Tag Archives: science fact

[August 27, 1962] Bound for Lucifer (the flight of Mariner 2)

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

by Gideon Marcus

If familiarity breeds contempt, then enigma must breed fascination.  So it has been with the planet Venus.  “Earth’s twin” in size and density, the second planet out from the sun is, in fact, the closest planet to us.  Yet, thanks to its shroud of clouds, very little can be determined of its nature.  At least, such was the state when I wrote my first article on the planet just three years ago.

Things are changing.

Opened eyes improve vision of Venus

Until recently, humanity was limited to examining the universe in the narrow band of light frequencies discernible to the eye.  That’s actually a tiny portion of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, which ranges from super-high frequency gamma rays, down through X-Rays, microwaves, and ultraviolet light, passes quickly through the visual light spectrum, and then to the lower-frequency infrared and radio waves.

In the last decade, we have developed ways of probing many of these EM bands from the Earth’s surface, and they have begun to reveal Venus’ true nature.  For instance, measuring microwave emissions from the planet, we find that the dark side simmers at a whopping 650 degrees Kelvin (710 degrees Fahrenheit).  Radio wave measurements seem to confirm this figure. 

The atmospheric pressure at “sea level” is some 50 times greater than on Earth.  It is not certain what components make up the Venusian atmosphere, but likely gases are Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen, and water, in order of amount.  This combination is what causes the planet to swelter so – the air creates a greenhouse effect, trapping heat like a blanket.  The surface of Venus is probably like an oven, extremely dry (despite the potential for water vapor in high clouds), dimly lit by a blurry yellow sun, largely windless, and extremely inhospitable.  So much for the jungle-covered Amtor of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Using radar, scientists have learned that Venus is more reflective than the moon (presumably the surface, or whatever the waves are bouncing off of, is smoother).  It has also been determined that Venus, if it rotates at all, does so extremely slowly.  A Venusian day may well be as long as its year: 225 days.  Scientists have used radar observations to confirm the greenhouse atmospheric model over others that had been advanced in the absence of data.  Radar also has given us a better idea exactly how far away the planet is from us, a critical piece of information for plotting the course of investigating spacecraft.  Which brings us to…

Let the onslaught begin

Every 19 months, the Earth and Venus are as favorably aligned in their orbits as they can get; that is the opportunity to send the heaviest spacecraft (i.e. with the most experiments) to investigate.  The first chance of the Space Age to send a probe to Venus took place in summer of 1959 – too soon for either superpower to loft a probe.  The United States did send up Pioneer 5 to the orbit of Venus in March 1960 to test long distance communications, however. 

The next alignment took place in February 1961.  No American probe was ready, but the Soviet http://galacticjourney.org/tag/venera-1/Venera 1 almost made it to Venus before mysteriously going silent. 

19 months have elapsed again, and this time, both major participants in the Space Race are ready.  Just a few days ago, the Soviets launched another Venera.  It failed to depart Earth’s orbit and will likely decay in a few days, but I can’t imagine it will be their only attempt.  Last month, America’s first try, Mariner 1, veered off course and had to be destroyed after only five minutes in flight.

Of course, I wouldn’t be talking about this if I didn’t have good news.  This morning, a new Mariner rose to the heavens atop an Atlas Agena rocket, and this one is safely on a course for the Planet of Love.

It’s a little probe, really a close cousin to the Ranger probes that have had such ill luck with the moon.  NASA had hoped to send a larger spacecraft, but the new Centaur second stage booster isn’t ready yet.  So the Agena-propelled Mariner carries just 40 pounds of equipment.  There’s no camera onboard, for Mariner lacks the cargo to carry a strong enough transmitter to send pictures. 

But there are several experiments that will be just as valuable.  For instance, there is a pair of radiometers that will tell us, once and for all, just how warm Venus really is.  There are a series of particle counters that will measure radiation both on the way to and in the vicinity of the planet.  This kind of exploration of interplanetary space has only been done once before, and it tells us volumes about the sun and how it affects us.  We will also learn about the fields of electrical force surrounding Venus.

