Tag Archives: mercury atlas

[October 4, 1962] Get to work!  (The Mercury Flight of Sigma 7)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Five years ago, satellite launches were quarterly events that dominated the front page.  Now, the Air Force is launching a mission every week, and NASA is not far behind.  The United Kingdom and Canada have joined the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the orbital club, and one can be certain that Japan and France aren’t far behind.  It’s truer than ever that, as I’ve said before, unmanned spaceflight has become routine.

Yesterday, the same thing happened to manned missions.

39 year-old Navy Commander Walter M. “Wally” Schirra blasted off early the morning of October 3, 1962, flew for six orbits, and splashed down safely in the Pacific near Midway Island less than half a day later.  His Sigma 7 capsule was in space twice as long as Glenn and Carpenter’s Mercury ships and, to all accounts, it was a thoroughly uneventful trip.  Aside from the whole nine hours of weightlessness thing.

While the newspapers all picked up the mission, radio and television coverage was decidedly less comprehensive than for prior flights.  Part of it was the lack of drama.  Shepard was the first.  Grissom almost drowned.  Glenn’s mission had the highest stakes, it being our answer to the Soviet Vostok flights, and his capsule ran the risk of burning up on reentry.  For a couple of hours, Carpenter was believed lost at sea.

But the upshot of Schirra’s mission seemed to be that, as the Commander put it, a chimpanzee could have flown it.  The giant Atlas rocket blasted off just 15 minutes late (the delay was due to a radar malfunction at a overseas tracking station), and that was the most remarkable snag.  One of Schirra’s tasks was to make observations of various points of interest on the ground and snap shots with his camera.  Unfortunately, mother nature was not accommodating, clouds obscuring most of Schirra’s targets (further reducing his active scientific role).  The pilot did see Glenn’s “fireflies,” though, which have since been determined to be ice crystals shaken loose from the capsule. 

After Carpenter’s flight, wherein a combination of engine malfunction and pilot exuberance led to Aurora 7 running out of fuel on reentry, Schirra chose to let his capsule drift.  When Sigma 7’s heat shield began to glow on contact with the atmosphere, it still had a tank that was 78% full.  The spaceship landed less than a mile from the carrier recovery fleet, well within view of television cameras on the deck of the U.S.S. Kearsarge (I felt a brief eerie sensation at the thought that almost exactly twenty years ago, American carriers had patrolled these same waters — to do battle with their Japanese counterparts.)

It was, as Schirra termed it, a “textbook flight.”  If you read the Press Kit, you might well have skipped watching the news.  And yet, it is the lack of drama that makes the flight so dramatic.  Now, instead of biting our fingernails, wondering if our rockets will work, our ships will function, our pilots will survive…now we can focus on getting the work of spaceflight done.  We’ve passed the Wright Flyer stage — now we’re ready to put our craft to use.

There will probably be just one more Mercury flight, this one to last a full day.  The pilot has not been chosen for this mission, but it had been broadly hinted that it will be L. Gordon Cooper, the remaining active Mercury astronaut (Donald K. Slayton having been removed from the roster for heart trouble).  After that, we move on to two-man flights aboard the aptly named Gemini.

Whether we beat the Soviets to that stage of the Space Race remains to be seen…




[February 20, 1962] American Made (John Glen and the flight of Friendship 7)


by Gideon Marcus

And the Free World exhales.  At long last, an American has orbited the Earth.  This morning, Astronaut John Glenn ascended to the heavens on the back of an Atlas nuclear missile.  He circled the globe three times before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is impossible to understate what this means for us.  The Soviets have been ahead of us in the Space Race since it started in 1957: First satellite, first lunar probe, first space traveler.  Last year, the best we could muster was a pair of 15 minute cannonball shots into the edges of space.  For two months, Glenn has gone again and again into his little capsule and lain on his back only to emerge some time later, disappointed by technical failure or bad weather.  Each time, the clock ticked; would the Soviets trump us with yet another spectacular display of technological prowess?

