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“Failure Is Not an Option”
In 1970, Flight Director Gene Kranz told his team at NASA’s Mission Control that “failure is not an option.” They needed to bring a group of stranded astronauts home from lunar orbit. If Mission Control didn’t solve the problem—and fast—the astronauts would die.
But failure is always an option, of course, and there probably isn’t a worse place for something to go wrong than in the vacuum of outer space. A human can only survive a few seconds out there without a space suit, and in the 1960s and ’70s, the only thing that separated brave American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts from certain death was a thin sheet of metal and a bunch of technology that looked as if it came from a cheesy sci-fi movie.
As of 2018, eighteen people have died in spaceflight accidents over the course of history. Thirteen more died during training or in practice missions. The dangers are real. The possibility for failure is always there. But heroic astronauts around the world face these dangers head-on, refusing to let the fear of failure stop them from trying to accomplish incredible things.
The intrepid men and women who go on these missions have all the bravery of the adventurers, explorers, and pioneers who first made important discoveries right here on planet Earth. For them, it was never about violence or conquest, but rather about finding new worlds, exploring the depths of space, and furthering scientific understanding. And, hopefully, using that knowledge to make life better for humanity and our planet as a whole.
Many of the first astronauts had no idea if their new technology could actually carry them into space. The first time anyone had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane was in 1919, and just forty years later people were orbiting the Earth in outer space. That’s not a very long time! These pilots (and most of the early astronauts were pilots) were using new tech like jet engines and rockets, fearlessly strapping themselves onto a few thousand gallons of jet fuel and blasting off through the stratosphere at thousands of miles per hour.
But getting the first men into outer space required more than just the astronauts—it was a team effort that required a massive number of people. On the ground, mechanics, scientists, and engineers all worked together, doing incredibly complex mathematics (by hand), and building spaceships out of materials that you could only find in a junkyard today.
The story of the space program isn’t about failure not being an option; it’s about humanity coming together, knowing full well that failure is always an option, and then persevering anyway.
It’s Just Rocket Science!
“How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!” —Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon
Have you ever looked up at the moon and wondered how far away it really is? To the naked eye, it sometimes looks as if you could just reach out and grab it, but the moon is actually 232,271 miles away from us! What’s even crazier is that between 1969 and 1972, twelve men actually made it to the surface of the moon and back! That said, it wasn’t exactly a smooth journey from the Earth to the moon.
As it turns out, the hardest part of space travel is actually getting off Earth. So far, the most efficient way to escape Earth’s gravity is to use rocket propulsion, which is easier said than done.
The first rockets were invented when Chinese alchemists accidentally discovered gunpowder while trying to create an elixir of life. In 1232, the Chinese fought the Mongols at the Battle of Kai-Keng and used rockets on the battlefield for the first time in history. The Chinese Army built weapons that looked (and acted) like gigantic bottle rockets and launched them at the attacking Mongol Army. The rockets weren’t superaccurate and probably didn’t do a ton of damage, but the explosions, smoke, and fire were so terrifying that the Mongols turned back and fled!
And according to legend, during the midsixteenth century, a Chinese official named Wan-Hu wanted to visit the moon. Wan took a wicker chair, strapped forty-seven rockets to it, and planned to use a set of kites to steer himself through the air. On his signal, servants quickly lit the fuses on the rockets, each filled with highly explosive gunpowder. A moment later, a boom louder than thunder sent everyone around diving for cover. When the smoke cleared, there was no sign of Wan-Hu or his trusty chair.
A depiction of Wan-Hu in his rocket chair, on display at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Needless to say, rocket science has come a long way since then.
Early rockets were based on a simple concept: an aerodynamic cylinder with two fuel tanks, each with a reactive substance that once combined and ignited would create a chemical reaction. The resulting explosion would be funneled downward to create enough lift to compensate for the rocket’s mass and propel it upward. Simple, right?
Nope. A metric ton of variables has to be accounted for—including but not limited to temperature, size, weight, design, amount of fuel, durability, weather, etc. The slightest miscalculation could result in catastrophic failure (and in the early days, it often did). In fact, the entire process of perfecting rocket technology is a repeated exercise in failure: make a rocket; launch it; if it blows up, figure out what went wrong; repeat. The scientific method itself is built around seeking out flaws and improving on initial concepts until you have something that works.
In 1895, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky became the first to seriously consider the use of rockets as a potential means of traveling into orbit. He came up with the first equation in rocket propulsion. He theorized the use of mixing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as fuel (way before it was ever possible to do so) and even calculated the speed needed for a rocket to break free of Earth’s gravity (which, for those wondering, is about 6.9 miles per second, or 25,020 miles per hour!). This is what is known as escape velocity.
In 1903 and 1911, Tsiolkovsky published two volumes of Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices in which he explained that a multistage rocket would be needed to achieve escape velocity. (A multistage rocket is basically a launch vehicle made up of multiple rockets stacked together that work in sequence—one after the other.) But few people seemed to notice these incredible revelations until decades later.
