Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Teacher's bits: Overview of the Space Race

My grade 9 history class is covering the Cold War this term, and one lesson needed to focus on the Space Race. This was a problem for me, because I simply have way too much of that inside my head. I love this stuff. I kept trying to think of ways to focus on only the key essentials, but I always slip into massive digressions that would easily fill a whole lesson on their own. Left unchecked, I'd happily discuss nothing else all year. And my grade 9s are especially chatty and unfocused, so they'd normally have a million questions, digressing totally off topic.

So, I needed to script an unusually tight lesson plan, forcing myself to stay on topic, with a set of pre-planned slides to illustrate what I was talking about, and specially asking the kids to write down any questions they had to ask me afterwards, rather than interrupting my flow. That's not my usual style at all, my normal teaching is very similar to my game mastering style (intentionally; it was the public speaking foundation I began with), with a very improvisation-friendly skeleton of key points to hit, however seems most appropriate to the audience of the moment. I've tried scripted, rehearsed lecturing before, and it didn't suit me very well. But for this topic, I felt I had no choice.

In practice, I felt it went fine. It wasn't nearly as deep as I would have enjoyed, but we weren't doing this for me.

So, for anyone else needing a lesson plan on the Space Race, here is my approx. 30 minute overview lesson, emphasizing the technological roots it had in World War II (the topic we covered in term 1), and mostly covering achievements in human spaceflight. I was especially glad I happen to have read Breaking the Chains of Gravity last year.

I've also freely thrown in a lot of technical names, especially of different rocket types, but that's not something the students need to worry about. Much more import is the general flow of broad trends and national goals.

Images are mostly taken from Wikipedia, though I've combined a few into collages.

(The format is slide image [click to embiggen], slide title as caption, and then the discussion points that go with that slide.)

Origin of rockets

  • Gunpowder rockets invented in 13th century China.
  • Used for centuries as entertainment and as a simple weapons.

Artillery example
  • After WW1, Treaty of Versailles included a specific rule against Germany owning any artillery guns.
  • Artillery was one of the most important types of weapons for killing at long distances (10+ kilometers; bombing Cresta from Concord).
  • But the Treaty of Versailles didn’t mention rockets at all, so the Nazi government hired a group of amateur rocket scientists to develop rocket artillery.
von Braun (suit)

  • Leader of the German rocket scientists was Wernher von Braun.
  • They were mostly interested in exploring space, but were happy to take the army’s money to build weapons instead.

  • In 1942, they finally had the V-2 rocket ready.
  • It could carry a bomb 300km away (more than halfway from Joburg to Durban).
  • Small number of scientists couldn’t make thousands of weapons needed for war, so concentration camp prisoners were used as slave labour to build V-2s.
  • Up 60 000 slaves worked in a hidden underground factory, called the Mittelwerk.
  • Around 9000 people were killed by V-2 attacks. 20 000 people died working at Mittelwerk.

first photo of Earth from space, 1946
  • V-2 was also the first human machine to go into space. A test launch in 1944 reached 176km above sea level.

Captured von Braun, Korolev, Bumper
  • During last months of WW2, Allies rushed to grab Nazi technological secrets, including von Braun’s scientists and rockets.
  • Von Braun chose to surrender most scientists to USA, moved there.
  • USSR only caught a few scientists, but got most of the rocket test facilities. Moved these to USSR.
  • USSR research headed by former political prisoner, Sergei Korolev
  • Both started trying to improve on German designs.

Basic rocket science jargon
[A technical interlude to clarify some very basic rocket science terms, without which, a lot of this discussion doesn't make much sense.]
  • Suborbital flight: Up, into space, and then down again. Relatively easy for smaller rockets.
  • Orbit: Go up, move sideways fast enough that you don’t come back down again. Much harder, needs much more powerful rockets.
  • V-2 could only do suborbital.
  • Rockets have at least two main parts to them: Launcher and payload.
  • Launcher is the flamey bit that moves the payload off the ground and into space.
  • Payload is the thing on top that will do the job you want it to do (could be bomb, communication satellite, observing (spy or science) satellite, crew capsule)
  • A human isn’t that heavy, but air, water, food, temperature control, radiation protection, control panels, seats, windows, etc., all add mass.
[Sub-interlude to explain why 1957 was an especially crucial year for spaceflight]
  • 1957 was declared the International Geophysical Year, when scientists from around the world would cooperate on major studies of the whole Earth. Leaders of the USA and USSR both saw this year as an important opportunity to get research satellites into orbit.
  • If the international community considered research satellites normal and legal, then it would be far easier to sneak some military spy satellites into orbit too.
Soviet headstart, Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2, Luna 1, Luna 2, Vostok 1
  •  Korolev developed V-2 technology into very powerful rocket called the R-7, much bigger than any Western rocket of the time.
  • R-7 could carry nuclear bombs hundreds of kilometers away.
  • Also powerful enough to put satellites in orbit. Science satellites could study the Earth and space, but could also be spy satellites to watch other countries’ militaries and find their secrets.
  • R-7 launched:
    • Oct 1957: Sputnik 1, first ever artificial satellite.
    • Nov 1957: Sputnik 2, first satellite to carry an animal, the dog Laika. Laika died within hours due to overheating.
    • 1959: Luna 1 and Luna 2, first successful probes to the Moon. Luna 1 flew past the Moon, Luna 2 was intentionally crashed into the surface of the Moon.
    • 12 April 1961: First human in space, Yuri Gagarin, on Vostok 1.
    • Several other “firsts”.
  • R-7s are still used today.
US headlines

