Spacecraft in Pictures

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NASA’s Rocket for the Future

NASA’s new design for the rocket that will return us to the Moon, take us to Mars, the asteroids and perhaps even the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Using upgraded technology from the Space Shuttle, the initial design, shown here, will stand 320 tall and have a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds. Later versions, with a second stage, will be 400 feet tall and have a liftoff thrust of 9.2 million pounds. Both are significantly more powerful than Apollo’s Saturn V’s 7.5 million pounds.

Building Blocks

The liftoff of the Space Shuttle was one of the most thrilling sights any of us saw for the past 30 years. The blinding exhaust of the solid rocket boosters, the steam from the sound suppression system--it all created an image unlike anything ever seen on this planet before.

Now, equipment from the Shuttle will become building blocks for the SLS. Upgraded versions of the Shuttle’s main engines will become the SLS’s main engines—but there will five, rather than the three used on the Shuttle. The Shuttle’s SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters) will be used on initial versions of the SLS. Later versions may use other types of SRBs.

Return to Earth

As exciting as a Shuttle launch was, seeing it return to Earth and touch down safely produced a different kind of excitement—one tinged with relief and pride. This is an image we will never see again. The shuttle is now history, and the future of space travel is now directed beyond the Moon.

Images From the Dream

Man dreamed of space travel for years, perhaps centuries, before the Space Age dawned in 1957. As soon as movies became sophisticated enough to develop effective special effects, space travel was put on film. One the first true space travel films was the 1920s era film “Frau Im Mond” (Lady in the Moon). An interesting aspect of the rocket in the film is it was designed by Hermann Orberth, who later would work with Werner von Braun on the V2 and then at NASA. The rocket was one of the first depictions of a multi-stage vehicle—in this case two stages.

This image and the next few depict examples of the dream as we neared the beginnings of the Space Age.

Destination Moon

This sleek rocket was the hero in the 1950s film "Destination Moon". It was designed by space artist Chesley Bonestell, who had created paintings for numerous books on space travel, including von Braun’s Collier’s Magazine series. In the film, this rocket was nuclear powered.

One interesting aspect of the film is the script was coauthored by famous science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, so it was technically as accurate as producer George Pal, a former puppeteer, could make it at the time. Except for the stars. The sky on the moon was created with a black velvet backdrop, with holes punched in it to make stars. Lights behind the velvet illuminated the stars. As you can see, the technique didn’t quite work!

When Worlds Collide

After “Destination Moon”, George Pal made a movie based on the Philip Wylieand, Edwin Balmer novel “When Wolds Collide”. Whereas the “Destination Moon” rocket was just a static model, this rocket actually flew—at least a couple of feet. As you see from the image, it was launched from a ramp. In the story it was three miles long. The model actually was about 300 feet, and the model spaceship itself three feet long. It was powered, and the image above shows it just leaving the ramp. Pal had hoped it would fly at least 100 feet or so into the air so he could get footage of the rocket soaring into space. Unfortunately, the model was unstable, and as soon as it left the ramp it began to tip over and crashed after being in the air just a few seconds.

Images From the Dream–One Unique Concept

This concept from the early ’50s is one of many proposing an air lauch from a large combination jet/rocket powered ‘mother ship.’ The second stage would continue on to orbit. Of course, the Air Force and NASA use this concept, in a much smaller way, with the Pegasus spacecraft, launched from a B-52 or L1011.

Most of the private ‘edge of space’ tourist venture use this concept, including Virgin Galactic’s rocket. To call them spacecraft, however, is a gross misnomer, as they barely get above the stratosphere at 60 to 65 miles.

The Conquest of Space

The Soviet Union had orbited Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space. America was in a catch up mode with its first short jaunt up and down in the Mercury-Redstone rocket. This slim, interesting design would do its job and prepare U.S. astronauts for their time in orbit.

The Cape in the Early Days

On the pad is Mercury-Atlas-1, an unmanned test of the lauch vehicle (LV) John Glenn would fly MA-6 to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

Conquering Space

After completion of the Mercury program came the Gemini, a two-man spacecraft. Its purpose was to perfect rendezvous techniques. This image was taken when two Gemini craft rendezvoused with each other.

