Tag Archives: midas

[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…

[July 12, 1961] Reaction time (The launches of MIDAS 3 and TIROS 3)

My brother, Lou, used to tell me that the only way to beat a bully is to not fight fair.  Jump the guy when he’s not looking, and fight like there are no rules.  That’ll teach him that you’re nuts and not worth messing with.

He learned this lesson honestly.  When Lou was in the navy, he immediately got flak for being Jewish.  Someone tried to steal his bunk; Lou rammed the guy’s head into the wall.  After that, whenever someone tried to take advantage of Lou, by cutting in the chow line, for instance, another sailor would restrain the miscreant.  “Don’t do it!  That’s Marcus.  He’s crazy.  He’ll kill you!”

The problem is that these days, there are just two kids on the block: The USA and the USSR.  Each one’s the bully in the other’s eyes.  If the Russians decide they can get in a sucker punch, they just might do it to get us out of the way, once and for all.

We have the same option, of course, but it is the avowed intention of our leaders that America will never start a nuclear war.  The Soviets have not made such a pledge.

That’s why we have invested so much time and money in developing a strategic nuclear force.  We want the Russians to know that we can strike back if they launch an attack, so that any attempt at a preemptive blow would be an act of suicide.

But we can’t retaliate if the first indication we have a Soviet attack is the sprouting of atomic mushrooms over our cities and missile fields.

To that end, we recently finished the construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, a string of radar installations along the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada.  These can detect a missile some ten minutes from target.  Still not a very good window of time in which to order a counter-strike.

Enter MIDAS.  The MIssile Defense Alarm System satellite has infrared sensors.  As it flies over the Soviet Union, it will be able to detect the heat off a rising ICBM (or space shot, presumably).  Operated in a constellation of low-orbiting craft, there will always be one or two whizzing over the vast expanse of our enemy superpower.  This will raise the window of decision to a more-comfortable 30 minutes.

That should give the Soviet Union pause.  If they can’t wind up a punch without us seeing and countering, maybe they won’t wind up at all.

I’ve written about MIDAS before.  The difference this time is that the launch of MIDAS 3 today was freely covered in the press, and it looks like this may have been the first operational vehicle in the series.  In any event, it’s one more use of space that benefits all of humanity…hopefully.

In a similar, if more benign vein, today NASA got up the third in its TIROS weather satellite series.  It replaces TIROS 2, which went off the air in January.  TIROS 3 is an improvement on its predecessors, incorporating two wide-angle cameras (the narrow-angle cameras having been eliminated as not particularly useful) as well as five infrared sensors to measure the Earth’s heat budget.  I cannot stress enough how revolutionary the TIROS series has been.  Not only has it provided the first full pictures of large-scale weather patterns, but we’re getting global climatological data, too.  In concert with the super-powerful computers now at our disposal, meteorology has entered a new age.

For those who live in the Gulf area or Florida, TIROS 3 will be of particular interest: it will be spotting those pesky hurricanes long before they hit the shore.  Again, outer space provides a valuable window of decision for folks on the ground…in this case, the decision whether or not to evacuate!

See you in two with the rest of the latest Analog!

[May 27, 1960] Stalled Flights (Midas 2, Pioneer 5, Ozma, and Eichmann)

There was another mystery Atlas Agena launch from Cape Canaveral on May 24.  My sources tell me it was in the same series as the mission late February that broke up before it could reach orbit.  It appears to be some kind of infrared missile launch detection system.  I even got my hands on some conceptual art, though there’s no way of knowing how accurate it is.  Its project name appears to be MIDAS–I’m guessing this stands for “Missile Infrared Detection Alarm System” or something like that.

I don’t know if the system works or if the satellite performed properly, but I understand “MIDAS 2” did make it into orbit.  With tensions between American and the U.S.S.R. at an all-time high, thanks to the whole spy plane kerfuffle and the break-down of summit peace talks, we need probes like this more than ever.

