Tag Archives: science fact

What’s in a name? (12-4-1958)

I’m still waiting for my January F&SF to show up, so here’s another topical scientific post.  Just call me Willy Ley’s poor cousin.

The space stories in today’s newspapers are filled with a mixture of alphabet soup and Roman mythology.  Keeping track of what’s what can be a headache.  For instance, there has been a lot of confusion regarding the naming of the rocket that launched Explorer I (and III and IV, and tried to launch II and V).  Some accounts called it a Jupiter-C.  Others have since called it a Juno I.  Which is correct?  Is there a Jupiter missile somewhere in there?  Does it even matter? 

Let me clear things up.  The answer shines an interesting spotlight into the politics of naming and the jockeying for position being done by this country’s armed services.

Back in 1953, Von Braun and his Alabama team of German expatriates finished the first significant rocketry development since the V2 (which they had also built).  It was the Redstone Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) with a range of more than a hundred miles.  Von Braun knew he had a vehicle that was powerful enough to send something into orbit, and he lobbied heavily for his “Project Orbiter” so that he, and the Army, could launch the first artificial satellite.  He lost that fight to the Navy, who started work on the Vanguard, based in turn on the Viking sounding rockets, which were based on the V2.

Nevertheless, Von Braun did win the contract to build the longer-ranged successor to the Redstone, the Jupiter Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missile (IRBM).  This let Von Braun keep Project Orbiter alive, at least under wraps.  The first step toward turning the Redstone into a satellite booster was a series of test launches with Jupiter IRBM components on board.  He called the resulting machine “Jupiter-A,” even though at its heart, it was really a Redstone.  This helped ensure launch pad availability, since the Jupiter was a higher-priority program.

Then he added 11 miniaturized solid-rocket boosters called Sergeants (descendants of the WAC Corporal rocket, of course) as a second stage and one more as a third stage.  This new booster was used as a sounding rocket, probing the outer reaches of the atmosphere in short suborbital flights, and was called the “Jupiter-C.”  I don’t know if there were ever plans for a “Jupiter-B.”

Once Sputnik was launched, America was hard-pressed to make a quick response.  Von Braun trotted out the Jupiter-C, all ready to launch a payload.  It wasn’t quite enough to get Explorer I into orbit, however, so another mini-Sergeant was attached to the satellite and placed on top of the Jupiter-C third stage.  This technically made the Jupiter-C a four-stage rocket, even though one could argue that the fourth stage was really part of the payload. 

It was important that there be little connection between the military space programs and the civilian space programs, at least in the press.  That’s why Vanguard was given the nod for the first satellite launch.  While it was developed by the Navy, it was run under the auspices of the civilian National Research Laboratory.  Jupiter-C was renamed “Juno I” to distance the rocket from its military origins.

It was not a very successful move.  Contemporary newspapers universally referred to the rocket as the Jupiter-C (which, of course, it was).  The name “Juno I” is only now common in retrospective use, as its last flight was on October 23.  It is a useful distinction, however, as Von Braun has taken the 2nd, 3rd and “4th” stages from the Juno I and affixed them to a true Jupiter IRBM, thus creating the “Juno II.”  This new vehicle should have about the same lifting capacity as the Air Force’s Thor-Able, maybe a little less.  It will launch Pioneer III next week.  Note: Pioneer III has nothing to do with Pioneers 0-II save that they have the same destination, the moon.

All clear?

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Less is More; Rocket Clusters in Science Fiction (12-02-1958)

Science advances rapidly, and with it, our visions of the future.  People have been dreaming about traveling to outer space for thousands of years, and their dreams have necessarily been based on extrapolations of the time.  For instance, when Daedalus and Icarus made their flights, they used bird-like wings.  What else was there?  When Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon, a giant cannon was the propulsion. 

Then the rocket came along, and that became the vehicle of choice for space jaunts.  Yet the portrayal of rockets in science fiction even just a few years ago differs dramatically from how they ended up actually being used for space travel.  One crucial development changed the whole game in the span of just five years.

Two books in my library illustrate what I’m talking about.  In 1953, Jeffery Lloyd Castle wrote Satellite E One, and Murray Leinster wrote Space Tug, both near-future tales of space stations.  In the beginnings of both books, our heroes are blasted into orbit with the use of rockets—lots of rockets.  Castle’s booster is 150 feet tall and has 50 rocket engines.  Leinster’s is even more creative.  Dozens of independent jet engines propel the rocket assembly to about 12 miles up and then detach, whereupon solid rockets fire and subsequently detach.  Finally, the rocket’s own engines (presumably liquid fuel) ignite to finish the journey.

