Thanks to YouTube and other video sites, there is now a wealth of archival footage of the space age available online. While you’ve probably seen video clips of the most historic launches and other landmark events, there are some lesser-known videos that are fascinating to watch. Some go behind the scenes, providing a fresh look at an event usually only seen from another perspective. Seeing some of these unusual clips makes us wonder just what other gems might exist on forgotten film reels stored away by NASA and other space agencies.
10. A 1960s Documentary on the Apollo Computer
Those heralded computers that helped Apollo missions reach the Moon look antiquated today, as evidenced by this 1960s MIT video. Watching the programmer punch in numbers equaling nouns and verbs for this computer on a giant keypad that looks like a children’s toy is just surreal. And to think that you could fit all of that computing power with room to spare on a smartphone today.
9. Newsreel Coverage of John Glenn’s Flight Around the Earth
On Feb. 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, as the sole occupant aboard Mercury-Atlas 7. This Universal Newsreel covers the mission from launch to splashdown, in the dramatic tone common to newsreels. Along with actual footage of Glenn’s 4 hour, 56 minute triple orbit around the Earth, watch for the primitive TV graphics showing a model of the spacecraft orbiting and making its reentry (beginning around the 3:10 mark).
8. First Space Shuttle Test and Landing
Before the first U.S. space shuttle took to space in 1981, NASA performed a series of drop tests in the California desert. When the shuttle returns to Earth, it is essentially a big, unpowered glider, meaning that astronauts have only one shot to land it. The tests used the Enterprise orbiter and were carried out starting in 1977. The shuttle was lofted aboard one of two modified Boeing 747s; after being released they glided in for a landing at a large dry lakebed on Edwards Air Force Base. These were the only “missions” flown by the Enterprise: it never went to space. The announcers on the video seem to love hearing their own voice, talking right over interesting ground communications with the shuttle.
7. First German Rocket Tests
Much of the U.S. and Russian space programs evolved from lessons learned by the Germans and their rocket program during World War II. These early tests of the V-2 rocket were carried out from the Nazis’ secret Peenemünde test facility on the coast of the Baltic Sea. You can see successful launches as well as failures in the video, as well as Nazi officials visiting the launch pad at the 1:24 mark, and a spectacular rocket explosion as a V-2 begins its fatal descent around the 2:00 mark and crashes back to the launch pad.
6. Cats in Space
Can cats land on their feet in zero-g? This strange video from around 1959 shows studies on the effects of weightlessness on various animals, including birds and cats (starting around the 35-second mark in the video). The short periods of weightlessness were produced aboard a Convair C-131 Samaritan flying a series of parabolic dives. Those early experiments in low gravity earned the plane the well-deserved nickname as the “vomit comet.” France did actually launch a cat on a suborbital flight in 1963; it did not survive. Iran was also rumored to fly a cat on a test launch in 2015.
5. Russian Space Shuttle’s First and Only Launch
Looks just like another space shuttle launch, right? It’s a little-known fact that Russia attempted to field a space shuttle of its own. Known as the Buran (meaning “Snowstorm” in Russian), the Russian space shuttle only flew once, and made two Earth orbits on an uncrewed mission. Buran would have carried a crew of two, and the video shows its sole launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Nov. 15, 1988. It’s a bit strange to watch, as the parallels with the U.S. space shuttle are obvious.
4. Saturn 1B Launch From the Air
Before crews were placed aboard Apollo missions, several uncrewed launches were carried out in the mid-1960s. Much of the iconic footage, such as booster separation in space, was actually taken during these early missions. The AS-203 mission depicted was the inaugural test flight of the Saturn S1B booster. Surprisingly, it is the only existing aerial footage of a launch from that era.
3. Apollo 1 Voice Audio During Deadly Fire
On Jan. 27, 1967, a fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a routine plugs-out test, claiming the lives of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. Although periodically appearing on the Internet as “newly released audio,” the recordings of the conversations of the astronauts on the pad talking to mission control just prior to and during the fire have been around now for some time. It’s still eerie to listen to audio between the astronauts and ground control. This test had numerous problems, including communications glitches, and Grissom can be heard around the 29:00 mark on the video asking, “How are we gonna get to the Moon if we can’t talk between three buildings?” The fire erupts about a minute later, with chilling audio from the crew. An investigation into the fire identified shoddy wiring that created a spark in a 100% oxygen environment.
2. Alan Shepard: Complete Flight of First American in Space
On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first U.S. astronaut in space aboard Mercury-Redstone 3 Freedom 7 mission. Unlike Yuri Gagarin’s flight one month earlier, Shepard’s journey was a short, 15-minute suborbital trip. This compilation video shows the complete mission along with real-time audio communications between Shepard and mission control, from launch to splashdown. Shepard later went to the Moon on Apollo 14.
1. Apollo 11 Launch in Hi-Def Slow Motion
You’ve never seen the launch of the first mission to land a human on the Moon like this. Filmed using 16mm HD, this fascinating video shows the launch ignition of the Saturn V rocket engine up close, with descriptive commentary. Watch for a dark band of gas seen around the 2:09 mark, which the narrator explains as cooler turbine exhaust protecting the rocket nozzle from overheating. This is an amazing sequence to watch.