[Nov. 28, 1959] Broken nose (Atlas Able and Discoverer 8)

It’s enough to make a fellow cry.

There she stood, a proud and lovely Atlas Able booster, with the largest American lunar probe ever built at its tip.  Well, perhaps it wasn’t so lovely.  The Atlas ICBM is impressive enough, with three mighty engines at its base and a hot temper that has resulted in an unimpressive operational record to date.  On top were the second and third stages of the Vanguard rocket, the same “Able” that has served the Air Force so well when mated to the Thor IRBM.  That’s how NASA got its first Pioneers into space, if not to their desired target: The Moon.

The Able looked a bit like a silly Q-tip perched above the Atlas.  Nevertheless, it’s the best combo we’ve got at the moment to compete with the Russians at their game.

Just 30 seconds after the launch, early morning on Thanksgiving (November 26), a piece fell off the nose.  Four-and-a-half minutes later, the second stage failed to ignite, and the rocket plunged into the ocean along with its precious cargo, the a 300 pound Pioneer posthumously dubbed “P3.”

This setback may push the program back a full year.  There is a back-up payload but no rocket to launch it, the Atlas being in high demand for both the military and the Mercury program. 

What went wrong?  I gave my friend, John Vehrencamp, a call last night to commiserate and get the inside dope.  John designed the payload shroud, you see, which appears to be the likeliest culprit for the failure.  Sure enough, his long face was clearly expressed in the morose tones of his voice.  He took the full blame for the incident.  You see, he hadn’t taken into sufficient consideration the drop of air pressure outside the nosecone as the rocket ascended.  The thing wasn’t properly vented and exploded like a balloon in vacuum.  It’s going to be a many-beers kind of weekend for John, I’m afraid.

I don’t think this mishap will have any impact on the Thor-Able deep space mission planned for early next year, thankfully.

In related news, the Air Force had another bad Discoverer mission on November 20.  The eight in the series of “biomedical capsule recovery flights” (which ironically have not carried a biomedical payload in many missions) launched all right, though I understand the orbit was eccentric and not optimal.  The recovery capsule ejected, but no parachute was spotted.  Much like Thomas Edison, the flyboys are finding many ways to get the process wrong.  Their losing streak can’t continue forever, right?

See you soon—December looks to be a great month (he said hopefully).

Note: I love comments (you can do so anonymously), and I always try to reply.

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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2 thoughts on “[Nov. 28, 1959] Broken nose (Atlas Able and Discoverer 8)”

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  2. Just to set the record straight, John Vehrencamp was NOT the designer of the satellite shroud that blew off during this launch. Another engineer at his company designed that part, and eventually took the blame for the failure. John was just accepting the blame for his company. John’s contribution to this satellite was a system to keep the internal temperature of the satellite stable. He never got to see if his design would work, since they never launched another version of this satellite with a redesigned shroud.

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