A Soyuz-2.1b rocket booster with a Fregat upper stage and the Luna 25 lunar lander blasts off from a launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast, Russia.

Luna 25’s Demise: Raising Fundamental Questions About Russia’s Space Program

The recent news that Russia’s Luna 25 Moon lander had made an unexpected lithobraking detour into the Moon’s surface, rather than the expected soft touchdown was met by a variety of responses, ranging from dismay to outright glee, much of it on account of current geopolitical considerations. Yet politics aside, the failure of this mission casts another shadow on the prospects of Russia’s attempts to revive the Soviet space program after a string of failures, including its ill-fated Mars 96 and Fobos-Grunt Mars missions, the latter of which also destroyed China’s first Mars orbiter (Yinghuo-1) and ignited China’s independent Mars program.

To this day, only three nations have managed to land on the Moon in a controlled fashion: the US, China, and the Soviet Union. India may soon join this illustrious list if its Chandrayaan-3 mission’s Vikram lander dodges the many pitfalls of soft touchdowns on the Moon’s surface. While Roscosmos has already started internal investigation, it does cast significant doubt on the viability of the Russian Luna-Glob (‘Lunar Sphere’) lunar exploration program.

Will Russia manage to pick up where the Soviet Union left off in 1976 with the Luna 24 lunar sample return mission?

Continue reading “Luna 25’s Demise: Raising Fundamental Questions About Russia’s Space Program”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: May 14, 2023

It’s been a while since we heard from Dmitry Rogozin, the always-entertaining former director of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Not content with sending mixed messages about the future of the ISS amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, or attempting to hack a mothballed German space telescope back into action, Rogozin is now spouting off that the Apollo moon landings never happened. His doubts about NASA’s seminal accomplishment apparently started while he was still head of Roscosmos when he tasked a group with looking into the Apollo landings. Rogozin’s conclusion from the data his team came back with isn’t especially creative; whereas some Apollo deniers go to great lengths to find “scientific proof” that we were never there, Rogozin just concluded that because NASA hasn’t ever repeated the feat, it must never have happened.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: May 14, 2023”

China's Chang'e-4 mission made the first-ever landing on the far side of the Moon in 2019. (Credit: Xinhua/Alamy)

Moon Mission Failures, Or Why Are Lunar Landings So Hard?

Given the number of spacecraft (both crewed and uncrewed) that touched down on the Moon during the Space Race it’s sometimes hard to imagine why today, with all our modern technology, our remotely operated vehicles seem to have so much trouble not smashing themselves to bits on the regolith surface.

This is the focus of a recent article inĀ Nature that explores the aspects which still make soft landings on our closest space body so much harder than the tragic lithobraking as most recently demonstrated by ispace’s M1 lander.

So far only three entities have successfully landed a craft on the Moon’s surface: the government-funded space agencies of the US, USSR, and China. Of them, only China managed to do so on their first try in 2013 (Chang’e-3), and again in 2019 on the far side of the Moon (Chang’e-4). What is the toughest part about a Moon landing is not to get near the Moon, but it’s about getting close to the surface without getting lost. Since there are no navigation satellites beyond those you put up before the landing, and a lot of Moon dust that will be kicked up by any landing rocket engines, it can be tough to gauge one’s exact location and distance to the surface.

In the case of the ispace lander it would appear that it tragically ran out of propellant before it could safely touch down, which is another major concern. Both the US and USSR would smash Moon landers into its surface until the first successful landing in 1966, which makes the manned touchdown by Apollo 11 in 1969 even more impressive.

NASA Continues Slow And Steady Pace Towards Moon

It’s often said that the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps nowhere is this on better display than at NASA. While it seems like every week we hear about another commercial space launch or venture, projects helmed by the national space agency are often mired by budget cuts and indecisiveness from above. It takes a lot of political will to earmark tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that could take decades to complete, and not every occupant of the White House has been willing to stake their reputation on such bold ambitions.

In 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence told a cheering crowd at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center that the White House was officially tasking NASA with returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, everyone knew it was an ambitious timeline. But not one without precedent. The speech was a not-so-subtle allusion to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 declaration at Rice University that America would safely land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, a challenge NASA was able to meet with fewer than six months to spare.

Unfortunately, a rousing speech will only get you so far. Without a significant boost to the agency’s budget, progress on the new Artemis lunar program was limited. To further complicate matters, less than a year after Pence took the stage in Huntsville, there was a new President in the White House. While there was initially some concern that the Biden administration would axe the Artemis program as part of a general “house cleaning”, it was allowed to continue under newly installed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The original 2024 deadline, at this point all but unattainable due to delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, has quietly been abandoned.