But this morning, everything was fine – the weather, the booster, the spacecraft, and the astronaut.  As I went to sleep last night, Glenn woke up.  He had the traditional low residue breakfast of orange juice, toast, eggs over-easy, fillet mignon, and Postum, before suiting up and entering the capsule.  That was at 5 AM his time (2 AM mine).  For five hours, the patient Colonel waited as his Atlas rocket, only recently tamed sufficiently for human use, was prepared and tested for flight.

At 9:47 AM his time, at last we saw the fire shoot out from beneath the missile, saw the Atlas and its black-painted cargo lift off, leaving its support gantry shrouded in white smoke.  For several minutes, the flight of mission Mercury-Atlas #6 was a strictly aural affair, the TV cameras’ only subject being the now-empty launchpad.  But we heard the confident communication between Alan Shepard on the ground and Glenn hurtling skyward, America’s first and American’s latest spacemen, and we knew everything was still going well.

The sky went quickly from blue to black as Glenn struggled against six times his normal weight.  First, the Atlas’ two side engines exhausted their fuel and detached.  A few minutes later, the central sustainer engine’s job was complete, and the Mercury capsule, dubbed Friendship 7 by Glenn, flung itself from its empty booster.  Glenn was now in orbit, weightless, and cleared for his full three-orbit, five-hour mission.

For the first time, an American flight was long enough for the public to contemplate, to be worthy of news flashes.  And even though the last Soviet flight had spanned a full day, it was shrouded in secrecy until after its completion.  Glenn’s mission was, on the other hand, entirely open.  Cockpit chatter was broadcast in the clear; each success and potential failure was presented for the world to hear.  Space travel had become a spectator sport.

The world participated.  Indeed, it had to.  An orbital mission requires global tracking.  Glenn’s flight was monitored as he passed over exotic locales like Zanzibar, Woomera, Hawaii.  The citizens of the west Australian city of Perth turned their lights on for the astronaut’s passage, providing a virtual streetlamp as he whizzed overhead at 18,000 miles per hour. 

Three sunsets and three sunrises greeted Colonel Glenn, though he was given precious little time to appreciate them, so crowded was his schedule with experiments and ship operations.  As the Mercury spacecraft’s functions began to degrade in its third orbit, the value of an experienced human pilot became evident.  Glenn manually configured and trimmed the vessel to make the most of the journey and ensure the mission could be completed. 

Glenn’s biggest challenge came at the end of the mission.  Sailing backwards over the Earth, the astronaut prepared to fire the ship’s retrorockets, a blast of fire that would slow the craft such that it could break out of orbit and back toward ground.  But an indicator suggested that the Mercury’s heat shield was loose.  If that were true, then there could be no returning for the astronaut – he would burn up on reentry. 

Was there anything the astronaut could do about the situation?  Well, the retrorocket package was held tight against the bottom of the bell-shaped craft (and thus, its heat shield) by a series of straps.  Normally, the retrorockets would be discarded before reentry.  This time, on the advisement of ground control, Glenn left the retrorockets strapped in.  The hope was that the straps would keep the shield attached, if it was indeed loose.

What a terrifying display that must have been for the pilot, watching flaming chunks of the retrorockets fly past his window as he tore through the white-hot outer layers of the atmosphere.  Glenn had plenty of other things to worry about.  The “G” forces spiked as the craft decelerated, and the ionization of the air cut off radio contact.  We all waited, white-knuckled, for some sign that the astronaut had survived the journey…or had been vaporized.

Then his voice crackled over the air again, the Mercury’s striped parachutes were deployed, and we began breathing again.  A ship of the recovery fleet, the little destroyer called the U.S.S. Noa, was already close at hand when Friendship 7 touched down in the waves.  Once the capsule was hoisted aboard, the astronaut popped the side hatch, the one that had exploded prematurely for second astronaut Grissom.  An overheated but grinning Glenn stepped out of the Mercury, and into history.