Both of these stories are products of their era.  Until 1953, rockets were pretty small affairs.  In the 30s, they were strictly hobbyists’ stuff.  Even in the 40s, the vaunted German V-2 was what would now be classified a Short Ranged Ballistic Missile (SRBM).  Missile development languished in the early post-war compared to the prodigious effort expended on the development of jet engines.  To science fiction writers, it seemed any space rocket would have to be purpose-built, and it would take a tremendous number of these small engines to get a craft to orbit.  That’s why most predictions saw humanity reaching the moon around the end of the century.  Clarke was particularly visionary in Childhood’s End when he wrote about a manned lunar mission as early as 1975 using atomic rockets.

What few authors predicted was the InterContinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) race.  In 1954, the Air Force and Army began working in earnest to develop titanic missiles to send nuclear warheads across the world.  Since all must crawl before walking, their first product was the Intermediate Ranged Ballistic Missle (IRBM), which will be based in Europe.  The Army finished their first proto-IRBM, the Redstone, in 1956.  All of a sudden, the United States had an off-the-shelf method to send payloads into orbit.  With the completion of the Thor and Jupiter IRBMs in 1957, as well as the Navy’s Vanguard (not a military vehicle but based on the earlier Viking, in turn based on the V-2), America suddenly had a stable of boosters.

That year, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.  They didn’t use a purpose-built space booster; they borrowed an ICBM from their arsenal and stuck a satellite on top.  We know it was an ICBM for two reasons: the Soviets had, just a few months before, announced that they’d built and tested an ICBM.  And Sputnik III, which used the same launcher as Sputniks I and II (presumably) weighed a ton-and-a-half, so an ICBM class booster was needed to loft it.

We don’t know how many individual rockets make up the Soviet booster, but the Redstone, Thor and Jupiter use just one.  Of course, it is more efficient to send multi-staged rockets into orbit, so the Juno-I that launched the first Explorer actually has 14 engines (the one on the Redstone and 13 solid-fueled Sergeants on top).  The Juno-II also has 14 (Jupiter plus 13 Sergeants).  The Junos are stopgaps, however.  The Thor-Able that launched Pioneers 0-2 only has three engines.  The first crop of American ICBMs, the Atlas and the Titan, have just 2-3 engines.  Even Von Braun’s proposed lunar mission monsters will only have around 12, tops.  So much for cluster rockets with dozens of engines.

It is no coincidence that the Space Race started when it did.  It is a direct side-effect of the ICBM race.  Science fiction authors are going to have to revise their timetables as well as their portrayals of rockets.  It just goes to show that science progresses awfully fast when we want it to, sometimes faster than our ability to predict its progress.

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To the Moon (Alice?); Wrap-up of January 1959 Astounding and more (11-30-1958)

I promised a wrap-up of this month’s Astounding, so here it is.  “Study in Still Life,” by Astounding’s resident satirist, Eric Frank Russell.  It is a 20-page depiction of governmental bureaucracy whose only connection (I should say connexion; Russell is British) with science fiction is its having been printed in a science fiction magazine.  I’m sure some find tedious depictions of tedium humorous (humourous?).  I just find them tedious.  Oh well.

This makes the January 1959 issue of Astounding the worst in quite some time.  With the exception of the lead story, which is undoubtedly good, but not exceptional, and the brief “Seedling,” the book was a bore.  2 stars at most.

Still, it did inspire a think.  I like my science fiction with a touch of verisimilitude.  One of the tropes I find tiresome is the “spaceship as automobile” trope.  Particularly, the one man builds a rocketship in his backyard and flies it to the moon story.  Now, I have no doubts that the Space Age will have spaceship pilots, and they may well be a rare breed.  I also don’t have too much trouble swallowing the idea that, in the far future, spaceships may be as reliable as the present-day automobile. 

But for the foreseeable future, spaceships, and their atmospheric cousins, airplanes, are incredibly finicky beasts that require dozens of hours of prep time for every hour of flight.  The recent Pioneer launches had crews topping one hundred.  Manned jaunts are sure to require more crew, and a lunar shot will have, I’ll bet, thousands of people involved.  A few authors have gotten it right.  I recently read Satellite E One by Jeffery Lloyd Castle, which is half textbook, half British wish-fulfillment, and it does a good job of depicting the long logistical tail any expensive, high-tech aeronautic project has/will have.

