Why James Webb Was so Important

NASA Administrator James E. Webb
NASA Administrator James E. Webb. This was his official NASA photograph

There are not many people who know off the top of their head who James Webb is, even many lovers of space may not know who he was. Yet they are about to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into space to replace Hubble. James Webb wasn’t an engineer, or a physicist, or even really an academic; he was a lawyer and politician. He turned a small government research department into an organisation that had links to almost every state, and had control of 5% of the US federal budget. Webb’s NASA controlled the jobs of half a million workers across America, and he introduced new working practices and management techniques that are still used today.

If you were to go out and read the biographies of the astronauts, or histories of spaceflight, Webb doesn’t really come up. He was portrayed as just a bureaucrat in Washington, funnelling orders down the chain, living the politician life. In this new age of spaceflight, we see the Apollo years as some sort of poetic story, with NASA being the figurehead of the battle to win space against the evil russians. In 1961 though, America did not follow this narrative, nobody in America cared about space, least of all the brand new president, John F Kennedy. When he set up his first reshuffle of the cabinet they simply could not get anyone to run NASA, they asked 18 high level politicians, and everybody said no, space was a dead end job, and NASA was just a collection of squabbling mission centres. Eventually, JFK’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson suggested Jim Webb, a guy who had worked under the Roosevelt administration and had some experience with private businesses. When asked, by JFK personally, Webb agreed to run NASA, as long it was the way he wanted it. JFK, desperate for an administrator gladly agreed.

shaking hands with JFK
President Kennedy shakes hands with NASA Administrator James Webb

There had been heavy opposition to the idea of manned spaceflight. Up to this point, the head of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, Jerome Wiesner, had issued a critical report on project mercury. Kennedy, as a senator he had openly opposed the space program and wanted to terminate it. Kennedy put his vice president LBJ as the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council because he had helped create NASA, but it was mainly to get him out of the way. Although Kennedy did try and reach out for international cooperation in space in his state of the union address in January 1961, he got nothing from Khrushchev. Kennedy was poised to dismantle the effort for space, purely because of the massive expense.

The space Council
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated, center) presides over a meeting of the National Aeronautics and Space Council.

He began his NASA administration on February 14th 1961. A month later on April 12th, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Reinforcing some fears that America was being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union, America suddenly cared about space. Kennedy made a U-turn and space sped to the top of the list.  This lead to Kennedy making his famous speech on May 21st where he spoke those famous words “we will put a man on the moon before the decade is out”. Kennedy wanted to take lead in the space race. Suddenly, putting a man on the moon was the number one priority.

Kennedy Talking to Congress
MAy 1961, Kennedy proposes landing a man on the moon to congress. LBJ and Sam Rayburn sit behind him.

This meant that James Webb just got handed the opportunity to run the biggest single project the country had ever seen. Webb was told to go back to his engineers and figure out how much it will cost to get to the moon. His engineers came up with the number of $10 billion (a scary big number in the 1960’s), and sheepishly told Webb, expecting to be told to make cuts and slashes to the plan. Instead he told them to go higher, because he knew problems would come their way, and extra money will need to be spent, so they come back with the figure of $13 billion. Webb accepts the number, and goes to congress and tells them he needs $20 billion over the next 7 years. Jaws hit the floor, but he used this political knowledge to get a huge amount of leverage.

The key leverage he had was jobs, and he knew it. At its height, NASA employed half a million people in some form, that’s roughly the number of people living in Wyoming. The two biggest investments were in Cape Canaveral, FL and Houston, TX. The most controversial was the Manned Spaceflight Centre in Houston, donated by Rice University. Originally based in Langley Virginia, and named the Space Task Group, the senator didn’t care much for space. The entire operation was moved to Houston, LBJ’s home state. It was central, and had good universities surrounding it. There were many Texas based representatives in the space political landscapes at that time, such as Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Johnson Space Centre
Manned Spaceflight Centre, Texas, one of the biggest employers in Texas for a long time. with over 3000 federal workers, and 100 buildings

One thing that Webb understood was what NASA needed to run. He implemented a very flat organisational structure, with very few middle managers. Webb was the very top, controlling Washington. He also had the head of NACA (precursor to NASA) Hugh L. Dryden as an associate director. He had overseen the development of the x-15, and understood the technical needs of Apollo. Also Robert Seamans, also an associate director, acted as the general manager of NASA, and oversaw the everyday running of the program. Using a team of people, each with their own particular strengths helped NASA, especially in the early growth years, much more so than any one of them could achieve on their own.