To that end, Mariner 2 also carries a magnetometer, designed to tell us the strength and disposition of Venus’ magnetic field.  I’ve got a personal stake in this little experiment as two good friends, Chuck Sonett and Paul Coleman, are vital members of the team that built it.  These fine fellows worked in the private sector on Pioneer 5, and now NASA has seduced them onto the government payroll.  A win for the United States, I’d say!

So stay tuned.  Mariner will reach Venus in December, and if the probe still be active come then, you can bet there will be a bonanza of scientific results – and you’ll be able to read all about it at Galactic Journey!

[August 15, 1962] Four Feet Over (the dual flight of Vostok 3 and Vostok 4)

[if you’re new to the Journey, reference this summary article to see what we’re all about.]

by Gideon Marcus

America just can’t seem to catch a break in the Space Race.  Late last night, the latest Soviet spectacular came to a stunning conclusion: two Cosmonauts had circled the Earth for several days, at one point flying within just 75 miles of each other. 

Major Andrian Nikolaev, 33 and a Chuvash Russian, kicked off the mission the early morning (our time) of August 11.  His Vostok 3 (“Falcon”) was in space for a full day before his spaecebound comrade, 32-year old Ukrainian Lt. Col. Pavel Popovich blasted off in Vostok 4 (“Golden Eagle”), morning of August 12.  TV broadcasts of the two came frequently via Moscow; we saw the cosmonauts floating freely in their small cabins, chatting with each other over the radio, even singing songs.  Breathless news reporters informed that the two craft had “rendezvoused” early on in the flight.  The cosmonauts landed near midnight (our time) within just a few minutes of each other, both of them making the full journey in their ships (as opposed to Titov, who for some reason baled out of Vostok 2 before it reached the ground).

The flight of Vostoks 3 and 4 is a Big Deal.  For four days, there were Russians in space doing impressive things.  It made our prior three-orbit flights look pathetic in comparison.  But the big question is this: Did the two craft actually rendezvous and dock under their own power, a feat that would demonstrate not only a tremendous Communist lead on our program, but an ability to intercept and destroy our own satellites? 

Many government officials are being cagey in their responses, but the answer is “probably not.”  Falcon and Eagle flew closest together in their first few orbits, quickly drifting apart over subsequent ones.  There wasn’t time to link up.  And if the Russians had actually docked, “They would have announced it,” deputy NASA administrator Dr. Hugh L. Dryden said.

This makes sense.  Neither of the prior Vostoks displayed any ability to modify their orbits, and it would suggest a great advancement in Soviet technology if the new ones did.  Rather, the “rendezvous” was merely a demonstration of skilled orbital trajectory calculations and an admittedly impressive ability to launch multiple missions in rapid succession.

Those are the particulars.  Where does this leave us in the big picture? 

Five years ago, the Soviets beat us to the orbital punch, lofting the first two Sputniks.  Though we followed with our own Explorer just three months later, it was with a lighter, less capable rocket.  In 1958-60, we made nearly ten unsuccessful attempts to launch a moon probe.  In the same time frame, the Russians had at least two successes, including the dramatic Luna 3, which took the first pictures of the Far Side of the moon.

Last year, the USSR put the first man in orbit, and it was almost a year until we could match the feat (and not before the put a fellow up in space for a full day – we’ve barely managed less than five hours).  And now this dual Vostok flight.

Some outlets are going ape with dire predictions.  The Communists are several years ahead, they say, on track to land on the moon by 1965!  At a shallow glance, it certainly seems like the Reds are way ahead of us.

But let’s look at things soberly.  I suspect that the booster the Soviets used for Vostok is largely the same one they used for Sputnik.  It’s the equivalent of our Atlas.  It was just available to them several years earlier.  Thus, Vostok doesn’t reflect any major advancement in Russian launch capability – just a fuller utilization of it.  Now that we’ve got the Atlas working for us, we’re on a much more level playing field.  Also, the American Mercury space capsule will ultimately be capable of day-long flights, too.  We just like to take things a bit slower than our reckless Communist adversaries.

