[August 20, 1960] Up and Down (Americans and Soviets recover space capsules)

Talk about a good week for Space news!

There I was, all ready to discuss the latest IF Science Fiction (which is quite good, by the way), and then both the United States and the Soviet Union came out with a couple of bombshells that I couldn’t ignore.  And neither should you.

Firstly, right on the heels of last week’s Discoverer 13 launch, the Air Force has successfully flown another Discoverer.  For those who don’t remember, Discoverer is a “biological-sample-return” capsule designed to send living payloads into orbit and then retrieve them.  Supposedly.

Now, I had reported last week that lucky 13 was the first fully successful mission.  That turned out to be a mistake.  Discoverer capsules are meant to be caught before they land, and #13 had to be fished out of the drink.  By the way, 13’s payload, an American flag, was presented to the President amid great fanfare on August 15. 

But #14 was a textbook case from beginning to end, complete with a mid-air snatch that must have been a rather hair-raising endeavor.  According to my newspaper, the Air Force plans to send up apes with the next mission.  We’ll see. 

As usual, the Soviets had to trump our success.  Yesterday morning, Sputnik 5 soared to the heavens at the tip of a booster similar to the one that launched the heavy Sputnik 3 and 4 satellites the past two years.  A veritable menagerie was sent into space: two dogs (Belka and Strelka), 40 mice, two rats, and a variety of plants.  Even better, they successfully de-orbited and landed, safe and sound.

Unlike Discoverer, which is at best a proof-of-concept program (and, at least, a spy satellite with a creative cover), Sputnik 5 appears to be a production model of the Soviet manned spacecraft–their version of Mercury.  We haven’t even managed a fully successful flight of a boilerplate Mercury (Big Joe).  I’m betting that we see some kind of primate launched in the next few months. 

Whether it will be a human, in time for this year’s October Revolution celebration, depends on how fond the Soviets are of taking risks…

4 thoughts on “[August 20, 1960] Up and Down (Americans and Soviets recover space capsules)”

  1. I had no idea Discoverer was supposed to be snatched out of the air like that. Seems awfully risky for the crew of the recovery plane and really makes me wonder about the contents of those capsules. It’s going a bit far just to recover biological samples, if you ask me.

    And I’m glad to hear that all the passengers aboard Sputnik 5 came home alive. I’ve often wondered whether the scientific data really justified the sacrifice of Laika. They ought to try breeding them to see if there is any genetic damage from the radiation.

    As much as I hate to say it, the first human will probably be a Russian. They seem to have gone with a “bigger is better” approach to their rockets, while we’re looking at more elegant solutions. They’re probably also more willing to lose people than we are. If nothing else, it’s far less of a public relations problem when you can just claim there was no one aboard a capsule that failed in some way. Whether that will happen by October is a different question and I have my doubts. I’m not sure they’re quite that far along.

  2. Bigger is better.  The fact is, they beat us to the ICBM punch, and that’s why they will beat us to orbit.

    We’ll see if their launcher is a one-off or the beginning of a new series.

    1. Bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to rocketry. A bigger booster needs bigger or more engines which means more fuel and all of that is mass to lift. You can get to a point of diminishing returns pretty quickly. This might get them up a little sooner, but in the long run the search for stronger and lighter materials and fuel that offers more bang for the buck will have a bigger payoff.

  3. I wasn’t really expecting any good news from the USAF.  While the Soviets still have a big lead, it’s nice to see the USAF have some success for a change.  If they can maintain that streak we may reach parity in a few years…

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