In this second installment of the Epic Fails series, explore the many failures that made up the Race to Space, paving the way for humanity’s eventual success at reaching the stars.
Today, everyone is familiar with Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he first set foot on the moon: “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” He made it look easy, but America’s journey to the moon was anything but simple. In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, into orbit, America had barely crossed the starting line of the great Space Race. Later that year, our first attempt was such a failure that the media nicknamed it “Kaputnik.” Still, we didn’t give up. With each failure, we gleaned valuable information about what went wrong, and how to avoid it in the future. So we tried again. And again. And each time we failed, we failed a little bit better.
The Epic Fails series by Erik Slader and Ben Thompson explores the humorous backstories behind a variety of historical discoveries, voyages, experiments, and innovations that didn't go as expected but succeeded nonetheless, showing that many of mankind's biggest success stories are the result of some pretty epic failures indeed.
This title has Common Core connections.
About the Author
Ben Thompson is the author of a dozen books on various awesome historical subjects including the Guts & Glory series, and has appeared on television programs for the History Channel, Discovery, and the American Heroes Channel. He has written for Cracked, Fangoria, Soldier of Fortune, and The American Mustache Institute, currently owns four swords (if you count a letter opener shaped like Glamdring the Foe-Hammer), and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with a single quarter.
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the coauthor of the Epic Fails book series, including The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving Into History and Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff.
Read an Excerpt
It's Just Rocket Science!
"How many things have been denied one day, only to become realities the next!" — Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon
Have you ever looked up at the moon and wondered how far away it really is? To the naked eye, it sometimes looks as if you could just reach out and grab it, but the moon is actually 232,271 miles away from us! What's even crazier is that between 1969 and 1972, twelve men actually made it to the surface of the moon and back! That said, it wasn't exactly a smooth journey from the Earth to the moon.
As it turns out, the hardest part of space travel is actually getting off Earth. So far, the most efficient way to escape Earth's gravity is to use rocket propulsion, which is easier said than done.
The first rockets were invented when Chinese alchemists accidentally discovered gunpowder while trying to create an elixir of life. In 1232, the Chinese fought the Mongols at the Battle of Kai-Keng and used rockets on the battlefield for the first time in history. The Chinese Army built weapons that looked (and acted) like gigantic bottle rockets and launched them at the attacking Mongol Army. The rockets weren't superaccurate and probably didn't do a ton of damage, but the explosions, smoke, and fire were so terrifying that the Mongols turned back and fled!
And according to legend, during the midsixteenth century, a Chinese official named Wan-Hu wanted to visit the moon. Wan took a wicker chair, strapped forty-seven rockets to it, and planned to use a set of kites to steer himself through the air. On his signal, servants quickly lit the fuses on the rockets, each filled with highly explosive gunpowder. A moment later, a boom louder than thunder sent everyone around diving for cover. When the smoke cleared, there was no sign of Wan-Hu or his trusty chair.
Needless to say, rocket science has come a long way since then.
Early rockets were based on a simple concept: an aerodynamic cylinder with two fuel tanks, each with a reactive substance that once combined and ignited would create a chemical reaction. The resulting explosion would be funneled downward to create enough lift to compensate for the rocket's mass and propel it upward. Simple, right?
Nope. A metric ton of variables has to be accounted for — including but not limited to temperature, size, weight, design, amount of fuel, durability, weather, etc. The slightest miscalculation could result in catastrophic failure (and in the early days, it often did). In fact, the entire process of perfecting rocket technology is a repeated exercise in failure: make a rocket; launch it; if it blows up, figure out what went wrong; repeat. The scientific method itself is built around seeking out flaws and improving on initial concepts until you have something that works.
In 1895, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky became the first to seriously consider the use of rockets as a potential means of traveling into orbit. He came up with the first equation in rocket propulsion. He theorized the use of mixing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as fuel (way before it was ever possible to do so) and even calculated the speed needed for a rocket to break free of Earth's gravity (which, for those wondering, is about 6.9 miles per second, or 25,020 miles per hour!). This is what is known as escape velocity.
