Tag Archives: discoverer

[July 29, 1962] What a Diff’rence a Month Made (July 1962 in spaceflight)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

Sometimes, the future comes so fast, it bewilders.

This rushing feeling I’ve had all month must be similar to what my grandparents felt when the Wright Brothers first took off.  For millennia, people have dreamed of flight, envying the birds.  Yet flying was always the province of make-believe, of fanciful stories.  Then, on one day in 1903, airplanes became a reality, and the world was transformed.

Ditto space travel.  That dream has been alive since the Ancient Greeks, yet it was entirely a theoretical concern until the Soviets pierced the heavens with their first beeping Sputnik.  It is easy to forget, now that there have been well over one hundred successful orbital missions, that just five years ago, there had been none.

The advances made just this month are tremendous, each one as significant as the breakthroughs I’ve just detailed.  Let’s review:

Ma Bell, Orbital Division

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks, you can’t have missed virtually non-stop coverage of the first civilian communications satellite, AT&T’s Telstar.  Launched July 10, it circles the Earth every 90 minutes; for 20 minutes of every orbit, North America and Europe are linked via the dappled spheroid.

Now, it’s not as if the two continents had been completely cut off before.  However, the only way to communicate was via undersea phone line (expensive, not useful for television), or shortwave radio (no pictures).  If the UK wants to watch reruns of The Twilight Zone, or if we wanted to see airings of Danger Man or Supercar, we have to wait for videotapes to be shipped/airmailed across the Pond.  News from abroad is often days out of date.

That’s about to change.  Starting with a fairly humdrum broadcast of a flag in France, Telstar’s programming has now included a host of shows including a Presidential address and a sports match.  And everyone can receive them (so long as the local stations rebroadcast the feed).  Over the next few years, expect satellite coverage to become continuous.  Arthur C. Clarke’s dream of comsats fixed in the sky, 22,500 miles overhead, will soon become a reality, and the world shall be connected as never before.

Jousting Space Shutterbugs

Since April, the Soviets have been orbiting a series of disparate probes under the unified designation, “Kosmos,” the latest being Kosmos 7, which launched yesterday.  Details on these flights have been sketchy, and while they are all billed as scientific missions, it is beyond doubt that some or all of them have been spy satellites.  I infer this based on the fact that at least one of them was deorbited and recovered a few days after launch – the same modus operandi as our Discoverer film-return satellites.

Speaking of which, yesterday we launched the 47th in the Discoverer series.  As usual, the Air Force did not announce the flight, but it was in the papers anyway.  It’s really hard to hide a rocket launch in the middle of California.

It is unlikely that the two satellites took pictures of each other, but wouldn’t that be a snapshot to develop?

Getting to Space the Old-Fashioned Way

Until this month, the only way into the deep black was at the tip of a rocket, as Messrs. Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Gagarin, and Titov can attest.  But on July 17, Major Robert White flew his X-15 rocket plane to an altitude of 59 miles.  For NASA, that’s close enough to outer space to count, and they’re giving the Major a pair of astronaut wings to wear on his flight suit. 

White experienced three minutes of weightlessness during his flight, and the stars were brilliant and unwinking at the journey’s apex.  While this is close to the highest the X-15 can ever fly, it strongly suggests that, in the not too distant future, the next generation of spaceplanes will zoom into orbit from a conventional runway.

Just try not to live right under the take-off point.  That could get loud.

Bits and Pieces

The Apollo moonship design is moving right along.  One lingering question, however, was how the thing would get to the moon.  After all, it is the heaviest manned spacecraft yet developed.  The original concept involved building a giant version of the already giant Saturn booster.  This eight-engine monster is dubbed Nova, and it would take Apollo directly to the moon.  Appropriately, this mode is called “Direct Ascent.”

A cheaper idea involves using two Saturn C-5s (a simpler, 5-engine variant), one carrying the Apollo, and the other carrying the fuel.  The two would meet in Earth orbit before jetting off to the moon.  This mode is called “Earth Orbit Rendezvous.”

But it was the plucky underdog idea that was ultimately chosen this month.  Called Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, it requires just one Saturn C-5.  At its tip will be an Apollo, some fuel, and a teeny Lunar Excursion Module (or LEM).  The Apollo, itself, won’t land on the moon.  Instead, two astronauts of the three will cram into the LEM for the landing. 

This mode was, at first, deemed too complicated to be practicable.  Computers are getting better these days, however, and the cost savings are significant.  Moreover, there’s less to go wrong with one rocket than two.

I’m wholly in favor of this move.  After all, anything with the acronym LEM must be incredible.

Conquered by (the Planet of) Love

The one bit of sad news accompanies the loss of Mariner 1, our first planned mission to Venus.  Launched on July 22, its Atlas Agena rocket, the biggest one we’ve got right now (save for the still-in-testing Saturn 1), glitched during take-off and had to be destroyed five minutes into the flight.