Mercury’s primary mission, to orbit and safely return a human, has been completed.  Nevertheless, there is obviously much life left in the bird.  Three more three-orbit flights are planned to shake out the bugs that plagued the latter portion of Glenn’s flight.  Then 12, 24 hour, and perhaps multi-day flights are slated. 

Of course, the Soviets may soon respond with a flight that trumps ours, perhaps even a two-person mission.  But for now, the hour rightfully belongs to the West.  The democracies of the world at last have their emissary to the stars. 

Godspeed, John Glenn!

[February 1, 1962] Silver Lining (January Space Race round-up!)


by Gideon Marcus

January has been a frustrating month in the Space Race.  We are no closer to matching the Soviets in the manned competition, much less beating them, and our unmanned shots have been a disappointment, too.  That said, it’s not all bad news in January’s round-up: stick to it through the end, and you’ll see cause for cheer!

Quintuplets fail to deliver

The Air Force has been playing around with combined launches for a while now.  After all, if you’re going to spend millions of dollars to throw a booster away, you might as well get multiple bangs for your buck.  Sadly, the latest attempt, a Thor Ablestar launch on January 24 dubbed “Composite 1,” failed when the top stage tumbled in orbit and failed to separate from its payloads.

What we lost: SolRad 4, for measuring solar X-rays (only visible above the curtain of the atmosphere); Lofti 2, which would have examined the effects of Earth’s ionosphere on Very Low Frequency radio transmissions; Surcal, a strictly military probe designed to calibrate the navy’s communications net in orbit; the wholly civilian Injun 2, which would help map the Van Allen belts (see below); and Secor, a big balloon that would have helped the Army with their ranging equipment.

Copies of these probes will end up at some point, either launched together on a big rocket or separately on little ones.

Moon Miss-ion

It’s been a bad run of luck for NASA’s latest moon program, Project Ranger.  After the failure of the first two Ranger missions, designed to test the probe’s engineering and return sky science, there were high hopes for the lunar flight, launched January 26. 

Things went badly from the beginning.  Ranger 3 was pushed into a bad trajectory by a faulty guidance system.  Not only did it rush past the moon, failing both to hit the target or end up in orbit, but it was pointed the wrong way the entire length of the journey.  No useful data or pictures were obtained.  That nifty seismometer that makes up Ranger’s Rudolph nose went completely unused. 

Ranger 4, a carbon copy of #3, should launch in the next few months.  Hopefully, they’ll have the kinks worked out by then.  This is one of those clear places where the Communists are ahead in the space race, having pioneered both lunar orbit and the moon’s surface several years ago.

A rain check for Mercury

The third time turned out also not to be the charm for Major John Glenn.  His orbital Mercury mission has now been postponed three times.  It’s a good thing the Marine is so good-natured; I know I’d be frustrated.

The first delay happened on January 22 when there was a failure in the spacecraft’s oxygen system.  Definitely something I’d like working on a five hour flight!  On the 27th, cloud cover prevented the launch, and just today, there was a problem with the temperamental Atlas booster.  The next opportunity to launch won’t come until February 13.

So much is riding on this flight.  The Soviets have already launched two of theirs into orbit while we flutter futilely on the ground.  Newspapers and talking heads are already opining that we’ll have a Red-staffed space station and a Red-dominated moon before long if we don’t hurry to catch up. 

Explorer 12: Reaping the harvest

Here’s the good news: I’ve said before that the most exciting thing about a satellite is not its fiery launch but the heap of data it returns.  That’s where the taxpayer gets one’s money’s worth and where the scientist sees the payoff.  Explorer 12 was the latest in the series of probes (starting with America’s first, Explorer 1) sent into orbit to probe the hellish fields of charged particles that circle the Earth.  The spacecraft is still up there, though it went silent in December.  However, in its four months of life, it learned a great deal about the furthest reaches of our planet’s influence.

