Tag Archives: ranger

[October 31, 1962] Trick and Treat! (A Halloween candy wrap-up of the Space Race)

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


by Gideon Marcus

Halloween is normally a time for scares — for us to invoke, dress up as, and tell stories of various ghosts, ghoulies, and goblins.  But let’s face it.  We’ve had quite enough fright for one month, what with the Free and the Communist worlds just seconds from Midnight over the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.  Thankfully, that crisis has been resolved peacefully, with the Russians agreeing to dismantle their weapons and return them home (who knows what unreported concessions we may have made to assure that outcome).  Nevertheless, with our heart rates still elevated, I think the best remedy is to skip terror this time around and focus on the things that make us smile:

Candy and space missions!

Niña and Pinta sail the magnetic oceans

Last year, I gushed rhapsodically about the voyage of Explorer 12, a vessel designed to map the contours of the Earth’s magnetic field.  The results did not disappoint; thanks to that little probe’s journey, we now know that there is a sharp boundary between the our planet’s magnetosphere and the magnetic emanations of our sun.  This, then, is the map of our unseen ocean, as of this year:

But how constant is this border, this magnetopause, between ours and the solar magnetic sea?  What are the mechanisms of its flow?  Moreover, what of the three charged “Van Allen” belts girdling the Earth?  And what impacts do our atmospheric atomic tests have on them, short and long-term?

That’s the nature of science.  Early experiments tend to provide more questions than answers!  Explorer 12, which ceased operations in late ’61, won’t be answering any more of them; however, NASA launched two more Explorers just this month to pick up where the magnetic Santa Maria left off.

Explorer 14 was launched October 2.  Like Explorer 12, it has a highly eccentric orbit in which the 89 pound spacecraft zooms 60,000 miles into the sky before flying near the Earth.  This takes the probe through all of the layers of the Earth’s magnetic field.  The experiment load is largely the same as Explorer 12’s, with a couple of additional sensors. 

Explorer 15 is a different kind of ship.  It only goes up to about 10,000 miles, and its mission is more focused on the artificial particle fields created as the result of nuclear explosions.  Unfortunately, when the spacecraft launched on October 27, it did not extend its “arms” — little weight-bearing spars — to slow down the spin imparted to it by its rocket.  Like an ice skater with her arms tucked in, Explorer 15 is spinning much faster than intended.  Nevertheless, good data is being gotten from five of its seven experiments.

Watch this space for exciting updates.  Between the new Explorer twins and the Venus probe, Mariner 2, now several million miles from Earth, the age of space magnetic exploration is truly underway!

Chocolate Arms Race

Since early this century, two superpowers have faced off, each developing a physical and sociological arsenal designed to sway the world into one’s camp or the other’s.  I am not speaking of the mortal struggle between Communism and Democracy…but that of Pennsylvania’s Hershey Company versus Minnesota’s Mars, Incorporated.

On the one side, we have the eponymous Hershey Bar, the conical Hershey’s Kisses, the peanut-infused Mr. Goodbar, the rice-included Krackel, etc.  On the other, the Milky Way bar, the Three Musketeers Bar, and most importantly (at least to this column’s editor) the peanutty Snickers Bar.

Of course, this oversimplifies things.  There are plenty of “Third World” candy makers, including Nestle’s (Crunch), Necco (Clark Bar), and Peter Paul (Mounds and Almond Joy).  In fact, my favorite chocolate-based candy is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, made by Harry Burnett Reese Candy Co.  Harry died six years ago, but I think we can trust his six sons to carry on the independent tradition that has made these confections so delicious. 

In fact, I wholeheartedly support greater parity among the world’s chocolatiers.  After all, we’ve just seen what crises can result in a bipolar world…

Canada joins the Space Race!

Typically, a Thor Agena B launch from Southern California means yet another Air Force “Discoverer” spy sat has gone up; such flights are now weekly occurrences.  But the flight that went up September 29 actually carried a civilian payload into polar orbit: Alouette 1, the first Canadian satellite. 

Alouette is designed to study the ionosphere, that charged layer of the atmosphere hundreds of miles up.  But unlike the sounding rockets routinely sent into the zone, Alouette will survey (or “sound”) the ionosphere from above.  Canada is particularly interested in understanding how and when the sun disrupts the region, interrupting radio communications.  Our neighbor to the north is a big country, after all, and it is the Northern Hemisphere’s first line of defense against Soviet missiles and bombers.  Radio is, therefore, vital to both defense and civilian interests.

