Air and Space


Using computers that were less powerful than a pocket calculator, let alone as sophisticated as a smartphone, NASA and the brilliant engineers who designed and built the Apollo spacecraft saw their efforts come to fruition 45 years ago tonight. Separating from the command module Columbia, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the surface in the lunar module Eagle and touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.

This has to be considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, technological achievements in human history. Navigating to the tolerances required to rendezvous with the moon and being able to successfully pilot a craft to the surface is only surpassed by the fact that all the Apollo lunar missions returned their crews to Earth safely.

Today is a day to reflect on what was accomplished and to ponder the potential of human ingenuity. As a species, history has shown that we can accomplish virtually anything if we put our minds to it.

For more details on the Apollo 11 mission, click here.

Pencil on Strathmore Multimedia board. Click on the drawing for a larger version.

Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins liftoff from Cape Kennedy on the mission that would put a man on the moon 45 years ago today.

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Ed White, Gemini 4, NASA, Space Walk, EVA, drawing, air and space

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the first American space walk by Ed White. The Soviets beat the Americans to the punch on this space milestone when Alexei Leonov left his Voskhod 2 spacecraft in March. Here, White floats outside his Gemini 4 spacecraft using a small maneuvering thruster to control his movement. Unlike Leonov, White’s life support came from an umbilical cord rather than a backpack. Both Leonov and White had some difficulty at the end of their space walks, Leonov almost could not get back through the airlock because his suit ballooned with air while he was outside the cabin. White and his Command Pilot, Jim McDivitt, had some difficulty closing the hatch, a potentially fatal problem, as they could not re-enter the atmosphere with the hatch improperly closed.

The Gemini 4 spacecraft is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It is mounted with the door on Ed White’s side of the craft open.

Gemini 4, Ed White, NASA, Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum

Gemini 4, Ed White, NASA, Smithsonian, National Air and Space Museum

Ed White would be part of the ill-fated Apollo 1 crew and lost his life in the terrible fire that also claimed Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee and is buried at his alma-mater, West Point.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

It was 43 years ago today that the human race carried out the greatest technical achievement in history when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Over 400,000 people worked on NASA’s space program with the goal to land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960′s and it was the ingenuity, dedication, and hard work of these people that led to the successful moon landing.

Apollo 11 Liftoff

On July 16th, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida, on its trip to the moon. The mighty Saturn V rocket was the most powerful machine ever built and carried aloft the Apollo spacecraft system consisting of the Command Module, Service Module, and Lunar Module. On board were mission Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. All had been in space before as part of the Gemini program, but they were only the third crew to ever fly in deep space, escaping Earth’s gravitational field and entering the moon’s. Apollo 8 had shown that the voyage to the moon could be accomplished and the difficult navigational problems solved while Apollo 10 demonstrated that the Lunar Module and the “Lunar Orbit Rendezvous” technique worked properly. Now, Apollo 11 would try to accomplish the landing.

Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia" on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

En route to the moon, the three astronauts lived in the Command Module “Columbia” which was attached to the Service Module that provided electricity and housed the engine that would both put the spacecraft into lunar orbit and also impart the impetus required to get the astronauts back to Earth. “Columbia” is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, D.C., and is the only part of the Apollo spacecraft that returns to Earth.

After the third stage of the Saturn V was fired to give Apollo the speed to escape Earth’s gravity, Collins carefully turned “Columbia” around and docked with the Lunar Module “Eagle” which remained nestled in the top of the third stage. The combined spacecraft then headed for its destination while the third stage continued on a path that eventually led it into an orbit around the sun.

Apollo Lunar Module

After successfully placing the spacecraft in lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module “Eagle” and undocked from “Columbia” to begin their descent. Armstrong took manual control of “Eagle” after he noticed the automatic system was steering them toward a boulder-strewn field. After overcoming computer overload problems and nearly running out of fuel, Armstrong put the “Eagle” down in the Sea of Tranquility with the famous words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” Ironically at Mission Control, they were a bit taken aback since Armstrong had never used the term “Tranquility Base” in any of the simulations and they weren’t quite sure what he was talking about. A quarter of a million mile trip to another celestial body had been successfully accomplished.

Armstrong on the moon in the Lunar Module

Amazingly, after kicking off their space program with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May of 1961, the United States managed to land 2 men on the moon only 8 years later. Armstrong descended the ladder attached the the Lunar Module’s front leg and uttered the famous phrase, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Man was walking on the moon!

Buzz Aldrin's Apollo 11 Worn Space Suit

Armstrong and Aldrin spent a little over 2 hours on the lunar surface conducting experiments and collecting samples. Ironically, there are almost no photos of Armstrong on the moon since he had the camera. The launch from the lunar surface was executed flawlessly as the ascent stage of the Lunar Module rose into orbit to meet “Columbia”. Armstrong, Aldrin, and their samples were transferred to the Command Module and the Lunar Module “Eagle” was jettisoned, eventually crashing to the lunar surface. The Service Module engine was fired and the crew headed for home.

Mobile Quarantine Unit

After splashdown in the Pacific, the Apollo 11 crew was picked up by the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet and placed into the above-pictured quarantine unit in the event that they might have returned from space with dangerous microbes. After 3 weeks in isolation, the astronauts were determined to be in excellent health and they were released to worldwide adulation. The United States and NASA had accomplished an amazing technical feat unequaled in human history before or since. In fact, it is difficult to even conceive of an enterprise as ambitious as attempting a landing on the moon using 1960′s technology. Landing on Mars, while impressive, would be accomplished with modern computers, materials, and engineering techniques. Nothing quite compares to what was done 43 years ago today.

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On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, it only seems appropriate to honor the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. Inarguably the turning point of the Pacific War, the Battle of Midway saw the U.S. break the back of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Never again would Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto’s “Kido Butai” carrier force dominate the Pacific as aircraft from the American carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, and Hornet sank four Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Soryu, Kaga, and Hiryu. The fatal strikes were delivered with bombs dropped by Dauntless bombers diving out of the sky at a nearly vertical trajectory amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. Three of the Japanese carriers were fatally hit by Dauntless’s in just 6 minutes of action. The pilots used the huge Rising Sun painted on the carrier decks as a target to line up their strikes.

By the war’s end, the plucky Dauntless had sunk more Japanese shipping than any other aircraft.

The Douglas SBD Dauntless, which first flew in 1940, carried its primary bomb under the fuselage attached to a cradle that swung the 1000lb ordinance beyond the arc of the propellor as the aircraft dove at its target. A Dauntless pilot would start his dive and deploy dive brake flaps on the wings to slow his descent and allow him to line up the target. Above, you can see the y-shaped cradle beneath the fuselage. The Dauntless flew with a crew of two, a pilot and a rear gunner. Though slow compared to some of its contemporaries, the Dauntless made up for its performance drawbacks by being tough and reliable.


Note the perforated dive flaps on wings of the Dauntless in the photo above. This Dauntless is on display at the National Air and Space Museum, National Mall, Washington, D.C.

The Dauntless served with distinction in the U.S. Navy until 1944 and will always be remembered as the key aircraft of the Midway campaign. Dauntless squadron leaders Max Leslie (Yorktown) and Wade McCluskey (Enterprise) led the planes that scored the fatal blows and were awarded the Navy Cross for their efforts.

Douglas SBD Dauntless

Speed: 255 mph
Ceiling: 25,530 ft
Armament: 2 × .50 in machine guns (firing forward) and 2 x 0.30 in machine guns in rear, 2,250lbs of bombs
Crew: 2

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