So where are we now? Is NASA in 2022 any closer to returning humanity to the Moon than they were in 2020 or even 2010? While it might not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective, a close look at some of the recent Artemis program milestones and developments show that the agency is at least moving in the right direction.

Continue reading “NASA Continues Slow And Steady Pace Towards Moon”

China’s Moon Mission Was About More Than Rocks

If everything goes according to plan, China will soon become the third country behind the United States and the Soviet Union to successfully return a sample of lunar material. Their Chang’e 5 mission, which was designed to collect 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of soil and rock from the Moon’s surface, has so far gone off without a hitch. Assuming the returning spacecraft successfully renters the Earth’s atmosphere and lands safely on December 16th, China will officially be inducted into a very exclusive club of Moon explorers.

Of course, spaceflight is exceedingly difficult and atmospheric reentry is particularly challenging. Anything could happen in the next few days, so it would be premature to celebrate the Chang’e 5 mission as a complete success. But even if ground controllers lose contact with the vehicle on its return to Earth, or it burns up in the atmosphere, China will come away from this mission with a wealth of valuable experience that will guide its lunar program for years to come.

In fact, one could argue that was always the real goal of the mission. While there’s plenty of scientific knowledge and not an inconsequential amount of national pride to be gained from bringing a few pounds of Moon rocks back to Earth, it’s no secret that China has greater aspirations when it comes to our nearest celestial neighbor. Starting with the launch of the Chang’e 1 in 2007, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has progressed through several operational phases, each more technically challenging than the last. Chang’e 5 represents the third phase of the plan, with only the establishment of robotic research station to go before the country says they’ll proceed with a crewed landing in the 2030s.

Which helps explain why, even for a sample return from the Moon, Chang’e 5 is such an extremely complex mission. A close look at the hardware and techniques involved shows a mission profile considerably more difficult than was strictly necessary. The logical conclusion is that China intentionally took the long way around so they could use it as a dry run for the more challenging missions that still lay ahead.

Continue reading “China’s Moon Mission Was About More Than Rocks”

Ask Hackaday: What Are Your Apollo Memories?

This month will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that brought to a successful conclusion the challenge laid down by President Kennedy only eight years earlier. Three men went to the Moon, two walked on it, and they all came back safely, in a dramatic eight-day display of engineering and scientific prowess that was televised live to the world.

If you’ve made more than 50 trips around the sun, chances are good that you have some kind of memories of the first Moon landing. An anniversary like this is a good time to take stock of those memories, especially for something like Apollo, which very likely struck a chord in many of those that witnessed it and launched them on careers in science and engineering. We suspect that a fair number of Hackaday readers are in that group, and so we want to ask you: What are your memories of Apollo?

A Real American Hero

My memory of the Moon landing is admittedly vague. I had just turned five the month before, hadn’t even started kindergarten yet, but I had already caught the space bug in a big way. I lived and breathed the space program, and I knew everything about the Mercury missions that were over by the time I was born, and the Gemini missions that had just wrapped up. Apollo was incredibly exciting to me, and I was pumped to witness the landing in the way that only a five-year-old can be.
Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: What Are Your Apollo Memories?”

Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”

When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in September 1962, the art of creating liquid-fueled rocket engines of any significant size was still in its relative infancy. All the rocketry and power plants of the Saturn series of rockets that would power the astronauts to the Moon were breaking entirely new ground, and such an ambitious target required significant plans to be laid. What is easy to forget from a platform of five decades of elapsed time is the scale of the task set for the NASA engineers of the early 1960s.

The video below the break is from 1962, concurrent with Kennedy’s speech, and it sets out the proposed development of the succession of rocket motors that would power the various parts of the Saturn family. We arrive at the famous F-1 engine that would carry the mighty Saturn 5 and start its passengers on their trip to the Moon at a very early stage in its development, after an introduction to liquid rocket engines from the most basic of first principles. We see rockets undergoing testing on the stand at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility, along with rather superlative descriptions of their power and capabilities.

The whole production is very much in the spirit of the times, though unexpectedly it makes no mention whatsoever of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, whose own rocket program had put the first satellite and the first man into space, and which was also secretly aiming for the moon. It’s somewhat jarring to understand that the people in this video had little idea that such an ambitious program would be as successful as it became, or even that in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination the following year there would be such an effort to fulfill the aim set out in his speech to reach the moon within the decade.

The moon landings, and the events and technology that made them possible, are a subject of considerable fascination for our community. We must have covered innumerable stories about artifacts from the Apollo era in these pages, and no doubt more will continue to come our way in the future. Films like this one do not tell us quite the same story as does a real artifact, but their values lies in capturing the optimism of the time. Anything seemed possible in 1962, and those who lived through the decade were lucky enough to see this proven.

Fifty years from now, what burgeoning engineering efforts will we look back on?

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System”