April 27 – Apollo 16 Returns Home (1972)

We have two spaceflight-related events today. The first is the splashdown of Apollo 16, about which I have written elsewhere. I’m mentioning it mainly to get this brilliant photograph in.

Apollo 16 Arrives (image: NASA)
Apollo 16 Arrives (image: NASA)

The second is from the other side of the iron curtain . . .

We have a birthday boy today, and it’s the man who has spent more time away from Earth on a single trip than anyone else in history. From 1994 to 1995 Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov stayed aboard the Mir space station continuously for 437 days, completing over 7,000 orbits of the Earth.

Polyakov (born Korshunov – he changed his name when he was adopted by his stepfather) was born in Tula, Russia, on April 27th 1942, and studied at the I M Sechenov Medical Institute in Moscow, specialising in space medicine. This helped get him selected as a cosmonaut in 1972, although he didn’t get his first flight until 1988, a brief (by his standards) 240 days.

The main event, in 1994, also gave him the record for the longest total time spent in space, though this has since been broken. The purpose of such a long stint was to see how astronauts would react physically and mentally to a long-duration flight to Mars, and whether they would be capable of doing any decent work when they arrived. The results were promising, with no evidence of long-term performance problems following his return to Earth.

Polyakov retired from cosmonauting in 1995, and became deputy director of the Ministry of Public Health in Moscow.


April 11 – Piers Sellers: British Astronaut

Piers John Sellers was born today in 1955.  Who?  Good question.  Sellers is a member of a group even smaller than the one comprising people who have been to the Moon: he’s a British astronaut.   I know of only seven potential members of this community, and nearly all of those have dual nationality.

Piers Sellers: British-born astronaut (image credit: NASA)
Piers Sellers: British-born astronaut (image credit: NASA)

Because NASA only wanted Americans to fly their shuttles at the time (quite understandable) Sellers had to become a naturalized US citizen in 1991 in order to have his job application considered.  But, even so, he was born in Sussex, went to school in Kent, flew for the RAF and studied in Edinburgh.  So he’s still British.

Sellers made three shuttle flights: STS-112 (Atlantis, October 2002), STS-121 (Discovery, July 2006), and STS-132 (Atlantis again, May 2010). He spent over 35 days in space, and performed 6 EVAs (spacewalks).

1878  –  Asteroid 187 Lamberta was discovered by the Corsican astronomer Jérôme Eugène Coggia.  It was named after Johann Heinrich Lambert, the mathematician who proved that pi is an irrational number.  Lamberta is a carbonaceous (C-type) main belt asteroid of approximately 131 km diameter.

Asteroid 530 Turandot was discovered by renowned astrophotographer Max Wolf from his observatory in Heidelberg on April 11, 1904. It is an “F-type”, a spectral class very similar to the carbonaceous B-types, and classified with them in the C-group. According to IRAS data in the JPL Small-Body Database Browser, Turandot is approximately 85 km in diameter.

1970  –   You’ve probably seen the film, and there’s loads been written about it, so I won’t dwell on this, but today was the launch day, in 1970, of the ill-fated Apollo 13.

Apollo 13 Crew
Apollo 13 Crew

The crew of Apollo 13 were Jim Lovell (in his fourth and final spaceflight), Jack Swigert and Fred Haise (pictured in that order from left to right in the photo).

March 17 – Birth of Jim Irwin, Astronaut (1930)

March 17th 1930: astronaut Colonel James Benson Irwin, USAF, born in Pittsburgh PA.

James Irwin (image credit: NASA)
James Irwin (image credit: NASA)

In 1971 Irwin, Apollo 15 lunar module pilot, became the eighth man to walk on the Moon, spending over 18 hours on the surface.  He also, on his return, became one of the first people to be grounded, quite literally, for smuggling postage stamps into space.

1852  –  Asteroid 16 Psyche was discovered on March 17th 1852 by Annibale de Gasparis.  Psyche is a large asteroid, about 200 km in diameter, accounting for about 1% of the mass of the entire asteroid belt.  It’s an M-type asteroid, probably mostly nickel and iron.

Cupid and Psyche (Van Dyck)
Cupid and Psyche (Van Dyck)

Psyche is named for a mythological princess, who caught the eye of the god Cupid.  The story is told by Lucius Apuleius in The Golden Ass.

In early 2017 NASA announced plans to  send a probe to Psyche in 2023, as part of their Discovery Program, the main reason being that, as a metallic asteroid, it represents one of the few classes of objects in our neighbourhood that haven’t yet been visited.

