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.
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.