  • Western reporting on Soviet launches was often ‘alarmist’ – very fearful, emphasizing lack of US ability to keep up, and implying huge risk of unstoppable Soviet nuclear attack, falling from the sky at any time.
  • Soviet media published less about their own setbacks.
US response, X-15, Mercury
  • US companies had already been working on spacecraft since von Braun and the V-2 were brought across, but American public and politicians suddenly demanded much faster results.
  • Research on the complicated X-15 rocket plane was largely ignored, in favour of the simpler, smaller, quicker to build Mercury capsule.
  • But early on, the US didn’t have a rocket powerful enough to put the Mercury capsule into orbit, so they just launched suborbitally on the weaker Redstone nuclear launcher, basically an enlarged V-2. The first US astronaut launched a month after Gagarin.
  • Even when they put Mercury capsules on bigger Atlas rockets the next year, and got Americans into orbit, it still wasn’t as much or as high as the Soviet R-7 could manage. Vostoks kept doing more than Mercuries could.
  • Americans remained fearful. President Kennedy declared the US would win the Space Race by putting humans on the Moon before 1970.
US progress, Gemini, Apollo-Saturn IB, Apollo-Saturn V
  • With the Moon target, US rockets and spacecraft kept getting bigger.
    • Mercury was upgraded to Gemini, and then the two-piece Apollo set.
    • Redstone and Atlas were replaced with the larger Titan II nuclear missile, and then the much larger Saturn IB. In the late 1960s, US launchers were finally bigger than the Soviet R-7.
  • For the Moon missions, Apollo needed the biggest launcher ever, the Saturn V.
  • Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon on 20 July 1969. 12 Americans on 6 Apollo missions until 1972, got to walk on the Moon.
  • ...and then US pretty much decided they had won the Space Race, and there was no longer any money to return humans to the Moon, let alone any deeper to Mars, Venus, or other planets.
Soviet N1, Salyut 6 station and a Soyuz
  • The Soviet Moon launcher, the N1, equivalent to the American Saturn V, was a failure. It crashed and exploded on every test launch. With no huge launcher, the Soviets couldn’t send any people to the Moon.
  • The new Soviet Soyuz spacecraft was also too unreliable for the first few years to be sent to the Moon (though it was later fixed and is still in use today).
  • Without the technology to reach the Moon, the USSR changed its goal from Moon landings to long-term space stations in Earth orbit. The first space station, Salyut 1, was occupied for 2 weeks in 1967. More space stations followed, and today’s International Space Station still uses some of the same components as the original Salyut stations.
  • Arguably, the sustained Soviet/Russian station operations have achieved more in the long run than the quicker US burst to reach the Moon and then stop.
  • After the Moon Race ended, both sides felt less sense of competition, and were finally able cooperate. First ever international docking, in 1975, between Soyuz 19 and Apollo 18.
  • After the Cold War ended, cooperation increased, with US space shuttles visiting the Russian Mir station during the 1990s.
  • US, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada cooperated in assembling the enormous structure of the International Space Station, starting in 1998.
Proposed Deep Space Gateway lunar station

  • Plans for international Moon station, Mars missions? 
Chinese, Indian 21st century spacecraft
  • Several other countries have developed launch capabilities (SA sub-orbital launches in 1989/1990), but the only other launches of humans so far are by China, starting with Shenzhou 5, in 2003.
  • USA refuses to do space missions with China, so China built its own stations.
  • India also has partly developed crew capsule that could carry people a few years from now.