[Dec. 15, 1960] Booby Prize (Pioneer Atlas Able #4)

Today, NASA made a record–just not one it wanted to.

For the first time, a space program has been a complete failure.  Sure, we’ve had explosions and flopniks and rockets that veered too high or too low.  We’ve had capsules that popped their tops and capsules that got lost in the snow.  But never has there been a clean streak of bad missions.

Pioneer Atlas Able, Space Technology Laboratories’ sequel to its marginally successful Pioneer (Thor) Able moon probes and its rather triumphant Explorer 6 and Pioneer 5 missions, was supposed to be the capping achievement.  It was the biggest American probe yet, and it carried an unprecedented myriad of instruments.

The problem wasn’t the probe, which probably would have worked given the success of its well-tested predecessors.  No, it was the rocket.  We just didn’t have anything purpose-built that would throw in the Soviet weight class.  But there were a few Atlas ICBMs lying around, as well as the generally reliable second and third stages used in the Thor Able.  They were married in the ungainly form of the Atlas Able.

None of them worked.  The first one died in September ’59 in a static (non-launch) test.  #2 popped its top two months later when the air pressure in the nosecone was insufficiently vented.  #3 weathered Hurricane Donna only to tip fanny over kettle and plunge into the Atlantic.  And #4…

We’re still not sure why #4 burst into flames early this morning at a height of 40,000 feet.  What we do know is that’s another $40,000,000 down the drain, and it marks an end to the STL space program, at least for now. 

In fact, it marks a rather dramatic end of an entire chapter of spaceflight.  The next set of moon probes, called Ranger, are being developed by a completely different center (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) and along completely different lines.  It won’t be launched by an Able derivative but rather a rocket using one of the new second-stage boosters: the Air Force’s Agena, or maybe even the powerful Centaur.

Either way, it’s likely that the Soviets will score the next success in the lunar/interplanetary race as a result. 

On the other hand, it’s not all bad news.  The Air Force’s ill-starred Discoverer program, which suffered far more failures than Atlas Able, has had an unbroken streak of success.  #18 flew on Pearl Harbor Day, and its capsule, containing biological specimens (and probably several rolls of film with snapshots of the Russian countryside from orbit), was recovered in mid-air, as planned.  The government is no longer hiding the surveillance purpose of the program, which I suppose is reassuring, somehow.

The next Mercury test is set to go in four days.  Keep your fingers crossed!

6 thoughts on “[Dec. 15, 1960] Booby Prize (Pioneer Atlas Able #4)”

  1. Thank you for the update. I’m sure NASA’s luck will turn, and the Air Force does keep it from being all bad news.  Fingers crossed for Mercury, and I’m sure we both hope the Soviets do well, in this, too.

    1. Interestingly, STL is essentially Air Force, too.  I am hearing there are political rumbles going on at STL, and they may split in two, one group doing civilian stuff, the other doing military stuff.  Their position has always been contentious.

      And NASA likes to keep its stuff homegrown.

  2. The failures look bad, but good engineers should learn something from them as well as they would from a success. Frankly, I don’t mind a few flops at this stage of the game. Let’s get the teething problems over before we start sending up people. I’m not entirely sure the Russians aren’t willing to break a few eggs in their rush to be first. Heinlein was in the Soviet Union earlier this year when they sent up that capsule with a dummy in it (in May, I think) and he says that people they talked to at first told them they had sent up a man, but the story changed later. I don’t know. Mrs. Heinlein’s Russian may not be as good as she thinks it is, or maybe there was something to it. Let’s work out the kinks before we put our boys at risk.

    And darn if that Atlas-Able isn’t the ugliest rocket. Looks one of those fancy-schmancy electric toothbrushes.

      1. Just got your latest update with the morning mail – an electric ear-cleaner! I laughed and laughed and laughed. Suddenly I imagined that silly thing going right in the ear of that moon-face from “A Trip to the Moon” – off to the left to the Verne rocket, of course – and I just couldn’t stop giggling about it, so I had to drop you a postcard LoC right away.

        I’m quite certain you’re right about the Russian countryside photographs. I’d love to be able to see those pictures – ah, well, perhaps someday.

        “Electric ear cleaner.” Oh, now I’ve got the giggles again. And me with a class to teach!

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