[February 1, 1961] Fur and Film (Mercury Redstone 2 and Samos 2)

It’s hardly kosher, but it’s certainly good news: yesterday, a Redstone rocket launched the first piloted Mercury capsule on a 15-minute flight into space.  No, we didn’t put a man in orbit–we sent a three-year old chimpanzee named Ham on a vertical jaunt over the West Atlantic. 

It wasn’t a perfect mission by any means.  The rocket fired too hard and too long, subjecting the little pilot to extra “Gs”.  Also, the rocket-powered escape tower was triggered about five seconds from main-booster burnount, and poor Ham and his ship were dragged a thousand feet from their Redstone.  These issues are troubling and may result in another test mission before the all-up effort.  On the other hand, they also show that the sturdy capsule can “take a licking and keep on ticking.”  The pilot was sturdy too despite the rigors of the journey, Ham dutifully ran through his in-flight routine, flipping switches and levers for the duration of the 15-minute flight.

In other news, the Air Force finally got its “official” spy satellite into orbit.  Samos is the successor to the utterly, completely, unquestionably solely scientific series, “Discoverer”, which sent back capsules from space that may or may not have had photographs of the Soviet landscape in them.  Samos 2 (the first one was a dud) was launched into a polar orbit, like Discoverer.  It might also send back film, but its main purpose (I am given to understand) is to broadcast real-time photography from space without having to return film to Earth.  Instead, the pictures are photo-statted in space and then ‘faxed down to Earth.  I wondered why the satellite didn’t use a TV system, like the weather satellite, TIROS, but I imagine the resolution would be too poor to be useful.  I have also heard some accounts that Samos 2 is testing out an ELINT (Electronic INTelligence) system that will allow us to locate and evaluate Soviet radar systems.  It’s hard to get a consistent report on the matter–the Air Force is clamming up on its programs these days.

So there you have it: the civilians are sending up sounding apes, and the missilemen are orbiting eyes in the sky.  No matter how you slice it, 1961 is already an interesting year in Space.