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Tag: NASA

Space Shuttle studies and model rockets

In 1969, the model rocket company Estes Industries introduced a kit called Orbital Transport. The rocket consisted of two parts, a larger carrier rocket and a small glider. When launched vertically from a standard model rocket launch pad, the carrier rocket would take the glider up to altitude, and then the glider would detach and glide back to the ground while the carrier rocket descended under a parachute.

My Estes Orbital Transport, which I built mostly in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. It is a “clone” of Orbital Transport, built not from a kit but from plans using stock parts. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

My Orbital Transport, which I built from plans in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

The 1969 Estes catalog had this to say about the design of the kit:

Spectacular in flight and a true show model on the ground, the Orbital Transport is the launch vehicle of the 80’s. Based on the latest proposals for a reusable air breathing (scramjet) booster for orbital vehicles, the Transport is an exciting experience to build and fly.

What were these “latest proposals” that the catalog referenced?

Between August 1965 and September 1966, a joint NASA-US Air Force panel studied the possibility of building spaceplaces to succeed the expendable boosters and single-use capsules that were then launching people into space. The panel studied three classes of spaceplanes, namely:

  • Class I: A reusable spaceplane launched atop an expendable booster, such as the Saturn I-B or Titan III-M.
  • Class II: A fully reusable two-stage spaceplane, both stages winged and both powered by rocket engines. The orbital second stage would ride piggyback atop the suborbital first stage.
  • Class III: Another two-stage spaceplane, similar to Class II, but with air-breathing engines (scramjets) in the first stage.
Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

The panel envisioned all of these spaceplanes flying, one after the other, with the technology developed in one class being used in subsequent classes. In the panel’s optimistic timeline, Class I would fly by 1974, Class II by 1978, and Class III by 1981.1

The joint NASA-USAF panel issued its report in 1966, three years before Estes introduced the Orbital Transport. The design of the Orbital Transport kit is clearly based on the Class III spaceplane, and several details of the kit are drawn directly from the 1965-66 study. The carrier rocket, which represents the first stage of the Class III spaceplane, has open boxes under its “wings” (fins), which represent air-breathing scramjet engines. The 1980s date for the design (as the catalog description says) is also from the study, because Class III was supposed to be flying by 1981.

The Estes model rocket design included one fanciful element that was not present in the NASA-USAF study. While Class III was intended for launching satellites and possibly servicing a space station, Orbital Transport was a passenger transport, a space-airliner. The decal set that came with the kit identified it as being operated by “Astron Aerospace Lines,” and the decals for the glider had a row of windows with a stripe through them, like the airliners of the 1960s.

The NASA-USAF study proved to be fanciful as well. More than 55 years after the panel issued its report, a spaceplane like Class III has never been seriously considered. In the latter half of the sixties, NASA tried hard to make the Class II design work, but it was too big and too expensive, and the engineering challenges inherent in its design were too great. NASA at last fell back on a version of Class I, and in January 1972 (fifty years ago this month), President Nixon approved NASA’s plans to build a reusable spaceplane with a partially reusable booster—what would become known as the Space Shuttle. The shuttle first flew in 1981, the year that the vastly more sophisticated Class III spaceplane was supposed to start flying.

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)


The Estes Orbital Transport has been out of production for a long time (except for a brief reissue in the early 2000s), but Semroc makes a reproduction of it. I made my Orbital Transport by “cloning” it, which means that I built it from plans using stock parts (rather than using a kit, which wasn’t available at the time). I got the plans from JimZ Rocket Plans.

  1. T.A. Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA’s Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle (Washington, DC: NASA History Office, 1999), 82-83. []

Collective memory and space movies

Not very many films have been made about real-life space travel. Flying a rocket into space is always dangerous, but it usually doesn’t make for good story material. Spaceflight is clinical, precise, and often boring. It offers filmmakers little in the way of conflict. Something goes wrong on every space mission, but the vast majority of them end happily. Fictional space films set in the near-future and using recognizable hardware usually over-compensate for the relative safety of space travel by killing off large numbers of astronauts in their stories. (Most recent example: Gravity [2013].)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Let’s take a look about two non-fiction space films that cover a similar subject from very different angles: The Right Stuff (1983) and Hidden Figures (2016). The Right Stuff is based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book by the same name. It is a long, sprawling epic about flight testing and the beginning of NASA’s space program in the 1960s. Although the book has a more serious, reflective tone, the movie Right Stuff is written almost like a cartoon, with the paparazzi and Vice President Johnson being especially over-the-top. There are many factual inaccuracies in the movie, but it is also quite fun to watch for the most part. The movie was hugely influential for developing the visual language of spaceflight and heroism in a high-tech era.

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

In the Right Stuff book, Tom Wolfe explored the masculine world of flight-testing and spaceflight, and tried to understand how and why the early astronauts were made into heroes. The movie is less self-aware, instead taking the astronauts’ heroism at face-value. It un-self-consciously portrays a sexist, racist time, and some parts are hard to watch now.

A completely different perspective is given by the recent Hidden Figures. While The Right Stuff wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel Test—and forget about portrayals of people of color in it—Hidden Figures is about three African-American women working at NASA Langley in Virginia in the early sixties. The characters (composites of actual women whose factual stories are explored in a book by the same name) perform the calculations that allow the first Americans to fly into space and return home safely.

