Tag Archives: science fact

[November 10, 1962] Across the Ocean of the Night (the planet Neptune)

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


by Gideon Marcus

In the last planetary article, I discussed the discovery and nature of the seventh planet, Uranus.  It was the first sizable member of the solar system to be found since ancient times.  And yet, its very discovery sowed the seeds for the quick locating of the next planet out from the sun. 

Shortly after William Herschel spotted Uranus and deduced what it was, other astronomers realized that the green planet wasn’t following a regular path around the sun.  Some invisible thing was tugging at it, causing it to deviate from its orbit.  Doing a little math, it was determined that this object must be a large planet, 30 times farther from the sun than the Earth, twice as far from the sun as Uranus! 

After a comparatively short search to find Planet 8, the Frenchman Le Verrier discovered it in1846, a very neat application of orbital mathematics and organized observation, the likes of which may never again be repeated.  The English wanted to name the planet “Oceanus,” but since the French found it, they chose the name: Neptune – Roman God of the sea and brother to Jupiter.

A wobble in Uranus’ orbit led to the discovery of Neptune.  And, in fact, Neptune itself has a little wobble that led people, around the turn of the century, to believe one or two planets lay beyond the eighth planet.  Those planets were sought for and one little world was ultimately found in 1930 as a result, but whether Pluto is actually the cause of the wobble remains an open question.  An exciting 1957 article suggests that Pluto was once a moon of Neptune, ejected early in the planet’s life, which could explain the smaller world’s eccentric orbit.

So what is Neptune like?  In some ways, Uranus and Neptune are of a piece, both midway in size between the terrestrial worlds and the true giants, Jupiter and Saturn.  Uranus shows up as a small pale green disk in a telescope; Neptune is a blue circle half that size.  Neptune is a little more massive than Uranus, but also a little smaller.  Where Uranus has five moons.  Neptune appears to have just two.  Backwards-rotating Triton has been known almost since Neptune’s finding, but little Nereid was just discovered in 1949.  Thanks to these moons, we know that Neptune has 17.26 masses of the Earth (compared to a little over 14 for Uranus).  Moons also tell us that Uranus is tipped over on its side; Neptune’s axial tilt is 27%, very similar to the 23.5% of Earth’s. 

The four terrestrial or rocky worlds are composed mostly of dense matter like metals and silicates, and the gas giants are made mostly of hydrogen and helium (like the sun).  Uranus and Neptune seem to be halfway planets, around 20% heavy stuff and 80% middling stuff, like methane, ammonia, and water – all of which, at the frigid temperatures of the outer solar system, should be in liquid or solid form. 

There is likely gaseous hydrogen and helium making up a tiny fraction of the planet’s mass.  Observations in 1950 suggested Neptune has twice the density of Uranus, which would mean the atmosphere of hydrogen and helium would be thin, indeed, over a slush of methane, ice, and pressure-metallized ammonia, which in turn covers a solid core of something, about twice the mass of the Earth.

How do we know what’s in Neptune’s atmosphere?  A spectrograph takes visible light and separates into its components, like a prism.  Every element has a distinctive pattern when it is run through a spectrograph.  Scientists try to recreate the patterns that they see in a controlled environment.  For instance, the patterns seen in Neptune’s diffracted light are most closely approximated by a mix of three parts helium to one part hydrogen at a temperature no greater than 78 degrees Kelvin (-351 degrees Fahrenheit).  Spectral “fingerprints” associated with methane have also been found.  This, then must be the general nature of Neptune’s visible layer of air.

The spectroscope also tells us, based on the shifting wavelengths of light from the planet’s edges (the Doppler Effect), that Neptune’s day is 15.8 hours long.  That rapid spin bulges the planet like an egg, though to nowhere near the extent of, say, less-dense Saturn. 

And… that’s it!  This is the entire sum of knowledge we have about the huge frigid sentinel near the edge of our solar system.  The blue orb is too far away for any surface features to be discerned, and no radio output has been detected.  Until we send a probe past Neptune, I’m afraid we will learn precious little more about the eighth planet.

Then again, at the rate our Space Race is going, Mariner 19 could be in the offing as early as the next decade…




[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. 




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

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


by Gideon Marcus

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

Yesterday, the same thing happened to manned missions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




[September 30, 1962] The Woman Pioneers of Space Exploration

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


by Gideon Marcus

The Journey has a tradition of spotlighting the accomplishments of women, both as writers of and characters in science fiction.  From Dr. Martha Dane, the eminent omnilinguist who graces the Journey’s masthead, to the 30+ authors who have been spotlighted in our series on The Second Sex in SFF.