Webb in a Gemini Trainer
Webb in a Gemini Trainer

Part of what James Webb did, to the dislike of congress, was to invest in academia, specifically universities. $30 million dollars a year was put into the Universities Development Fund. A fund designed to help students get into engineering, and to develop talent, skills, and academics that could not only work for NASA, but help the science behind it. As it was taken from a fund that congress had no control over, the money continued to help 7000-8000 students a year get through university at a time where NASA needed engineers. Webb believed that NASA was more than just the one shot to the moon, and frequently fought with the presidents on that fact. He wanted NASA, and space exploration to benefit science, engineering and even society. He believed that this project could fix other problems not even related to space, such as poverty and disease. The management style of NASA, and the way these big projects were handled showed the impossible could be achieved. He frequently lectured on this subject, and universities became an important part of NASA.

Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Kurt Debus, and President John F. Kennedy receive a briefing on Saturn I launch operations

There was huge pressure from washington to spend all of NASA’s budget purely on the Apollo moonshot. Webb was instrumental in making sure that NASA and spaceflight was more than that. be made sure other projects like the Mariner and Pioneer space programs happened, and that JPL still functioned even with a terrible track record at the time. At the time, the academic community worked with NASA, in large part because of the importance Webb put on furthering science. Webb would frequently lecture at universities, and teach about the management styles that made NASA was. Unfortunately, some in Washington didn’t care for the extra spending, especially the states that did not have a mission centre or any of the major manufacturing plants located there. So when the Apollo 1 fire happened, there were a small group that were willing to use it as a way to make changes.

Closeup of James E. Webb, National Aeronautics and space administration

The Apollo 1 fire was a very unfortunate accident, and a national tragedy. For some, it highlighted some major problems with the Apollo program and how it had been run by the major contractor North American Aviation. Committees were set up, and Webb suddenly went from running NASA to trying to defend it. During the inquests, NASA still ran, it continued to fix problems and aim for the moon. This was because James Webb was there defending it. Left to just take the heat, some believe (me included) NASA’s funding would have been significantly cut, and we may have never got to the moon. Webb stood up in Washington and fought hard for the continuation of the project, defending the decisions that his team had made. At the end of it, he had used up most of his political sway, and called in so many favours that NASA was safe for the time being, and that Apollo was possible.

Webb presents NASA’s Group Achievement Award to Kennedy Space Center Director Kurt H. Debus, while Wernher von Braun (center) looks on

At this point, Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, Webb felt that he should step down to allow Nixon to choose his own administrator. On October 7, 1968 he stepped down from office. To put that into perspective, Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 20th, 1969, barely a year later. Webb went on to be a part of many advisory boards and served as regent for the Smithsonian institute. He died in 1992, and was buried in Arlington National cemetery.

This post was inspired by reading the book: The Man Who Ran The Moon by Piers Bizony. For anyone interested in the subject of how Webb actually made his dealings, and a much more detailed account of how NASA became what it is, I recommend this book. He also did a Lecture on Webb that I found on YouTube where he tells the story really well.


Luna 1 – The Satellite That Missed the Moon

On January 2nd 1959, at 16:41:21 UTC (22.41 local time) Luna 1 was launched from the Scientific-Research Test-Range No. 5 at Tyuratam, Kazakhstan (now named the Baikonur Cosmodrome). Launched aboard Vostok-L 8K72 three-stage launch vehicle, it was the fourth attempt at sending a payload at the moon by the Soviets. The first 3 were:

A museum replica of luna 1
A museum replica of luna 1

E-1 No.1 – or Luna 1958A by NASA. Launched 23 September 1958, 07:40. Booster disintegrated 92 seconds into flight due to Excessive vibration. Was the maiden flight of Luna 8K72 Rocket.

E-1 No.2 – or Luna 1958B by NASA. Launched 11 October 1958, 21:42. Booster disintegrated 104 seconds into flight due to Excessive vibration.

E-1 No.3 – or Luna 1958C by NASA. Launched 4 December 1958, 18:18. 245 seconds into flight, the core stage turboprops lost hydrogen peroxide lubricant, meaning it lost power and impacted downrange.

E-1 No.4 was only a partial failure, and therefore became known as Luna 1. Intended to impact the surface of the moon. Due to an error in timing the upper (third) stage burn time caused a near miss. After 34 hours of flight, at 3.45 UTC on january 4th the probe passed within 5,995km (3,725mi) of the lunar surface, which is about 1 and a half times the moon’s diameter. It was 320,000km from earth, travelling at 2.45km per second. It became the first man-made object to reach the escape velocity of earth. Then after missing the moon it was the first spacecraft to leave geocentric orbit and enter heliocentric orbit.

