[Sep. 26, 1960] Third time unlucky (Atlas Pioneer failure)

It’s enough to break an engineer’s heart: yet another Atlas Able launch has gone awry, sending its Pioneer payload not to the Moon, but into the drink.

It is an anticlimactic ending for a mission that withstood all of nature’s attempts to stop it.  Just two weeks ago, one of the most destructive hurricanes in history smashed into Florida, sending the launch crew packing.  They got the booster back up in good time, however.

No, what killed the mission were engineering glitches (a brand-new word for a brand-new problem).  In fact, not once has the Atlas Able, the odd marriage of the Atlas ICBM and the top two stages of the old Vanguard booster, worked out.  The first failure was a static test firing that ended in explosion.  The second disappointment involved a popped nosecone.  This third time, something went wrong in the second stage.  The booster got tipped beyond its ability to compensate, and the thing ended up boring straight into the Atlantic Ocean 14 minutes after launch.  ‘Dolf Thiel, the Air Force’s ex-German rocketeer (counterpart to the Army’s Von Braun), says his team still doesn’t what caused the crash.  That’s $10 million down the drain.

There is only one Atlas Pioneer probe and one Atlas Able booster left in the Air Force stable.  The next flight is planned for the end of this year.  Let’s hope the fourth time turns out to be the charm.  It would be nice.  The Atlas Pioneer is an impressive machine– at 140 kg, the biggest American deep space probe yet attempted.  The slew of onboard experiments have already been successfully tested on previous flights (Explorer 6 and Pioneer 5), and the vehicle carries the very first engine that can be started, stopped, and restarted in space.  Interestingly, there is no camera on the Atlas Pioneers; but if you saw the results the last time the Air Force released a photo from space, you can understand why they wouldn’t want to use their old camera again.

From here

If you’re one of the 158 million Americans (out of 180 million) that owns a TV set, I’m willing to bet I know what you’ll be doing tonight: the first ever presidential candidate debates will be televised this evening.  I’m very interested to see how this newest of campaign ideas meshes with the newest of communications media.

7 thoughts on “[Sep. 26, 1960] Third time unlucky (Atlas Pioneer failure)”

  1. Thank you very much for the news about Atlas. It’s strange someone at such a distance as muself should find it so interesting, but I do. The word ‘glitch’ might be new, but the thing isn’t. My kitchen’s overrun with them

    Looking forward to your take on the politics, too.

    1. I suppose American politics ultimately affect the world, even in far-off Kiwi lands.  I’m glad you’re enjoying my coverage of the Space Race.  Politics may be transitory and regional, but space travel involves the entire race.

    1. Given that we went from absolutely nothing to past the Moon (both the Americans and the Russians) within two years, I’d be surprised if we weren’t there with people by the mid 1970s.  That’s certainly NASA’s plan.  Their new Apollo program is scheduled to send a spacecraft around the Moon between 1965 and 1967.  I think that’s doable.

      As for glitch, I’m not sure when it entered space engineering parlance, but that’s what they’re officially calling the error in STL (the Air Force’s contractor) circles.

  2. > $10 million

    I don’t have the 1960 figures yet, but wages for 1959 averaged $5,010.  Ten million is the a year’s income from almost *two thousand* Americans.

    A lot of these rockets are “old” technology now, yet they’re still failing.  I suspect the engineers are more interested in new hardware than debugging the old stuff, and there’s probably not much in the budget for debugging hardware with such a short lifetime… but each failed launch not only makes the USA look like a bunch of incompetents, it’s costing real money.

    They’re still talking about manned flights Real Soon Now.  Whoever goes up will be taking a huge risk.

    There’s “new technology” and there’s “risk-taking” and rushing to keep ahead of the Soviets (and the British rocket program, for that matter…) but I’m starting to wonder if we’re seeing one of those “systemic failures” the project management people talk about, where projects fail because of management and quality control problems.

    1. You may be right.  I know the Juno 2 project (using the Jupiter IRBM for launches) has a mixed flight record, and there is concern it is because of indifferent quality assurance.

      On the other hand, the early issues with the Thor IRBM were well-known, resolved, and that booster now has incredible reliability.  So I really don’t know what’s going on.

      I will say that I expect NASA is working harder to keep things safe than the Air Force is.

  3. It looks to me like the Atlas Able is simply not going to work. Three tries and three failures is pretty damning. It’s commendable that they’re trying to get some use out of the old Vanguard boosters instead of just scrapping them, but they clearly don’t play well with the Atlas. At this point, I think it must be costing more than just not using whatever they have left over from Vanguard would.

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