Tag Archives: x-15

[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  News from abroad is often days out of date.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…

[March 31, 1961] Real-world round-up for March

Here’s an end of March, real-world round-up for you before we plunge into the science fiction of April:


President Kennedy devoted a good deal of time to the civil war in Laos at his fifth press conference, March 23.  This three-cornered fight between the nationalists (propped up by the United States), the Communist Pathet Lao (backed by the Soviets and the North Vietnamese), and the neutralists has been going on since the end of last year.  The US Navy Seventh Fleet was recently dispatched to the region along with a contingent of troops.  For a while, it looked as if we were looking at another Korea.

I’m happy to report that both Kennedy and Premier Khruschev have now proposed plans for peaceful solutions to the crisis that involve the invading North Vietnamese disarming and going home.  I fervently hope that this means Southeast Asia won’t be the site of war in the 1960s.

Speaking of Kennedy and war, the President recently asked Congress for a significantly bigger defense package.  This would see the United States armed with 1200 nuclear-tipped missiles by 1965!

On the dove-ish side of the coin, Kennedy also asked for an increase in the NASA budget for development of the mighty “Saturn C-2”, which would facilitate manned flights around the Moon by 1966.

On the subject of space, NASA pilot Joe Walker took the X-15 spaceplane to a record height of 31 miles above the Earth yesterday, more than five miles higher than anyone has flown the craft before.  During a good portion of his 10-minute flight, the plane’s stubby wings and control surfaces had nothing to “bite” into, the atmosphere being so rarefied at that altitude.  For all intents and purposes, it was a flight in space, down to the unwinking white stars that filled the daylight sky. 

And he only got halfway to the rocketship’s expected maximum altitude!

Meanwhile, the Air Force failed to get into orbit the 22nd in their Discoverer series.  These probes are ostensibly for orbiting and returning biological samples, but they really test components for their Samos spy satellites.  There was supposed to be a monkey on this one, but I haven’t read any reports about it.  Perhaps the fly-boys were merciful and just stuffed the spaceship with non-perishable hardware.


Now let’s look ahead at April.  There will, of course, be the three magazines, IF, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, the monthly The Twilight Zone round-up, and perhaps a trip to the movies.  I have Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Door Through Space on my bedside table, but it hasn’t gripped me yet.  We’ll see.

We’ll also see more of our new regular columnist, Rosemary Benton, and along those lines, I’ve got another surprise for you ’round mid-month!

S’okay?  S’alright.

[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!

[November 16, 1960] Fully Fledged (a November Space Race update)

The bird finally has wings!

By bird, I mean that lawn-dart of a rocket plane, NASA’s X-15.  Until yesterday, that sleek black vehicle, designed to probe the edges of space from underneath, had been a work in progress.  The X-15 had already flown 25 times, zooming at faster than Mach 3 and climbing to a height of 40 kilometers.  But its engines, a pair of Reaction Motors XLR11s, were an old set of training wheels: virtually the same rockets that pushed Chuck Yeager’s X-1 past the sound barrier in 1947. 

Together, these engines gave the plane a thrust of 32,000 lbf (pounds of force–or the force of Earth’s gravity on one pound of matter).  That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it was always an interim solution.  Yesterday, veteran test-pilot Scott Crossfield took the X-15 for a spin with the engine it was always meant to have: the Reaction Motors XLR99. 

Unlike the XLR11, the XLR99 can be throttled smoothly from 0-100% (as opposed to the XLR11, which had eight discrete speed settings depending on how many sub-engines were firing).  Moreover, just one XLR99 delivers 57,000 lbf, almost twice as much as two of its predecessors.

Now, Crossfield didn’t really test the new engine to its limit, “only” taking the craft to Mach 2.97 and a height of 24 kilometers.  However, the XLR99 is going to make a whole new class of flights possible.  In a couple of years, expect to see the X-15 hitting Mach 6 and reaching the 100,000 kilometer mark. 

Who knows?  Someday, you might take off for orbit from your local airport instead of strapped to the top of a firecracker.

Speaking of which, the first full test of the suborbital Mercury-Redstone (NASA’s Mercury one-man space capsule on top of a Redstone booster, the kind at the base of the Juno 1) is set for November 21.  There won’t be anyone on board for the mission, but it is the next critical step in the flight-test schedule.

Finally, the Air Force has, at last, come clean regarding its Discoverer capsule-return program.  The newspaper coverage of the latest launch on November 12 and the subsequent recovery of the Discoverer reentry capsule on November 14 was surprisingly detailed.  Discoverer 17 did carry a camera (though, ostensibly, only for testing equipment to be carrried on the next-generation SAMOS satellite).  Moreover, the military even disclosed that they used an upraded Agena second stage on its Thor-Agena boosters.  This means they can lift heavier payloads to higher orbits–great news for the civilian program since NASA will be using Agenas in its upcoming Venus and Mars flights.  This is actually a case of decreased government redundancy since, until the Air Force revealed the Agena, NASA was going to develop its own version, called the Vega.  Now they don’t have to.

Discoverer 17 actually did some science this time around, too.  Propitiously timed to launch during a solar flare, the satellite carried a bunch of human tissue samples and a silver bromide emulsion block.  Scientists will study the effects of heightened space radiation on these items, which should provide some useful information to the manned space program.