And let’s not forget that while the Soviets have launched about 20 flights since 1957 (that they’ve divulged), we’ve launched 100.  The Explorer series is already up to 12, Discoverer almost to 50.  Not to mention the parallel and impressive X-15 rocketplane program, whose successor, the X-20, will be a fully orbital and reusable spaceplane.  Finally, Mariner 2, our Venus probe, is set for launch next month.  We can assume the Soviets will have their counterpart, but it won’t beat us to the planet of love; it will merely escort it.

So don’t panic yet.  Until the Soviets display a true rendezvous in space, or present us with an entirely new spacecraft, they are not that far ahead of us in the Space Race and, I submit, are in some ways behind us.  Ask me again come December…

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

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

by Gideon Marcus

Sometimes, the future comes so fast, it bewilders.

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

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

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

Ma Bell, Orbital Division

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

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

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

Jousting Space Shutterbugs

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

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

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

Getting to Space the Old-Fashioned Way

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

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

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

Bits and Pieces

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

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

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

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

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

Conquered by (the Planet of) Love

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

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

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

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

Live via Visi-Phone!

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

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

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

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

[May 24, 1962] Adrift in Two Oceans (The Flight of Aurora 7)

by Gideon Marcus

They say things get tedious in repetition.  Well, I can assure you that at no point during Scott Carpenter’s three-orbit flight, planned to be a duplicate of predecessor John Glenn’s, was I in the least bit bored.  In fact, of the six manned space shots, this was the most moving for me.  Since the launch this morning from the East coast of Florida, a couple of hours after dawn, I’ve been hooked to the television and radio, engaged to a greater degree than ever before.

Perhaps it’s the thoughtful, enigmatic nature of Carpenter, a contrast to the gung ho Glenn, the taciturn Shepard, the consummate test pilot Grissom.  Maybe it’s the fact that Carpenter’s flight had its fair share of drama (but then, so did Glenn’s).  It could well be that, now that Glenn has set the template for space travel, I could spend time contemplating what it all meant.

Certainly, NASA wanted to get the most out of the flight out of Aurora 7.  Its pilot was smothered with tasks, each of them taking longer than scheduled.  First, there were the pictures to take.  Carpenter, cramped into a cockpit barely larger than that of the navy planes he used to fly for a living, fumbled to load film of the special space camera.  Then he had to make haste to spin the little Mercury spacecraft around so as to get good pictures of the horizon and ground features of interest.  By the end of Orbit One, half of the ship’s fuel was gone.

During the second orbit, Carpenter’s suit began to overheat.  Sweat dripping into his eyes, the astronaut deployed a parti-colored beachball.  It was supposed to trail behind the Mercury, providing data on the density of the rarefied atmosphere at that height, as well as the reflectivity of light in orbit.  Well, the thing never quite inflated.  The wilted thing followed along dispiritedly behind Aurora 7 for the next few hours.

This is not to say that Carpenter was having a bad time.  From his first exuberant exclamation upon becoming weightless, it was clear the astronaut was enjoying himself.  He got to eat the first full meal in space…from tubes: one of peaches, and one of beef and vegetables.  And, for a blessed four-and-a-half hours, the heavy space suit weighed nothing at all.  Even overtasked, Carpenter felt free as a bird, even in his tiny, spacecraft-shaped cage.  The dark sky framed three sunrises and three sunsets, punctuated by flurries of the same fireflies that accompanied Glenn in his flight (the astronaut believes they are ice particles shaken from the capsule). 

Fun, to be sure, but at the end of the third orbit, Carpenter was in a pickle.  Almost out of fuel, the ship misaligned thanks to a balky thruster, and the window for firing his retrorockets sliver-thin, the astronaut fired his braking thrusters a few seconds late.  For half an hour, first in the shuddering initial reentry, and then in the chest crushing crashing through the atmosphere, culminating in the gentle sway beneath parachutes before splashdown in the Atlantic, Carpenter had no idea where he would end up.