Unlike Pioneer 5, which two years ago flew to Venus’ orbit and demonstrated the possibility of long-range telecommunications, Mariner 1 would have flown by the planet, itself.  It would not have been able to take pictures; the Atlas Agena combination isn’t powerful enough to lift a spacecraft with a big enough radio to send scans of photos.  We’ll have to wait for the beefier Atlas Centaur for that.

Instead, Mariner 1 is really a retool of the first generation of Ranger moon probes, carrying a slew of particle and electromagnetic wave detectors.  If an “R-type” Mariner makes it to Venus, we won’t get a look under the planet’s shroud of clouds, but we will, at least, finally know hot the world is and get some information on its magnetic field.

The good news?  Mariner 2 is scheduled for launch next month.  Let’s hope that one works – otherwise, we’ll have to wait another year and a half for Earth and Venus to be in favorable position for a mission.

Live via Visi-Phone!

Courtesy of Telstar and the miracle of Visi-phone(tm) technology, the Journey had a smashing second Tele-Conference on July 29, covering a wide range of topics: from news of the day, to discussion of the upcoming Hugo Awards, to talking about this Summer’s blockbusters.

If you missed the live broadcast, catch the rerun.  Check your local listings for details.

Congratulations go out to Mark Yon and Nathan “Rocky” Anderson for asking the best questions!  You can expect your prizes to arrive over the next few weeks.  And to the rest of our audience, warm thanks from the Galactic Journey staff.  We look forward to seeing you again when we do our third Tele-Conference in 2-3 months.

In the meantime, enjoy this revolutionary new era.  The future is only going to come more quickly, I predict…




[Apr. 30, 1962] Common Practice Period (April Spaceflight Round-up)


by Gideon Marcus

The radio plays Classical music on the FM band now. 

The difference is palpable.  Bach and Mozart on the AM band were tinny and remote.  It was almost as though the centuries separating me and the composers had been attenuating the signal.  This new radio band (well, not so new, but newly utilized) allows transmissions as clear as any Hi-Fi record set could deliver. 

Don’t get me wrong; I still listen to the latest pop hits by The Shirelles and The Ventures, but I find myself increasingly tuned into the local classics station.  The sound, and the selections, are just too good to ignore.  The last movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony #1, with its stirring accelerando is playing right now, and it is a fitting accompaniment for the article I am currently composing.

Time was I would write an article on a space mission about once a month.  This wouldn’t be a wrap-up, but an article devoted to a single satellite.  But the pace of space launches has increased – there were two successful orbital flights in 1957, nine in 1958, 13 in 1959, 20 in 1960, 38 in 1961.  There were six flights just last week.  Either I’m going to have to start abbreviating my coverage, or I’ll need to start a satellite (no pun intended) column. 

But that’s a decision for next year.  Right now, with a bit of musical texturing, let me tell you all about the exciting things that happened in spaceflight, April 1962:

Quartet in USAF Minor

Late last year, President Kennedy put a lid on all military space programs, classifying their details.  This was a break from Ike’s policy, which was to publicize them (more or less accurately).  I think Eisenhower’s idea was that any space shot was good for prestige.  Also, if we were upfront about military flights, maybe the Soviets would follow suit.

The current President has decided that discretion is the better path.  So even though I have it on good authority that four boosters took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (it being rather hard to hide a blast of that magnitude, and the papers are still reporting on them as best they can), I couldn’t tell you exactly what was at the tips of those rockets.  It’s a fair bet, however, that three of them were reconnaissance satellites, snapping photos of the USSR from orbit.  The last was probably a nuclear missile launch detector called MIDAS.  That’s make it the 5th in the series. 

Quartet in USSR Minor

Meanwhile, the Russians, who had not reported any spaceflights since Comrade Titov’s flight last summer, suddenly threw up four probes in about as many weeks.  The missions of “Kosmos” 1-4 were “to study weather, communications, and radiation effects during long space flights in preparation for an eventual manned landing.”

That sounds good, but while the first three satellites are still up in orbit returning scientific data, the fourth, launched four days ago, landed three days later – after passing over the United States several times.  All we know about it was it was launched from “a secret base” and “valuable data [was] obtained.”  Given that Kosmos 4’s mission plan bore a striking resemblance to that of our Discoverer capsule-return spy sats, I suspect the first three Kosmos shots were a flimsy camouflage.  What’s interesting here is that the Communists feel it necessary to construct a cover-up.  But the fact is, they just can’t hide when they launch things into space, any more than we can. 

Solo for English Horn

The first UK satellite, Ariel 1, was successfully launched on April 26, 1962 atop an American Thor Delta booster.  The little probe will investigate the Earth’s ionosphere.  You can read all about this mission in Ashley Pollard’s recent article.

Mooncrash Sonata

It’s two steps forward, one step back for NASA’s ill-starred (“mooned?”) Ranger program.  Thrice, the lunar probe failed to fly due to a balky Atlas Agena booster.  This time, Ranger 4, launched April 24, 1962, was hurled on a perfect course for the Earth’s celestial companion.  The trajectory was so perfect that the craft didn’t even require a mid-course correction.

Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had.  Upon leaving the Earth, it quickly became apparent that Ranger 4 was brain-dead.  It issued no telemetry, nor did it respond to commands.  NASA dispiritedly tracked the probe’s 64-hour trip to the moon, which ended in its impact on the far side. 

Heart-breaking, but it is a sort of semi-victory: At least the rocket works now, and the United States as finally caught up with the Soviets in another aspect of the Space Race (just two-and-a-half years late…)

Saturn (fortissimo)

Speaking of successful rockets, the tremendous Saturn I had another successful test on April 25, 1962.  Like the first, the upper two stages were inert, filled with water for ballast.  This flight has a twist, however.  After the first stage had exhausted its fuel, the dummy stages were detonated and the ensuing watery explosion observed.  This “Operation Highwater” was designed to demonstrate how far the debris of a booster blast would travel.  I imagine it was also a lot of fun.

I have to wonder about the future of the Saturn I.  It has already been determined that the Apollo moon craft will be launched by the much more powerful and generally unrelated Saturn C-5 and Nova boosters.  It seems that the Saturn I is something of a technological dead end, though I’m sure they are at least perfecting their heavy booster launch techniques.

Prelude, Symphony #2

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is planning another Mercury one-person shot for next month.  It will be an exact duplicate of John Glenn’s February flight, down to the three-orbit duration.  To be piloted by Navy aviator Scott Carpenter (the hunkiest of the Mercury 7), the main purpose of the mission is to make sure that the errors that plagued Glenn during his flight are fixed before the little spacecraft takes on longer journeys.  And, of course, then we will have caught up with the Russians in another way – we’ll have had two men orbit the planet.

No doubt, Carpenter’s flight will be the spaceflight highlight of next month; I have not seen any other missions announced.  Then again, the Reds might have a surprise that’ll have us singing a different tune…

[March 7, 1962] Sunny side up!  (Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) #1)


by Gideon Marcus

Look up at the night sky, and what do you see?  Darkness and countless points of light.  Maybe a planet or two, brightly untwinkling in the black.  It is interesting that the sky should be black – after all, there are lots of photons (light particles) buzzing around the sky even after the sun has gone down.  You’ve got radio waves and x-rays.  Gamma rays, microwaves, and the shimmering veil of infrared – heat.  And yet, we can’t see any of it.  Just the pinpricks of stars on the night’s sheet.

Part of that is a biological limitation.  Our eyes only see a tiny window of the electromagnetic spectrum: from purple to red, the colors of the rainbow.  Some species of life see a bit further, into the ultraviolet or the infrared.  Only one species has crafted the ability to see beyond this range: humanity.  With our scintillators and geiger tubes and giant dishes, we can see waves of all kinds. 

Well, not quite.  You see, even with these detectors, we are still half blind.  The blanket of air covering the Earth blocks many wavelengths of photons from outer space: X Rays, Cosmic Rays, many wavelengths of Ultraviolet.  To see the truly unseeable, you have to go into orbit.

That’s when we really can look at those points of light.  These are the stars, those busy factories of nuclear fusion, busily turning hydrogen into helium.  There are 100 billion in our galaxy, alone!  And we happen to have a lovely example just 93 million miles away, orders of magnitude closer than Alpha Centauri, the second nearest system.  While we have been observing the sun with our eyes for thousands of years, and with instruments for several hundred, these observations have always been hampered by the screening interference of the atmosphere.

Enter OSO – the Orbital Solar Observatory.  This 200kg spacecraft is the heaviest American science satellite to date, dwarfing all of the Explorer series of probes.  It is the first satellite launched devoted to the long-term study of the sun, in wavelengths you can’t see from the Earth’s surface.

There are 13 experiments on board the (appropriately) solar-powered craft including three X-Ray detectors, four Gamma Ray monitors, an ultraviolet sensor, several particle counters, and a dust sampler.  Not only will OSO be up in orbit for months, but it will be joined by successors in the series such that, for the next 11 years (a complete solar cycle of sunspot maximums and minimums), we will have continuous measurements of our star.  It is an unprecedented experiment, one which will tell us much about the nearest star and, by extension, the rest of the Galaxy’s stars.

Not only that, but we will learn a great deal about solar storms and the hazards of radiation to human spaceflight.  This will give us a better idea of when and for how long it is safe for astronauts to travel in space, on the way to the Moon, for instance (NASA Director, James Webb, says he expects a landing by 1968!)

When will this ambitious project start?  Why…today, March 7, 1962, in fact!  It was launched from Cape Canaveral this morning, and to all indications, it is working flawlessly.  It is the kind of mission that won’t get a lot of press, particularly when compared to the glory that cloaked Glenn’s manned Mercury mission last month.  Nevertheless, I think OSO deserves attention and praise.  It constitutes a genuine leap in technology and it extends the eye of our race far above the clouds in a way no previous satellite has done. 

