Tag Archives: samos

[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.

[February 1, 1961] Fur and Film (Mercury Redstone 2 and Samos 2)

It’s hardly kosher, but it’s certainly good news: yesterday, a Redstone rocket launched the first piloted Mercury capsule on a 15-minute flight into space.  No, we didn’t put a man in orbit–we sent a three-year old chimpanzee named Ham on a vertical jaunt over the West Atlantic. 

It wasn’t a perfect mission by any means.  The rocket fired too hard and too long, subjecting the little pilot to extra “Gs”.  Also, the rocket-powered escape tower was triggered about five seconds from main-booster burnount, and poor Ham and his ship were dragged a thousand feet from their Redstone.  These issues are troubling and may result in another test mission before the all-up effort.  On the other hand, they also show that the sturdy capsule can “take a licking and keep on ticking.”  The pilot was sturdy too despite the rigors of the journey, Ham dutifully ran through his in-flight routine, flipping switches and levers for the duration of the 15-minute flight.

In other news, the Air Force finally got its “official” spy satellite into orbit.  Samos is the successor to the utterly, completely, unquestionably solely scientific series, “Discoverer”, which sent back capsules from space that may or may not have had photographs of the Soviet landscape in them.  Samos 2 (the first one was a dud) was launched into a polar orbit, like Discoverer.  It might also send back film, but its main purpose (I am given to understand) is to broadcast real-time photography from space without having to return film to Earth.  Instead, the pictures are photo-statted in space and then ‘faxed down to Earth.  I wondered why the satellite didn’t use a TV system, like the weather satellite, TIROS, but I imagine the resolution would be too poor to be useful.  I have also heard some accounts that Samos 2 is testing out an ELINT (Electronic INTelligence) system that will allow us to locate and evaluate Soviet radar systems.  It’s hard to get a consistent report on the matter–the Air Force is clamming up on its programs these days.

So there you have it: the civilians are sending up sounding apes, and the missilemen are orbiting eyes in the sky.  No matter how you slice it, 1961 is already an interesting year in Space.

[Oct. 31, 1960] Looking both ways (October wrap-up, November preview)

As October draws to a close, it is worth taking a pause and reflecting on all the things that did and didn’t happen this month before moving on to a preview of November.

In the battle of the digests, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction came out the clear winner with an aggregate rating of 3.5 stars.  IF was the middle child, with a perfect 3 star score.  Analog took up the rear, at 2.75 stars, despite having a pair of the best stories of the month, largely due to the quackish non-fiction articles. 

But the biggest loser of the month was the fairer sex: not a single woman author is credited in any of the Big Three magazines.  Perhaps they made appearances in one of the few remaining others.

Only two new books came out this month, and I only read one of them: the 2.5 star clunker Starfire.  One of the Journey’s most vocal fans (by monicker of TRX), however, has stepped up to the role of occasional contributor, and his review of Murray Leinster’s Men into Space will be forthcoming in just a few days.  Welcome to the team!

The visual media have also been something of a bust this month.  The second season of Twilight Zone has been underwhelming, and I didn’t particularly like The Flintstones (though I understand I’m in the minority).  I aim at the Stars, the Wehrner von Braun hagiography isn’t playing near me, though I did manage to pick up a copy of the comic book adaptation given out to those who saw the film.  I may review it in November. 

There were four televised Presidential debates, on which I dutifully reported.  I understand that Jack Kennedy is drawing tremendous, adulating crowds while Dick Nixon’s audiences, albeit similarly sized, are far more restrained.  It’s too soon to draw conclusions from this, though.  It may just be a matter of temperament.

In the Space Race, America launched the first active repeating communications satellite, and if you haven’t grasped the significance of that event, you might want to read my article on the launch.  But there were a couple of missteps, too.  The first publicaly acknowledged spy sat, SAMOS 1, didn’t make it into orbit on October 11.  The probe reportedly would have returned live TV pictures of Soviet installations.  I’m very curious to see if the technology works given the issues the Air Force has had with capsule-recovery spy satellites…I mean biological return satellites.  Speaking of which, Discoverer 16 also suffered a launch failure on October 26.  Not a good month for snooping on the Communists from space.

What can we expect for next month?  A few calls to various publishers have brought me to the conclusion that there will be slim pickings for new books.  Of course, there are the Big Three digests, and the election on November 7.  Other than that, it’s wide open.

And so I turn to you, my fans.  To paraphrase Senator Kennedy, the Journey is a great column, but it can be better.  What would you like to see in the month of November?  And by the way, if any of you have a subscription to Amazing or Fantastic or any of the other digests, I’m always keen to enlist more contributors…

Happy Halloween!


(Halloween at Drake University, Iowa, in 1954)