Neither did the recovery fleet.  In fact, Carpenter landed some 250 miles away from where he was supposed to.  This did not bother the philosophical spaceman, who spent the next hours relaxing on his inflatable raft, sitting in pleasant companionship with a little black fish nearby.  When the boats of the U.S.S. Intrepid finally arrived, hours later, Carpenter was completely calm.  In fact, like a good guest, he offered them some of his food. 

Aside from a little dehydration (he’d lost seven pounds in space!) Carpenter was in tip-top shape.  He has since been whisked off to Grand Turk island for extensive post-flight evaluation, and it is my understanding he got quite the hug from Glenn upon arrival.  There he will stay for a couple of days before he gets to make a tour of his home town of Boulder, Colorado. 

The folks there must be proud of their native son who has ascended far beyond the lofty Rockies.  I know I am.

[May 9, 1962] The Chilly Frontier (Uranus, the Seventh Planet)

by Gideon Marcus

Every so often, serendipity chooses what I write about.  Last month, the Traveler family Journeyed to the Seventh Planet in film.  Then, the Good Doctor wrote about the giant planet in his science fact article in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  And now, in this month’s Galaxy, Willy Ley tells of the origin of the the names of our celestial neighbors, Uranus included. 

And there’s a 7th Planet-sized gap in my series on the planets of the solar system.  Who am I to fight fate?

Uranus from a telescope

How much could we know about a world that is twice as far away from us as Saturn?  The answer is at once “more than you’d think” and “less than we’d like.”

Uranus is a small green disc when viewed through a telescope.  In fact, the planet is technically visible with the naked eye, but it is so small that it is no surprise that it wasn’t discovered until 1781.  Over the course of several late-Winter nights, a German expatriate living in England named William Herschel saw the fuzzy circle of Uranus slowly travel among the fixed tableau of the stars.  He thought he’d found a comet.  But its orbit and characteristics made it apparent that it was, in fact, the first new planet discovered in thousands of years.

Herschel tried to name the planet after his King, George III, just as Galileo had tried to name the Jovian moons he had discovered after his sovereigns, the De Medici family.  Others tried to name the planet after Herschel, himself!  In the end, a name of classical derivation won out – and what more fitting name than the father of Saturn, who was, himself, father of Jupiter, who was father of Mercury, Venus, and Mars?

Uranus hugs the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system, more closely than any of the other planets.  Using older observations of Uranus from before the object was recognized as a planet, astronomers quickly determined the new planet’s year: 84 years.  We are fortunate that Uranus has moons (five of them, the latest discovered just 14 years ago), for we are able to determine the mass of the planet from the length of time it takes for the moons to orbit their parent.  There are 15 Earths of mass in the planet, the least of the four giant planets.  Nevertheless, you could fit 60 Earths inside Uranus.  That makes it the second-smallest in volume (Neptune has a volume of 40 Earths). 

You can tell how long the day of a planet is using a spectroscope, which breaks up light into its component wavelengths.  The waves of light coming from the side of a planet rotating toward us are compressed and made bluer.  The side going away reflects redder light.  This is the Doppler Effect – the same phenomenon that makes train whistles seem to rise and fall as the locomotives approach and recede. Uranus’ day is just under 11 hours long.  This is slightly longer than Saturn’s, and shorter than Neptune’s.

So in terms of raw physical characteristics, Uranus is kind of a middlin’ gas giant.  But there is one feature that makes it absolutely unique among the planets.  Thanks again to the trek of Uranus’ moons, we know that the planet is tipped way over on its side with respect to the ecliptic – a whopping 98 degrees!  Compare that to Earth’s slightly wobbled 23 degrees.  As you may know, this tilt is responsible for our planet’s seasons; imagine what kind of severe seasons Uranus must have!  The Poles of the seventh planet are in perpetual sunlight for 21 years, in darkness for the same amount of time. 