If they gave out Hugos for unmanned probes, this one would get my vote!

On the other hand, OSO-1 has plenty of competition for that award, and it’s sure to get much more.  Tiros 4, the fourth weather satellite, joined its still-functioning older brother (#3) last month on the 8th, and there have been a few mystery military launches since then.  The President has clamped down on Air Force flights as of the beginning of the year, so I don’t know much about them save that two were Discoverer film-based spy sats and one was a Samos live-TV spysat.  Another launch happened just today, but it was classified, and I know nothing else about it.  (It’s ironic that the reason for the information clamp-down is that the Soviets accused us of employing surveillance satellites, and we’re trying to hide it; I’m afraid the cat’s already out of that bag!)

So stay tuned…there’s more yet to come!

[November 30, 1961] Man vs. Machine (November 1961 Space Round-up)


by Gideon Marcus

November 1961 been an exciting month for space buffs with several sequels to exciting missions as well as one brand new satellite. 

For instance, the fourth Transit navigational satellite went up on November 15.  Not only did it carry a little nuclear reactor for power, but it also had a piggyback pal.  Called Transit Research and Attitude Control (TRAAC), it’s a little research probe designed to try a new method of stabilization.  You see, an object launched into orbit will have a tendency to tumble.  There are active methods to right a satellite, like engines or gyroscopes.  TRAAC uses a passive method, employing just its shape and the tidal force of the Earth.  It’s an exciting experiment.

The Air Force was two for three this month with their reconnaissance programs.  Discoverer 34, on November 5, and Discoverer 35, on November 15, were sent into space to spy on the Soviet Union.  Each had a little camera on board and a capsule for sending film back to Earth.  Both craft made it into orbit, and at least the latter mission’s payload was recovered in a daring (but now routine) mid-air catch by a plane.  Only the boys in blue know whether the targets were a Soviet base or skinny dippers on the Black Sea.  Samos 4, launched November 22, failed to orbit.

By the way, it’s going to get harder for me to give you the skinny on military missions.  While Eisenhower was rather cavalier about letting the Soviets know what we’re up to, probably to show off, President Kennedy has put a lid on spy flights.  Newspapers aren’t covering them much anymore, and the details we do get are sketchy.  Just be aware that, at any given time, there are robot shutterbugs in orbit, taking snapshots of Nikita.  And maybe of you.

On to the civilian world: the second Moon probe Ranger probe was a bust, just like the first.  It’s a shame because these two missions, comprising the first iteration of the probe known as “Block 1,” were designed to do some excellent sky science.  They weren’t aimed at our celestial neighbor.  Rather, they were to be flung into high orbits for engineering tests and cosmic investigation.  The next mission, a Block 2 lunar impactor, is planned for January 1962.

But the real NASA news this month involves a little primate named Enos.  Yesterday, for the second time, an Atlas booster roared into the orbit from Cape Canaveral with a Mercury capsule at its tip.  Unlike the last one, however, Mercury-Atlas #5 (the first three had been suborbital missions) carried a passenger.  The 37.5 pound chimpanzee circled the Earth twice before safely splashing down some 255 miles southeast of Bermuda.

Just as the launch of a chimp presaged Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May, so Enos’ jaunt paves the way for astronaut John Glenn to be the first American in orbit in just a few weeks (weather permitting).  Now, the flight was not entirely flawless.  A roll reaction jet failed, and one of the components of the electrical system overheated.  As a result, Enos’ capsule returned to Earth after just two of the planned three orbits.  But, had a human been on board, he could have compensated for these issues, easily. 

That’s the bigger story, to me.  I know some people wonder why we bother to send people up into space when electric implements have proven capable enough, and cheaper.  And there is certainly a segment of the flyboy population that snickers at the thought of test pilots relegated to following in the furry shoes of ape predecessors. 

Yet, in MA-5, we have the reason.  No monkey and, as yet, no machine can react with the speed and intellect of a human.  Moreover, no machine can think creatively, adapting to an evolving situation beyond a few set scenarios programmed into its core.  Imagine if an astronaut were flying the Discoverer missions.  He’d have the discretion of choosing the targets to photograph.  He’d be able to bring a film capsule home with him rather than relying on complicated automatic systems and aerial recovery planes. 

When John Glenn flies, he will return far more information about the universe than any experiment or animal could, not just scientific, but about the human condition.  For 270 minutes, he will be an outpost of the Free World in space.  What will it mean to him, to all of us, his three circuits of the globe? 

We can’t know until he gets there, but I’m betting it will be profound.

[Oct. 1, 1961] Over and Above (America’s surprising lead in the Space Race)


by Gideon Marcus

When the news is full of Soviet spacemen and bomb tests, it’s easy to get the impression that America’s losing the Space Race.  The Russians got the first Sputnik, the first Muttnik, the first Lunik.  They launched the first two men into orbit; America’s two astronauts had shorter missions than most people’s commutes.  Not a week goes by without some cartoon in the papers depicting a Sickle and Hammer festooning a space station or the Moon.