A replica of the luna 1 attached to the cone
A replica of the luna 1 attached to the cone

The Luna 1 module was hermetically sealed sphere weighing 361.3kg (795.9lb) with 5 antennae extended from one hemisphere; four whip antennas and one rigid antenna. The spacecraft contained a 19.993 MHz system which transmitted signals 50.9s long, a 183.6MHz transmitter for tracking purposes, and a 70.2MHz transmitter. The batteries on board were mercury-oxide and silver-zinc accumulators. Five sets of scientific equipment were externally mounted to the unit to study the journey including a geiger counter, scintillation counter, and micrometeorite detector, along with a Sodium experiment. The device on the end of the center rod protruding out the back is a magnetometer to measure the moon’s magnetic field.

The primary objectives of the mission were to:

  • Measure the temperature and pressure inside the vehicle.
  • Study the gas components of interplanetary matter and corpuscular radiation of the sun.
  • Measure the magnetic fields of the earth and the moon.
  • Study meteoric particles in space.
  • Study the distribution of heavy nuclear nuclei in primary cosmic radiation.
  • Study other properties of cosmic rays.
    Another schematic of Luna 1
A schematic of the Luna 1
A schematic of the Luna 1, unfortunately with russian annotations

at 00:56:20 UTC on january 3rd, 119,500km (74,300mi) from earth, the spacecraft released 1kg (2.2lb) of sodium gas. This formed a cloud behind it to serve as an artificial comet. The glowing orange trail of gas was visible over the ocean with the brightness of a sixth-magnitude star.  Mstislav Gnevyshev at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR near Kislovodsk took a photograph. This was designed as an experiment on the behaviour of gas in outer space, as well as functioning as a navigational aid helping ground control track the mission.

gas cloud of sulphur
Gas cloud photographed by Mstislav Gnevyshev at the Mountain Station of the Main Astronomical Observatory of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR near Kislovodsk

Luna 1 was made of an aluminium-magnesium alloy, sealed with a special rubber. To protect the satellite, there was a cone to take the heat when passing through the dense layers of the atmosphere. When safely out of the atmosphere the cone was discarded, and the antennae unfold. On the same half as the antennas were two proton traps to find the gas components of interplanetary matter, and two piezoelectric pickups for the study of meteoric particles. The inside of the unit was filled with gas at 1.3 atmospheres, to ensure high pressurisation inside. Through the design, the high pressure allows for an air circulation within the unit. This circulation drew heat off equipment and instruments, transferring it to the shell, that then serves as a radiator.

The nose cone
A replica of the nose cone in an exhibition in 1969
How it fitted
A diagram showing how the nose and luna probe fitted


The Vostok-L 8K72 was a modified R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile.The R-7 rocket was designed by Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, known more commonly as The Chief Designer. The 8K72 version consisted of two core stages with four external boosters. The first stage and each of the boosters were powered by a four-nozzle RD-107 rocket engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen. Total thrust was approximately 1,100,775 pounds (4,896.49 kilonewtons). The second stage used a RD-0105 engine, producing 11,015 pounds of thrust (48.997 kilonewtons). The Luna 1 was propelled by a third stage which remained attached during the translunar coast phase of flight.

Vostok on Takeoff
Vostok on takeoff with the luna 1 on board

After Luna 1 passed the moon and continued on towards heliocentric orbit, it only had a certain amount of battery power left. Because it was meant to collide with the moon it had no need for recharging. On january 5th at approximately 07:00 the radio transmitter ceased to operate at a distance of 600,000km from earth. It is still in an orbit around the sun, somewhere between mars and earth. It completes one rotation in roughly 450 days. for those who understand the terms associated with orbital mechanics here are the numbers:

  • Semi major Axis: 1.146AU
  • Eccentricity: 0.14767
  • Perihelion: 0.9766AU
  • Apohelion: 1.315AU
  • inclination: 0.01 degrees
Luna1 Trajectory
Luna 1 Trajectory

Part of the plan was to hit the moon, unfortunately it didn’t achieve that. Part of the reason was to plant 2 Soviet pennants onto the moon. They were highly durable, made from titanium with thermoresistant polysiloxane enamals, that could reportedly survive an impact with venus. Usually a few are minted to give to VIP’s and top scientists. For them, it’s similar to planting a flag. one of the pennants on this flight was a thin metal strip with the inscription “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” on one side and the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and the inscription “January 1959 January” on the other. The other pennant was spherical, symbolising the moon, each face has the inscription “USSR, January 1959,” on one side and the coat of arms of the Soviet Union and the inscription “USSR” on the other.

luna 1 pennant 1

Luna 1 pennant 2
The pennants on the Luna 1, that are still inside the satellite to this day.

