Big and Little Booms (Discoverer VI and Little Joe 1; 8-22-1959)

You certainly can’t fault the Air Force for lacking persistence.  The flyboys launched yet another in the ill-fated Discoverer series on the 19th.  This was the sixth time a “biological specimen” capsule was sent up for the purpose of catching it when it came back down, not that the Air Force has put anything living inside the capsule for several launches.  Like its predecessor, Discoverer V, the probe made it into a polar orbit, but the retro-rocket that was supposed to send the capsule back to Earth failed to work properly.  Air Force engineers have determined that the malfunctions are due to the extreme cold encountered at the edge of space.

NASA’s not having much luck, either.  As we’ve discussed before, our nation’s civilian space agency is working feverishly on its first manned space capsule, called Mercury.  There are lots of moving parts to such a momentous undertaking.  You’ve got two types of boosters for the missions (Redstone and Atlas for sub-orbital and orbital missions, respectively–they were going to use a Jupiter, too, but canceled the mission as superfluous).  You’ve got the capsule, itself.  You’ve got the global tracking system.  You’ve got the pilots, themselves.

There are other details–smaller, but no less important.  For instance, the Little Joe booster (really a cluster of four Sergeants, like the kind you find at the top of a Juno) has been developed to test the Mercury capsule on short hops.  Yesterday, Little Joe 1 stood poised for take-off.  Its mission was to test out the Mercury escape tower, which is designed to lift the spacecraft’s passengers to safety in the event of an early booster malfunction. 

Well, it didn’t work.

The rocket had been sited at Wallops Island, where we launch sounding rockets from.  It had been pointed at the Atlantic Ocean tilted at a sharp degree angle in order to simulate a challenging abort.  35 minutes to launch, there was a whoosh, and crewmen and photographers scrambled for cover.  The Little Joe didn’t go anywhere, but the escape tower took off with its capsule payload, flew about 2000 feet into the air, then jettisoned the capsule.  Thud.

They’re still trying to figure out what went wrong.

At least Explorer VI is still working.  In fact, I hear that the spacecraft may already have used its onboard camera to take the first picture of the Earth from outer space!  More news on that as it comes in.

See you in three days with the rest of… ugh… this month’s Astounding.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

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