For someone like me, the history of space exploration is just as fascinating as the discoveries that it made. There are lots of museums and historic sites that we can visit to learn more about the pioneers from space. Many of them are currently closed, but with the power of the internet, we can bring them to life in our own home.
When Google Earth launched almost 20 years ago, I was fascinated by the chance to view the surface of the Earth from space. The clarity of the images was of a quality that only a few years ago would have been the preserve of surveillance satellites and spy planes. More recently, it is possible to view astonishing detail using a number of different mapping websites, including Bing, Google, and Wikimapia. Viewing these sites from space with history in mind makes such an exploration fascinating.
Following our recent podcast conversation with Marc Verdiell about the Apollo Guidance Computer and its importance to the history of computing, it seems fitting to start with the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral. The best-known home of the US space program has been the departure point of some of the most famous journeys in history.
The Vehicle Assembly Building
Following President Kennedy’s famous speech in 1961 in which he committed the United States to send a man to the moon, the pace of development was frantic. The engineers tasked with sending astronauts to the moon had to invent solutions for problems that had not even been considered 5 years previously.
One of the key questions of the day was the program’s launch site. There were two critical considerations: the site should be as close to the equator as possible, and it should be on an east-facing coast to make launches safer.
Several launch sites were considered very carefully before Cape Canaveral in Florida was selected. Even then, the location was not ideal. Prone to high winds and the occasional hurricane, the ground was also soft and surrounded by wetlands. In the words of NASA Administrator Jim Webb, Cape Canaveral was “the worst place in the world, except for everywhere else.”
The whole site is easy to see from space, from the launchpads to the huge Vehicle Assembly Building. There are even two of the giant crawlers visible, the machines used to take the huge rocket to the launch pads.
America’s great opponent during the space race of the 20th century was the Soviet Union, and without this competition, it is questionable whether the Apollo program would have succeeded. The Soviet space program yielded many of the most important firsts. The first artificial satellite, the first man in space, the first woman in space – all were achieved by the Soviets.
Vostok 1, the first manned space mission
While the Soviet Union is no more, its legacy is still clear to see at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Even bigger than the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, it is interesting to see both the similarities and the differences. The infrastructure looks very familiar in the shape of launch pads, roads and rail networks and the oversized buildings used to service the rockets themselves.
The one key difference that is immediately noticeable is the location. Lacking an eastwards-facing coast with a pleasant climate, the Soviet Union chose an inland site, relying on the vast, sparsely inhabited steppes to provide the necessary safety zone. Baikonur is located in now-independent Kazakhstan and is still very active in the space business.
Two features are especially interesting. The first is called “Gagarin’s Start”, the pad from which Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first manned trip to space in 1961. It has remained in use ever since and has launched more than 500 missions.
Buran - the Soviet Shuttle, abandoned after just one flight.
Image: David de Rueda, who made several covert trips to document the Buran
The other interesting feature is less interesting from space. This building, less than 3 kilometres from Gagarin’s Start, is the resting place of the Soviet space shuttle, the Buran. Although they look like carbon-copies of the US shuttles, it is possible that the Soviets had a superior spacecraft in the Buran. Sadly, there was just a single flight of the Buran before the cancellation of the program, and the remaining shuttles lie covered in dust in this enormous building.
Britain’s Space Program
Although eclipsed by the larger and more glamourous manned space programs of the USA and the Soviet Union, Britain’s contribution to the exploration of space has been active since the early 1950s. The British model has always been to use unmanned vehicles, and in the early years pursued an independent launch system, with some success. Actual flight tests were undertaken from the Woomera test range in the Australian outback, but rocket tests were conducted here in the UK, and the facilities can still be seen.
Britain's Space Program in Action, with tourists just over the hill...
The Isle of Wight off the south coast of England, better known as a holiday destination, was selected as a test site. The geography of the western end of the island, with its high chalk cliffs, would be ideal to keep the facility away from prying eyes. A larger facility was also built in Cumbria.
The good news is that the test stands are still there. On a tiny scale when compared to their overseas competitors, they stand as monuments to the efforts of British scientists. The Isle of Wight facility can be visited by the public, but the Cumbria site is part of a larger military base.
Rumble in the Jungle
When the French space program looked for its own launch facility, it became clear that mainland Europe was not a safe option. Looking further afield, the French chose the jungles of Guiana in South America. Very close to the equator and on the Atlantic coast, the site has become the home to the European Space Agency (ESA).
Ariane 5 ready for launch
Image: Stéprhane Israël/Arianespace/Twitter
ESA’s Ariane program was the first launch vehicle designed with a commercial role in mind. In its 41-year history, Ariane has conducted over 230 successful flights, launching commercial satellites into orbit. The Guiana Spaceport is still growing as Ariane enters its 6th generation of launch vehicles.
Whilst it is always interesting using aerial images to look at history, rarely is it that history is quite as large and distinctive as the exploration of space. With many countries developing their own space programs, along with the growing commercial space companies, there is plenty to see and explore. Why not give it a go?
Super-Geeky Extra Bonus Round!
There are other things visible from space. If you are as mad about planes as I am, take a look at The Boneyard – Davis Monthan AFB – where the US keeps its surplus aircraft. I can count 57 different types of aircraft (5 of which I couldn’t identify without cheating). How many can you spot? There are 14 types in this picture alone...
Image: Airliners.net/Rainer Bexton