According to early data, it looks like the highest “F2” layer of the ionosphere is as reflective to radio waves from the top as the bottom.  Alouette has also, by beaming multiple frequencies down to Earth, helped scientists determine what radio wavelengths aren’t blocked by the ionosphere. 

Sometime next year, Alouette will be joined by an United States “sounder” mission with a different experiment load.  Then we’ll have two sets of space-based data to corroborate with ground-based measurements.  Soon, one of the more mysterious layers of the atmosphere, one completely unknown to us a century ago, will be well understood.

Sweetly Sour

Some people love chocolate.  Strike that — most people love chocolate.  But I tend to favor fruit-flavored candies.  For instance, Smarties, Pixy Stix, the recent Starbust Fruit Chews, and brand new for this year: Lemonheads!

Made by Ferrara, the same folks who make Red Hots (which I also love), Lemonheads are a delicious hard candy mix of sour on the outside, sweet on the inside.  I have now made myself sick at least twice on these things, and I firmly intend to do so at least twice more.  I’m an adult, and no one can stop me.  Besides — it keeps me away from Candy Corn…

The Moon claims another Victim

Speaking of sour…first it was the three Air Force Pioneer missions launched in 1958 – none of them made it even halfway to the Moon.  Then the four Atlas Able Pioneer missions of 1959-60 didn’t even got into Earth orbit.  Now five out of five Ranger probes launched over the last year have failed. 

Launched October 17, the fifth of the Rangers went on the fritz just a few hours after take-off.  On the way to the Moon, the solar power transformer went kaput, leaving the spacecraft on battery power, which rapidly depleted.  Two days later, the silent ship sailed 9,000 miles over the surface of the Moon, after which ground-based ‘scopes quickly lost sight of it. 

Ranger 5 marked the last of the “Block II” line.  The two Block I spacecraft were supposed to stay in Earth orbit and do sky science, but neither of them lasted long enough.  None of the three Block IIs succeeded in their mission of smacking the Moon with their bulbous noses, filled with sensor equipment.  I suspect NASA is going to do a lot of work making sure the Block III craft, armed with cameras, reach their destination alive and snapping photos.  That is, if Congress doesn’t cut their funding.

Happy Halloween, and don’t let the news get you down. 




[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…

[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.

[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!

America’s Answer to Lunik: Project Ranger


by Lawrence Klaes

[The Space Race continues to run at an ever-accelerating pace.  To keep up with all the new developments, I’ve tapped my friend and fellow professional space historian to tell us a very special program that just might score for the United States in the next inning…]

President Kennedy declared three weeks ago before Congress that America shall make the bold step of “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of this decade.  This has given a much needed – and quite literal – boost to the American space program. 

It couldn’t have come at a better time.  Since that day in October of 1957 when our geopolitical and space rivals, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR for short, lofted that 184-pound silvery sphere they called Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit, the Communists have handily outpaced us on virtually all key fronts of the Space Race.  First animal in orbit.  First man in orbit.  First probe to Venus.  First victories in the race to that big golden prize in our night sky, the Moon.

In one year alone, 1959, the Soviets sent the first space probe flying past the Moon and on into solar orbit.  This was followed by the first manmade vehicle to impact another world, with their Luna 2 littering the lunar dust with pennants engraved with the Soviet Coat of Arms.  The USSR rounded out their lunar triumphs of 1959 with a circumlunar imaging mission that revealed the hitherto unseen lunar farside.

So which Superpower will be the first to orbit the Moon?  The first to land, with robots and then with manned spacecraft?  Experts in various fields might understandably side with the Soviet Union, including those in the West.  In a mission-by-mission comparison, America’s efforts at exploring and conquering the Moon pale.

All of the first three Air Force Pioneer lunar probes fell short of their celestial goal.  Of the next two, made to order by Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California (JPL), Pioneer 4 alone escaped the confines of Earth’s gravity and headed into interplanetary space in March 1959.  Unfortunately, the small conical craft was many thousands of miles too far away for its scientific instruments to examine the Moon and slipped on to join its Soviet counterpart, Luna 1, in solar orbit.

Then it was STL’s turn again with their advanced Atlas Able Pioneers.  All four of them failed.  Spectacularly.

