atlas rocket

May 15th, 1963 - Gordon Cooper launches aboard Mercury-Atlas 9, Faith 7, and is the last astronaut to fly to space under Project Mercury.

Faith 7’s mission was one of durability and stamina, in order to try and catch up with the Soviets, which had longer lasting missions following Yuri Gagarin’s Vostock 1, whereas the Mercury flights lasted only a few hours. (Thank you to YuriGagarinOfficial for catching my mistake!) 

Gordon Cooper would orbit the Earth 22 times in a mission that lasted over 34 hours before being picked up by the USS Kearsarge in the Pacific Ocean. This would be the last time an American Astronaut would orbit the Earth solo. Cooper’s capsule, Faith 7, is currently on display at Space Center Houston.

Project Mercury would be succeeded by Project Gemini, publicly announced in January 1962.


Processing flow for an Atlas A rocket; the rocket undergoing transportation from its manufacturing facility in San Diego, California, installation atop the Launch Complex and the Mobile Service Structure and liftoff. 

The rocket shown above was Atlas 4A, the first Atlas rocket to ever fly. It crossed the Suwannee river in Florida in December 1956, was installed atop LC-14 on March 21, and launched June 11, 1957.

The Atlas family of rockets celebrated six decades of service June 11, 2017.

Capturing Space Stories, One Click at a Time!

It’s World Photography Day!

To celebrate the occasion, we’re sharing photos from our photographers that chronicle what’s making news across the agency - from launches and landings to important science announcements to images taken from the vantage point of space.

Take a look!

A Closer View of the Moon 

Posted to Twitter by European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, this image shows our planet’s Moon as seen from the International Space Station. As he said in the tweet, “By orbiting the Earth almost 16 times per day, the #ISS crew travel the distance to the Moon and back – every day. #Horizons”

The International Space Station is the world’s only orbital laboratory. An international partnership of space agencies provides and operates the elements of the station. The principals are the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

Photo Credit: NASA

Spacewalk Selfie

NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold took this selfie during the May 16, 2018, spacewalk to perform upgrades on the International Space Station, saying in a tweet “An amazing view of our one and only planet.”

Arnold and fellow spacewalker Drew Feustel donned spacesuits and worked for more than six hours outside the station to finish upgrading cooling system hardware and install new and updated communications equipment for future dockings of commercial crew spacecraft.

Photo Credit: NASA

Preparing to Leave Earth

The mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex-3 is rolled back to reveal the United Launch Alliance Atlas-V rocket with NASA’s InSight spacecraft onboard, Friday, May 4, 2018, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a Mars lander designed to study the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core. 

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Launch Long Exposure

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is seen in this long exposure photograph as it launches NASA’s Parker Solar Probe to touch the Sun, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018 from Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Parker Solar Probe is humanity’s first-ever mission into a part of the Sun’s atmosphere called the corona.  Here it will directly explore solar processes that are key to understanding and forecasting space weather events that can impact life on Earth.

Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Waving Farewell

Expedition 56 flight engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA waves farewell to family and friends as she and Soyuz Commander Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos and flight engineer Alexander Gerst of European Space Agency depart Building 254 for the launch pad a few hours before their launch, Wednesday, June 6, 2018 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Auñón-Chancellor, Prokopyev, and Gerst launched aboard the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft at 7:12am EDT (5:12pm Baikonur time) on June 6 to begin their journey to the International Space Station.

Photo Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

Launching Humans to Space

The Soyuz MS-09 rocket is launched with Expedition 56 Soyuz Commander Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos, flight engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA, and flight engineer Alexander Gerst of ESA (European Space Agency), Wednesday, June 6, 2018 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Prokopyev, Auñón-Chancellor, and Gerst will spend the next six months living and working aboard the International Space Station

Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Rethinking Aircraft Design

In an effort to improve fuel efficiency, NASA and the aircraft industry are rethinking aircraft design. Inside the 8’ x 6’ wind tunnel at NASA Glenn Research Center, engineers tested a fan and inlet design, commonly called a propulsor, which could use four to eight percent less fuel than today’s advanced aircraft.

Photo Credit: NASA/Rami Daud

Flying Observatory

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is the largest airborne observatory in the world, capable of making observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest ground-based telescopes. During its lifetime, SOFIA also will inspire the development of new scientific instrumentation and foster the education of young scientists and engineers.

Photo Credit: NASA/SOFIA/Waynne Williams

Experimenting with Venus-like conditions

A close-up view of crystals that developed on materials exposed to conditions on Venus in NASA Glenn’s Extreme Environments Rig. This unique and world class ground-based test rig can accurately most simulate atmospheric conditions for any planet or moon in the solar system and beyond.

Photo Credit: NASA/Bridget Caswell

Honeycomb Close Up

A close-up view of 3-D printed honeycomb patterns made in NASA Glenn manufacturing lab using a method called binder jetting. The honeycomb structures can find use in several applications such as a strong core for lightweight sandwich panels, acoustic panels for noise attenuation and innovative cellular structures.

