Tag Archives: sputnik

[April 28, 1961] Newies but goodies (April space round-up!)

They say “You’re only as old as you feel,” which explains why Asimov pinches co-eds at conventions.

I’ve been asked why someone of my advanced age is into the bop and rock and billy that the kids are into these days, when I should be preferring the likes of Glenn Miller or Caruso.  Truth be told, I do like the music of my youth, the swing of the 30s and the war years (no, I didn’t serve.  I was 4F.  My brother, Lou, was in five Pacific invasions, though.) But there’s something to today’s music, something new.  Lou’s kid, David, really turned me onto this stuff – the Cubano and the Rock n’ Roll.  Music beyond whitebread and Lawrence Welk. 

It makes me feel…young.

I’ve got a full month of space news to catch up, in large part because I was remiss around the end of last month thanks to Wondercon.  And then Gagarin’s flight eclipsed all else in significance for a while, but there is more to off-planet exploration than men in capsules.

Like dogs in capsules.  Gagarin’s flight was preceded by Sputnik 10, launched March 25.  In retrospect, it is clear that it was a test flight of the Vostok spacecraft, and it carried a mannequin cosmonaut and a dog, Zvezdocha (“Little star” – a charming name).  Both passengers returned safely to Earth. 

The fact that Sputnik 9, Sputnik 10, and Vostok 1 all launched in such close succession is a testament to the robustness of the Soviet space program.  It is clear that they have plenty of boosters and capsules to fling into space.  One has to wonder if their second manned space shot will precede our first (currently scheduled for May 4.)

Also launched March 25 was the diminutive and short-lived Explorer 10.  Its brief lifespan was intentional.  The little probe was sent on a eccentric orbit that took it nearly half-way to the Moon.  For just 52 hours, the craft returned data on the magnetic fields in cislunar space, well above the energetic Van Allen Belts.  It may seem a waste to send a satellite up for such a short time, but solar panels are heavy, and the Thor Delta that boosted it can only throw so much into space. 

Some of the results are straightforward — it confirmed the speed and density of solar flare protons.  As for the magnetospheric results, well, their interpretation depends on the answer to one question: did Explorer 10 probe into a realm beyond Earth’s magnetic field (thus measuring the sun’s field) or just its outer reaches? 

Columbus’ first trip returned inconclusive results about the New World; so it will take several more satellites to properly map the high electromagnetic frontier.

Speaking of seeing the unknown, many humans (yours truly included) have some degree of color-blindness.  That is, there are wavelengths of the visual electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot distinguish from others.  For all intents and purposes, those colors don’t exist to us. 

All humans are subject to another kind of color-blindness, one caused by the atmosphere.  You see, while the sky seems perfectly clear to us, at least at night, in fact the air blocks a good many wavelengths of light that we’d be able to detect if it weren’t there.  Not with our eyes, to be sure, but with equipment. 

X-Rays, for instance.  High-flying sounding rockets have found tantalizing evidence that the Sun emits those high energy waves.  Explorer 7’s and Vanguard 3’s X-Ray detectors were swamped by the radiation of the Van Allen Belts.  Solrad, equipped with a magnetic sweeper, was humanity’s first eye in the sky that could see light in that spectrum, though only in a crude fashion, counting the photons as they struck its photocell.  Perhaps the upcoming Orbital Solar Observatory will see more.

Even more elusive are the extremely energetic gamma rays, normally only detected as radiation from natural and artificial nuclear reactions.  Logic would suggest that these rays are emitted by stars, but there is no way to be sure from the ground.

Enter Explorer 11, launched on one of the last Juno II rockets (thankfully, it worked; these neglected boosters have a mere 50/50 chance of success.) It looks to my eye like the early Explorers, which makes sense: the body of the probe is the little Sergeant rocket that makes up the fourth stage of both the Juno I and II.  This little guy is the first satellite that can detect light in the gamma ray end of the spectrum.  Again, it isn’t a camera, but it will detect the number and direction of the rays that hit its sensors.  Who knows just what it will find!