The black computers of Hidden Figures in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

The human computers of Hidden Figures watching a space mission in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

Like The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures is very much a product of its time, when Americans are being more reflective about race and gender inequalities. The story of black human computers (as the characters of Hidden Figures were called) would never have been told in a major feature film in 1983, much less in the early sixties. The film’s approach to race is a little sentimental, but overall I thought the movie was very well written and a good watch.

Apart from portraying social dynamics very differently from each other, the films also diverge in their portrayals of the technology of early space travel itself. In this respect, the otherwise cartoonish Right Stuff is much more accurate than Hidden Figures. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because it portrayed events that were much more in living memory in 1983 than in 2016. More than half of Americans alive in the early eighties would have remembered the early sixties, but a much smaller portion of the population would have remembered back that far by the mid-2010s.

Living memory of the early space age, combined with strategic use of stock footage to save production costs, meant that The Right Stuff faithfully portrayed the Mercury spacecraft, pressure suits, buildings, and control equipment of the era.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreate early NASA publicity photographs.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreating an early NASA publicity photograph. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

Hidden Figures didn’t need to be as faithful. Several times while watching it, I suppressed a groan in response to inaccurate set design or portrayal of some other aspect of the technology. (The launch gantry for the Mercury-Atlas rocket was especially unfaithful to the original.) The filmmakers even depended on their audience’s not knowing the technology. At the beginning of the movie, the flight of a CGI Russian rocket is intercut with NASA engineers at ground control. The audience is supposed to think that this is a NASA rocket, until at the end of the scene the rocket rolls and—surprise!—there is a big hammer-and-sickle on the other side. (The surprise was lost on me because I recognized it as a Russian rocket from the start. The filmmakers were depending on most of their viewers’ not having built model rockets of that design as kids.) In reality, the Soviet rockets of the time didn’t have such big hammer-and-sickles on them, but the filmmakers needed to add this detail so the audience would know what they were looking at.

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The further we get from historical events, the more our collective memory of them becomes fuzzy. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because the events it was portraying were more in living memory. Hidden Figures didn’t need to be that accurate, and it even needed to change some details in order to tell things to the audience that The Right Stuff’s audience would simply have known.

India’s launch into space activity

On the evening of November 21, 1963, a two-stage Nike-Apache rocket shot skyward from Thumba, a spot on the Malabar Coast of southern India. The rocket carried a sodium-vapor experiment that produced a cloud as the rocket ascended. The zigzag shape of the cloud indicated the prevailing winds at different altitudes. Observers at stations as far as 250 km (155 mi) away reported spotting the cloud with the naked eye.1

It was the first launch of a research rocket in India—a nation that would go on to develop its own indigenous satellite launchers. But in 1963, India still had the better part of two decades to go before its first successful satellite launch with the SLV-3 booster. India’s first research rocket launch was a cooperative effort with the United States and France. The American space agency NASA provided the Nike-Apache rocket, which was based on the first stage of a retired surface-to-air missile. France’s CNES provided the sodium-vapor experiment. As Homi Bhabha, chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, remarked after the launch, “The NASA has launched us into space activity. We hope this is the beginning of increasing and continuing cooperation between India and the US.”2

As part of the sounding rocket program, NASA brought a small team of Indian scientists and engineers to the United States for training at the agency’s Langley, Goddard, and Wallops Island facilities. One of the men on this team was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who would gain distinction from his later work on Indian space launchers and missiles, then cap off his career with a term as President of India. At NASA, the team received basic technical training for assembling imported rockets, launching, tracking, and data acquisition. Their hosts at NASA did not give them any information about building their own rockets. The Nike-Apache launch in India is a case of the transfer of a technological artifact (in this case, a rocket), but not the knowledge of how it was made. It would ultimately be the French who passed knowledge about rocket construction on to the Indian program, when they provided for the license manufacture of their Centaure rocket in India.3

The launch of a NASA rocket was an example of especially close Indo-American technical cooperation in the early independence period. That same month, the US Air Force offered training to the Indian Air Force on portable radar sets that the American government had donated to India. The Nike-Apache and its launching equipment likely came to India on one of the same cargo planes that brought supplies for Exercise Shiksha, as the joint air exercise was called. Throughout the 1960s and beyond, the United States would continue to offer technical aid to India on programs as diverse as agriculture, public health, and power generation. But except for the period around Exercise Shiksha, the United States hoped to avoid alienating its ally Pakistan by keeping its distance from any Indian programs with a clear military application. Despite Dr. Bhabha’s hopes for increasing Indo-American cooperation, rocketry had an especially obvious military application. Thus it would be the French, rather than the Americans, who would pass knowledge of rocket construction on to India.

  1. Gopal Raj, Reach for the Stars: The Evolution of India’s Rocket Programme (New Delhi: Viking, 2000), 16-17. []
  2. “India fires first rocket for space research,” Hindustan Times, November 22, 1963. []
  3. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, with Arun Tiwari, Wings of Fire: An Autobiography (Hyderabad: Universities Press, 1999), 37-9; Raj, Reach for the Stars, 32. Note that the license-production of French rockets was only a part of Indian rocket development. There was also a parallel program of Indian-designed sounding rockets, known as Rohini. Knowledge from Rohini as well as Centaure was applied in the SLV-3 program. []

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