And yet, are we really behind?  Just last month, the Air Force had three Discoverer missions (29, 30, and 31).  Discoverer is a spy satellite.  It is launched into a polar orbit (i.e. one that goes North to South rather than East to West) that allows the craft to view the entire Earth every day.  It snaps pictures with an onboard camera and then, after a couple of days, jettisons the camera back to Earth in a reentry probe.  The Air Force catches these probes in mid-air!  This is to ensure that our nation’s enemies don’t recover them before we can. 

The Communists are up to Sputnik #10.  The Air Force, with just one series of satellites, has over thirty.  There is simply no comparison in the number of flights we are launching.  Moreover, we have more kinds of flights: the scientific Explorers and Pioneers, the Echo and Courier communications satellites, the missile-detecting MIDASes, the navigational TRANSITs

Now, you may be wondering if the Soviets have more satellites up, and they just aren’t telling us.  It is true that the Communists seem loathe to announce any flights unless they are a) civilian in nature and b) successful.  However, since satellites necessarily travel across the entire globe, it is impossible to hide an orbital mission for very long.  Too many countries are scanning their skies with radar and telescopes.  Too many professionals and amateurs tune into the heavens, listening for a scrap of telemetry.  No, it’s pretty clear that the West is beating the East, at least in the number of missions, by an overwhelming margin.

Moreover, we will very soon catch up to the Russians in terms of the size of payloads we can launch into orbit and beyond, the one arena in which they’ve enjoyed a consistent advantage.  Not only will the Atlas and Titan ICBMs soon be able to boost humans into orbit, but the new Saturn should dwarf anything the Soviets have to offer.  Unlike all of our (and their) previous rockets, the Saturn has been purpose-built as a civilian heavy-lift booster.  Its capacity is going to be tremendous – and it will only be increased as time goes on.

Next time someone tells you that the Reds are clobbering us in Space, just send them one of those commemorative postcards our flyboys issue for each Discoverer launch.  By the time the Russians get to 31 in any satellite series, I imagine we’ll already be well past 100.

[August 31, 1961] Look on the bright side (August space round-up)


by Gideon Marcus

Did you ever eagerly wait for Christmas only to be disappointed by what you found under the tree (or, for my fellow Jews, under the menorah)?  That’s what this month must feel like for fans of the American space program.  While the Soviets achieved a huge success in August with the multiple orbiting of Gherman Titov, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had a lousy 31 days.

For one thing, our lunar efforts seem to be cursed.  Ranger 1, launched on August 22, was the first of the third generation of Moon probes.  The flight was a test mission, designed to range high above the Earth but not reach the Moon.  Like the earlier Pioneer missions, Ranger 1 was far from a success.  The second stage of its rocket, the much ballyhooed Agena, hiccoughed.  Instead of going into a high orbit where it could do all sorts of interesting sky science, the satellite ended up in a low orbit that grazed the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Not only was the poor probe doomed to a short life as the relatively thick air dragged Ranger 1 down with each circling of the Earth, it couldn’t get enough power, either.  Ranger was designed to bask for hours at a time in the Sun in the slow, high part of its planned orbit.  Instead, the hapless vehicle plunged into shadow every 45 minutes causing it to vent great gouts of nitrogen gas to orient itself toward the sunrise which came three quarters of an hour later.  Ranger quickly ran out of gas, its panels fell out of alignment to receive energy, and soon after, the ship’s batteries gave up the ghost.  When Ranger reentered yesterday, it had been silent for three days.

No science was gathered from the probe.  About the only thing that can be said for Ranger 1 is that its systems worked properly despite the extremely adverse conditions.  Let’s hope Ranger 2, scheduled for October, breaks the bad luck streak.

Meanwhile, Explorer 13, a craft of the S-55 class designed to measure all the dust and rocks whizzing about in orbit, went up on August 24.  Like Ranger, its orbit was lower than planned, and it fell blazing to Earth just four days later.  Not that the lifespan of the “beer can” satellite meant much – not a single impact was recorded on any of the probe’s wide array of sensors.  Again, the NASA boys found a silver lining: now they know to equip the next S-55 with more sensitive detectors!

Even the Air Force has been having a rough time of it.  Their 28th Discoverer spy satellite failed to orbit on August 4.  Discoverer 29 went up yesterday; we’ll see if the flyboys are able to recover their film capsule or not in a few days.

So, was there any good news this month?  Actually, yes!  Remember Explorer 12, which launched two weeks ago?  It has already returned so much data that scientists are overwhelmed.  Explorer will keep broadcasting, but ground stations are only going to listen periodically.  The data already suggests that there is a sharp decline in Earth’s magnetic field 50,000 miles up in the direction of the Sun, as if the two celestial bodies are fighting each other to a standstill out in space.  Explorer 12 will stay up for a year, and the scientific harvest is bound to be a bumper crop. 

