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[June 30, 1961] Reaping the Harvest (June 1961 space science results)

June was a busy month for space travel buffs, especially those who live in the Free World.  Here’s an omnibus edition covering all of the missions I caught wind of in the papers or the magazines:

Little lost probe

The Goddess of Love gets to keep her secrets…for now.  The first probe aimed at another planet, the Soviet “Venera,” flew past Venus on May 19.  Unfortunately, the spacecraft developed laryngitis soon after launch and even the Big Ear at Jodrell Bank, England, was unable to clearly hear its signal.

The next favorable launch opportunity (which depends on the relative positions of Earth and Venus) will occur next summer.  Expect both American and Soviet probes to launch then.

X Marks the Spot

Just as planes use fixed radio beacons to determine their position, soon submarines (and people!) will be able to calculate where they are by listening to the doppler whines of whizzing satellites.  Transit 4A, launched by the Navy, joined the still-functioning Transit 2 on June 29 (#3 conked out March 30, and #1’s been off the air since last July). 

This Transit has an all-new power source.  Instead of batteries or solar panels, it gets its juice from little nuclear reactors.  These aren’t aren’t like the big fission plants you see being established all over the country.  Rather, they are powered by the heat of radioactive decay.  These energy packs are small and much simpler than solar panels.  Expect to see them used quite a bit on military satellites.

The Navy gets extra points for making their rocket do triple-duty: Also boosted into orbit were Injun 1 and Solrad 3.  The first is another University of Iowa particle experiment from the folks who discovered the Van Allen Belt; the latter a solar x-ray observatory.

Along a dusty trail

Contrary to popular belief, outer space is not empty.  There are energetic particles, clouds of dust, and little chunks of high-speed matter called micrometeorites.  All of them pose hazards to orbital travel.  Moreover, they offer clues as to the make-up and workings of the solar system. 

Prior satellites have tried to measure just how much dirt swirls around in orbit, but the results have been vague.  For instance, Explorer 8 ran into high-speed clouds of micrometeorites zooming near the Earth late last year corresponding with the annual Leonids meteor shower.  Vanguard 3 encountered the same cloud in ’59, around the same time.  But neither could tell you precisely how many rocks they ran into; nor could previous probes.

NASA’s new “S(atellite)-55” is the first probe dedicated to the investigation of micrometeorites.  It carries five different experiments — a grid of wires to detect when rocks caused short circuits, a battery of gas cells that would depressurize when impacted, acoustic sounding boards…the whole megillah.  It is one of those missions whose purpose is completely clear, accessible to the layman, unarguably useful.

Sadly, the first S-55, launched today from Wallops island, failed to achieve orbit when the third stage of its Scout rocket failed to ignite. 

It’s a shame, but not a particularly noteworthy one.  The Scout is a brand new rocket.  We can expect teething troubles.  Every failure is instructive, and I’ll put good money on the next S-55, scheduled for launch in August.

Worth the Wait

Speaking of Explorer 8, Aviation Week and Space Technology just reported the latest findings from that satellite.  Now, you may be wondering how a probe that went off the air last December could still generate scientific results.  You have to understand that a satellite starts returning data almost immediately, but analysis can take years. 

I’d argue that the papers that get published after a mission are far more exciting than the fiery blast of a rocket.  Your mileage may vary.  In any event, here’s what the eighth Explorer has taught us thus far (and NASA says it’ll be another six months until we process all the information it’s sent!):

1) The ionized clouds that surround a metal satellite as it zooms through orbit effectively double the electrical size of the vehicle.  This makes satellites bigger radar targets (and presumably increases drag).

2) We now know what causes radio blackouts: it is sunspot influence on the lower ionosphere. Solar storms create turbulence that can cut reception.

3) The most common charged element in the ionosphere is oxygen.

4) The temperature of the electrons Explorer ran into was about the same as uncharged ionospheric gas – a whopping 1800 degrees Kelvin.

This may all seem like pretty arcane information, but it tells us not just about conditions above the Earth, but the fundamental behavior of magnetic fields and charged particles on a large scale.  Orbiting a satellite is like renting the biggest laboratory in the universe, creating the opportunity to dramatically expand our knowledge of science.

Air Force discovers Pacific Ocean

The 25th Discoverer satellite, a two-part vehicle designed to return a 300 pound capsule from orbit, was successfully launched June 16.  Its payload was fished from the Pacific Ocean two days later, the recovery plane having failed to catch it in mid-descent.  I recently got to see one of those odd-tailed Fairchild C-119 aircraft that fly those recovery missions; they’re bizarre little planes, for sure. 

