Oops, Part 4 (12-08-1958)

Well, at least we’re consistent.

The past few months, the newspapers have run headline after headline describing America’s failures in trying to shoot the Moon.  The Air Force had the first at-bat with its three Pioneers.  #0 blew up so early that it wasn’t even dignified with a name.  #1 limped about halfway to the Moon before falling back down.  #2’s performance was somewhere in the middle.

If you believe the papers (and/or the Vice President), all of these flights were successes.  After all, any launch, even one that doesn’t meet its goals, is a learning experience.  Sarcasm aside, Pioneers I and II were not total washes–they sent back a lot of good data on the Earth’s magnetic field and the radiation trapped therein.  Moreover, they went a lot higher than any of our previous probes, certainly higher than anything the Russians have sent up.

The day before yesterday (Dec. 6, 1958) was the Army’s chance to step up to the plate.  If hitting the Moon is a Home Run, I’d say they hit a double.  Pioneer III, a teeny 13-pounder launched on a Juno II made it out about 67,000 miles before falling back to Earth.

As always, I collected as many papers as I could and kept my ears glued to the radio.  Early editions simply announced the launch, but it was clear pretty quickly that something had gone wrong.  Apparently, Pioneer’s rocket ran out of fuel about four seconds early, which sent the probe off at too low an angle.  Even though Pioneer III left Earth with more speed than Pioneer I, its journey was only half as high.  38 hours after launch, the poor little probe was ashes in the ionosphere. 

Silver lining: A good 22 hours of data was collected from the probe, and it is already adding to our knowledge regarding the two (count them: two!) radiation belts girdling the Earth.  As a matter of fact, those belts are the only phenomenon Pioneer III could report on.  Unlike Pioneers 0-II, which had a whole suite of experiments including even a TV camera, Pioneer III had just one experiment: a pair of Geiger-Muller tubes for counting the cosmic radiation particles hitting the spacecraft.  I am not sure why Pioneer III was such a simple probe.  It may be that the Army got the assignment in a hurry and had to rush things.  It might also be that the Army’s Juno II doesn’t have the enough strength to lift anything heavier.

In any event, this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from the Army.  Pioneer IV will be up sometime soon, though Major General John Medaris, head of the Army’s rocket development center in Alabama, had no firm dates for the press.

“See me after Christmas,” he told the television people.

Get a load of that puss.  That looks more like a toothache than a booster failure. 

Here’s an interesting question: The Space Race has been marked by more failures than successes.  Did anyone ever write a science fiction story that predicted this level of teething pain in a space program?  It seems to me that space vehicles in fiction simply work.  If they don’t work perfectly, they have maintenance issues like those that afflict an automobile or perhaps a naval vessel.  This goes back to my previous comments regarding the focus of science fiction on the pilot rather than the large and necessary logistical tail. 

It’s a pity we don’t see more stories incorporating launch failures.  They could be an exciting dramatic device.

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