Exploring the Planets, 1958, Roy A. Gallant

An observer on the surface of Uranus, if such a thing exists, probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  There is a 3000 mile thick atmosphere that we know contains methane, thanks again to the spectroscope.  Below that is an ocean of increasingly slushy hydrogen some 6000 miles thick.  By the time you get to solid ground, whatever that be made of, you can be sure that no light penetrates.  As at the bottom of terrestrial oceans, the surface of Uranus must be seasonless.

Now, while the edge of Uranus’ atmosphere is a chilly 300 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit), it is certain that things heat up as one goes deeper into the pressure cooker of the planet’s gaseous envelope.  It is even possible that an ocean of water floats at some level of the giant’s composition, though we’ll never know until we go there.

Exploring the Planets, 1958, Roy A. Gallant

The last bit we know about Uranus is a piece of negative information.  Over the last decade or so, we have turned the giant dishes pf radio telescopes toward the heavens and discovered all sorts of staticy emanations, some associated with things we can see, and some appearing to radiate from nowhere.  Jupiter, it turns out, is a chatty subject on the radio.  Uranus, however, is not. 

By the way, my favorite aspect of Uranus is the naming of its moons.  They are (closest in to farthest out) Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon.  Unlike Jove’s mistresses that orbit Jupiter and the elder Titans that circle Saturn, Uranus’ moons are named after the literary creations of Shakespeare and Pope.  The most ancient of Gods is thus attended by some of humanity’s more recent fairies.

Uranus from a telescope

There you have it: virtually the entire sum of knowledge we have about the 7th planet.  Not a whole lot for nearly 200 years of observation.  However, I suspect that, with powerful rockets like the Saturn at our disposal, it won’t be long before Uranus gets a new moon, one with a NASA sticker (or perhaps, a Sickle and Hammer) on the side.  Then we’ll truly learn about this mysterious, grand, tipped-over world.

Classics Illustrated. Illustrated by Torres, Angelo, Kirby, Jack, and Glanzman, Sam. To the Stars!

[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…

[April 22, 1962] “To ride on the curl’d clouds” (ARIEL ONE)

By Ashley R. Pollard

Looking back to October the 4th 1957 when Sputnik was launched, it’s hard to believe that only five years have passed since that fateful day when Russia beat Britain and America into space (perhaps my American readers will say that Britain had no realistic chance of getting into space first, which I would agree with, but for the Western nations to be beaten by the Russians – now that’s the thing.)

With Sputnik, humanity transitioned from flying through the air to moving through the vacuum of space, where no living animal can survive without a pressure suit. The only other time that I can think of when a paradigm shift of this nature took place would be back when the first hot-air balloons were invented. This provoked the discussion, at the time, that this was the invention of travelling through the air.

As I read the history of hot-air balloons, the idea of travelling through air as an invention seems odd to me. But as language evolves over time, so do concepts like invention, which has moved from the original Latin meaning of discovery to the more modern meaning of a process or device. Though by modern I should clarify that I mean “from the fifteenth century,” which is not surprising given the changes that arose from the Renaissance, and everything that came out of rediscovery of the knowledge of the ancient Greeks.

For those who look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses I will remind my readers that the times I’m writing about were surrounded by their own troubles. The Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, for example, which led to a westward exodus of Greek scholars that fuelled the rediscovery of ancient thinking. One can argue that today’s troubles, with West and East facing off against each other, is just part of the story of humanity’s struggle between its biological drives versus its intellectual aspirations.

Almost equidistant (physically, though not ideologically) from the Free and Communist worlds, Britain is about to become Earth’s third nation to practice the “invention” of travelling through space. Admittedly this puts us behind America and Russia, but as the Yanks are wont to say, this still makes us a contender. We are calling our satellite Ariel One, more prosaically referred to as UK-1 or S-55. This program grew out of proposal by the British National Committee on Space Research to NASA that came from a discussion at a meeting of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) to study the Earth’s ionosphere.

What is the ionosphere? It is that layer high up in the Earth’s atmosphere where the sun’s energy strips the thin air of its electrons, creating a charged barrier to radio waves. It is this layer that allows British and American “Hams” to talk to each other across thousands of miles of ocean. Understanding how the ionosphere works not only has practical implications for engineers, but is also vital to modelling the atmosphere as a whole. The rewards to science will be tremendous.