But while the Journey has covered the Space Race in lavish detail, it has devoted little space to the woman scientists and engineers involved behind the scenes.  In part, this is because space travel is a new field.  In part, it’s because science is still a heavily male-dominated arena.  While women have risen to prominence as scientists for centuries, from Émilie du Châtelet to Marie Curie to Grace Hopper, it is only very recently that they have made their way to the top ranks of space science. 

Times have changed, and there is now a vanguard of women leading the charge that will perhaps someday lead to complete parity between the sexes in this, the newest frontier of science.  To a significant degree, this development was spurred by the digital computer, which you’ll see demonstrated in several of the entries in this article, The Woman Pioneers of Space Exploration:

Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, PhD. Astronomy
Chief of Astronomy, NASA Office of Space Science

Tennessee-born Dr. Roman began her professional career as a graduate student at Chicago’s Yerkes University, then the epicenter of astronomical research.  At the time, a full 20% of the students were women, and while there was no explicit discrimination against them, women earned just two thirds the pay of the men.  As department chair Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar unironically observed, “We don’t
discriminate against women.  We can just get them for less.”

That hardly sat well with Dr. Roman, and she went on to the Naval Research Lab in 1955.  She was initially given no assignments; in fact, she was virtually ignored.  It turned out that the rest of NRL’s staff (all men, of course) were prejudiced against women on account of a prior female colleague having been, as they characterized her, “useless.”  Dr. Roman’s competence quickly disabused them of their error in projecting the failings of one person upon an entire gender.

In 1959, Dr. Roman was tapped to lead the space astronomy department at the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), becoming the most senior woman at the agency.  Dr. Roman has since augmented NASA’s optical and ultraviolet astronomy efforts with new high energy and radio astronomy programs, and her fingerprints are and will be on a great many spacecraft, including the Orbiting Astronomical and Orbiting Solar Observatories, the latter of which launched earlier this year. 

Marcia Neugebauer, M.S. Physics
Senior Research Scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Mariner 2 is on its way to Venus, and Neugebauer is one of the principal engineers behind its construction.  A graduate of Cornell and University of Illinois, Marcia came to California to marry her husband, Gerry, an infrared astronomer, taking a job as Research Scientist at JPL.

Her specialty is the solar wind, that stream charged particles issuing from the Sun whose impact on the Earth’s magnetic field is profound.  She was project scientist for Rangers 1 and 2, a pair of sky science flights that, sadly, were unsuccessful.  But Mariner 2, which is an adaptation of the Ranger probe, also carries the plasma analyzer of Neugebauer’s design, and it is now six million miles along on its journey.  Whether the solar wind be found to be a gale or a gentle breeze, that determination will be thanks to Neugebauer’s experiment – and one can bet that she’ll have a hand in many space probes to come.

Dorothy Vaughan, B.A. Mathematics
Computer programmer, Langley Research Center, NASA

It wasn’t long ago that “computer” meant a mathematician, typically female, who solved numerical problems.  Companies, banks, research centers, would have a corps of computers to resolve complicated mathematical issues.  NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), had several such groups.  One of them was the all Black, segregated West Area Computing Unit at Langley Research Center.

Vaughan joined NACA in 1943.  After the War, she advanced to heading the unit, becoming the first Black manager at NACA.  In 1958, NACA became NASA, and all segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished.

At the same time, human computing centers were becoming obsolete, now that digital computers like the IBM 7090 were coming into their own.  But someone had to program them.  Computing, even by punch-card, is still considered “women’s work,” as it was when it was by hand.  This, then, represents an opportunity for thousands of mathematically minded women to enter a field that simply didn’t exist a few years ago, a world men are keeping out of by choice: the world of digital computer programming.

Seeing the electronic computer revolution approaching, Vaughan taught herself FORTRAN, a scientific programming language, and then imparted her knowledge to her colleagues such that she and they could join NASA’s new Analysis and Computation Division as coders. Dorothy Vaughan is still there, currently working on programming the Scout, a cheap and reliable solid-fuel booster.

Katherine Johnson, B.S. Mathematics and French
Mathematician, Langley Research Center, NASA

One of Dorothy Vaughan’s staff was mathematician Katherine Johnson.  A West Area computer from 1953, she went on to the Flight Research Division (FRD) after NASA was formed, where she became (and is) deeply involved in the Mercury manned space program.