In fact, it’s important to remember that there are still a bevy of probes still beep-beeping away, carrying out scientific missions: Tiros 3, Explorer 9, Explorer 11, Echo 1, even the venerable Vanguard 1.  We did lose one of the family recently, however.  Explorer 7 went off the air on August 24 after nearly two years in space. 

But that’s nearly 100 in satellite years, right?

Next up…  the Galaxy!

[June 30, 1961] Reaping the Harvest (June 1961 space science results)

June was a busy month for space travel buffs, especially those who live in the Free World.  Here’s an omnibus edition covering all of the missions I caught wind of in the papers or the magazines:

Little lost probe

The Goddess of Love gets to keep her secrets…for now.  The first probe aimed at another planet, the Soviet “Venera,” flew past Venus on May 19.  Unfortunately, the spacecraft developed laryngitis soon after launch and even the Big Ear at Jodrell Bank, England, was unable to clearly hear its signal.

The next favorable launch opportunity (which depends on the relative positions of Earth and Venus) will occur next summer.  Expect both American and Soviet probes to launch then.

X Marks the Spot

Just as planes use fixed radio beacons to determine their position, soon submarines (and people!) will be able to calculate where they are by listening to the doppler whines of whizzing satellites.  Transit 4A, launched by the Navy, joined the still-functioning Transit 2 on June 29 (#3 conked out March 30, and #1’s been off the air since last July). 

This Transit has an all-new power source.  Instead of batteries or solar panels, it gets its juice from little nuclear reactors.  These aren’t aren’t like the big fission plants you see being established all over the country.  Rather, they are powered by the heat of radioactive decay.  These energy packs are small and much simpler than solar panels.  Expect to see them used quite a bit on military satellites.

The Navy gets extra points for making their rocket do triple-duty: Also boosted into orbit were Injun 1 and Solrad 3.  The first is another University of Iowa particle experiment from the folks who discovered the Van Allen Belt; the latter a solar x-ray observatory.

Along a dusty trail

Contrary to popular belief, outer space is not empty.  There are energetic particles, clouds of dust, and little chunks of high-speed matter called micrometeorites.  All of them pose hazards to orbital travel.  Moreover, they offer clues as to the make-up and workings of the solar system. 

Prior satellites have tried to measure just how much dirt swirls around in orbit, but the results have been vague.  For instance, Explorer 8 ran into high-speed clouds of micrometeorites zooming near the Earth late last year corresponding with the annual Leonids meteor shower.  Vanguard 3 encountered the same cloud in ’59, around the same time.  But neither could tell you precisely how many rocks they ran into; nor could previous probes.

NASA’s new “S(atellite)-55” is the first probe dedicated to the investigation of micrometeorites.  It carries five different experiments — a grid of wires to detect when rocks caused short circuits, a battery of gas cells that would depressurize when impacted, acoustic sounding boards…the whole megillah.  It is one of those missions whose purpose is completely clear, accessible to the layman, unarguably useful.

Sadly, the first S-55, launched today from Wallops island, failed to achieve orbit when the third stage of its Scout rocket failed to ignite. 

It’s a shame, but not a particularly noteworthy one.  The Scout is a brand new rocket.  We can expect teething troubles.  Every failure is instructive, and I’ll put good money on the next S-55, scheduled for launch in August.

Worth the Wait

Speaking of Explorer 8, Aviation Week and Space Technology just reported the latest findings from that satellite.  Now, you may be wondering how a probe that went off the air last December could still generate scientific results.  You have to understand that a satellite starts returning data almost immediately, but analysis can take years. 

I’d argue that the papers that get published after a mission are far more exciting than the fiery blast of a rocket.  Your mileage may vary.  In any event, here’s what the eighth Explorer has taught us thus far (and NASA says it’ll be another six months until we process all the information it’s sent!):

1) The ionized clouds that surround a metal satellite as it zooms through orbit effectively double the electrical size of the vehicle.  This makes satellites bigger radar targets (and presumably increases drag).

2) We now know what causes radio blackouts: it is sunspot influence on the lower ionosphere. Solar storms create turbulence that can cut reception.

3) The most common charged element in the ionosphere is oxygen.

4) The temperature of the electrons Explorer ran into was about the same as uncharged ionospheric gas – a whopping 1800 degrees Kelvin.

This may all seem like pretty arcane information, but it tells us not just about conditions above the Earth, but the fundamental behavior of magnetic fields and charged particles on a large scale.  Orbiting a satellite is like renting the biggest laboratory in the universe, creating the opportunity to dramatically expand our knowledge of science.

Air Force discovers Pacific Ocean

The 25th Discoverer satellite, a two-part vehicle designed to return a 300 pound capsule from orbit, was successfully launched June 16.  Its payload was fished from the Pacific Ocean two days later, the recovery plane having failed to catch it in mid-descent.  I recently got to see one of those odd-tailed Fairchild C-119 aircraft that fly those recovery missions; they’re bizarre little planes, for sure. 