Meanwhile, an American physics professor from Massachusetts named Robert Goddard was working on some calculations of his own. In 1916, he sent a proposal to the Smithsonian Institution which theorized how a rocket could operate in space without the need for air. The Smithsonian was so pumped by his research that they sent him a $5,000 grant to see his work in action.
On March 16, 1926, Goddard successfully launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. The 10-pound rocket flew 41 feet into the air in just 2½ seconds! Goddard continued to improve his rockets in New Mexico, where, in 1930, he launched a rocket 2,000 feet into the air at 500 miles per hour! Throughout his life, Goddard secured 214 patents, many of which became essential to the development of propulsion technology, and he did it all despite constantly being called a crackpot.
Both Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky continued to work independently of each other for years. They tried to perfect their rockets with no help or interest from either of their respective governments. Then World War II happened, and the landscape of rocket science changed forever.
Failure to Launch
“The rocket performed perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.” —Wernher von Braun
Around the 1920s, German engineers entered the scene, testing and developing their own rockets. They were intent on becoming the first in space. In 1927, three Germans—Johannes Winkler, Max Valier, and Willy Ley—founded the Spaceflight Society, an organization that would go on to foster many of the brilliant minds who eventually made spaceflight a reality. One of those brilliant minds belonged to Wernher von Braun, the man who would ultimately chart the conquest of space.
Von Braun with a model of his V-2
One of the most highly regarded rocket scientists to ever walk the earth, Wernher von Braun is the father of modern spaceflight and a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of his goal. He earned a doctorate in physics for aerospace engineering from the University of Berlin. Inspired by Robert Goddard’s work in the United States, von Braun began to develop his own liquid-fueled rockets. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, however, the Spaceflight Society was dissolved and civilians were barred from firing rockets. In order to continue his research, von Braun reluctantly joined the Nazi regime as the world geared up for World War II.
With the Nazi’s, von Braun developed the A-4 rocket, his first full-scale prototype. The A-4 was revolutionary. Von Braun’s singular motivation was to launch it into orbit, but the Nazis had something else in mind. The A-4 was renamed the V-2 and reclassified as a “Vengeance” missile.
Von Braun’s V-2 looked more like a retro spaceship from a classic sci-fi TV show than a modern rocket. The sleek missile had curved fins and a rounded exterior. At nearly 46 feet tall, a wingspan of 11 feet, and weighing 27,600 pounds, the rocket was a sight to behold. The V-2 would become a prototype for the rockets of the Space Age that would soon follow. Nothing like it had even been attempted before, so of course there was a lot of trial and error—possibly more error than trial.
During initial tests, the V-2 endured every possible malfunction. In February 1942, the first test model slipped out of its restraints and fell two meters, smashing its fins. During the prototype’s second launch, the navigation system failed, sending it spiraling into the Baltic Sea before exploding. The third rocket’s nose broke off. Other test rockets flew off course, blew up in midair, or just fell over on the launchpad and unceremoniously exploded. In fact, there were so many problems that the Nazi’s suspected von Braun of conspiring to sabotage the rocket program.
It wasn’t until October 3, 1942, that von Braun had his first successful launch. The V-2 reached supersonic speeds and traveled 52 miles in the air. Adolf Hitler, however, was unimpressed by the expensive project. He dismissed von Braun’s momentous achievement as nothing more than an expensive artillery shell.
As the war waged on, the misuse of his rockets began to wear on von Braun. In 1944, he got drunk at a party and went on about how Germany was going to lose the war and all he ever wanted to do was send a rocket into space. The Nazi secret police arrested von Braun as a traitor, but he was later cleared of charges when the authorities realized that no one else understood rockets as well as he did.
Wernher von Braun was forced to continue his work on the V-2 program as Germany’s warheads were loaded and weaponized. To von Braun’s dismay, beginning on September 8, 1944, a volley of over 3,200 V-2 missiles were armed with explosive warheads and launched at cities and military installations in Great Britain and elsewhere. He wrote, “The rocket performed perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.” When the rockets landed in London, the governments of the world recognized for the first time the truly destructive potential of rocket engineering. But still, they ignored the potential for space travel.
As the war came to an end in 1945 and Allied forces closed in, Hitler ordered that all scientific research and development be destroyed. Von Braun and his fellow scientists weren’t ready to give up on their dream, and weren’t interested in becoming prisoners of war to the Allied forces. They hoped that they’d be able to use their expertise as a bargaining chip. Together they hatched a plan to escape to the Bavarian Alps, where US troops were advancing.
Germany was divided between the United States and its allies, one of which was the Soviet Union—a large communist state based in Russia that encompassed many current European and Asian countries. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged from WWII as the two most powerful countries in the world, and as soon as the war with Germany ended, new tension began between these superpowers. The Soviets gathered as many V-2 rockets as they could get their hands on, while the United States secretly imported as many German scientists as they could manage, including von Braun.
Text copyright © 2018 by Erik Slader and Ben Thompson