In 1903 and 1911, Tsiolkovsky published two volumes of Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices in which he explained that a multistage rocket would be needed to achieve escape velocity. (A multistage rocket is basically a launch vehicle made up of multiple rockets stacked together that work in sequence — one after the other.) But few people seemed to notice these incredible revelations until decades later.
Meanwhile, an American physics professor from Massachusetts named Robert Goddard was working on some calculations of his own. In 1916, he sent a proposal to the Smithsonian Institution which theorized how a rocket could operate in space without the need for air. The Smithsonian was so pumped by his research that they sent him a $5,000 grant to see his work in action.
On March 16, 1926, Goddard successfully launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket. The 10-pound rocket flew 41 feet into the air in just 21/2 seconds! Goddard continued to improve his rockets in New Mexico, where, in 1930, he launched a rocket 2,000 feet into the air at 500 miles per hour! Throughout his life, Goddard secured 214 patents, many of which became essential to the development of propulsion technology, and he did it all despite constantly being called a crackpot.
Both Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky continued to work independently of each other for years. They tried to perfect their rockets with no help or interest from either of their respective governments. Then World War II happened, and the landscape of rocket science changed forever.CHAPTER 2
Failure to Launch
"The rocket performed perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet." — Wernher von Braun
Around the 1920s, German engineers entered the scene, testing and developing their own rockets. They were intent on becoming the first in space. In 1927, three Germans — Johannes Winkler, Max Valier, and Willy Ley — founded the Spaceflight Society, an organization that would go on to foster many of the brilliant minds who eventually made spaceflight a reality. One of those brilliant minds belonged to Wernher von Braun, the man who would ultimately chart the conquest of space.
One of the most highly regarded rocket scientists to ever walk the earth, Wernher von Braun is the father of modern spaceflight and a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of his goal. He earned a doctorate in physics for aerospace engineering from the University of Berlin. Inspired by Robert Goddard's work in the United States, von Braun began to develop his own liquid-fueled rockets. When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, however, the Spaceflight Society was dissolved and civilians were barred from firing rockets. In order to continue his research, von Braun reluctantly joined the Nazi regime as the world geared up for World War II.
With the Nazi's, von Braun developed the A-4 rocket, his first full-scale prototype. The A-4 was revolutionary. Von Braun's singular motivation was to launch it into orbit, but the Nazis had something else in mind. The A-4 was renamed the V-2 and reclassified as a "Vengeance" missile.
Von Braun's V-2 looked more like a retro spaceship from a classic sci-fi TV show than a modern rocket. The sleek missile had curved fins and a rounded exterior. At nearly 46 feet tall, a wingspan of 11 feet, and weighing 27,600 pounds, the rocket was a sight to behold. The V-2 would become a prototype for the rockets of the Space Age that would soon follow. Nothing like it had even been attempted before, so of course there was a lot of trial and error — possibly more error than trial.
During initial tests, the V-2 endured every possible malfunction. In February 1942, the first test model slipped out of its restraints and fell two meters, smashing its fins. During the prototype's second launch, the navigation system failed, sending it spiraling into the Baltic Sea before exploding. The third rocket's nose broke off. Other test rockets flew off course, blew up in midair, or just fell over on the launchpad and unceremoniously exploded. In fact, there were so many problems that the Nazi's suspected von Braun of conspiring to sabotage the rocket program.
It wasn't until October 3, 1942, that von Braun had his first successful launch. The V-2 reached supersonic speeds and traveled 52 miles in the air. Adolf Hitler, however, was unimpressed by the expensive project. He dismissed von Braun's momentous achievement as nothing more than an expensive artillery shell.
As the war waged on, the misuse of his rockets began to wear on von Braun. In 1944, he got drunk at a party and went on about how Germany was going to lose the war and all he ever wanted to do was send a rocket into space. The Nazi secret police arrested von Braun as a traitor, but he was later cleared of charges when the authorities realized that no one else understood rockets as well as he did.