As for the contents of the space capsules, it’s generally assumed that they carry snapshots of the Soviet Union taken from orbit.  This time around, however, the flyboys included some interesting experiments: three geiger tubes, some micrometeroid detectors, and a myriad of rare and common metals (presumably to see the effects of radiation upon them). 

You may be wondering what happened to Discoverers 23 and 24 (the last Discoverer on which I’ve reported was numbered 22).  The former, launched on April 8, never dropped its capsule; the latter failed to reach orbit on June 8.  Unlike NASA, the Air Force gives numbers to its failed missions.

Next Mercury shots planned

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom is set to be the next Mercury astronaut in late July.  His flight will be a duplicate of Alan Shepard’s 15 minute jaunt last month.  If all goes well, astronaut John Glenn will fly a similar mission in September.

I don’t think the Atlas is going to be ready in time this year for an orbital shot.  That means there will be several tense months during which the Soviets could upstage us with yet another spectacle. 

[March 31, 1961] Real-world round-up for March

Here’s an end of March, real-world round-up for you before we plunge into the science fiction of April:


http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKWHP-AR6454-B.aspx

President Kennedy devoted a good deal of time to the civil war in Laos at his fifth press conference, March 23.  This three-cornered fight between the nationalists (propped up by the United States), the Communist Pathet Lao (backed by the Soviets and the North Vietnamese), and the neutralists has been going on since the end of last year.  The US Navy Seventh Fleet was recently dispatched to the region along with a contingent of troops.  For a while, it looked as if we were looking at another Korea.

I’m happy to report that both Kennedy and Premier Khruschev have now proposed plans for peaceful solutions to the crisis that involve the invading North Vietnamese disarming and going home.  I fervently hope that this means Southeast Asia won’t be the site of war in the 1960s.

Speaking of Kennedy and war, the President recently asked Congress for a significantly bigger defense package.  This would see the United States armed with 1200 nuclear-tipped missiles by 1965!

On the dove-ish side of the coin, Kennedy also asked for an increase in the NASA budget for development of the mighty “Saturn C-2”, which would facilitate manned flights around the Moon by 1966.

On the subject of space, NASA pilot Joe Walker took the X-15 spaceplane to a record height of 31 miles above the Earth yesterday, more than five miles higher than anyone has flown the craft before.  During a good portion of his 10-minute flight, the plane’s stubby wings and control surfaces had nothing to “bite” into, the atmosphere being so rarefied at that altitude.  For all intents and purposes, it was a flight in space, down to the unwinking white stars that filled the daylight sky. 

And he only got halfway to the rocketship’s expected maximum altitude!

Meanwhile, the Air Force failed to get into orbit the 22nd in their Discoverer series.  These probes are ostensibly for orbiting and returning biological samples, but they really test components for their Samos spy satellites.  There was supposed to be a monkey on this one, but I haven’t read any reports about it.  Perhaps the fly-boys were merciful and just stuffed the spaceship with non-perishable hardware.


http://photos.clevescene.com/28-vintage-photos-karamu-house/?slide=9&children-look-through-a-telescope-at-karamu-house-1961

Now let’s look ahead at April.  There will, of course, be the three magazines, IF, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, the monthly The Twilight Zone round-up, and perhaps a trip to the movies.  I have Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Door Through Space on my bedside table, but it hasn’t gripped me yet.  We’ll see.

We’ll also see more of our new regular columnist, Rosemary Benton, and along those lines, I’ve got another surprise for you ’round mid-month!

S’okay?  S’alright.

[February 28, 1961] Strings of Success… and Failure (Transit 3B, Venera)

Before we move on to the latest Space Race update, why don’t you mosey on down to your local record store and pick up a copy of Wheels, by the String-a-longs?  It’s a swinging tune, and it’s been on the radio a lot lately.  It’ll keep a smile on your face even when the news threatens to be a drag.

There are good weeks and there are bad weeks.  For the Space Race, this wasn’t the best week.

It’s been several months since the Navy got one of their Transit navigational satellites up into orbit.  Last year, I raved about these little marvels that make it possible to determine one’s position just by listening to the satellite’s whistle (and doing a little math).  Two were launched in quick succession, and it seemed a constellation would be established in short order. 

But the third Transit (and its piggyback Solrad probe) failed to launch last November, and its replacement, Transit 3B, had a booster malfunction that stuck it in an eccentric, relatively useless orbit.  In attendance at the ill-fated launch were two of the three Mercury astronauts who have been chosen to make the first manned flights: Alan Shepard and John Glenn (Gus Grissom was in Bermuda).  When asked for their opinions on the botched mission, they voiced their confidence in NASA’s rockets. 