Photo Credit: NASA/Marvin Smith

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Mercury-Atlas 9 lifts off from Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral with astronaut L. Gordon Cooper aboard Faith 7 for what was then the nation’s longest manned orbital flight. Lift-off occurred at 8:04 a.m. EST, on May 15, 1963. And 34 hours, 20 minutes, 30 seconds, and 22 orbits later, Gordon Cooper was resting in his Faith 7 space capsule in the blue Pacific Ocean.

Image # : 63C-1414
Date: May 15, 1963

Solar System: Things to Know This Week

See history in the making on September 22! That’s the day OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth, will make a close approach to Earth as it uses our planet’s gravity to slingshot itself toward the asteroid Bennu. 

Over the course of several days, observatories and amateur astronomers will be able to spot the spacecraft. Below, 10 things to know about this incredible mission that will bring us the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.

1. Big Deal

OSIRIS-REx seeks answers to the questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can help us answer these questions and teach us about the history of the Sun and planets.

2. That’s a Long Acronym

Yup. OSIRIS-REx stands for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft. The gist: It will rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth.

3. Lots of Instruments, Too

While all the acronyms for each instrument may be alphabet soup, each has a job/role to perform in order to complete the mission. Explore what each one will do in this interactive webpage. 

4. Nice to Meet You, Bennu

Scientists chose Bennu as the mission target because of its composition, size, and proximity to Earth. Bennu is a rare B-type asteroid (primitive and carbon-rich), which is expected to have organic compounds and water-bearing minerals like clays.

5. Hard Knock Life

Bennu had a tough life in a rough neighborhood: the early solar system. It’s an asteroid the size of a small mountain born from the rubble of a violent collision, hurled through space for millions of years and dismembered by the gravity of planets—but that’s exactly what makes it a fascinating destination.

6. High Fives All Around

In 2018, OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu and begin an intricate dance with the asteroid, mapping and studying Bennu in preparation for sample collection. In July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a daring maneuver in which its 11-foot arm will reach out for a five-second “high-five” to stir up surface material, collecting at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of small rocks and dust into a sample return capsule.

7. Home Sweet Home

OSIRIS-REx launched on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida on an Atlas V rocket. In March 2021, the window for departure from the asteroid will open and OSIRIS-REx will begin its return journey to Earth, arriving two-and-a-half years later in September 2023.

8. Precious Cargo

The sample will head to Earth inside of a return capsule with a heat shield and parachutes that will separate from the spacecraft once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule containing the sample will be collected at the Utah Test and Training Range. Once it arrives, it will be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for examination. For two years after the sample return (from late 2023-2025) the science team will catalog the sample and conduct the analysis needed to meet the mission science goals. NASA will preserve at least 75% of the sample at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston for further research by scientists worldwide, including future generations of scientists.

9. Knowledge Is Power

Analyzing the sample will help scientists understand the early solar system, as well as the hazards and resources of near-Earth space. Asteroids are remnants of the building blocks that formed the planets and enabled life. Those like Bennu contain natural resources such as water, organics and metals. Future space exploration and economic development may rely on asteroids for these materials.

10. Hitch a Ride

Journey with OSIRIS-REx as it launches, cruises, and arrives to Bennu in this interactive timeline.

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June 11th, 1957 - The first Atlas prototype is launched in Cape Canaveral. This Convair manufactured missile would fail about thirty seconds into it’s flight, the engines losing thrust, before being destroyed by the Range Safety Officer remotely.

Despite the spectacular explosion, the flight was considered a partial success, proving that the Atlas could hold its structural integrity during flight. 

Next-Generation Weather Satellite GOES-S Lifts Off : A ULA Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-S. Launch was at 5:02 p.m. EST, March 1, 2018. GOES-S is the second satellite in a series of next-generation weather satellites. (via NASA)

Our future Mars 2020 rover, seen here as imagined through the eyes of an artist, will search for signs of past microbial life. The mission will take the next step in exploring the Red Planet by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. 

The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside on the surface of Mars. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth. Mars 2020 is targeted for launch in July/August 2020, aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Learn more.

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X-37B returns from fourth orbital flight, makes first KSC landing.

Concluding a record-breaking stay in space, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane returned to Earth this morning. The vehicle spent more than 718 in orbit after launching atop an Atlas V rocket on May 20th, 2015. 

Although the X-37′s operations in orbit are classified, at least two of its payloads were confirmed to be an experimental electric propulsion engine and a materials exposure pallet.

The spaceplane performed a completely autonomous landing at Kennedy Space Center’s runway 15 shortly before 8am EDT, the same runway used by the Space Shuttle program. It marked the first time one of the Orbital Test Vehicle spaceplanes landed at Kennedy Space Center.

Following brief servicing on the runway, the vehicle will be towed to one of the former Orbiter Processing Facilities next to the Vehicle Assembly building. The Air Force has converted one of the old shuttle hangars for use by the OTV program to house their spaceplanes.



     A rare configuration Atlas V 431 launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 18, 2016, carrying EchoStar 19, a high speed internet satellite from HughesNet. The flight was a success and United Launch Alliance earned their check. This Atlas had three solid rocket boosters, supplying asymmetric thrust for the first portion of the boost. Thus, the RD-180 engine nozzles were programmed to gimbal or vector the thrust slightly to the side to keep the rocket on its proper course.