Why Does NORAD Track Santa?

According to legend, on December 24th 1955, Sears department store placed an advertisement in a Colorado Springs newspaper, where they told children they could call Santa Claus with the number ME 2-6681. Allegedly one digit was misprinted, and calls came through to Colorado Springs, Continental Air Defence (CONAD) Center.

Sears Ad
The Sears Ad that supposedly started it all.

In one version of the story, the calls went through to the “red telephone” hotline that connected CONAD to command authorities at Strategic Air Command. Colonel Harry Shoup, who was a Crew Commander on duty, answered the first call. The story goes that he told his staff to give all children who called later a “current location” of Santa.

Harry Shoup, the Santa Colonel
Harry Shoup, the Santa Colonel

Another description, that is more widely believed is that on November 30th 1955 a child trying to reach Santa on the hotline number in the Sears advert, misdialed and got to Shoup at his desk at CONAD. The response was not particularly kind, and no more calls came to CONAD. Then, when a member of his staff put a picture of Santa Claus on a board tracking an unidentified aircraft that december, Shoup saw an opportunity for public relations.

He asked CONAD’s public relations officer, Col. Barney Oldfield to inform the press that CONAD was tracking Santa’s Sleigh. In the press release, he added that “CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas”. Shoup did not intend to repeat the stunt in 1956, but Oldfield informed him that the Associated press and United Press International were awaiting reports that CONAD was tracking sta again. Shoup agreed, and the annual tradition was born.

In 1958, North America Air Defence Command (NORAD) took over reporting responsibility from CONAD. The reporting became more elaborate, with stories about santa taking rest stops, or one where Santa needed to bandage up one of the reindeer. Eventually, NORAD was renamed the North American Aerospace Defence Command in 1981, and created and published a hotline for the general public to call and get updates on Santa Claus’s progress.

Volunteers answering phone calls in 2007 of NORAD
Volunteers answering phone calls in 2007 of NORAD

Now, Norad relies on volunteers to make the program possible. In 2014, NORAD answered 100,000 phone calls, and in 2015, more than 1200 U.S. and canadian military personnel volunteered to staff the phone lines. From 1997 the program has had a major internet presence with NORADSanta.org. It also has a twitter account of @NORADsanta.

Pioneers in Aviation: The Rolls in Rolls-Royce

Charles Stewart Rolls
Charles Rolls, the co-founder of Rolls-Royce.

Rolls Royce has always been a double sided company, the luxury cars, and the aero engines. Set up by Charles Stewart Rolls, and Frederick Henry Royce, Rolls-Royce Limited was incorporated on march 1906. Starting out as a luxury car manufacturer, they quickly developed a reputation for superior engineering quality. They reportedly developed the “best car in the world”. Henry Royce had already been running an electrical and mechanical business since 1884, and built his first car, the Royce 10 in his manchester factory in 1904. He met C.S.Rolls, an owner of a car dealership, and he was impressed with the quality of the cars. A set of cars (branded rolls-royce) were made, and sold exclusively by C.S.Rolls. This started their partnership. Rolls-Royce Limited set up its first factory in Derby, after an offer of cheap electricity from the city council.

Rolls Royce Racing
Charles Rolls, sits in the back of the 20-horsepower Rolls Royce during the 1905 TT race.

Rolls could be described as a pioneer aviator. As an accomplished balloonist, he made over 170 balloon ascents. He was also a founding member of the Royal Aero Club in 1903, and was the second person in Britain to be licenced to fly by them. That same year he won the Gordon Bennett Medal for the longest single flight time. By 1907 though, he started getting interested in flying, and tried to get his then partner, Royce, to design an aero engine. With Royce not convinced, Rolls, in 1909 bought one of six Wright Flyer’s built by the short brothers. He made more than 200 flights, one of which, on the 2 June 1910, he became the first person to make a non-stop double crossing of the English channel by plane. For this 95 minute flight, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Aero Club.

Rolls flying
Rolls in the plane he flew across the channel twice in.

On 12th July 1910, Rolls was killed in an air crash at Hengistbury Airfield, Southbourne, Bournemouth. He was 32 when the tail of his Wright Flyer broke off during a display. He was the 11th person to die in an aeronautical accident, and the first ever Briton. A statue of him is in St Peter’s school which was built on the site of Hengistbury Airfield.