Wernher von Braun was forced to continue his work on the V-2 program as Germany's warheads were loaded and weaponized. To von Braun's dismay, beginning on September 8, 1944, a volley of over 3,200 V-2 missiles were armed with explosive warheads and launched at cities and military installations in Great Britain and elsewhere. He wrote, "The rocket performed perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet." When the rockets landed in London, the governments of the world recognized for the first time the truly destructive potential of rocket engineering. But still, they ignored the potential for space travel.
As the war came to an end in 1945 and Allied forces closed in, Hitler ordered that all scientific research and development be destroyed. Von Braun and his fellow scientists weren't ready to give up on their dream, and weren't interested in becoming prisoners of war to the Allied forces. They hoped that they'd be able to use their expertise as a bargaining chip. Together they hatched a plan to escape to the Bavarian Alps, where US troops were advancing.
Germany was divided between the United States and its allies, one of which was the Soviet Union — a large communist state based in Russia that encompassed many current European and Asian countries. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged from WWII as the two most powerful countries in the world, and as soon as the war with Germany ended, new tension began between these superpowers. The Soviets gathered as many V-2 rockets as they could get their hands on, while the United States secretly imported as many German scientists as they could manage, including von Braun.CHAPTER 3
Dawn of the Atomic Age
"The cold war would become the great engine, the supreme catalyst, that sent rockets and their cargoes far above Earth and worlds away." — William Burrows, This New Ocean
On July 16, 1945, at 5:30 AM in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the Atomic Age began in a blazing nuclear fireball, unleashing 18.6 kilotons of radioactive power. A blinding flash of light — brighter than a dozen suns — lit up the sky, and a shock wave of searing heat burst forth, obliterating everything within its radius for miles. A column of debris bloomed into an ominous mushroom cloud of fallout particles.
J. Robert Oppenheimer gasped in awe, "It worked."
Throughout World War II, America's atomic bomb had been developed in a secret operation known as the Manhattan Project. But its classified status didn't stop Soviet Union spies from infiltrating project facilities and stealing enough schematics to build and test its own nuclear weapon in 1949. The Soviets' getting nuclear weapons was a turning point in history. For the first time, the fate of humanity was at the mercy of two diametrically opposed superpowers with doomsday weapons.
After World War II, both the United States — a capitalist democracy — and the Soviet Union — a communist dictatorship — jockeyed to be the most powerful nation in the world. The Cold War (so called because no actual bullets were fired) that followed was an intense political conflict between the two countries, each flexing their guns in a desperate, paranoia-fueled arms race to build bigger and bigger bombs to prove their ideology was the best.
Militaries quickly began stockpiling as many nukes as they could manage. Atomic bombs were one thing, but nuclear weapons attached to rockets like the V-2 that could travel hundreds of miles through the air — having that kind of technology changed the game. Both the United States and the USSR (another name for the Soviet Union) immediately began pouring all their resources into rocket research in hopes of building bigger, better, and longer-range nuclear missiles.
As the Cold War heated up, Wernher von Braun got back to work, this time for the US government. Although von Braun wanted to achieve the means for space exploration, he once again found himself building weapons. The US research team, led by von Braun, successfully test-fired its first V-2 in White Sands, New Mexico, on June 28, 1946.
Still, von Braun and his team weren't without their fair share of failures, too. Out of 75 tests, 30 failed. One of the most embarrassing incidents occurred on May 29, 1947, at the White Sands test site. A malfunction caused the Hermes II prototype to lose control four seconds after launch. The Hermes rocket flew wildly off course before crash-landing south of the border — in Mexico! The 41/2-ton missile created a 50-foot-wide, 24-foot-deep crater on impact. Luckily, no one was hurt, and Mexico was understanding about the mistake.
Meanwhile, Soviet scientists began to develop their own long-range-missile program.