     On this clear day, I was able to capture the water vapor mach cone that formed around the rocket as it passed through maximum dynamic pressure. Also visible was the sight of the boosters being jettisoned from the vehicle. It was the third time this 431 configuration has ever flown, proving to be an excellent show.

Launching the Future of Space Communications

Our newest communications satellite, named the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M or TDRS-M, launches Aug. 18 aboard an Atlas V rocket from our Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will be the 13th TDRS satellite and will replenish the fleet of satellites supporting the Space Network, which provides nearly continuous global communications services to more than 40 of our missions.

Communicating from space wasn’t always so easy. During our third attempt to land on the moon in 1970, the Apollo 13 crew had to abort their mission when the spacecraft’s oxygen tank suddenly exploded and destroyed much of the essential equipment onboard. Made famous in the movie ‘Apollo 13’ by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, our NASA engineers on the ground talked to the crew and fixed the issue. Back in 1970 our ground crew could only communicate with their ground teams for 15 percent of their orbit – adding yet another challenge to the crew. Thankfully, our Apollo 13 astronauts survived and safely returned to Earth. 

Now, our astronauts don’t have to worry about being disconnected from their teams! With the creation of the TDRS program in 1973, space communications coverage increased rapidly from 15 percent coverage to 85 percent coverage. And as we’ve continued to add TDRS spacecraft, coverage zoomed to over 98 percent!

TDRS is a fleet of satellites that beam data from low-Earth-orbiting space missions to scientists on the ground. These data range from cool galaxy images from the Hubble Space Telescope to high-def videos from astronauts on the International Space Station! TDRS is operated by our Space Network, and it is thanks to these hardworking engineers and scientists that we can continuously advance our knowledge about the universe!  

What’s up next in space comm? Only the coolest stuff ever! LASER BEAMS. Our scientists are creating ways to communicate space data from missions through lasers, which have the ability to transfer more data per minute than typical radio-frequency systems. Both radio-frequency and laser comm systems send data at the speed of light, but with laser comm’s ability to send more data at a time through infrared waves, we can receive more information and further our knowledge of space.

How are we initiating laser comm? Our Laser Communications Relay Demonstration is launching in 2019! We’re only two short years away from beaming space data through lasers! This laser communications demo is the next step to strengthen this technology, which uses less power and takes up less space on a spacecraft, leaving more power and room for science instruments.

Watch the TDRS launch live online at 8:03 a.m. EDT on Aug. 18:

Join the conversation on Twitter: @NASA_TDRS and @NASALasercomm!

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Atlas at sixty - America’s workhorse launcher celebrates sixty years of accomplishments, history.

America’s longest-flying booster family celebrated 60 years of heritage June 11, six decades after the rocket’s maiden flight. Although the flight of Atlas 4A was unsuccessful, it marked the beginning of a crucial role in America’s space history.

Three variants of the Atlas were developed to test out the vehicle’s systems; Atlas A, making eight launches from 1957-58, featured only the two outboard engines and was nearly two-thirds less powerful than the Atlas D. 

Atlas B, making ten flights from 1958-1959, featured three engines and numerous systems not present on the prototype Atlas V. The launch of the world’s first communications satellite - SCORE - on November 29, 1958, was the first space launch ever performed by the Atlas family.

Atlas C only flew six times from 1958-1959 as it tested out improvements made to its engines. 

The first Atlas variant to enter operational service was the Atlas D in 1959. Over 145 launches were made from 1959-1967 including nine made for NASA’s Mercury program. The Atlas Ds man-rated for Project Mercury were given a designation of LV-3B.

Atlas E was the first booster to have autonomous guidance systems; previous variants were radio controlled from ground stations. Forty-eight flights were made between 1960 - 1995.

Atlas F featured slight modifications to the booster’s launch umbilicals and improved guidance systems; the rocket flew 70 times between 1961-1981.

While many Atlas D, E, and F rockets were refurbished for use as launch vehicles following their end of service in 1965, various rockets were attached to the booster to create a two-stage space launch vehicle. Rockets such as Atlas-Able, Atlas-Agena, and Atlas Centaur lofted many of America’s famous satellites into orbit including the Ranger and Mariner probes, Agena docking vehicles for the Gemini program, and countless satellites.

In order to improve the vehicle beyond their original design parameters, the Atlas I vehicle was introduced in 1991 with improved engines and longer fuel tanks. Eleven flights were made between 1990-1997. Atlas II featured greater engine performance and even longer propellant takes and quickly fell into the workhorse Atlas launcher, making 63 flights - all successful - from 1991-2004.

With the development of the Atlas V underway, the Atlas III tested out numerous systems ahead of that rocket’s debut. The classic stage-and-a-half design was replaced with a single, Russian-made RD-180 engine. Six flights were made from 2004-2005.

The current member of the Atlas family, the Atlas V, became operational in 2002 right as other heritage launch vehicles were retired. As such, the Atlas V has become the new workhorse of the American launcher fleet, flying 71 missions as of June 2017.

Watch a video on the Atlas rocket’s history below. Video credit: ULA.