Death of Charles Stewart Rolls
Photograph on the front page of the Illustrated London News, 16 July 1910, showing the wreckage of the plane crash which killed Rolls

Edward Powles – Fastest Piston Pilot

Edward Powles is a fairly unknown pilot that held two rather impressive records during his time as a Spitfire pilot. He wasn’t the usual build for an RAF pilot, at 6 foot 4 inches and weighing 180lb, but joined the RAF as an apprentice during World War 2. He trained as a photo-reconnaissance pilot, and remained in service well after the war. He was trained in and mainly used twin engine aircraft. In January of 1950 he was surprised to be ordered to RAF Finningley to complete a refresher course on the Supermarine Spitfire PR14. Then on to RAF Leuchars in Scotland for familiarisation training on the Spitfire PR19, training in high and low altitude sorties.

Ted Powles
Taller than the average pilot, Ted was known as a competent and skilled pilot.

In the next august during the Malayan emergency he was posted to RAF Tengah in Singapore. His job consisted of photo-reconnaissance and ground attack missions in the Spitfire FR18, as part of Operation Firedog. This was the campaign against communist insurgents hiding in the Malayan jungle. Later in 1950 he transferred to 81 (PR) Squadron at RAF Seletar, continuing to fly medium level reconnaissance sorties over the Malayan jungle. Then just before Christmas of 1950 the CO told Powles he had been selected to take a flight of two PR19’s from RAF Seletar to RAF Kai Tak in Hong Kong on 1st Jan 1951. Powles and the other pilot, Flight Sergeant Padden, flew PS852 and PS854 fitted with split pairs of F52 cameras with 36in lenses. At this point they were not told what their duties would be, and told to await further instructions.

colour of PS852 on the ground


PS852 on the ground

They spent a few weeks flying sorties, assisting flights of Vampire jets being ferried into Sek Kong for Tourane. Then Powles was asked to take some aerial photographs of a number of Chinese islands in the local area by a photographic interpreter, presumably with authorisation from a higher authority. Powles would fly 63 sorties over Chinese territory during the course of 1951. During their time, the flight had photographed sites along the Chinese coastline up to 400 nautical miles to the south-west of Hong Kong, and up to 160 nautical miles to the north-east, as well as sites up to 100 nautical miles from the coast, sometimes as far as the island of Hainan. During the course of these flights, Powles set two notable records.

The PS854 likely flown by Powles, see how close his head is to the glass.

During a meteorological test flight on the 5 February 1952, Powles reached 51,550 feet in PS852, the highest altitude ever recorded for a piston-engined aircraft. He then got a cockpit pressure warning, this was partly down to the fact he was near the equator. He put his Spitfire in a shallow dive, and during the descent the aircraft quickly got into compressibility, although he didn’t know it. This locked up the controls and the plane started to dive uncontrollably, attaining 690 mph (Mach 0.96) the highest speed ever recorded for a piston-engined aircraft. He talks about putting both feet on the instrument panel and pulled back the stick with no avail. He also states he saw a mist over the wings. With very few options left, he actually pushed the stick forward, which helped to get him out of the dive. As a pilot he was experienced enough to wait until he got into denser air at lower altitudes. This gradually slowed him down, and he regained control at around 1,2000 ft over the ocean. He also put the prop in the correct pitch, which saw him through.

PS854 Photographed by Powles
PS854 Photographed by Powles, flying at 1800 ft near Aberdeen fishing village in Hong Kong

After their flight had finished, both Spitfires were left at Kai Tak and became part of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force. He had always thought he went supersonic, but at the time he didn’t know about compressibility. In the 1990’s he was able to show his figures to the Air and Space Museum, and they were able to establish that he went the 0.96 Mach, or 715mph.



Pioneers in Aviation: William Boeing

William Boeing was an aviator with a different upbringing than what you would imagine, nothing to do with engineering or even military. Aiming to profit from the Northwest timber industry from an early age, yet he went on to create one of the biggest aerospace companies ever known, one known in almost all households.

William Boeing

Born October 1st 1881 in Detroit, Michigan to a wealthy mining engineer Wilhelm Böing and Marie M. Ortmann. From Germany and Austria. Boeing Sr had made his fortune through timber and mineral rights near Lake Superior in North America. Up until 1899 young Boeing was educated in Vevey, Switzerland, when he returned he changed his name to William Boeing. Studying at Yale University, Boeing left before graduating in 1903. Starting a new life in Grays Harbour, Washington, he aimed to profit from the lands that he had inherited from his father, who had died of Influenza in 1890. He learned the logging business on his own, eventually buying more timber land and adding more wealth to the approximately $1 million estate left to him (around £26.8 in today’s money) by his parents. This included expeditions to Alaska. One of the main reasons for his success was due to him shipping lumber to the east coast using the Panama Canal.

