed during this period with the June 1963 flights of the first woman in space and the simultaneous flights of two capsules. In October 1964 the Russians launched the first three Man Space Ship, and in March 1965 achieved the first manned space walk. Later in 1965 the American Gemini VII Project orbited two men into space and completed their first successful space walk. Project Gemini VIII followed shortly thereafter with the first American docking of two space capsules. All of this progress was facilitated by NASA’s development of advanced project and program management Techniques. Typical of these techniques were the successful simultaneous testing of the three stages of the Saturn V Rocket on November 9, 1967 and its subsequent first flight. This Rocket, 363 feet tall and weighing 6.1 million pounds, consisted of three stages manufactured by competing aerospace manufacturers – the Boeing Corporation, North-American Rockwell, and McDonnell-Douglas Company. Guided by NASA, these three organizations cooperatively pioneered development of Liquid Hydrogen and Oxygen systems, creation of various exotic Rocket fuels, and creation of sophisticated shock absorbers required to handle liquid helium, and other exotic propellants.

Project Apollo, the development of the Lunar Landing Module, was the work of the Grumman Aircraft Corporation of Long Island, famous for its high-quality airplanes for the U.S. Navy. Mr. Dicht showed a video history of the module’s development starting in 1963. Unfortunately, during testing, the Apollo I command capsule was consumed by a rapid fire killing three astronauts on January 27, 1967. After a $500 million redesign, the Apollo VII Capsule was successfully tested on November 22, 1967. Th Apollo VIII Capsule was launched on December 21, 1968 and on Christmas Eve completed ten successful orbits of the Moon. On May 18, 1969 the Apollo X capsule was sent to the Moon where it achieve a controlled orbit 50,000 feet above the Moon surface in preparation for the subsequent Apollo XI successful Moon landing and return to Earth. The Apollo program was not without its problems. For Example, the Apollo XIII rocket was damaged by an explosion while 200,000 Miles from Earth. The astronauts were safely returned to earth.

The final Apollo Mission occurred on December 7 through 19, 1972 when astronauts spent many hours on the moon surface collecting rock samples, searching for traces of water, and conducting various scientific studies. The total cost of the Apollo Program was $25.4 Billion.

In 1975 the Nixon administration, plagued by budgetary problems caused by the Vietnam war, ended the manned space exploration program, and concentrated instead on less expensive satellites for communications and remote surveillance. Subsequent agreements in efforts to reduce Cold War tensions have resulted in multi-national cooperation to construct the International Space Station, which is slowly reaching completion. In the past 30 years, the NASA with a vastly reduced budget, has concentrated on unmanned space probes, Moon and Mars landings, and perfecting the many flights of the space shuttles in which space maintenance crews are transported back and forth to service the space station, various satellites and the Hubbell Telescope. Recently the Chinese have expressed interest in joining international efforts to explore the solar system. The NASA has also conducted research and design studies related to a potential manned mission to Mars, which because of financial problems and other priorities, will not happen until far in the future.

Burt Dicht concluded his excellent detailed history of our nation’s space program by asking our members to be proud of the many contributions of Mechanical engineers to the program and he also noted that a number of Met Section members participated significantly in these efforts. Many Thanks to Burt for a great lecture.

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