So smiles all around from all three corners of the American space industry.  1961 is going to be a fun year, methinks.

[Nov. 10, 1959] Orlando Oranges and Space Slips

Greetings from sunny Orlando, Florida!

I know what you’re thinking: why travel across the country to central Florida, which at first glance has little to offer to the tourist?

Firstly, my only first cousin on my father’s side lives here with her family.  Secondly, Orlando is home to the Martin Marrietta manufacturing plant—and guess who has a free pass to see the Titan and Atlas rocket assembly lines?

Also, I wanted to see the place before it is destroyed in next month’s atomic holocaust.  Or at least before Fidel’s revolution travels to the mainland.  I imagine it will hit Florida before other states.

As you can see, Orlando has gotten its Christmas decorations up early.  Someday Christmas will precede Halloween, I predict.

I haven’t had a chance to tour much, so I’ll save the meat of my sightseeing report for next time.  In the meantime, here’s a Space News round-up:

(Note that neither of these stories happened in Florida, which just figures since it is one of the rare times I’m actually in the state)

As you know from reading this column, there are two competing manned space programs in this country.  Sadly, one of them has suffered a setback: On its third mission, the rocket plane X-15 experienced an explosion in mid-flight.  Luckily, pilot Scott Crossfield managed to dump his fuel in a jiffy and get the plane on the ground in one piece.  He’s fine, and the plane will fly again, but it won’t go up until it’s known precisely what happened.

The Air Force has also had a mishap: Discoverer 7, their capsule-return spacecraft designed for biological sample return (which hasn’t carried an actual biological sample in several flights) got up into orbit just fine; but then it started to tumble, and the boys in blue couldn’t get the capsule to separate from the rest of the craft.

While I may be cynical about the stated purpose of the Discoverer program, it does underline how technically complicated even an unmanned mission can be.  Getting the rockets to work is only one of many problems to be tackled before we can think of sending a person into space.

I will try to have an update in two days’ time, but it may have to wait until I get back home.  I’ve a brand-new typewriter waiting for me there!

Note: I love comments (you can do so anonymously), and I always try to reply.
P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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[Sep. 17, 1959] A hike and a flight (Oct. 1959 Astounding and two Space Races)

The big news this week is Astounding is raising its price from 35 cents to four bits.  It’s a big jump, but I’m sure it’s a necessary move given that Galaxy and F&SF also cost 50 cents (though IF is still at 35 cents).

It is significant that I have nibbled around the edges of the October Astounding, so to speak, starting with the non-fiction articles.  I didn’t like the first half of That Sweet Old Woman, and I doubt I’ll care much for part two.  I’ll bite the bullet tonight.  Probably.

But the non-fiction is pretty nifty.  Campbell’s editorial, for once, does not stink of psionics.  He probably saw the writing on the wall when everyone, but everyone, at Worldcon ribbed him about his editorials and story-selection policy.  So now John is openly asking for science articles, and he’s hoping to introduce a slick page element to the magazine come the beginning of next year.  I’m a science writer, so I’ll be interested to see how it goes.  Perhaps I’ll submit an article or two.

I also liked Bill Boyd’s article on obtaining blood-typing reagents from vegetables, Blood from a Turnip.  It really sings the praises of basic research to see such a medical boon to humanity come from such a simple, off-the-wall experiment.  The price of such reagents has been dropped a thousand-fold, as a result.

Next time, I promise to talk about fiction.  Probably.

In Space Race news, the X-15 rocketplane made its maiden powered flight on September 17 with veteran pilot Scott Crossfield (the man who broke the Mach 2 barrier) at the controls.  It was just a 9-minute flight using two underpowered XLR-11 engines rather than XLR-99 engine designed for the plane.  The XLR-11 is actually the engine that sent Chuck Yeager past the sound barrier in 1948. 

Moreover, the plane developed mechanical problems, and a small fire broke out.  Crossfield was able to get the craft down safely, however. 

And now to the ballistic manned space program.  In a way, the Mercury project, that one-manned space capsule that will carry the first American into space, has already succeeded.  Last week, on September 9, a boilerplate spacecraft was launched atop an Atlas ICBM.  I’ve written about “Little Joe,” designed for low-level test firings of the Mercury.  Naturally, the Atlas missions are called “Big Joe.” The recent mission marks the first time the Atlas has been used in support of the manned space program.

For the capsule, the mission was a complete success.  It was lofted to a height of 90 miles, separated from the Atlas, and crashed into the ocean some 1424 miles away from its launching site at Cape Canaveral.  The craft was in good shape, proving the sturdiness of its heat shield.

The Atlas, on the other hand, suffered some teething troubles.  The Atlas missile has three engines, two of which are supposed to drop away when fuel is depleted.  They didn’t.  The Atlas also took its time separating from the spacecraft. 

The flight was good enough, though.  It is my understanding that NASA is considering the cancellation of “Big Joe 2,” scheduled to be launched sometime in the Fall.

So there you have it.  Not only are the Americans and the Soviets neck and neck, but it seems that the two American space programs are also competing closely.  It’s an exciting time for those who bet.

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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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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