In 1908 he moved to Seattle, to establish the Greenwood Timber company. He started off by living in an apartment hotel, but after just a year he got elected as a member of the Highlands, a brand-new, exclusive residential suburb. During this time, Boeing was interested in boats, and often experimented with boat designs. So much so in 1910 he bought the Heath shipyard on the Duwamish River. This was so he could build a yacht, named the Taconite, after the mineral that made his father’s fortune. His love of aircraft came from a trip while in Seattle in 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was a world’s fair publicizing development in the Pacific Northwest. Boeing was visiting as he had interests in the area. While there he saw a manned flight, and he became fascinated.

The Taconite, the 125ft teak yaght built by Boeing

In 1910 Boeing attended an aviation meet in Los Angeles, where he tried to get a ride on a boxy biplane, he didn’t succeed. This didn’t deter him though, he took flying lessons at the Glenn L. Martin Fling School in Los Angeles, and even purchased one of his planes, a Martin TA Hydroaeroplane. James Floyd Smith, a Martin pilot travelled to Seattle to assemble Boeing’s plane and teach him how to fly it. Smith assembled the plane in a tent hanger on the shore of Lake Union, and so Boeing became a pilot. At some point, Boeing’s test pilot broke the plane enough for it to be unusable. Martin informed Boeing that the parts would take months to become available, obviously this was an inconvenience. In 1915, Boeing was introduced to Navy Lieutenant G. Conrad Westervelt, and they soon became close friends. When a mutual friend brought a Curtis-type hydroplane to Seattle later that year, they took turns flying it over lake washington. After just a few trips, Boeing and Westervelt felt that they could build a better airplane. Boeing decided to buy an old boat works on the Duwamish river in Seattle for his factory and set up shop, he was now in the aircraft business.

Boeing Plant
The Boeing Plant on the Duwamish River around 1917

Together with Westervelt they built and flew the B&W seaplane. This was an amphibious biplane that had outstanding performance compared to it’s competitors. This sealed the deal for him, and Westervelt. Together they founded Pacific Aero Products Co in 1916. Their first plane, basically the B&W Seaplane was named the Boeing Model 1. At this time, the world was in the middle of World War 1, and on April 8th 1917, the United States joined the fight. Suddenly there was a need for defence manufacturers. A month later, The name was changed from Pacific Aero Products, to the Boeing Airplane Company. The United States Navy ordered 50 planes from Boeing. When the war ended, the need for military aircraft dwindled, and Boeing started concentrating on the lucrative supply of commercial aircraft. He secured mass contracts to supply airmail, and also created a passenger airline that would later go on to become United Airlines.

B&W Seaplane
The B&W Seaplane, sitting on the water

In 1934 the Boeing company had become massive considering the time. It had an airmail business, commercial airline, manufacturing of planes and many other branches of interest. This sparked controversy in the US government, and he was accused of monopolistic practices. That year the Air Mail Act forced airplane companies to separate flight operations from the manufacturing of planes. At this point Boeing separated himself from the company, and divested himself of ownership. The company was then split into three sections. The United Aircraft Corporation a manufacturing arm, based in the east, Now United TechnologiesUnited Airlines which handled flight operations, and still functions as such, and Boeing Airplane Company which was manufacturing based in the west, this went on to become the Boeing Company that we all know today. By 1937 he had started spending most of his time breeding horses, and the new Boeing Company would not become truly successful until World War 2.

Boeing spent the remainder of his life in property development, and the breeding of thoroughbred horses. He was said to be worried about the tensions in the Pacific Northwest due to WW2. This led him to purchase a 650 acre farm east of Seattle. He called it “Aldarra”. He would go on to die September 28th, 1956 at the age of 74 (a year before the release of the release of the 707). He died of a heart attack while on his yacht. His estate was eventually sold off and turned into a golf course in 2001, but parts still remain today, including Boeing’s main home, and two smaller houses. His house in the Highlands was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also a creek running near his house in the Highlands was renamed Boeing Creek after him.