[Mar. 10, 1961] Dog and Puppy Show (Sputnik 9)

We are definitely not far away from a person in space.  The Soviets launched another of their five-ton spaceships into orbit.  We’re calling it Sputnik 9; who knows what they call it?  On board was just one dog this time, name of Chernushka, who was recovered successfully after an unknown number of orbits.  It is pretty clear that the vessel that carried Chernushka is the equivalent of our Mercury capsule, and once the Russians have gotten the bugs out of the ship, you can bet there will be a human at the controls.

This is not to say that the American program is standing still—one of our astronauts may go up on a suborbital jaunt as early as next month.  But the Atlas booster, the big one that can put a man in orbit, won’t be ready until the end of the year, at the earliest. 

By the way, if you’re wondering how the two dogs who went up in Sputnik 5, Strelka and Belka, are doing, you’ll be happy to know that they are alive and well.  Strelka’s given birth to a litter of six!  Anyone want to adopt a space puppy?

Meanwhile, closer to home (but not that much closer), NASA sent its X-15 spaceplane on its fastest flight yet.  I explained not too long ago that the X-15 has got a new engine, one designed to propel it to unprecedented heights and speeds. 

Sure enough, the powerful XLR99 engine pushed the spaceplane and pilot Major Bob White to a height of 77,000 feet and a record speed of 2,650 mph (Mach 4.43).  That was nearly 400 mph faster than White had managed using the weaker XLR11 engines—and he didn’t even open the throttle wide open!

“I felt no sensation of speed except for the explosive thrust when I first lighted the engine.  That was about double the acceleration of the smaller engine used in earlier flights,” White said after the flight had made the Major the fastest man alive. 

While the X-15 will never propel itself to orbit (at least, not without some kind of booster-assisted help, plans for which have been drafted), it will fly as fast as Mach 6 and up to 300,000 feet.  At that height, the sky is black and the limb of the Earth is round; one could argue that it’s close enough to Space to count as Space by any measure that matters.

Stay tuned for the rest of this month’s Galaxy!

[February 4, 1961] Sputniks and Supercars!

A bit of a grab bag while I finish up the March 1961 Analog:

There was a rather unusual Soviet launch yesterday.  We’re calling it Sputnik 7 for lack of a better term, but it is still unclear just what the seven-ton satellite is supposed to be doing.  It is bigger than the capsules it has orbited before, the ones that carried dogs and mannequins.  It is also, apparently, not designed to reenter.  At least, it hasn’t, and the Russians have not indicated that they plan to retrieve it.

Per Professor Yevgeny Klinov of the International Committee for Meteoric Studies of the World Geophysical Association, the probe was designed “to study the earth as a planet and to make a study of its nearest environment, including that of meteoric dangers. 

That would suggest it is an orbital laboratory in the vein of Sputnik 3, but who needs seven tons to do that?  In any event, aside from Klinov’s reported comments and a bit of muted praise from TASS (the Soviet news agency), there’s been hardly a peep about the flight, which some observers are interpreting as a sign that the mission hasn’t gone as planned.  Usually, Moscow Radio gives lurid details of the cities Soviet probes will fly over and the radio frequencies on which one can pick up their beep-beeps.  This time, it’s zilch-ville.

Maybe we’ll know more in a week or so.

In other news, an exciting scifi kids show had debuted across the pond in Jolly Old England.  Supercar came out on January 28 (if ITC stuck to the schedule I read in the trade magazine I got from overseas), and it looks like a hoot.  The eponymous vehicle, piloted by American “Mike Mercury” can drive, fly, and even submerge.  Mike and his Supercar will be involved in a number of adventures, rescuing folks in distress, fighting bad guys, and helping the progress of science.  Interestingly, the world of Supercar is populated entirely by marionettes, using a newly developed technique called “Supermarionation.” It looks a little creepy, if you ask me, but perhaps one gets used to it.


Here’s hoping the show gets syndicated in the U.S.  I’m still waiting for Danger Man to come over…

[December 31, 1960] Dog Days of Winter (Sputnik 6 and Discoverer 19)

I miss one lousy newspaper…

December is a busy month.  There are holidays to shop for, the tax year is wrapping up, family to visit, etc.  This December has been so crammed with work and domestic concerns such that I missed a very important pair of newspaper articles from the beginning of the month.