I blame World War II, specifically post-war depictions of the war.  We’ve gotten used to tales of doughty pilots soaring into the skies on a moment’s notice, and we’ve forgotten just how much sweat goes into building and maintaining the crates.  Movies don’t get made about mechanics, anymore than they get made about quartermasters and cooks.  And so science fiction stories not only fail to depict their space age counterparts, they omit them entirely.  I think that’s too bad.  While the general public may like reading stories of plucky rocket-jocks making it to the moon on ingenuity and baling wire, I think a far more meaningful story is made when the spaceships sent to the moon (hopefully with more than just one person inside!) have thousands, if not millions of people behind them as part of the effort.  It’s like a mountain, with the spaceship comprising just the very top, and the rest being not just the people who were directly involved in building and supporting the ship, but a collective effort representing all of humanity.

(Note: Danny Dunn and the Antigravity Paint, published in 1956, is actually a delightful story; I almost feel bad using it as my demonstrative picture, but it’s what I have on hand)

By the by, the Air Force may have failed in America’s first efforts toward the moon (Pioneers 0-2), but it looks like the Army plans to launch a probe on a modified Jupiter IRBM next week.  I think their odds are pretty good.  Their “Juno II” rocket is identical to the Jupiter-C that launched Explorer, at least from the second-stage up, and I understand the Jupiter to have a decent record.  Moreover, the probe is smaller and less sophisticated than its Air Force predecessors, and Von Braun said there is no intention of hitting the moon or sending it into orbit; a near miss will be good enough.  I suppose if one sets the bar low enough, it’s hard not to clear it!  I shall cross my fingers, toes and eyes.

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The short flight of Pioneer II (11-13-1958)

Sometimes the third time isn’t the charm.

On November 8, NASA (read: The Air Force), sent the third of its “Pioneers” toward the moon.  For those following the topic, the first one, launched in August, exploded.  The second one, launched last month, strayed from its intended course and made it just halfway to its destination.

There were high hopes for this mission: the new little Pioneer had a couple of new instruments including a proportional counter developed by the University of Chicago for the detection of cosmic rays, and a TV camera designed to take the first picture of the Moon from space. 

Sadly, Pioneer II (the first one was “0”, hence the misnomer), didn’t make it either.  Though the first and second stages worked perfectly, the third one simply refused to fire.  The little Pioneer limped up to an altitude of 1550 kilometers before burning up over Africa.  It was an inauspicious ending for the world’s ninth space shot, but it was not entirely in vain.  I understand Pioneer II returned some interesting data on micrometeors and orbital radiation.  It will be interesting to compare this information to that collected by Explorer IV and see how they line up.

So where do we go from here?  It seems STL, builder of Pioneers 0-2, has shot its bolt for now.  Von Braun’s group has announced that it will be launching its own lunar Pioneers starting next month, and that Venus is in the cards as a destination in the near future.  The Soviets surely have their secret plans, too.  In fact, I have to wonder why the Russians haven’t already launched a lunar rocket.  On October 12, a Soviet ambassador congratulated us for launching Pioneer I and explained that the Communists weren’t interested in a moon probe.  But four days later, the Soviets hinted that a moon probe was in the works.  Perhaps they are having their own failures, but they are unwilling to share this news with the world. 

In any event, it is clear that the moon marks the end of the next lap in the ongoing Space Race.  Watch this space for further updates as they occur. I may not be as punctual as David Brinkley, but I am better-looking.

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Things to Come (10-31-1958)

These are exciting times we live in.  The drop in published science fiction is (almost) made up for by the increase in space-related articles in my newspaper.  I read an Associated Press piece yesterday that I thought was particularly interesting:

“NEW YORK (AP) Colonies of Earthmen will occupy the Moon, Mars and Venus.  Rockets will be burning their way toward the outer planets, more than three billion miles from Earth.  Engineers will fashion huge space transports, capable of carrying hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people on space expeditions that may last most of a lifetime.

These are among the predictions for the next 25 years — the coming generation — made yesterday at a panel of nine space experts in astronautics, the journal of the American Rocket Society.