The launch may not have been a complete bust.  This Transit had a piggyback, too—the LOw Frequency Transmission through the Ionosphere (LOFTI) satellite.  It will test the ability of submarines to use the VLF band (below the bottom of your AM dial) for communications.  Maybe.  At last report, LOFTI had not detached from Transit 3B as planned, and I don’t know if either satellite will work in a Siamese configuration.

The Soviets aren’t having a great time of it, either.  Their Venus probe, launched two weeks ago, fizzled out some time before February 26, when it failed to respond to ground-based radio queries.  Venera may not be dead, but it is certainly giving us the silent treatment.  It’s a shame—we will have to wait another 11 months for Venus and Earth to be favorably aligned before we see Venera 2 or its American counterpart.

To take the taste out of failure out of our mouths, let’s ponder Things to Come.  The Air Force has announced that its next Discoverer capsule-return probe will carry a monkey; look for that launch late next month.  Also, NASA is hard at work developing the next generation lunar probe.  It is called Ranger, and as its “mother” is Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, it will have an entirely different configuration from Space Technology Laboratories’ ill-fated Pioneer-Atlas series. 

Fingers crossed!

[Feb. 21, 1961] Trading up (Mercury Atlas 2, Discoverer 21)

I’m starting to enjoy these musical interludes.  Indulge me while I flip on my hi-fi to play my new favorite pop tune, Del Shannon’s Runaway.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m often still as square as a lot of the slightly older set, and I still tap my toes to Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Count Basie, but I enjoy the new stuff, too.

Now, on to the news.  With all of the talk about Mercury capsules on Redstone rockets, it’s easy to forget that the main mission is to get a person into orbit–and you just can’t do that without a bigger booster.

It appears that bigger booster, in the form of the Atlas ICBM, is ready to roll.

I actually missed the first flight of Mercury Atlas, back on July 29, 1960, as I was traveling Japan and didn’t have easy access to English newspapers.  In that flight, the Atlas’ payload was a boilerplate Mercury.  There was also no ejection system or passenger.  The goal was to test the Atlas as well as to plunge the Mercury in a steep reentry angle, simulating an abort situation.

Unfortunately, MA-1 broke up 58 seconds after lift-off.  It was a cloudy day, so no one saw it occur, but when the telemetry stopped and pieces of the craft fell from the sky, it was pretty clear the mission was over.  The culprit was later identified as the junction between the capsule and booster.

MA-2, launched this morning, was a far happier flight.  The sky was perfectly clear, and the mission was a complete success.  It was a short flight, just 17-and-a-half minutes, and it didn’t go any farther than Ham’s flight last month, but the results were gratifying, nonetheless.  NASA now knows that the Mercury can survive a serious abort situation, and the rocket is ready for an unmanned orbital test.  After that, it we’ll just be a chimp away from a fellow in orbit; this could happen as soon as the end of the year, I reckon.

Speaking of chimps, here’s Ham enduring the rigors of reentry.  He had to go through an unplanned 17gs of gravity for a few seconds on the way down, poor thing.  He’s all right, though, NASA vets assure.

There’s a new Discoverer in orbit, Number 21, launched on the 18th.  I don’t know why the Air Force launched it so fast on the heels of Number 20, which was sent up just the day before.  It may be because their missions are so different.  #20 is a simple capsule-return mission, differing from prior ones in just the length of the planned mission–four days.  #21 will test an in-orbit engine fire, presumably to test its ability to change photographic targets while over the Soviet Union (assuming it’s a spy sat, of course!).  The latter probe also carries more equipment planned for use on the official spy sat, Midas.  It’s all a little sketchy; the Air Force is increasingly clamping down on its press releases.

By the way, #20’s mission was a bust.  The capsule was supposed to come down yesterday, but it’s still in orbit.  Perhaps it was smitten by #21 and decided it just could bear to be apart…

Meanwhile, the Soviet probe to Venus, Venera, continues to sail along.  It is around 4 million kilometers away, and the Russians have confirmed at least three transfers of data.  Like Pioneer 5, it will return science on the interstellar medium all the way to Venus.  In fact, this may be all we get out of it.  Sadly, the probe will miss the mark, ending up perhaps 200,000 kilometers away at closest approach.  That may not be near enough to get much useful information, though you never know.

Still no clarification of the February 4 launch, by the way.  An article in the Feb. 13 Aviation Weekly advances all kinds of theories, one of which is similar to the “spy sat” explanation my daughter advanced.  But in the latest (Feb. 20) issue, it seems the hypothesis I advanced,that Sputnik 7 had the same mission as Sputkin 8 and simply fizzled out, is gaining favor.  The twin launches of Sputniks 7 and 8 (the latter being the rocket from which Venera was launched) have apparently galvanized the American government into action.  Or, at least, a lot of talking…

Finally, Happy Birthday to me!  Like Dr. Asimov, I am a little past 30 (a status I’ve enjoyed for some time).  A fan nominated me for the Hugo this year.  I’m flattered beyond words; it’s a great present.