1899  –  Saturn’s moon Phoebe discovered by American astronomer W H Pickering.  It, too, is about 200 km in diameter, and may be a captured centaur from the Kuiper belt.  We have some spectacular photographs of Phoebe following the visit of the Cassini spacecraft in 2004.

Phoebe (image credit: NASA)
Phoebe (image credit: NASA)



March 15 – Birth of Alan Bean, Astronaut (1932)

Captain Alan LaVern Bean, USN, was born on this day in 1932 in Wheeler, Texas (100 miles east of Amarillo).

Alan Bean on his way down. (Image credit: NASA)
Alan Bean about to do the almost impossible. (Image credit: NASA)

Bean clocked up 69 days in space aboard Apollo 12 (he was the 4th person to undertake the highly improbable act of walking on the Moon) and Skylab mission SL-3. Following his retirement from NASA, Bean turned his attention to painting. As far as I know, he is the only artist to incorporate genuine Moon dust into his work.

1895Asteroid 400 Ducrosa discovered by Auguste Charlois. It was named after Joseph Ducros, a technician at the Nice Observatory.

March 14 – Birth of Eugene Cernan (1934)

Captain Eugene Andrew Cernan USN, born this day in 1934 in Chicago, Illinois.  A veteran of Gemini 9A and Apollo 10, Cernan was also last man back to the lunar module Challenger on the Apollo 17 mission, and therefore currently holds the honour of being the “last man on the Moon” (which is also the title of his memoir).  He is also a member of one of the most exclusive clubs ever– the extremely small collection (three) of people who have been to the Moon twice.  And as if that weren’t enough, he holds the lunar land speed record (11.2 mph).

Eugene Cernan (image credit: NASA)
Eugene Cernan (image credit: NASA)

Gene Cernan died in Houston, Texas, on January 16th, 2017.

 1879 – Birth of Albert Einstein in Württemburg. Where do you start? Probably by saying “Google him”. Einstein’s main claims to fame are, of course, Special Relativity (1905), a theory describing the relationship between space and time, and General Relativity (1915), which concerns gravitation. He also, in 1916, predicted gravitational waves, almost exactly 100 years before they were discovered

1885  –  Asteroid 247 Eukrate discovered by Robert Luther..

1904  –  Asteroid 524 Fidelio discovered by Max Wolf.

March 09 – Birth of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934)

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on March 9th, 1934, in the village of Klushino, near Ghatsk, in the western USSR. Ghatsk is a small town of about 30,000 people, and is now, unsurprisingly, called Gagarin. The family home is now a museum to the first human in space (the feat was achieved on April 12, 1961, and was Gagarin’s only spaceflight). His parents, incidentally, both worked on a collective farm. It just doesn’t get any more Soviet than that, does it?

Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin

Gagarin was a heavily decorated guy, achieving the rare honour of Hero of the Soviet Union, which he shares with the likes of Lenin, Leonid Brezhnev, and (slightly more unusually) President Nasser of Egypt. Surely though, his most prized possession must have been the Gold Medal of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS).

1882  –  Main belt asteroid 223 Rosa discovered by Johann Palisa.  Now then, here’s something we don’t see every day: 223 Rosa is classified as both a C-type and a P-type asteroid, meaning it probably contains carbonaceous material (C) and water ice (P).  The “P” in P-type stands for Pseudo-M, as they belong to a group that has many of the same properties as M-type asteroids, but a lower albedo, which stopped them slotting into the M-type bracket.  Rosa was the thirty-second of Palisa’s 122 asteroid discoveries.  The thinking behind the name remains a mystery.

1974  –  British satellite Miranda launched to test three-axis gyro systems.

February 07 – Al Worden

Today is the 87th birthday of Alfred (Al) Worden, a member of one of humankind’s most exclusive clubs.  You can probably tell which club I’m talking about by glancing at the photograph.  Worden was born in Jackson, Michigan in 1932, and after graduating from the US Military Academy in 1955 he spent some time as an instructor, pilot and armaments officer with the USAF, and even spent some time at Farnborough, England (quick – find a Union Jack to wave!) before being selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1966.  He was part of the support crew for Apollo 9, and back-up pilot for Apollo 12, before hitting the big time with Apollo 15.

Alfred Merrill Worden (image: NASA)
Alfred Merrill Worden (image: NASA)

Worden served as command module pilot on that particular mission, the fourth manned lunar landing.  He spent 295 hours and 11 minutes in space, of which 38 minutes were spent outside the command module, retrieving film cassettes and generally making sure everything was still there.   He holds the record for once being “the most isolated human being” (he was 2,234 miles 1,330 yards from his companions while they were on the surface).