These experts were agreed that the Earth would soon be ringed with satellites and space stations… Huge rockets would roar between continents carrying cargo and passengers in minutes.”

The panelists included Dr. York, chief scientist for the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Dr. Hugh Dryden, deputy administrator at the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, formerly NACA), Dr, Si Ramo, President of Space Technology Laboratories, and Dr. Wehrner von Braun, who had a minor rocketry position during the War and has since gone on to greater things with the U.S. Army.

Now is this a mainstream recognition that science fiction is becoming science fact?  Or is this merely the wishful thinking of a bunch of folks whose business, frankly, is making a living off space travel? 

Are they the same thing?

Either way, there is no question that bigger and better things are just around the corner.  Dr. Dryden opines that there will be people in orbit in just a few years.  Von Braun outlined a 2nd and 3rd generation of rockets in development that will ultimately throw up to 50,000 pounds into orbit at once! 

I know that the Redstone-based Juno I, the famous booster that launched America’s first satellite (Explorer I), was retired last week after failing to launch Explorer VI.  Its replacement will have the same upper stages but will be based on the much-larger Jupiter missile.  I don’t know if that rocket will be big enough to put a person in orbit, but I’ll bet something based on the new Atlas ICBM could do it.

And it’s pretty clear that the Soviet rocket that put the ton-and-a-half Sputnik III into space could do it.  Of course, I’m not sure where they’ll get the volunteers to fly in the thing if its anywhere near as balky as our rockets have been.  If the first Russian satellite was Sputnik, and the second was Muttnik (because it carried a dog cosmonaut), I’m guessing the first manned ship will be called “Nutnik.” 

It may well be that the first person in space won’t ride a cannonball but a spaceplane.  I clipped from the paper on October 16th a picture of the Air Force’s new aircraft, the X-15.  It’s a beautiful ship made by the same people who built the P-51 and the F-86.  It’s supposed to fly at Mach 6 or 7 and go up as high as 50 miles above the ground.  Vice President Nixon (remember him?) said of the craft, “We have moved into first place in the race to enter outer space.” 

We’ll see how long we stay there.

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One year after Sputnik (10-21-1958)

On October 4, 1957, the world was stunned by the beep-beep of the first artificial satellite.  Well, maybe stunned is the wrong word, because anyone following the papers throughout the summer saw that the Soviets had announced quite candidly that they had planned to do so. 

It didn’t take long for good ol’ American know-how, like that provided by good ol’ Americans like Wehrner Von Braun, to match the Russians at their game.  Thus, Explorer 1 went up less than three months later. 

Given the promptness of the American reply, one has to wonder if Ike wanted the first satellite to be Soviet…

Last week, if you followed the presses, American took the lead in the Space Race, at least for the time being.  Pioneer-1 blasted off on October 11.  Destination: Moon.

Sadly, the intrepid probe didn’t quite make it.  Still, it traveled a good half of the way there, and it returned some pretty interesting science on the way, piercing Van Allen’s dangerous clouds of radiation that may pose a permanent barrier to humankind ever establishing an orbital presence. 

I understand that a second Pioneer is scheduled for launch next month.  I’m crossing my fingers and toes!

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October 21, 1958

I became an avid science fiction fan in February 1954 (about four and a half years ago).  At the time, science fiction digests were multiplying, and business seemed to be booming.

Even then, however, there was doom-saying about how the genre had already begun to die.  Apparently, from an explosion that started in 1949 with the start of Fantasy & Science Fiction, quickly followed by the publication of Galaxy Science Fiction (which I have been reading since 1950), the number of books published began to drop off after a peak in 1953.

It is true that Beyond is long gone, and Venture recently disappeared.  I lament the loss of the former–not so much the latter, after the publication of a particularly misogynistic story. 

But that still leaves Astounding, F&SF, Galaxy, Amazing and IF to read, and their quality has remained decent-to-good.

In these past years, I have seen the genre evolve.  I have read good stories and bad stories.  I’ve seen the focus go from our solar system to the stars.  I have occasionally seen the work of female writers, and I have occasionally seen the appearance of female/non-white characters. 

Rarely.  But occasionally.

So I decided it was high time I shared my observations with the public.  From now on, I will be writing short pieces on recent science fiction/fantasy I have read, and perhaps others can use this information somehow. 

Join me on my journey through (the) Galaxy (and F&SF and Astounding, etc.) I can always use the company!

What is this madness?