A second mission of the program was to perfect EVA activities. Gemini featured hatches (note the windows in this image) that swung open to provide wide access to space for that purpose.

An Angry Alligator

The ultimate goal of the Gemini program was to dock with an Agena stage and use it to move to higher orbits. On this first try, things didn’t go well, as the aerodynamic faring on the Agena failed to separate. Astronaut Tom Stafford called it an ‘angry alligator.’ Eventually, Geminis would dock with Agenas, and on one flight, the Agena would take the pair more than 800 miles above the Earth.

Destination Moon–For Real

The Saturn V moon rocket is the most powerful, largest rocket ever built. With an eventual liftoff thrust of eight million pounds, it was more powerful even than the Shuttle. Its five engines each generated 1.5 milliion lbs of thrust, eventually uprated to 1.6 million. Its first stage was 33 feet in diameter and used RP-1 and LOX as propellant. The second stage was also 33 feet but used LH2 and LOX. The third stage, the SIVB, also was LH2/LOX powered and restartable.


The Apollo spacecraft took men to the Moon nine times. Six times men landed and walked on the lunar surface. While a companion spacecraft actually landed men on the surface, the Apollo and its pilot waited patiently in lunar orbit for their return. This picture was taken from the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) as it prepared to descent to the lunar surface.

The Lunar Lander

The Lunar Excursion Module prepares to deorbit and descend to the Moon’s surface. The Apollo pilot took this picture. You can see the big descent engine, the ladder down which the astronauts will climb to reach the surface, and the LEM landing legs, which will be extended before touchdown.

Russian Soyuz

The Soyuz spacecraft that at this time, with the retirement of the Shuttle, is the only access to the International Space Station (ISS). Soyuz has been the standard Russian manned craft since the Soviet days in the ’70s.

A Home in Space

While not technically a spacecraft, the ISS is certainly one of the coolest artifacts ever put into space. Built in space over a period of several years, the now completed station is home to six astronauts from various nations, mainly the U.S. and Russia. You can see both Soyuz lifeboats docked.

Opening the Solar System

NASA had turned to military rockets for its LVs, such as the Mercury Redstone and Atlas. For unmanned missions it looked at other military rockets such as the THOR IRBM shown here. The THOR was used for many types of unmanned missions, to the Moon, and to Mars. Various LV versions included the THOR-Able, and THOR-Agena.

Making the THOR LVs distinctive was its unique tapered upper fuselage. This identified these LVs until this century, when newer, uprated versions did away with that unique look in favor of a more standard straight line that provided greater fuel capacity.


Arguably the most elegant of all LVs, the Atlas/Centaur was the first to use an LH2 upper stage. With the original Atlas’ stage and 1/2 design, the extension of the Centaur gave the vehicle a clean, slim look. It sent our first lander to another world—the Surveyor craft that mapped landing sites for Apollo—and later sent landers and rovers to Mars and probes to the outer planets.

Surveying the Moon

The Surveyor spacecraft at its landing spot where it had rested for three years when Frank Borman reached it on Apollo 12. That mission was purposed to land near the robot so the astronauts could retrieve the camera and some other parts for scientists to test the effects of long-term exposure to space.

Note the LEM on the rim of the crater above the site.

Red Planet Mars

Viking was our first emissary to the Red Planet. It returned intriguing pictures of the rocky surface on which it landed. But it found no signs of life. We thought at the time. Phoenix would later question those results.

The coverings draped over the lander are the parachutes used for landing.

Unearthing Mars’ Mysteries

Phoenix was our next emissary to the Red Planet. This artist’s concept shows the spacecraft during a Martian sunset. Note its long arm, used for digging in the soil in search of signs of life. The camera is on top of the pole above the main body. Phoenix sent back intriguing photos and data that subsequent rovers have explained in part. But like all science, further discoveries have created additional mysteries.