I caught up on my ‘paper reading over Christmas and was astonished to find that, in my haste to read this month’s magazines, resolve a few corporate calamities, and clean the house for company, I had missed the latest Soviet space launch.

And it’s a big one.  On December 1, the Soviets launched Sputnik 6, apparently a duplicate of their Sputnik 5 mission.  It was a 5-ton spacecraft, almost assuredly a version of the capsule that will soon carry a man.  Like before, the ship carried two dogs and other biological cargo.  Significantly, our radars lost sight of the vehicle the next day suggesting it re-entered.

However, the Russians have not announced that they recovered the capsule.  Since our rivals in the Space Race never miss an opportunity to trumpet their accomplishments, I think there’s a good chance that the landing was not entirely successful.  It’s likely the capsule’s passengers did not survive the return trip. 

Let’s have a moment of silence for our fallen Muttniks. 

I find it interesting that the Soviets felt they needed to duplicate the (to all accounts) successful Sputnik 5 mission.  It had seemed logical that a manned mission would be the next step Perhaps, and the failure of Sputnik 6 certainly points in this direction, the Soviet manned space program has some serious issues to iron out before a human pilot can attempt the journey. 

Which means we might just beat the Communists to the punch.

Speaking of American flights, yet another Discoverer launched recently.  On December 20, #19 soared into a polar orbit.  As you know, the Discoverer is a capsule-return satellite designed to carry biological samples into orbit and then send them back to Earth..along with a few rolls of film with undeveloped photos of Soviet military bases.  I haven’t heard anything about a failure, but nor have I heard about a successful re-entry.  I don’t know if this mission was a dud or if it is testing the endurance of some longer-lived technologies.  Since it’s a military mission (USAF), we may never know.

Happy New Year!  Coming up shortly, I’ll have a review of 1961 F&SF as well as a wrap-up for December and a preview for January of the coming annum.

[August 20, 1960] Up and Down (Americans and Soviets recover space capsules)

Talk about a good week for Space news!

There I was, all ready to discuss the latest IF Science Fiction (which is quite good, by the way), and then both the United States and the Soviet Union came out with a couple of bombshells that I couldn’t ignore.  And neither should you.

Firstly, right on the heels of last week’s Discoverer 13 launch, the Air Force has successfully flown another Discoverer.  For those who don’t remember, Discoverer is a “biological-sample-return” capsule designed to send living payloads into orbit and then retrieve them.  Supposedly.

Now, I had reported last week that lucky 13 was the first fully successful mission.  That turned out to be a mistake.  Discoverer capsules are meant to be caught before they land, and #13 had to be fished out of the drink.  By the way, 13’s payload, an American flag, was presented to the President amid great fanfare on August 15. 

But #14 was a textbook case from beginning to end, complete with a mid-air snatch that must have been a rather hair-raising endeavor.  According to my newspaper, the Air Force plans to send up apes with the next mission.  We’ll see. 

As usual, the Soviets had to trump our success.  Yesterday morning, Sputnik 5 soared to the heavens at the tip of a booster similar to the one that launched the heavy Sputnik 3 and 4 satellites the past two years.  A veritable menagerie was sent into space: two dogs (Belka and Strelka), 40 mice, two rats, and a variety of plants.  Even better, they successfully de-orbited and landed, safe and sound.

Unlike Discoverer, which is at best a proof-of-concept program (and, at least, a spy satellite with a creative cover), Sputnik 5 appears to be a production model of the Soviet manned spacecraft–their version of Mercury.  We haven’t even managed a fully successful flight of a boilerplate Mercury (Big Joe).  I’m betting that we see some kind of primate launched in the next few months. 

Whether it will be a human, in time for this year’s October Revolution celebration, depends on how fond the Soviets are of taking risks…

[May 23, 1960] Month’s End (June 1960 Fantasy and Science Fiction)

With Astounding so good this month, I suppose it was too much to ask that Fantasy and Science Fiction would also be of high caliber.  While it’s not a bad issue, it’s not one of the better ones, either.