In 1960, she became the first woman at FRD to receive credit as coauthor of a research report: “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position,” which lay out the equations for landing an orbital spacecraft.  She also did trajectory analysis for America’s first human spaceflight, the suborbital mission of Alan Shepard.

Having thus developed a strong reputation for accuracy, it is little surprise that, on the eve of John Glenn’s orbital flight, the astronaut specifically requested that Johnson hand-check his trajectory equations – even though they had been calculated by NASA’s most advanced computers.  “If she says they’re good,” Glenn said, “then I’m ready to go.”

They were, and he was. 

Mary Jackson, B.A. Mathematics
Aeronautical Engineer, Langley Research Center, NASA

Mary Jackson is not precisely a space pioneer, as her work is focused chiefly on wind tunnels and testing the aerodynamic properties of aircraft designs.  Nevertheless, she is noteworthy for being possibly the only Black woman aeronautical engineer in her field, and for her remarkable story:

Originally a math teacher with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences, she ended up in at Langley’s segregated West Area Computing section in 1951, reporting to Dorothy Vaughan.

Just two years later, she received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 60,000 horsepower Supersonic Pressure Tunnel.  Jackson took the job and proved herself, earning Czarnecki’s endorsement to take graduate level math and physics classes offered by the University of Virginia. But the classes were held at the segregated, all White, Hampton High School.  Mary had to fight for special permission from the City of Hampton to take the classes.  She succeeded and in 1958, thus became NASA’s first black female engineer.  That same year, she co-authored her first report: “Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.”

Susan Finley
Computer Programmer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Like Dorothy Vaughan, Southern California-based Susan Finley started out as a computer.  Actually, she started out as an art student, but she dropped out after her third year.  Applying for a typist job at Convair, creator of the Atlas rocket that boosted Glenn to orbit, she was asked if she liked math.  She did, and so was offered a computing position.

Marriage complicated things logistically, Finley moving with her husband for his job to San Gabriel.  This put her within commuting distance of JPL, which she joined in January 28, 1958 – just three days before America entered the Space Race with Explorer I.  In 1960, her husband went to grad school in Riverside, and Finley had to leave her position again.  She returned to JPL in 1962, but not before, like many women, she had learned FORTRAN.  Finley nimbly transitioned from mechanical calculators to advanced digital computers.

Ironically, Finley’s calculations that determined that this year’s Ranger 3 flight had missed the Moon by 22,000 miles were done by hand – the computer was off-line at the time!

Lauren “Frankie” van der Wal, M.S. Aeronautics
Chief of Biomedicine, Space Technology Laboratories (former)

Six feet tall and tough as nails, Frankie van der Wal was project manager for the first space biological experiment.  Before becoming Chief of Biomedicine at the overwhelmingly stag Los Angeles facility of Space Technology Laboratories’ (STL), she had been a 15 year-old high school graduate, a model, an airplane mechanic, a deputy sheriff, a showgirl, a graduate with a Masters in Aeronautics, and much more. 

In 1958, the Air Force ran a series of suborbital nosecone tests aboard the STL-designed Thor-Able booster, a rocket that had been patched together for the Pioneer Moon missions.  Van der Wal abhorred a vacuum as much as nature, and she proposed using the hollow space of the nosecone to house a mouse-tro-naut.  Packed into the tight space would be various biomedical monitors to track the life-signs of the rodent during its 15 minute, several thousand-mile flight (much like the ones astronauts Shepard and Grissom would later take). 

The experiment worked well, even if the mice had a penchant for biting the folks who strapped them in to their nosecone seats.  The hearts of Van der Wal’s mice acted like little accelerometers, hastening with the blast of the Thor engine.  Sadly, none of the mice could be recovered after splashdown, but at least they proved that animals could survive the rigors of blast-off and reentry.

I understand Frankie has left STL and is recently married.  Nevertheless, she set a high bar with her strong will and ability, inspiring admiring respect (and not a little fear!) in her coworkers.

These, then, are some of the more prominent of the women pioneers of space science.  Their example will inspire a whole generation of woman engineers and researchers into the aeronautical sciences, and someday even into the astronautical corps.  Of course, I haven’t even touched upon the myriad female astronomers who are not involved with NASA or a space program, but whose contributions to science have greatly expanded our understanding of the cosmos.  They’ll be the subject of the next article in this series…so keep tuned to the Journey!




[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…