Boeing Creek
The Creek named after Boeing, running near his house in the Highlands

Pioneers in Aviation: Donald Wills Douglas, Sr

Donald Wills Douglas, Sr was a real aviation Pioneer, from actually viewing the trials of the Wright Flyer, to creating the Douglas Cloudster, and creating the company that would eventually go up against Boeing, building some of the most famous aircraft in the world, even the Saturn V! You could say he has some experience in the world of aviation.

Born April 6th 1892 in Brooklyn New York, the son of an assistant cashier at the National Park Bank. Being an early enthusiast of aviation, in autumn 1908 at the age of 16, he convinced his mother to take him to see the Fort Myer trials of the Wright Flyer. Graduating in 1909, he enrolled in the United States Naval Academy. There are stories of Douglas building model airplanes out of rubber bands and motors in his dormitory at Annapolis. Then flying them on the grounds of the academy’s armory. In 1912 he resigned from the academy to pursue his dream of a career in aeronautical engineering. Applying to jobs at Grover Loening and Glenn Curtiss, and being rejected, he ended up enrolling in MIT. He received a Bachelors of Science in Aeronautical Engineering in 1914. He was the first person to ever receive this degree because he completed the 4 year course in half that time.

Donald W Douglas
Donald W Douglas, Sr holding a prototype of the DC-8 Circa 1955

In 1915 after a year working as an assistant to a professor at MIT, Douglas joined the Connecticut Aircraft Company, and was part of the team that designed the DN-1, the Navy’s first Dirigible (also known as an airship). That august, he left to start working for the Glenn Martin Company, where he was the Chief Engineer, at the young age of 23. During his time there he designed the Martin S seaplane. Not long after that, Douglas left when Glenn Martin merged with the Wright Company. He became the Chief Civilian Aeronautical engineer, of the Aviation section of the US Army Signal Corps. Then a short time after that he moved back to the new Glenn L. Martin Company, as the Chief Engineer, designing the Martin MB-1 bomber in his time there.

Glen Martin MB-1
Glen Martin MB-1 designed by Donald Wills Douglas, Sr

In March of 1920 he gave up his job, which was paying $10,000 a year ($125,000 in today’s money) and moved to California where he had met his wife Charlotte Marguerite Ogg. There he started his own aircraft company, the Davis-Douglas Company. The Davis was from David Davis a millionaire, and his financing partner, who payed $40,000 into the company. The aim of the company was to develop an aircraft that could fly from coast to coast non-stop. This aircraft was called the Douglas Cloudster, and unfortunately failed in its challenge. Although it didn’t achieve the challenge, it was the first airplane that could carry a payload greater than it’s own weight. The failure was too much for Davis, who left the partnership, and in 1921 Douglas founded the Douglas Aircraft Company.

The Douglas Cloudster
The Douglas Cloudster made by the Davis-Douglas company

Douglas was now regarded as a great engineer and a bold entrepreneur. Even though his Cloudster had failed, his new company, the Douglas Aircraft Company was a bit hit. In 1922 he employed 68 people, but with the increase in sales due to WW2, and the increase in passenger planes, the Douglas Aircraft Company became the 4th largest company in the United States. A year and a half before Pearl Harbour, he was already writing about how it “was the hour of destiny for American aviation”. Until 1957 Douglas was President of the Company, until he passed that position over to his son when he retired, and became the Chairman. In 1967 Douglas Aircraft Company Merged with McDonnell Aircraft to form McDonnell Douglas. This company would then go on to merge with Boeing in 1997.

Donald W Douglas, Sr
Donald W Douglas, Sr standing next to a new DC-7

Donald Wills Douglas, Sr died aged 88 on February 2nd, 1981. He is widely regarded as a great engineer and businessman, with plenty of awards to his name, and is listed as 7th in Flying’s magazines 51 heroes of aviation.

The Abandoned Buran Launch Site

So on my recent search for history on the Buran Shuttle, I came across this blog post. Although I had to use the Wayback machine to see it, it shows some great shots of the place where the Buran Shuttle used to launch.



The images show the way that the test site has been left to rust away. Although still obviously a launch site, the stone is breaking, and the machines obviously havn’t been used in a long time.


As you can see, there is still rubbish piled up, remains of old vehicles, and random scrap metal everywhere. Almost like everyone just up and left. If you have read any of my other posts on the Buran, you will know that is basically what happened. Around 1993, the USSR crumbled and the Buran shuttle programme was left behind. This is why this launch site is still like this, and why urban explorers can go out and take pictures.

On top of this, they found a few other things, including an actual Buran shuttle. Although not a working version, more of a prototype, this shuttle shows how it probably would have looked back in the day. I believe this is the version found at the Gagarin museum in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, close to the launch site found in these pictures. This one is on display to the public, and was refurbished in 2007.