Roving Around Mars

The twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have told us more about the Red Planet than we ever knew before. They have found unequivocal signs of water flows in the past, and even possible water existing today. Spirit ceased operating a year or so ago, but Opportunity continues its slow trek over the red sands of our planetary neighbor, making new, exciting discoveries at each stop.

Astronomy’s Third Phase

With Pioneer 10, America opened what science and space writer Wiley Ley called ‘The third phase of astronomy.’ Ley opined that the first phase was man studying the sky with his eyes. Phase two was studying the cosmos with telescopes. The third phase was going to other worlds in person or sending robot emissaries. Pioneer 10 was the first of these to go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, visiting Jupiter and Saturn.

Since it has continued its flight into interstellar space, it is an emissary to the stars.

To the Stars

Voyagers 1 and 2 followed the Pioneer missions to Jupiter and Saturn, but provided much more detailed photos of the giant planets. they also solved a few of the mysteries of Saturn’s rings—and added some new ones, of course. These two cool spacecraft also took a look at several of the giant planets’ moons. Talk about new mysteries, each moon seemed have several of its own.

Voyager 2 continued on, out to the other Solar System giants Uranus and Neptune, giving us amazing pictures of these distant gas planets and their previously unknown moons.

Both Voyagers then headed for interstellar space, with a message for any advanced civilization that might chance upon them in coming centuries.

New Investigations

Galileo took a closer look at Jupiter, even sending a probe into the planet’s thick turbulent atmosphere. The probe penetrated several miles before it was crushed by the increasing pressure and returned vital data on Jupiter’s unique atmospheric phenomena. Later, Galileo itself would be crashed into the atmosphere.

Juno–The New Probe

Juno is on its was to the giant planet, on a long and winding road that will see it arrive at Jupiter in 2016. This is the most sophisticated Jupiter probe sent to study this amazing planet. It should answer many of the questions we have about the giant of the Solar System.

Back to the Future

The Falcon 9 LV was developed and built by SpaceX Corp. under NASA’s new commercial program. The 9 refers to the number of engines on the booster. The 12 foot diameter booster uses nine Merlin engines, each producing 125,000 pounds of thrust, giving the Falcon 9 a total liftoff thrust of 1.1 million pounds. The company also designed, developed and built the Merlin engine.

The Merlin engines use kerosene and LOX as propellant, rather than the higher energy LH2/LOX combination of the Shuttle. The pump and injector design of the engine is based on the Apollo Lunar Module, which had to be the most reliable rocket engine ever built.

The Falcon 9 boasts an engine out to orbit capability. The first stage is recoverable, descending on parachutes, and reusable.

The second stage of the booster, also 12 feet in diameter, uses a single Merlin engine that is restartable. This is unique for a kerosene/LOX engine. This capability is achieved with dual pyrophoric igniters.

Return to Space

Dragon, SpaceX’s commercially developed craft, is a multipurpose spaceship that will function as both a cargo carrier to supply the ISS, and a manned spacecraft to ferry up to seven astronauts to the space station. Its successful orbital flight and reentry and recovery last year brought its entry into service closer than ever, possibly as early as this year to transport cargo to the ISS.

The spacecraft, like NASA’s pre-shuttle spacecraft such as Gemini and Apollo, consists of three sections. First is the spacecraft itself, which will house the crew, or cargo, depending on configuration. Then there is the service section. This contains the avionics and reaction control system (RCS) that provides both attitude control and orbital maneuvering as well as the parachutes for landing.

The third section is a departure for Dragon. It is called the ‘trunk’ and houses the spacecraft’s unique solar panels. Dragon uses solar panels for its electrical power rather than fuel cells.

Even in manned configurations, Dragon can carry some cargo. The trunk can carry unpressurized cargo even with seven astronauts. With a four person crew, pressurized cargo can be carried in the crew module.

Dragon’s capabilities are not limited to just a hop to the ISS. In what SpaceX terms its DragonLab configuration, the spacecraft can fly in space on its own, performing many of the experiments and functions done with the Space Shuttle. The extent of these will have to be tested when flights actually take place.

NASA wants to attempt to dock Dragon with the ISS on its next flight. Russia is balking. But eventually, Dragon will provide America with its own ride into space.