As for the contents of the space capsules, it’s generally assumed that they carry snapshots of the Soviet Union taken from orbit.  This time around, however, the flyboys included some interesting experiments: three geiger tubes, some micrometeroid detectors, and a myriad of rare and common metals (presumably to see the effects of radiation upon them). 

You may be wondering what happened to Discoverers 23 and 24 (the last Discoverer on which I’ve reported was numbered 22).  The former, launched on April 8, never dropped its capsule; the latter failed to reach orbit on June 8.  Unlike NASA, the Air Force gives numbers to its failed missions.

Next Mercury shots planned

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom is set to be the next Mercury astronaut in late July.  His flight will be a duplicate of Alan Shepard’s 15 minute jaunt last month.  If all goes well, astronaut John Glenn will fly a similar mission in September.

I don’t think the Atlas is going to be ready in time this year for an orbital shot.  That means there will be several tense months during which the Soviets could upstage us with yet another spectacle. 

[February 28, 1961] Strings of Success… and Failure (Transit 3B, Venera)

Before we move on to the latest Space Race update, why don’t you mosey on down to your local record store and pick up a copy of Wheels, by the String-a-longs?  It’s a swinging tune, and it’s been on the radio a lot lately.  It’ll keep a smile on your face even when the news threatens to be a drag.

There are good weeks and there are bad weeks.  For the Space Race, this wasn’t the best week.

It’s been several months since the Navy got one of their Transit navigational satellites up into orbit.  Last year, I raved about these little marvels that make it possible to determine one’s position just by listening to the satellite’s whistle (and doing a little math).  Two were launched in quick succession, and it seemed a constellation would be established in short order. 

But the third Transit (and its piggyback Solrad probe) failed to launch last November, and its replacement, Transit 3B, had a booster malfunction that stuck it in an eccentric, relatively useless orbit.  In attendance at the ill-fated launch were two of the three Mercury astronauts who have been chosen to make the first manned flights: Alan Shepard and John Glenn (Gus Grissom was in Bermuda).  When asked for their opinions on the botched mission, they voiced their confidence in NASA’s rockets. 

The launch may not have been a complete bust.  This Transit had a piggyback, too—the LOw Frequency Transmission through the Ionosphere (LOFTI) satellite.  It will test the ability of submarines to use the VLF band (below the bottom of your AM dial) for communications.  Maybe.  At last report, LOFTI had not detached from Transit 3B as planned, and I don’t know if either satellite will work in a Siamese configuration.

The Soviets aren’t having a great time of it, either.  Their Venus probe, launched two weeks ago, fizzled out some time before February 26, when it failed to respond to ground-based radio queries.  Venera may not be dead, but it is certainly giving us the silent treatment.  It’s a shame—we will have to wait another 11 months for Venus and Earth to be favorably aligned before we see Venera 2 or its American counterpart.

To take the taste out of failure out of our mouths, let’s ponder Things to Come.  The Air Force has announced that its next Discoverer capsule-return probe will carry a monkey; look for that launch late next month.  Also, NASA is hard at work developing the next generation lunar probe.  It is called Ranger, and as its “mother” is Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, it will have an entirely different configuration from Space Technology Laboratories’ ill-fated Pioneer-Atlas series. 

Fingers crossed!

[Feb. 21, 1961] Trading up (Mercury Atlas 2, Discoverer 21)

I’m starting to enjoy these musical interludes.  Indulge me while I flip on my hi-fi to play my new favorite pop tune, Del Shannon’s Runaway.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m often still as square as a lot of the slightly older set, and I still tap my toes to Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Count Basie, but I enjoy the new stuff, too.

Now, on to the news.  With all of the talk about Mercury capsules on Redstone rockets, it’s easy to forget that the main mission is to get a person into orbit–and you just can’t do that without a bigger booster.

It appears that bigger booster, in the form of the Atlas ICBM, is ready to roll.

I actually missed the first flight of Mercury Atlas, back on July 29, 1960, as I was traveling Japan and didn’t have easy access to English newspapers.  In that flight, the Atlas’ payload was a boilerplate Mercury.  There was also no ejection system or passenger.  The goal was to test the Atlas as well as to plunge the Mercury in a steep reentry angle, simulating an abort situation.

Unfortunately, MA-1 broke up 58 seconds after lift-off.  It was a cloudy day, so no one saw it occur, but when the telemetry stopped and pieces of the craft fell from the sky, it was pretty clear the mission was over.  The culprit was later identified as the junction between the capsule and booster.