For one, Explorer 12 found that the outer of the two “Van Allen” belts around our planet is made mostly of protons rather than electrons (though there are still plenty of the latter — enough to make hanging around a dangerous proposition for astronauts).  Those protons, particularly the less energetic ones, have been linked to solar magnetic storms, which result in spectacular auroras on Earth.

Perhaps even more interesting is that the probe found the edge of the Earth’s magnetosphere.  “What’s that?” you ask.  Well, our planet is a giant magnet, probably the result of a dense iron core that spins deep inside the Earth.  These magnetic lines of force extend far beyond the Earth’s crust and 70,000 kilometers into space where they trap the wind of high energy particles from our sun.  This keeps them from scouring away our atmosphere. 

Where our magnetic field meets the field carried on the solar wind, called the magnetopause, there is an area of turbulence and disorganized magnetism. It is now believed that the sun’s wind smashes against the Earth’s field, creating a bow shock – the kind you’d see when a blunt body is smacked by a supersonic gas.  Moreover, the Outer Van Belt “breathes” inward and outward, responding to waves in the solar wind.

And speaking of magnetic fields, NASA scientists just released findings from the intentionally short-lived Explorer 10 found a magnetic “shadow” behind the Earth.  Specifically, the solar wind seems to hit our planet’s magnetosphere and deflect around the Earth, but the magnetic field acts as kind of an umbrella, shielding a large portion of near-Earth space. 

The general contours of Earth’s magnetic environment have thus been mapped.  Neat stuff, eh?

[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.

[September 13, 1961] Dry Run (Mercury-Atlas 4)


by Gideon Marcus

It’s is a red-letter day for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and for America as a whole.  For today, we finally got a Mercury space capsule into orbit!  The flight, dubbed “Mercury-Atlas 4,” began this morning in a blast of fire on a Florida launchpad and lasted one hour and fifty minutes.  At its conclusion, the Mercury capsule deorbited and parachuted safely into the Atlantic ocean.  By all standards, it was a picture-perfect mission.

Except that there wasn’t anyone in the capsule…

All flippancy aside, it really is a big deal.  The reason the Soviets are ahead of us, such that they’ve gotten two fellows into orbit while our two astronauts have been limited to 15-minute suborbital jaunts, is because they started out with the better rocket.

In 1957, the Russians announced that their first ICBM, a missile that can cross the world, was ready for business.  It is no coincidence that their first space probe, Sputnik, was launched soon after.  That’s because an ICBM can be used to carry payloads into orbit about as easily as they can carry atomic weapons to farflung countries. 

The United States had no ICBM in 1957.  We were later to that party.  Instead, we had a stable of shorter-ranged IRBMs, sufficient only to launch small payloads into space.  Our first ICBM, the Atlas, wasn’t operational until 1960.

It takes an ICBM to launch something as heavy as a manned spaceship, and it’s not enough that the missile be able to deliver a nuclear payload.  Since the stakes are higher with a human passenger, it is important to qualify an ICBM as a space booster very carefully, something the Soviets have had more time to do.  The Russian qualification flights, Sputniks 4, 6, and 9, all took place before last March.  Our balky Atlas has now been tested with the Mercury capsule four times.  Only two of those flights were successful – the second, a suborbital jaunt, and this latest, orbital, flight

I imagine NASA is still not out of the woods.  They’ll want to see the Mercury Atlas combination work together at least once more before trusting a man to it.  (I use the word “man” in its specific sense.  The team of 13 woman astronaut candidates was disbanded this week, more’s the pity)

Based on the results of this flight, it is just possible there might be a manned orbital Mercury flight before the year is out.  Or at least before the next few Soviet men (and women?) fly overhead…

[May 6, 1961] Dreams into Reality (First American in Space)

I’ve been asked why it is that, as a reviewer of science fiction, I devote so much ink to the Space Race and other scientific non-fiction.  I find it interesting that fans of the first would not necessarily be interested in the second, and vice versa. 

