Few weeks of the year are packed with more amazing events in the 60 years of space exploration than mid-July. It’s a week when news about Mars shattered the notion of Martians and melted down the Internet.
There is the unheard-of cooperation of bitter Space Race foes America and Russia orbiting Earth together.
This week in space history the world was like fabled Chicken Little waiting for the sky to fall with the fiery remains of a United States space station.
And the greatest adventure of all was begun to the Moon—a journey that captivated the entire world for a Summer week in 1969.
All these space triumphs were the result of thousands of American men and women who puffed their chests out with pride as space workers assembled by one of the most recognized organizations in the world—NASA.
Back in 1965 the fourth planet Mars was considered a place where there might be trees flourishing and animals roaming—if not human-like creatures looking back at Earth. That dream was shattered on July 14, 1965 when NASA’s unmanned Mariner IV flew by the Red Planet and took 22 historic photos showing a rocky, cratered terrain. And instruments showed Mars to be cold like Antarctica on Earth but with a much thinner atmosphere than the top of Mt. Everest. The dream of a lush, inhabited Martian world was shattered.
Thirty-two years later, the first rover was landed on Mars. And though Sojourner was the size of a toy radio controlled car, the remote-controlled explorer broadcast photos on the new-fangled communications device called the Internet, breaking records for people logging checking in, crashing NASA’s computer site several times with millions of “hits.”
After the end of the Apollo Moon program in 1972, NASA had four Apollo spacecrafts left from its cancelled Moon missions of Apollo 18, 19, 20 and 21. In the works since 1966 was the development of a huge space station built from a Saturn V third stage rocket. The Apollo modules were repurposed to fly to a revised orbiting laboratory.
The result was the 85-ton Skylab, America’s first space station, launched May 14, 1973. Orbiting 270 miles high, the huge facility hosted three missions of three men each from May 25, 1973 to Feb. 8, 1974, Skylab 2 stayed for 28 days, Skylab 3 for 60 days and Skylab 4 for 84 days—each breaking the previous duration of humans in space.
The money saved from the cancelled Moon missions went to the development of the Space Transportation System, aka the Space Shuttle. It was supposed to be ready and sent to Skylab, but the development was too complex and delays ensued. With no propulsion of its own to raise its orbit, Skylab was left abandoned to fall to Earth by the natural forces of gravity.
On July 11, 1979, the 85-ton Skylab reentered the atmosphere after weeks of uncertainty when and where it would crash. Most of it burned up in the fiery reentry, but though two-thirds of the Earth is water, the largest pieces fell in the uninhabited regions of Western Australia. Luckily there were no casualties, but a big opportunity to learn more about living in space had been vanquished.
After the Skylab missions were flown, the last Apollo module once bound for the Moon was commissioned for quite an historic mission—the meeting in space with a Soviet Union crew aboard their Soyuz spaceship.
Largely pushed by President Richard Nixon as a platform for his peace overtures with the Communist country, it was officially called the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The unnamed Apollo and Soyuz 19 spacecrafts rendezvoused and docked on July 17, 1975, and four-time American spaceflier Tom Stafford shook hands with cosmonaut hero and first man to walk in space Alexi Leonov. Also aboard Apollo were rookies Vance Brand and original Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, grounded for 16 years by a heart murmur. The other veteran cosmonaut was Valerie Kubasov.
The attention given to the meeting of Americans and Russians in space drew attention to the peace movement between the superpowers, called détente. And forty-two years later it is Russia and the USA working together that have keep the $100 billion International Space Station working and occupied since November 2000. Ironically, the same Russian, three-person Soyuz spacecraft is America’s only access to the ISS—at a cost of $60 million a seat.
Finally, July is always known around NASA as the time when Apollo 11 culminated the effort to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s dream of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s decade.
It was Thursday, July 16, 1969 when the mighty Saturn V rocket blasted off launch pad 39A at space center named after the assassinated President. More than one million people lined the roads Florida roads around the Space Center to watch the 9:32 am launch to the Moon. Aboard the command ship called “Columbia” were Michael Collins (now age 86), Buzz Aldrin (age 87) and Neil Armstrong (deceased). The moon ship “Eagle” was nestled inside the mighty rocket’s third stage.
Five days later on Sunday afternoon, July 21st, Eagle was sitting on the surface of the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin looking out the windows at an alien world while Collins orbited overhead.
And the rest, like all of NASA’s accomplishments in the month of July, is history.