The last thing that they found was a large machine. More specifically, the machine used to transport the Shuttle to the launch site. A colossal platform, that could move the shuttle and the solid rocket boosters needed for the flight. Unfortunately it was only ever used once in 1988, the only BUran flight ever. So it hasn’t seen much action. It was different to the USA’s Crawler-transporter because it was pulled by 5 diesel trains.



The Abandoned Buran Wind Tunnel Test


40km Southeast of Moscow in the back corner of Zhukovsky International Airport, there is an an interesting remnant of the space race just left to rot. These are a set of 15 pictures taken by Aleksander Markin on this Flickr album. It shows a 1/3rd scale model of the Buran Orbiter. According to Markin, the replica is made almost entirely out of wood, and was used as a wind tunnel test when developing the aerodynamics.

airfield-6 airfield-1airfield-9 airfield-8airfield-10 airfield-13 airfield-12 airfield-11airfield-14 airfield-15 airfield-2 airfield-5 airfield-4 airfield-3

When the Buran shuttle program fell into disarray, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these prototypes and test were just left behind in the change. In the intervening years, they have been left the rot. Many shuttles and tests have been found by urban explorers, but many are still out there. In another recent post I talk about a similar Buran prototype left to rot away in an impressive warehouse. You can find that post here.

The Buran Warehouse

So browsing the internet recently, I came across a great blog by Ralph Mirebs. He classes himself as an urban explorer and photographer. In this blog post, he has some awesome photographs that he has taken in an abandoned hangar in Kazakhstan.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is currently the only place where astronauts can be sent up to the International Space Station. They get sent up via the Soyuz rocket, after the USA’s Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Now the European space agency, and NASA both use this launch site to send up astronauts. On the subject of the space shuttle though, one hangar in the Cosmodrome holds some great pieces of history, captured by Mirebs in photographic form.

The Hangar

The hangar in question is knows as the MZK building. Designed by the Izhevsk Institute “Prikampromproekt”, the building is 132m long, and 62m high. Its fairly run down now, but in it’s day it was at the pinnacle of the Soviet space effort. The doors on the front measure 42m by 36m. Big enough to transport the rocket systems needed for the project. On top of that, these doors were perfectly sealed, so the building could be kept at a higher than normal pressure, to keep dust out. They weren’t really doors, they were just structures that just happened to move.

the massive doors

The building itself is fairly close to a heavily used launch site, so naturally it was made from a special form of steel, and was designed to withstand a rocket exploding on the nearest launch site. There are offices and laboratories on either side, four stories high. They hold testing equipment and controls. Inside the main part of the building are 3 cranes that are able to lift 400 tons each.

the 400 ton cranes

So what is this enormous secret Soviet era building holding? Well it houses 2 Buran class rockets, of only a few left in the world. The Buran programme was the Soviets reaction to the NASA’s space shuttle system. Although the Buran programme didn’t really take off (if you’ll pardon the pun!) it still holds some historical significance today. The reasoning behind the Buran system will be saved for a later post.

Looking at them, you would be forgiven for thinking that these weren’t really important. They have years of bird poo and dust covering them. Of the two ships in the hangar, one is the second flying prototype. Known as “little bird”, although never officially named. At the time that the Buran programme finished in 1993, it was about 97% ready. Unfortunately, the ship is now showing signs of wear, with the heat tiles falling off, and smashed windows. This ship started to be built in 1988, and was meant to fly in 1991 and 1992; with planned flights to the Mir space station.


The second ship is known only as OK-MT, simply made as an engineering mockup. It has the same look, and shape, but was never designed to fly, it was for use by engineers to test functions on the ship, so they don’t accidentally break the real thing. This one was a mockup for the other ship, known as OK-1k2, which was the only Buran calls shuttle to have the red bars on the cargo bay. This one seems in better condition, still holding onto many heat tiles, and most of it’s windows.


Unfortunately, most of the insides of the shuttles have been torn out, likely salvaged to be used on other projects. Some think they could have been salvaged for precious metals. Although it is a bit of a mess there is still a quality about the way it looks. A ship that was so close to being a massive part of the space age, and missing out by just a few years. Imagine if the Chief Designer had these ideas a few years before, these ships could have been the way we send astronauts into space.


It is sad that these pieces of equipment are just the remnants of the late Soviet Union, just left to rot. Hopefully one day they will end up in a museum, along with the other important parts of the space race era. Until then, we can only use these pictures to get a glimpse into the Buran Shuttle.