There are three reasons non-fiction figures so prominently in this column:

1) I like non-fiction;
2) All the science fiction mags have a non-fiction column;
3) Science fiction without science fact is without context.

Let me expand on Point 3.  Science is different from all other philosophies because of its underpinning of reality.  My wife and I had this debate in graduate school many years ago with our fellow students.  They felt that, so long as their systems were logical, their views on how the universe worked were just as valid as any others – certainly more valid that lousy ol’ science, with its dirty experiments and boring empiricism.

They’re wrong, of course.  Religion and philosophy have discerned little about the natural universe except by accident or where the practitioners have utilized some version of the scientific method.  The fact is, there is a real universe out there, and it pushes back at our inquiries.  That “friction” is what allows us to experiment as to its nature.  It’s why we have wonders like airplanes, nuclear power, the polio vaccine, the contraceptive pill. 

Similarly, science fiction is nowheresville without an underpinning of science.  Science fiction is not make believe – it is extrapolation of scientific trends.  Even fantasy makes use of science; ask Tolkien about his rigorous application of linguistics in his construction of Elvish.  It is important that my readers keep abreast of the latest science fact so they can better understand and appreciate the latest science fiction. 

And it goes both ways – the science of today is directly influenced and inspired by the dreams of yesterday.  Without science fiction, science is a passionless endeavor.  Jules Verne showed us space travel long before Nikita Khruschev. 

Thus ends the awfully long preface to today’s article, which as anyone might guess, covers America’s first manned space mission.  Yesterday morning, May 5, 1961, Commander Alan B. Shepard rocketed to a height of nearly 190 kilometers in the Mercury spacecraft he christened “Freedom 7.”  His flight duplicated that of chimpanzee Ham’s February trip: a sub-orbital jaunt that plopped him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  He flew for just 15 minutes.

The flight was so short because Shepard’s rocket, the same Redstone that launched the first American satellite into orbit, was simply too weak to push the two-ton Mercury fast enough to circle the Earth.  The Redstone is an old missile, made by the Army in the early ’50s.  It is significantly weaker than the Soviet ICBM that hurled the first cosmonaut into space.  It looked embarrassingly undersized compared to the Mercury it carried – like a toy rocket.

We have a booster comparable to that which launched Vostok, the ICBM called Atlas, but it’s not ready yet.  In fact, a test shot of the Atlas-Mercury combination (MA-3) failed miserably just last week on April 25, and before that, the Atlas failed in four out of four unmanned Moon missions.  It is likely that we won’t see an American in orbit until 1962.

The flight of “Freedom 7” might have impressed more had it before occurred the Soviet orbital shot that made the headlines on April 12.  In fact, a Mercury-Redstone did go up on March 24, a full three weeks earlier.  It carried an unmanned boiler-plate Mercury capsule; the main purpose of the mission to make sure the Redstone was truly ready for a human passenger since it had been a little balky during Ham’s flight.

The flight of “MR-BD” went perfectly.  Had MR-BD been a manned mission, Shepard would have been the first human in space. 

And so the Soviets scored yet another first in the Space Race.  But does it matter?  NASA is already soliciting designs for its “Apollo” series of Moon ships, scheduled to launch at the end of the decade.  The Russians announced a similar program on May Day.  If this is going to go on for the long haul, I prefer a measured, safety-conscious space program over a reckless one.  The tortoise beat the hare, and I predict Shepard’s flight is just the first tentative step toward a permanent American presence in space.

The Mercury capsules are proven.  Our astronauts are proven.  All that’s left is the Atlas.  Let’s do things right the first time rather than repeat the failures of the Air Force’s Discoverer program and the Soviet Vostok program.  I want all my astronauts back safe and sound; this is a marathon, not a sprint.

And at the end of it, all those space travel stories we’ve enjoyed for decades will at last become reality.  A triumph for science fiction and science.

[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.