I must confess that while Ariel One may be a British satellite, it was made in America for us by the NASA Goddard Flight Center. Our satellite will launched atop a Thor-Delta rocket aka Delta DM-19, which is a variant of the Thor-Able booster that launched some of America’s first satellites, and is due to be launched on the 26th of April from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Launch Complex 17A.

The Thor rockets were designed for the United States Air Force as intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM), which became redundant for purpose after the introduction of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). So arguably this is a case of swords being turned into plowshares for science. The Thor-Delta uses a Delta rocket as its upper stage, which has the new AJ10-118 engine, and the upper stage also has cold gas attitude control jets. This allows rockets to be stabilized, and the motors can also be stopped and restarted for more precise orbital insertions than were previously possible.

The Ariel One satellite has six experiments onboard, five of which will examine the relationship between two types of solar radiation and changes in the Earth’s ionosphere, and the other cosmic rays. University College London has two ionospheric experiments aboard Ariel; a Langmuir probe for measuring of electron temperature and density; and a spherical probe for measurement of ion mass composition and temperature. The University of Birmingham has a plasma dielectric constant measurement of ionospheric electron density device, which uses a different method to measure electron density that complements the Langmuir probe.

In addition, University College London has two solar radiation experiments; one will measure Lyman-Alpha ultra-violet emissions; the other will measure X-Ray emissions from the Sun in the 3 to 12A band. The sixth experiment, provided Imperial College London, is a Cerenkov detector, which will measure primary cosmic ray energy spectrum, and the impact of interplanetary magnetic field modulation on this spectrum.

You may be thinking, “These experiments sound familiar. I know that NASA’s Orbiting Solar Observatory, for example has similar detectors. Why do we need another satellite that does the same thing?”

That’s an excellent question. There are three answers:

1) Just as more eyewitnesses create a stronger legal case or journalistic report, so do multiple satellites give a broader, mutually verifiable view of the same phenomena;

2) Different laboratories create subtly different experiment types. Thus, Ariel will look at the Sun with slightly different eyes than OSO;

3) Ariel represents an important first step in British space science, one that lays the foundation for future successes.

To finish this months article I must comment on the name Ariel, which is an interesting choice. Ariel is a Hebrew word found in the Bible. I understand it means either the Lion of God or Hearth of God, depending on interpretation. It is also the name of one of the moons of Uranus (recently visited by other members of the Journey).

But, one can’t help but think of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and my guess would be that it’s an allusion to the latter because Ariel was the servant of Prospero – and I have the highest hopes that Ariel One shall be successful in serving British science equally well.

[Mar. 17, 1962]  Our Knights in Shining Armor (Have Space Suit, Will Travel)

[The Journey’s “Fashion Columnist” returns with a timely piece on the latest advancement in sartorial science…]

by Gwyn Conaway

Last month, on February 20th, 1962, John Glenn became the second American to leave behind our earthly constraints for the majesty of space.

Less than one year after Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket, John Glenn ascended to low Earth orbit in his spacecraft, Friendship 7. He circled the Earth three times at speeds upwards of 17,000 miles per hour, and persevered through the crushing force of nearly eight times the force of Earth’s gravity Gs at reentry into our atmosphere.

What a time to be alive! We are witness to human history! This is a milestone in a long journey toward chasing the unknown. Never have I been more certain that we are explorers, creatures of adventure. And what better bedfellow to our curiosity than innovation?  For to accomplish his mission, Colonel Glenn required two spacecraft: the bell-shaped Mercury, as well as his formfitting personal capsule – the Mark IV spacesuit.

Our newly beloved Space Age is thanks, in no small part, to a little-known mechanical engineer and designer named Russell Colley at B. F. Goodrich Company. Owing to his career-long devotion to high-altitude pressure suits, Colley has been deemed the Father of the Spacesuit, the First Tailor of the Space Age. Mark my words, his Mark IV spacesuits, with their sleek and futuristic design, will inspire generations of fashion to come.