Charles Henneberg (who I understand is actually a Parisian named Nathalie) has the best story of the bunch, The Non-Humans, translated by Damon Knight.  This is the second story the team has published in F&SF, and it is far better than the previous one.  It’s a lovely historical tale of an Italian renaissance painter and the androgynous alien with whom he falls in love.  An historical personage has a supporting part; his identity is kept secret until the end, though the half-clever can deduce it before finishing.

Britisher H.F. Ellis offers up Fireside Chat, a reprint from Punch.  It involves a haunted house and leaves the reader wondering just who are the ghosts, and who are the current residents?

I know many of my readers are Howard Fast fans, but his latest, Cato the Martian is not among his best.  For the past fifty years, the Martians have listened to our radio broadcasts and watched our television programming with avid interest and increasing concern.  A certain Martian lawmaker, nicknamed after the famous anti-Carthaginian Roman, concludes each speech with “Earth must be destroyed!” until, finally, he gets his comrades in litigation to agree.  The ensuing war does not turn out well for the dwellers of the Red Planet. 

It’s not really science fiction.  If anything, it’s perhaps the other side of the coin to Earthmen Bearing Gifts, in which the Martians eagerly await the arrival of their Terran neighbors, but with a similar ending.

The Swamp Road, by Will Worthington, is an interesting After-the-Bomb piece about a community held together by a bitterly strict Christian doctrine a la Salem, Massachusetts.  Every so often, one of the citizens changes, developing a second eyelid and otherwise adapting to a dessicated, alien world.  When the change happens to the storyteller and his love, they are forced out of the village and must learn the true nature of their metamorphosis.  It’s a good, atmospheric yarn, though I feel it could have been longer.  Some subjects deserve more than just a taste.

Some, on the other hand, don’t deserve the space.  Slammy and the Bonneygott is the story of an alien child who crosses dimensions in a tinker toy spaceship and plays with a few children for an afternoon.  It was apparently written by a neophyte named “Mrs. Agate,” and the plot was provided by her six-year old son.  One can tell.

Avram Davidson has two settings: amazing and passable.  The Sixth Season is a passable story about a small crew of humans stuck on an anthropological expedition to a backwoods alien-inhabited world for 200 days.  They endure five miserable seasons–can they survive the sixth?

It reminds me of my days growing up in the desert community of El Centro.  I used to lament that we had four seasons like everyone else, but they were Hot, Stink, Bug, and Wind.  That’s not being entirely charitable, of course.  We had a balmy Winter, too.  For about two weeks.

Asimov’s column this month is Bug-eyed Vonster.  No, it has nothing to do with aliens; it’s how the good Doctor remembers the term BeV.  It is an abbreviation for “Billion electron Volts,” a unit of electric energy commonly encountered when discussing cosmic rays and atom smashers.  I learned what Cerenkov radiation is (the radiation given by particles going faster than the speed of light in a given material).

Cliff Simak’s The Golden Bugs takes up most of the rest of the book.  This time, he trades the poetic farmlands for the prosaic suburbs for the story’s setting.  A swarm of extraterrestrial crystal turtle-beetles ride into town on an agate meteorite and begin to wreak havoc on an average American family.  It’s fun while it lasts, but it ends too abruptly, and there isn’t much to it.  It’s the sort of thing one cranks out between masterpieces.

Finally, there is the nigh impenetrable Beyond Ganga Mata by John Berry, a space-filler originally published in The Southwestern.  A fellow travels to India, meets a holy man, journeys for a year, and meets him again.  Perhaps it was simply the lateness of the hour, but had the story not been blessedly short, I’d have had trouble finishing the magazine.

For those who like to keep score, this issue of F&SF was, depending on how you average things, earned between 2.78 and 2.88 stars.  Compare that to Galaxy, which got between 3 and 3.13 stars, and Astounding, which earned exactly three stars even.

Though it could be argued on the numbers that Galaxy was thus the better magazine, and it was certainly the biggest, I’m going to give the June 1960 crown to Astounding.  All of the fiction was decent to very good, and it’s not Janifer, Anvil, and Berryman’s fault that Campbell wrote a stinker of a “science” article.  Plus, Charley de Milo was the choice story for the month.

