Tag Archives: atlas able

[Dec. 15, 1960] Booby Prize (Pioneer Atlas Able #4)

Today, NASA made a record–just not one it wanted to.

For the first time, a space program has been a complete failure.  Sure, we’ve had explosions and flopniks and rockets that veered too high or too low.  We’ve had capsules that popped their tops and capsules that got lost in the snow.  But never has there been a clean streak of bad missions.

Pioneer Atlas Able, Space Technology Laboratories’ sequel to its marginally successful Pioneer (Thor) Able moon probes and its rather triumphant Explorer 6 and Pioneer 5 missions, was supposed to be the capping achievement.  It was the biggest American probe yet, and it carried an unprecedented myriad of instruments.

The problem wasn’t the probe, which probably would have worked given the success of its well-tested predecessors.  No, it was the rocket.  We just didn’t have anything purpose-built that would throw in the Soviet weight class.  But there were a few Atlas ICBMs lying around, as well as the generally reliable second and third stages used in the Thor Able.  They were married in the ungainly form of the Atlas Able.

None of them worked.  The first one died in September ’59 in a static (non-launch) test.  #2 popped its top two months later when the air pressure in the nosecone was insufficiently vented.  #3 weathered Hurricane Donna only to tip fanny over kettle and plunge into the Atlantic.  And #4…

We’re still not sure why #4 burst into flames early this morning at a height of 40,000 feet.  What we do know is that’s another $40,000,000 down the drain, and it marks an end to the STL space program, at least for now. 

In fact, it marks a rather dramatic end of an entire chapter of spaceflight.  The next set of moon probes, called Ranger, are being developed by a completely different center (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) and along completely different lines.  It won’t be launched by an Able derivative but rather a rocket using one of the new second-stage boosters: the Air Force’s Agena, or maybe even the powerful Centaur.

Either way, it’s likely that the Soviets will score the next success in the lunar/interplanetary race as a result. 

On the other hand, it’s not all bad news.  The Air Force’s ill-starred Discoverer program, which suffered far more failures than Atlas Able, has had an unbroken streak of success.  #18 flew on Pearl Harbor Day, and its capsule, containing biological specimens (and probably several rolls of film with snapshots of the Russian countryside from orbit), was recovered in mid-air, as planned.  The government is no longer hiding the surveillance purpose of the program, which I suppose is reassuring, somehow.

The next Mercury test is set to go in four days.  Keep your fingers crossed!

[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.

[September 9, 1960] Willingly to Sequel (October 1960 Analog, lead novella)

Analog, formerly Astounding, has a reputation for fielding the fewest female authors.  Perhaps its because Campbell’s magazine is the most conservative of the science fiction digests, or maybe its because of the conception that women’s STF is somehow softer than the “real” deal.  You know, with characterization and such.

So you can imagine my delight when I saw Pauline Ashwell once again has the lead novella in this month’s Astounding, the second in her tales starring the spunky Lysistrata Lee.  You may have caught the fun Unwillingly to School a couple of years ago in which Lee wins a scholarship to study on old Earth (after a bit of adversity, of course).  The Lost Kafoozalum, which takes place after Lee graduates, and covers her first field mission, has that same unusual first person storytelling style as the earlier story. 

I like the plot, and Lee is hard not to love, but I found there was a little too much set-up for the payoff.  I would have liked more showing than telling during the expository first half.  The end is a bit pat, too.  I don’t mind romance (actually, I like it a great deal), so I’d have enjoyed more development leading to the reveal.

Read it, and tell me what you think!

I’ll be covering the rest of the October 1960 Astounding tomorrow.  In the meantime, here’s an update on Hurricane Donna.  It apparently began forming on August 29 off the coast of West Africa, and we’ve been tracking its swath of destruction via radar and TIROS 2 ever since.  It’s already pummeled the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, swamped the coast of Cuba, and it’s currently gathering strength just 150 miles southeast of Miami. 

It’s not certain yet whether the track of the storm will take it over Cape Canaveral, but Air Force and Space Technology Laboratory personnel are taking no chances.  They’ve already set up evacuation plans for personnel and vital equipment related to the upcoming Pioneer Moon mission.  Let’s hope the inclement weather doesn’t jinx things.  The last failure was heartbreaking enough.

[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).

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