A NEW ARMS RACE:
The Space Race Begins
Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
On October 14, 1947, fearless pilot Chuck Yeager was strapped into an experimental, rocket-powered aircraft: the Bell X-1. The X-1 dropped free of a B-29's bomb bay, and Yeager ignited the rocket engine above the Mojave Desert. With a powerful sonic boom, at 45,000 feet and over 700 miles per hour, Chuck Yeager became the first human to achieve Mach 1 — meaning that he was flying faster than the speed of sound!
Soviet rocket success
While the Americans were making breakthroughs in aeronautics, the Soviets began testing some German V-2 rockets of their own. Their first successful launch came on October 30, 1947. They managed to hit a target 185 miles away!
First man-made object in space!
On February 24, 1949, the US Army launched the Bumper 5 rocket from White Sands, New Mexico. At an altitude of 244 miles, the rocket became the first artificial object in outer space.
Soviet atomic test
Just a few months later — on August 29, 1949 — the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb. For the first time, the Soviet Union was now on the same playing field as the United States. With both sides building bigger and better weapons, it soon began to look as if nuclear war was inevitable. The only thing stopping it was the knowledge that if World War III started, no one would survive it.
On November 1, 1952, the United States tested the world's first hydrogen bomb — a thermonuclear weapon 1,000 times more devastating than the original atomic bomb. (It didn't take long for the Soviet Union to catch up.)
In 1952, a Soviet magazine predicted that the Soviets would land a person on the moon by the end of the century!
In 1953, Wernher von Braun proposed putting a satellite into space before the Soviets. Von Braun began to develop a series of Jupiter rockets to do just that. Unfortunately, von Braun never got the go-ahead for launch.
The R-7 makes history
The world's first intercontinental ballistic missile — the R-7 — was 112 feet long and weighed over 280 metric tons! It was capable of carrying a three-megaton nuclear warhead a distance of 5,500 miles. After two massive (and expensive) failures, the Soviets made history on October 4, 1957, by launching the world's first satellite into orbit: Sputnik!
The space race had officially begun, and America hadn't even left the starting line.CHAPTER 4
"We were locked in a battle of democracy versus communism, where the winner would dominate the world." — John Glenn
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite into orbit: Sputnik 1. Americans stared skyward in uncertainty as Sputnik circled the globe. To some, it was an omen; to others, it was a challenge. The United States was gripped in fear — if the USSR could put a shiny ball of aluminum into space, it could do the same with a spy satellite — or worse.
Sputnik was a small metallic sphere only two feet wide and weighing just 184 pounds. It was launched by a Soviet R-7 rocket into a low Earth orbit, flying at an incomprehensible 18,000 miles per hour and an altitude of 560 miles. It was so fast that it circled the planet once every hour and 35 minutes!
Although the Soviet satellite had barely any function, it was equipped with a small battery-powered transmitter. Not only was it visible from Earth, but Sputnik's radio signal could be heard as it passed by — it let out a faint sound almost like a techno beat, which was pretty scary to people who didn't want a Soviet satellite passing so close to their homes that they could actually hear it.
The Soviet press took full advantage of this amazing achievement, stating: "The present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labor of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man's dreams into reality." Sputnik was, above all else, a propaganda victory.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Epic Fails The Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff"
Copyright © 2018 Erik Slader and Ben Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: "Failure Is Not an Option" 1
Chapter 1 It's Just Rocket Science! 5
Chapter 2 Failure to Launch 13
Chapter 3 Dawn of the Atomic Age 21
Chapter 4 Sputnik 33
Chapter 5 The Birth of NASA 41
Chapter 6 The Mercury Seven 51
Chapter 7 Project Gemini 69
Chapter 8 A Dangerous Rendezvous 81
Chapter 9 Tragedy 89
Chapter 10 Apollo 99
Chapter 11 One Small Step, One Giant Leap 105
Chapter 12 We Have a Problem 115
Chapter 13 The Final Frontier 133