Continuing my analysis, this means that the Big Three magazines (counting Galaxy and IF as one) each took the monthly crown twice–all of them tied.  And that’s why I keep my subscriptions to all of them.

A more depressing statistic: there was only one woman author this month, and she wrote under a male pseudonym!

By the way, remember Sputnik 4?  The precursor to Soviet manned space travel?  Well, it looks like the Communists won’t be orbiting a real person any time soon.  In an uncharacteristically candid news announcement, the Soviets disclosed that the ship’s retrorocket, designed to brake the capsule for landing, actually catapulted the craft into a higher orbit.  It’ll be up there for a while.  Oh well.

See you soon with a book review!

[May 15, 1960] Soviets take the Lead! (Sputnik 4)

At long last, the Soviets have launched another Sputnik.

While Americans try to pierce the sky with almost fortnightly frequency (more on that shortly), the Russians seem content to proceed at a more leisurely pace, but to get more bang for their buck.  Their latest shot, which the press has dubbed Sputnik 4, but should really be called “Pre-Manned #1,” is something of a revolution.

We don’t know too much about the craft yet: only that it weighs an unprecedented 4 and a half tons, and that, like the Air Force’s Discoverer series, it has a reentry capsule.  But whereas Discoverer’s putative biological sample return mission is likely a cover for a film capsule recovery surveillance system, Sputnik 4 is actually carrying a mannequin astronaut.  Moreover, the craft is far too big for plain surveillance (I imagine, but perhaps the Soviets are not as good at miniaturization as we are; they don’t really have to be given how much more powerful their rockets are).

It’s definitely another milestone for the East in the Space Race.  Now let’s see if they get their dummy spaceman back…

Sadly, the American space program had a setback day-before-yesterday when a Delta rocket, the evolution of the workhorse Thor Able, failed to make it to orbit when its second-stage attitude thrusters didn’t fire.  At its tip was America’s next foray into satellite communications, Echo 1.  It’s just a big metal balloon, but it would have allowed all sorts of message bouncing experiments.  Now it’s a rusting hunk at the bottom of the Atlantic.  That’ll teach NASA not to launch on Friday the 13th!  Next launch is scheduled for the Summer.


Happier times for the Superpower chiefs

Meanwhile, the four-party (U.S., U.K., France, U.S.S.R.) Peace Summit begins tomorrow in Paris, despite the turbulence caused by the shooting down of an American spy plane over Russia on May 1.  Nikita’s threatened to torpedo the whole thing many times, but perhaps the gorgeous Spring weather of the French capital will calm him down.  Planned topics include the settling of the Berlin question and weapons disarmament–the same topics that have been on the table since 1948.

In Democratic Primary news, it looks like Humphrey is out, which essentially seals the nomination for Jack Kennedy, unless Johnson can arrange some sort of upset at the convention.  The clincher came with a disappointing defeat for the Minnesota senator in West Virginia, after which, Humphrey announced the withdrawal of his candidacy for President.  Despite Humphrey’s populist charm, Jack Kennedy simply had the better ground game and a more presidential demeanor.  I also understand Kennedy is pushing for a minimum wage hike to $1.25 per hour (it’s at $1.00 right now).  Good timing.

Finally, on a more personal note, I’m extending an invitation to jump on the bandwagon.  As you know, I review only the most current literary and film science fiction and fantasy material.  I started this column not just to make me rich and famous, but to discuss the material with fellow fans.  I distribute copies where I can, but that’s not always possible.  To that end, I’ll be letting you all know ahead of time what I plan to be reading the next month so you can read along with me.  You can also keep up on current publications by perusing the announcement tables

This month, the only new novel coming out is Judy Merril’s The Tomorrow People.  There are some anthologies also coming out, but, I don’t tend to review anthologies since I generally catch the stories in their first run.  I do occasionally cover reprints, as I did with Anderson’s Brain Wave.  Of course, I will be covering the June 1960 magazines for this month (I’ve already reviewed Galaxy and some of Amazing).

See you in two!