You can read more about what Al is up to these days on his website,  www.alworden.com.

Happy Birthday Al.

It’s a litle worrying that of the 24 astronauts who flew to the Moon as part of the Apollo program, only 12 survive, and the youngest of those, Ken Mattingly, is 83. If we don’t get our collective act together soon, there will be no humans alive who have visited our nearest neighbour.


1824  ⇒  Birth of English astronomer William Huggins, spectroscopy pioneer. Huggins was the first person to distinguish between nebulae and galaxies (their spectra are different).

1878  ⇒  Asteroid 182 Elsa discovered by Johann Palisa, and probably named after the daughter of the Duke of Brabant, a character from the German Arthurian legend of Lohengrin. Elsa (the asteroid) is an S-type of uncertain diameter. Analysis of variations in the amount of light reflected towards us from her surface shows a fairly slow rotation (a little over 80 hours) and indicates an elongated shape.

1896  ⇒  Asteroid 415 Palatia discovered by Max Wolf. It is around 76 km in diameter and is unusually named after the “Electorate of the Palatinate”, a fragmented territory of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany.

1977    Launch of the Soyuz 24 mission to the Salyut 5 Space Station. The crew of Commander Viktor Gorbatko and Flight Engineer Yuri Glazkov spent eighteen days in space, reactivating the station after a problem with toxic fumes had caused the previous crew to leave in a hurry . Both cosmonauts were awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” and the “Order of Lenin”. Gorbatko later went on to become a science fiction author.


November 18 – Birth of Alan Shepard (1923)

Rear Admiral Alan B Shepard was born in East Derry, New Hampshire, on November 18th, 1923. He served with the US Navy during World War II, and became a test pilot before being selected as one of the “Mercury Seven”, NASA’s original group of astronauts, who’s members went on to fly in all four US manned space programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle). Shepard was the only one of the seven to walk on the Moon (Apollo 14), and also holds the records for being the oldest person to do so, and for the longest stay on the lunar surface (33 hours).

Alan "Al" Shepard (image credit: NASA)
Alan Shepard (image credit: NASA)

Al Shepard only went into space twice. His first journey was an extremely brief quarter of an hour, aboard the Mercury craft Freedom 7, on May 5th, 1967, with his second being the substantially longer Apollo 14 mentioned previously (January 31st to February 9th, 1971).  On his first trip he became the first American in space, but not quite the first human, having been beaten by Russia’s Yuri Gagarin by just over three weeks.

Al Shepard died on July 21st, 1998.

The launch of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) was on this day in 1989 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. COBE was also known as Explorer 66, part of the United States’ apparently never-ending Explorer series of satellites that has been running since 1958.

2013  –  Launch of MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission.  After a journey of 442 million miles, completed in just under ten months, MAVEN was inserted into orbit around Mars on September 21st 2014.  The goal of the mission was to find out how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost.


November 14 – The White Stuff

The first American to walk in space, Edward Higgins “Ed” White, was born on November 14th 1930, in San Antonio, Texas.

The son of a distinguished USAF major general, it was probably obvious from an early age that flying would figure big in his career, and after graduating from West Point in 1952 he joined the Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant.  After a spell at Bitburg Air Force Base in West Germany, he gained a masters degree in aeronautical engineering and became a test pilot at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Lt Col Edward White (image credit: NASA)
Lt Col Edward White (image credit: NASA)

White was part of NASA’s 1962 second group of nine astronauts, and was quickly chosen to be the pilot of Gemini 4, and the first American to conduct an EVA (extra-vehicular activity) on June 3rd, 1965.  I have to add the word “American” because, as with so many firsts in the space race, the Russians had just pipped them to the post with Alexey Leonov, who spent 12 minutes outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft, on March 18th.  Unsurprisingly, White had to be ordered back inside his craft from the ground, as he was reluctant to end the experience.

Ed White having the time of his life. (Image credit: NASA.)
Ed White having the time of his life. (Image credit: NASA.)

At the start of the Apollo program, White was a fairly obvious choice to be part of the first manned flight, but on February 21st, 1967, when he, along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, entered Apollo 1 for a launch rehearsal, three weeks before the planned launch date, a fire broke out in the cabin, killing all three.

1969  ⇒  Launch of Apollo XII, the second manned Moon landing (Conrad, Bean and Gordon).

2003  ⇒  Discovery of trans-Neptunian object 90377 Sedna by  Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz, using the Palomar Quest camera.