The Week in Space History- October 21st-27th

This week I’ve got some Cold War history, Shuttle Enterprise history, and more.

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The Missile Gap

One of the televised Nixon/Kennedy debates took place on October 21st, 1960. Kennedy mentioned the Missile Gap during their Foreign Policy with then-Vice President Nixon. The term “Missile Gap” was first used in the late 1950s during Kennedy’s Senate re-election campaign, and then further used throughout that presidential campaign.

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Nixon and Kennedy during the 4th televised debate.

What was the Missile Gap?

“The “Missile Gap” was a growing perception in the West, especially in the USA, that the Soviet Union was quickly developing an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) capability earlier, in greater numbers, and with far more capability than that of the United States. Although there were several ingredients in the US perception (actually a misperception), the principal ones were: effective Soviet secrecy; limited intelligence collection; biased analysis; Soviet deceptive announcements, and the actual Soviet success in testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. All of them were justified concerns.”

That quote is from a publication titled, “Penetrating the Iron Curtain: Resolving the Missile Gap With Technology” and I’m linking to it here. It was put together by the CIA and is complete with declassified materials and National Intelligence Estimates that were focused on the capabilities of the Soviet Union.

The dual events of the first ICBM test in August of 1957 and the launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957, gave the Soviet Union an air of scientific prowess. The early Soviet successes combined with very public American failures led to the incorrect belief that the United States was far behind in missile development. As the authors of “Penetrating The Iron Curtain put it: “by 1961, and as probably as early as 1959, the “gap” was actually in favor of the US though not widely recognized as such.”

In “Closing the Missile Gap” by Leonard Parkinson and Logan Potter, they describe the initial NIEs that were made up until the launch of Sputnik. The lack of reliable information on the specifics of the Soviet program meant that the NIEs were best estimates at Soviet capability. In this excerpt, there’s an interesting table on how many Soviet ICBMs were in existence and how many were thought to exist. In January 1960 the estimate stood at 10 ICBMs. By mid-1961 it had ballooned to between 140 and 200, depending on the estimate. By mid-1963 the estimates had grown further, now ranging from 350–640. In actuality, the Soviets had 4 launchers in the mid-1960s and only 91 by mid-1963.

The reason for the differences relates back to what I had mentioned earlier. “effective Soviet secrecy; limited intelligence collection; biased analysis; Soviet deceptive announcements, and the actual Soviet success in testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. All of them were justified concerns.”

Kennedy tried to paint the Eisenhower administration as flat-footed when it came to responding to the Soviet technological advances in ICBMs. The reality on the ground became clearer with the Hyland Panel report that looked at how many ICBM launch pads were in operation. Concluding that there were no more than 25 operational pads, the panel believed that the Soviet ICBM threat “should be materially downgraded and that the missiles did not represent an adequate first strike capability.”

Now, let’s get into some space history.


The crew of Apollo 7 splashed down on October 22nd, 1968. Apollo 7 proved the performance of the redesigned Command and Service Module and paved the way for the later Apollo missions.

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From left to right, Astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham are seen on the deck of the USS Essex after they were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.

A first at Venus

The Venera 9 lander touched down on Venus on October 22nd, 1975. It sent back the first pictures from the surface of another planet. The lander was exposed to temperatures around 900 degrees Fahrenheit and pressures from the toxic atmosphere that had crushed previous landers that had made it to the surface of this hellish world. The Venusian atmosphere contains chemicals like hydrofluoric acid, which is extremely dangerous to people and is corrosive enough to break down glass. The extreme pressures create an incredibly dense atmosphere that is absolutely brutal on spacecraft that touch down on the Venusian surface. The image below shows Venus as seen by the Venera 9 lander.

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On October 22nd, 1992, the crew of STS-52 lifted off on a 9-day mission where they deployed the Laser Geodynamic Satellite (LAGEOS) II satellite into a Medium Earth Orbit. Astronauts deployed the satellite during the second day of their mission.

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Columbia is pictured here at liftoff.

LAGEOS II looks a lot like a golf ball. Its surface is covered in retroreflectors that allow for ground stations to bounce a laser off of the satellite. Bouncing a laser off of this satellite helps scientists track the movement of faults in earthquake-prone areas.

This satellite is a joint program between NASA and the Italian Space Agency as well as scientists from five countries. The LAGEOS I satellite was the model for LAGEOS II, and both satellites are expected to stay in orbit indefinitely.

The original LAGEOS satellite had a plaque designed by Carl Sagan. On this plaque is information related to the mission, as well as a representation of continental drift, showing the continents as they were, as they are now, and what they will look like in the future.


The Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off on the STS-120 mission on October 23rd, 2007. Discovery’s flight was an International Space Station assembly mission that delivered the Harmony module to the station. Discovery’s crew would join the astronauts already on the space station, at the time just three people due to the station not having the necessary life support setup for a bigger crew. The Harmony Module is a utility hub for the station, “providing air, electrical power, water and other systems essential to support life in the station.”

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Discovery is pictured here as it performed the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, a “backflip” motion that gave astronauts on the ISS an opportunity to photograph the Shuttle’s tile heatshield. The RPM was adopted in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster as a way to mitigate potential tile damage.