MA-2, launched this morning, was a far happier flight.  The sky was perfectly clear, and the mission was a complete success.  It was a short flight, just 17-and-a-half minutes, and it didn’t go any farther than Ham’s flight last month, but the results were gratifying, nonetheless.  NASA now knows that the Mercury can survive a serious abort situation, and the rocket is ready for an unmanned orbital test.  After that, it we’ll just be a chimp away from a fellow in orbit; this could happen as soon as the end of the year, I reckon.

Speaking of chimps, here’s Ham enduring the rigors of reentry.  He had to go through an unplanned 17gs of gravity for a few seconds on the way down, poor thing.  He’s all right, though, NASA vets assure.

There’s a new Discoverer in orbit, Number 21, launched on the 18th.  I don’t know why the Air Force launched it so fast on the heels of Number 20, which was sent up just the day before.  It may be because their missions are so different.  #20 is a simple capsule-return mission, differing from prior ones in just the length of the planned mission–four days.  #21 will test an in-orbit engine fire, presumably to test its ability to change photographic targets while over the Soviet Union (assuming it’s a spy sat, of course!).  The latter probe also carries more equipment planned for use on the official spy sat, Midas.  It’s all a little sketchy; the Air Force is increasingly clamping down on its press releases.

By the way, #20’s mission was a bust.  The capsule was supposed to come down yesterday, but it’s still in orbit.  Perhaps it was smitten by #21 and decided it just could bear to be apart…

Meanwhile, the Soviet probe to Venus, Venera, continues to sail along.  It is around 4 million kilometers away, and the Russians have confirmed at least three transfers of data.  Like Pioneer 5, it will return science on the interstellar medium all the way to Venus.  In fact, this may be all we get out of it.  Sadly, the probe will miss the mark, ending up perhaps 200,000 kilometers away at closest approach.  That may not be near enough to get much useful information, though you never know.

Still no clarification of the February 4 launch, by the way.  An article in the Feb. 13 Aviation Weekly advances all kinds of theories, one of which is similar to the “spy sat” explanation my daughter advanced.  But in the latest (Feb. 20) issue, it seems the hypothesis I advanced,that Sputnik 7 had the same mission as Sputkin 8 and simply fizzled out, is gaining favor.  The twin launches of Sputniks 7 and 8 (the latter being the rocket from which Venera was launched) have apparently galvanized the American government into action.  Or, at least, a lot of talking…

Finally, Happy Birthday to me!  Like Dr. Asimov, I am a little past 30 (a status I’ve enjoyed for some time).  A fan nominated me for the Hugo this year.  I’m flattered beyond words; it’s a great present.

[February 13, 1961] Venus Plus USSR (Venera)

Look out, Venus!  The Russians are coming to open your shell.

Venus, forever shrouded in a protective layer of clouds, may soon be compelled to give up her secrets to a 1400 pound probe.  Launched by the Soviet Union on the 11th, it is the first mission from Earth specifically designed to investigate “Earth’s Twin.”

The solar-powered ship is armed with a panoply of scientific instruments, from cameras to spectrometers to magnetometers.  It’s also got a cargo of Soviet pennants and medals to deposit on the Venusian surface a la Luna 2.  It will reach the vicinity of Venus in three months; a full report might not be forthcoming until 1962.  That may seem a long while to wait for results, but one should remember that science takes time—even for nearby probes.  For instance, NASA is only just now processing the data from Explorer 8 (launched into Earth orbit last November, it fell silent just after Christmas.)

The Soviet probe (some reports call it ‘Venera’–Russian for Venus) is not the first deep space mission.  That honor goes to the American Pioneer 5).  Venera is the first ship to be launched from an orbital rocket; the Soviets report that they launched a larger vehicle into orbit, and that Venera took off from there.

This is very interesting given last week’s mystery launch, dubbed Sputnik 7.  As you may recall, the USSR launched a seven ton craft into orbit on the 4th, reportedly to do some near Earth space science.  No beep-beeps have been detected from the vehicle (though its presence has been confirmed by Western astronomers), and the Russians have been unusually quiet about the launch.  That usually indicates some kind of failed mission.

Now, my daughter has an interesting theory.  She believes that it is actually a spy satellite, and that the Soviet caginess is a ploy to lull the West into thinking the mission had been a bust. 

On the other hand, the Venera plus rocket plus fuel combination must have weighed far more than three quarters of a ton.  Is it possible that Sputnik 7 was really Venera 0, and the Venus probe never detached from its mothership? 

Maybe the Russians will tell us…in about a hundred years.