The Mark IV rides on the coattails of many pressure suits designed by Colley and others over the years. Its evolution is a testament to American doggedness and bears the fruits of the unbridled technological advancements in textiles and garment manufacturing we’ve seen through the past decade.

The Post pressure suit, first flown in 1934. This suit had a skewed visor to favor Wiley Post’s one good eye.

Colley first began his groundbreaking work in 1934 when Wiley Post, the aviator who achieved fame through making the first solo flight around the globe, commissioned him to design the world’s first pressurized suit for high-altitude flight. Later the same year, after two failed designs, Colley built a rubber bladder suit with long underwear and a diver’s helmet on his wife’s sewing machine. This suit launched Wiley Post 50,000 ft into the air and jump-started an evolution over the next thirty years that leads us to our current moment of triumph – the Mark IV spacesuits.

John Glenn being fit for his Mark IV, destined to carry him into orbit last month. What once looked like a diver’s suit has now been transformed into a feat of futuristic design and engineering.

From 1941 to 1954, the David Clark Company designed and built twenty pressure suit models for the U.S. Military.  When David Clark’s funding dried up, B.F. Goodrich, where Colley worked, was offered the contract. Colley himself built seven suits at B.F. Goodrich. They started this contract with the Model H (the 8th letter of the alphabet and their 8th suit design, in case you were wondering). Models H through R were built and tested before the company began the Mark series that would take Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and now John Glenn into space.

By the time B.F. Goodrich won the bid to build their Mark IV spacesuits in 1961, the U.S. Military and NASA had collectively funded more than forty pressure suit designs across three major engineering companies.

The Mercury 7 in a fitting for their Mark IV space suits. Note the sage green option for the suit in the back right.

The Mark IV, in addition to its sleek name, is a marvel to behold, unlike any other piece of flight equipment I’ve ever seen. Each suit is fitted by Colley in Akron, OH, where he attended to each of the Mercury 7 pilots. The gloves alone come in fifteen sizes: five palm sizes, each with short, regular, or long digits. John Glenn had a new feature added to his gloves specifically for his February flight: tiny lights affixed to the tops of each finger so he could read the instrument panels.

John Glenn shows off his finger flashlights. Also visible in this photo are the only two instances of metal bearings in the entire suit: the neck ring and glove attachments.

Space suits have made incredible strides since his Colley’s collaboration with Wiley Post more than thirty years ago. When pressurized, these high altitude suits inflate the interior, pushing in on the human body and out on the suit. This provides the pilot with enough atmospheric pressure to stabilize blood flow to the brain and keeping them conscious during difficult maneuvers. However, once these suits are pressurized, mobility becomes extremely limited, and even bending one’s fingers becomes a task of titanic strength.

Astronauts ‘test’ the Mark IV in a light-hearted ball game. Clearly visible along the outer seams of the arms and legs are Colley’s revolutionary elastic pleating to enhance mobility.

The earliest suits were outfitted with heavy metal hinges at the joints for mobility. In a stroke of genius, Colley departed from metal bearings and joints in the Mark series. Rather, he used adjustable cords and pleats to fold the inflated suit at important junctions. While the cords had originally concerned NASA, they proved invaluable in fittings, where Colley was able to replace the lengths of many of these cords with highly-tailored zippers, elastic seams, and pressure pockets for each pilot.

John Glenn’s waffle-weave long underwear can be seen here as he suits up. The waffling occurs across the back, buttocks, thighs, and biceps in reinforced panels.

It’s a daring, romantic choice. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw John Glenn walk to his shuttle last month and sigh, “Ah, now there is a knight in shining armor!” I wonder how far into the future Russell Colley’s Mark IV will inspire children, artists, and science fiction? How long will the stamp of America’s Mercury 7 linger on the face of space exploration? Decades? Centuries?

Yuri Gagarin may have beat us to space in April of last year, but the cosmonaut’s orange utility suit will not leave such a glimmer in the eyes of our children. The Russians touched the stars first, but Russell Colley has won the hearts of the people of Earth.

[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!

[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!