STS-120 and the ISS Expedition 16 crews were both commanded by women. Discovery and the STS-120 mission was commanded by Pamela Melroy and Expedition 16 was commanded by Peggy Whitson. Melroy’s shuttle flight was the second time a shuttle had been commanded by a woman, after the flight of Eileen Collins on STS-93. Peggy Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station, an accomplishment she repeated on Expedition 51. The Space Shuttle Discovery mission in 2007 was the first time that two female commanders were in space on two different missions. Melroy (left) and Whitson (right) are pictured here.

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5 EVAs were performed during STS-120, the most that had been performed to date while the Shuttle was docked to the station. These EVAs moved the station’s robotic arm, tested a shuttle Tile Repair Ablator dispenser for fixing damaged thermal tiles on the shuttle, and most importantly, the EVAs readied for the permanent installation of the Harmony module.

Harmony provides “attachment points for European and Japanese laboratory modules, to be installed later this year and early next year respectively.” The construction of the ISS was very intricate, with trusses, solar panels, and modules being rearranged as the station grew in size and complexity. Now that the station is finished, it is about the size of an American football field. Not all of that space is pressurized and livable, but it’s still an incredibly massive machine that’s orbiting overhead at 17,150 MPH, about 4.76 miles per second. Next time you fly a long-distance flight, just imagine how quick your trip would be if you were traveling at that speed.

The Harmony module also includes four sleeping quarters for astronauts. I’m linking to two videos in the show notes that detail how astronauts sleep in the Harmony module. They basically get a little area that looks to be the size of a phone booth. In there they’ve got a sleeping bag, a tablet or laptop, and some personal items. Since you’re floating while sleeping in space, you don’t really need a whole ton of room, so they do look quite cozy.

STS-120 also took a significant piece of pop culture history into space during its mission. Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber from Return of the Jedi was flown onboard Discovery. Now, before you get your hopes up, no one was able to take it out and take a photo op with it while in space. I know, it’s a bummer. It’s a great disturbance in the force when I found that out. It’s as if thousands of nerds all cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

The Nedelin Catastrophe

October 24th, 1960 is a sad day in space history.

An accident occurred with a fully fueled R-16 prototype missile on a launch pad at Baikonur. The second stage engines experienced a short, which caused them to start, resulting in the second stage burning through to the first stage, detonating the rocket. The resulting explosion killed 78 people according to official numbers, but unofficial numbers range from 92–126 deaths.

The Soviet Union didn’t publicly acknowledge that this explosion took place until 1989, although there were reports in the media about the explosion in the years following the incident. A rushed development schedule and lack of necessary steps for safety combined with explosive results when the hypergolic fuels ignited on the launch pad.

One of the people killed instantaneously during the explosion was the head of the program that was developing the rocket that had exploded on the pad. Chief Marshall Nedelin was an essential figure in Soviet Space history and in the history of the space race.

Take a moment to remember the people that lost their lives in this tragic accident.

Deep Space 1

On October 24th, 1998, NASA launched the Deep Space 1 spacecraft. This was the first mission to utilize an ion engine for propulsion, a technology now in use on the Dawn spacecraft. Experiments with ion or solar electric propulsion date back to the late 1950s when Dr. Harold Kaufman, an engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, designed and built some of the experimental engines.

Deep Space 1 successfully completed its mission of testing the Ion Propulsion system and capturing science while flying by an asteroid in 1991 and completing its primary science objective in 2001 when it performed a flyby of the comet Borrelly.

The Mississippi Test Facility

On October 25th, 1961, NASA announced that The Mississippi Test Facility, now the John C. Stennis Space Center, would be built. Check out the full piece I wrote on Medium here.

The Final Free Flight of the Enterprise.

2 minutes, 1 second.

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Enterprise is seen here seconds before landing.

That’s how short the final flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise was on October 26th, 1977.

The Enterprise was used to conduct a series of Approach and Landing Tests that started in February of 1977 and ended on October 26th, 1977. You can read about these tests in this Medium piece.

Liftoff of the Saturn I!

On October 27th, 1961, the First Saturn I launch vehicle lifted off from Cape Canaveral. The Saturn I was a much more powerful rocket than the ones that NASA had launched up to that point, due to the requirements of reaching the Moon.

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The first test was only for the first stage of the vehicle, with two dummy upper stages that were destined to impact into the Atlantic Ocean. The second and third stages were ballasted with water to simulate how a fully-loaded vehicle would perform. The entire stack weighed 925,000 pounds.

After a short weather hold it was time to test the Saturn I. I love this description of the initial seconds of this launch.

“Launch came when the ground launch sequencer ordered the firing of a solid propellant charge. The gases from the ignition accelerated a turbine that in turn drove fuel and LOX pumps. Hydraulic valves opened, allowing RP-1 and LOX into the combustion chambers, along with a hypergolic fluid that ignited the mixture. The engines fired in pairs, developing full thrust in 1.4 seconds. A final rough combustion check was followed by ejection of LOX and RP-1 fill masts from the booster base. The four hold-down arms released the rocket 3.97 seconds after first ignition and SA-1 was airborne.”

That’s it for this week. Be sure to check out The Space Shot on Apple Podcasts.

Picture credits- NASA/National Archives/JFK Library

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Hosts The Space Shot & The Cosmosphere Podcast. Podcaster. Techie. Bibliophile. Space science & history nerd.

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