In civilian space news, a bit of a setback.  Pioneer 5 switched on its big 150 watt transmitter a few weeks ago so that it could be heard from any point in its orbit around the sun, perhaps more than 100 million miles from Earth.  Unfortunately, the 150 watt transmitter is now off-line due to battery deterioration, and Pioneer has gone back to using its little 5 watt transmitter.  This means its voice will soon be too faint to pick up from the smaller Hawaii dish, and the Big Ear at Jodrell Bank in England will only be able to track the probe to a range of about 25 million miles.  Of course, that’s still quite a feat. 

Speaking of Jodrell Bank, remember Dr. Frank Drake’s Project Ozma, the program designed to listen for messages from the stars?  Would you believe that positive results were found within the first week of operation? 

It seems that no sooner did the investigating astronomers turn their antenna to the nearby star, Epsilon Eridani, they received an intense signal.  They listened for a few breathless minutes and then turned the antenna away to confirm that the star was indeed the source.  The signal faded as the antenna moved from the star.  Excitedly, they pointed the antenna at Epsilon Eridani again and waited. 

And waited.  Nothing happened.  Was it just a spurious signal?  Had the aliens gone off the air?

Dr. Drake and his team gave Epsilon Eridani and the frequency on which they had received the signal extra attention for the next week, but to no avail.  Then it came back, but not just from the star–from somewhere close by.  The astronomers confirmed this by poking a little antenna out of their observatory window, not focused anywhere in particular.  They picked up the signal there, too.  So, it was probably just a high-flying airplane that they’d picked up.  So much for easy pickings.

On a more personal note, Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi right-hand man for Himmler, in charge of “solving” the Jewish Question, has been apprehended by the Israeli secret service and will stand trial.  He disappeared from Germany as the Third Reich fell, and has presumably been living it up in some Latin American refuge.  I look forward to justice being served.

Finally, a happy birthday to that skinny, outspoken fan and writer, Harlan Ellison.  He is 26 today!

[Feb. 26, 1960] Fair Warning (a mystery launch)

Something took off today from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, not far from Cocoa Beach.

There was no official announcement, and the mission was almost assuredly solely military in nature.  An Atlas ICBM, clearly modified for satellite launch (note the second-stage booster), took off around 10:30 AM, Florida time.  After a flawless take-off, observers saw the booster break up before the second stage could separate.  No one knows why.

Could the launch have just been a test of this new second stage?  Or was there a payload on board?  The latter is likely—why waste a perfectly good missile?  It must have been something heavy and sophisticated, bigger than the Discoverer spy satellites… er… biological return capsules, to require such a heavy booster.  Either that or it was intended for a higher orbit. 

The rumor I have been hearing is that the Air Force has been developing satellites for detecting a ballistic missile attack.  Right now, it is impossible to tell if the Soviets have launched nuclear missiles against the United States until just a few minutes before impact, when the rockets cross our chain of Alaskan and Canadian radars known as BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System).  These installations complement the DEW line of radar outposts designed to spot enemy bombers

Five minutes is not much time for the President to evaluate the magnitude of an attack, much less frame an appropriate response.  It would be better if we could see the Soviet missiles as they take off, giving our government perhaps twenty minutes to respond. 

Unfortunately, you can’t see a Soviet missile launch from the ground; the Earth gets in the way.  From space, however, a satellite could detect the hot flash as the Russian birds leave their bases, so the theory goes. 

Those fifteen minutes could make all the difference.  The longer the lead time, the less of an advantage the Soviets get from a surprise strike, and the less likely they are to launch one.  With the Doomsday Clock just two minutes from midnight, any defuser of tension is welcome.

Of course, the details of the launch were classified, and the mission was unsuccessful anyway, so we’re not likely to hear about the real purpose of the launch for many years to come.  But I thought you’d want the latest space news, speculative as it may be.

See you soon with this month’s IF!

Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!



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