And so, back to JPL.  They have a new robotic lunar exploration program that they are confident will return some of NASA’s prestige in space and ensure that one day soon the Stars and Stripes will be standing tall on the lunar surface — before the Hammer and Sickle.  Named Ranger, it is actually a three-step program of increasingly sophisticated species of spacecraft: what the space agency calls Blocks.

The two Block I machines will fly this year.  Looking like an oil rig with two long solar panel “wings” at its base and a large high-gain directional dish antenna beneath, the first two Rangers will initially enter an Earth parking orbit and gradually be moved farther out into space until well beyond the Moon.  There the controllers at JPL will put the probes through their paces to see how they handle the cislunar environment to improve upon the next blocks of Ranger missions.  These won’t just be engineering flights; each Block I Ranger it will also fly a suite of scientific instruments. 

Now, JPL thought these science Rangers were good enough to make good Venus probes, too.  Their intention was to launch these modified Rangers using the Atlas-Agena B combination of rockets. 

NASA rejected this plan, instead asking JPL to develop a more ambitious planetary probe labeled Mariner A, which would use an Atlas rocket with the powerful Liquid Oxygen Centaur second stage.  The Centaur booster has a more powerful payload lifting capability, which translates into sending their Mariner A concept with more scientific instruments to either Venus or Mars.

However, the Centaur has had a number of technical issues during its development.  There is genuine concern that the new booster will not be ready in time to send a probe to Venus during the 1962 launch window.  A delay would mean waiting for the next launch window over two years hence.  NASA officials and others are quite certain that the Soviets could have their own Venus probes on their way to the second world from the Sun by next year.  A successful exploration of that planet would bring yet another space victory and political glory to the communist nation.  Thus the Ranger bus option to flyby Venus and see what dwells under its mysterious bank of clouds remains a plausible alternative.

Back to the Moon: the first Block I Ranger is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop an Atlas-Agena B for late July, 1961.  Its sister probe, Ranger 2, will follow into space aboard a similar rocket sometime in October.

Ranger Block II will be the first Moon missions.  Scheduled for 1962, three probes will fly through the airless void to make a direct hit on the Moon.  The original proposal called simply for each Ranger to carry a TV camera to map potential landing sites.  But, just as nature abhors a vacuum, scientists abhor minimum missions.  Thus, some of the sky science experiments from Block I will make their way to Block II — over the protests of engineers, who abhor complication. 

The neatest bit is the MoonQuake detector.  It is hoped that the Rangers will not be completely destroyed at the end of their missions: Each probe carries atop its main bus a thick sphere of balsa wood.  At the very center of each ball is a seismometer which will determine if the Moon produces quakes just as they occur on Earth.  The balsa sphere will protect the sensitive geological instrument upon impact with the lunar surface.  Six silver cadmium batteries will power the seismometer for up to one month after the rough landing. 

Just as with earthquake science here on Earth, the Ranger 3 through 5 science packages should teach us much about the composition of the lunar interior and if the Moon is still geologically active or not.  Although most scientists now accept that the vast majority of lunar craters were caused by ancient meteor and comet impacts, it may be that some of them are actually the calderas of volcanoes.  Scientists want to know if any of them may still be active. 

Finally, we have Ranger Block III.  As with their predecessors, the robot probes of Block III will also be sent plunging into the Moon.  While these mechanical explorers will not survive their high-speed impacts with the lunar crust, they will nevertheless return thousands of increasingly detailed images of particular regions of the Moon in real time using a bank of onboard television cameras.  These images will help scientists understand the finer details of the lunar surface both for geology as well as assisting NASA with future locations for soft landing missions, including manned vessels.

The manned program that will benefit from the findings of the Ranger program is Project Apollo.  The space agency had already planned Apollo as a follow-up spacecraft to Mercury with goals including a circumlunar flight or even a lunar orbital mission.  With President Kennedy’s new mandate to place a man on the Moon by the end of this decade, NASA has already begun to expand Apollo to include the ability to land astronauts on the lunar surface.  Whether this will involve using the entire Apollo craft and the powerful Nova rocket currently on the drawing board or perhaps an alternate concept of a separate Apollo craft and lander will be decided after much study and debate.

One thing from all this is certain, though: The Soviet Union has clear ambitions for the ultimate high ground of space.  Should the Soviets come to dominate Earth orbit and our neighboring worlds, especially if they include nuclear arms in this mix, the American way of life will be under a greater threat than ever before since the end of the last World War and the start of the Cold War. 

[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!