galacticjourney: (Default)
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!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

You certainly can't fault the Air Force for lacking persistence. The flyboys launched yet another in the ill-fated Discoverer series on the 19th. This was the sixth time a "biological specimen" capsule was sent up for the purpose of catching it when it came back down, not that the Air Force has put anything living inside the capsule for several launches. Like its predecessor, Discoverer V, the probe made it into a polar orbit, but the retro-rocket that was supposed to send the capsule back to Earth failed to work properly. Air Force engineers have determined that the malfunctions are due to the extreme cold encountered at the edge of space.

NASA's not having much luck, either. As we've discussed before, our nation's civilian space agency is working feverishly on its first manned space capsule, called Mercury. There are lots of moving parts to such a momentous undertaking. You've got two types of boosters for the missions (Redstone and Atlas for sub-orbital and orbital missions, respectively--they were going to use a Jupiter, too, but canceled the mission as superfluous). You've got the capsule, itself. You've got the global tracking system. You've got the pilots, themselves.

There are other details--smaller, but no less important. For instance, the Little Joe booster (really a cluster of four Sergeants, like the kind you find at the top of a Juno) has been developed to test the Mercury capsule on short hops. Yesterday, Little Joe 1 stood poised for take-off. Its mission was to test out the Mercury escape tower, which is designed to lift the spacecraft's passengers to safety in the event of an early booster malfunction.

Well, it didn't work.

The rocket had been sited at Wallops Island, where we launch sounding rockets from. It had been pointed at the Atlantic Ocean tilted at a sharp degree angle in order to simulate a challenging abort. 35 minutes to launch, there was a whoosh, and crewmen and photographers scrambled for cover. The Little Joe didn't go anywhere, but the escape tower took off with its capsule payload, flew about 2000 feet into the air, then jettisoned the capsule. Thud.

They're still trying to figure out what went wrong.

At least Explorer VI is still working. In fact, I hear that the spacecraft may already have used its onboard camera to take the first picture of the Earth from outer space! More news on that as it comes in.

See you in three days with the rest of... ugh... this month's Astounding.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)

galacticjourney: (Default)
The Air Force launched the fifth in its Discoverer series on August 13. Like the last one, there were no passengers on-board (though the recovery capsule was bigger this time around). Unlike the last flight, this one actually made it into polar orbit after its early afternoon launch from the deserts of California. The second stage worked properly, and a tracking station in Kodiak, Alaska (as in "the State of") registered Discoverer's healthy "beep-beeps."

The plan was to eject the 300-pound recovery capsule after orbit #16 and attempt to catch it in mid-descent. Unfortunately, what goes up does not always come down. While a fleet of recovery ships and planes milled about impatiently in the Pacific Ocean, the capsule's retrorocket fired the craft upwards rather than back to Earth. It is still in orbit, where it will remain for a long time. It's a good thing there weren't any passengers (not that they would have survived anyway; I understand that the capsule's internal temperature was far lower than expected, and any rodentnauts would have ended up micicles).

Continuing in the vein of mission fizziles, Beacon 2, a 12-foot balloon satellite design to measure atmospheric density in orbit (there is air up there--just extremely tenuous), failed to orbit when the upper stages of its Juno II rocket misfired due to premature fuel depletion on the first stage. It was a repeat of the failure of the first Beacon on October 23, 1958, which I did not cover for some unknown reason. In that case, the upper stages of the Juno I rocket fired too early.

Not quite a space shot, there was a third noteworthy rocket failure this week. At the Atlantic Missile Range yesterday, there was a triple-launch of new missiles: the Thor IRBM, which has been heavily employed both as a military system and as a launch system, the Polaris sub-launched missile, and the new Titan ICBM. The first two had good launches, though the camera package in the nosecone of the Thor has not been recovered from the Atlantic ocean. The Titan blew up on the stand, however.

Still, while it is disappointing to read about so many failures in one week, it is exciting that launches are occurring so frequently. Moreover, Explorer VI continues to do yeoman's work in orbit, supplanting Sputnik III (which failed in early May) as the most advanced space laboratory.

Next time--Astounding (packed with... yech... Garrett)!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)

galacticjourney: (Default)
It's another Space Race update from The Traveler!

A Vanguard went up on the 22nd, but I decided to hold off on writing a column as I knew a Discoverer was set to launch on the 25th. I'm afraid I've got a double-whammy of disappointment for my good readers.

This new Vanguard had two thermistors (heat-activated electrodes) adorning the magneisum-alloy skin of the 20" diameter sphere, one facing the sun, one facing inward. The point of this experiment was to measure the heat balance of the sun's radiation on the Earth. Why is this important? The primary engine for the Earth's weather is the sun's heating of the atmosphere. Hot air rises, cold air sinks, and the spinning Earth mixes all of this thoroughly and chaotically. If we knew how strong the sun's rays were at various latitudes, we could correlate these findings to heat flow in the lower atmosphere and learn a great deal.

NASA photo--I don't know who those folk are.

The rocket soared out of sight of observers, seemingly on a flawless trajectory. However, it appears that one of the second-stage pressure valves was faulty; no signal from the satellite was ever caught on the ground by any of the many Minitrack receiving stations around the globe.

The sad news is that there is only one booster left to the Vanguard program. After the next shot, it's all over. I hope these experiments don't get abandoned!

From a postcard I picked up this week--wishful thinking, as it turned out.

Discoverer 4 took off yesterday, and it seemed to be a good launch, but then the second stage (the "Hustler") failed, and the payload never reached orbit. From the press releases, the Air Force was testing a new capsule designed to carry monkeys. Given that there were no actual passengers on the mission, I can think of two possibilities:

1) The Air Force doesn't want to actually send up any more animals lest the critter-lovers of the world let out a cry and hue (bigger than they already have), at least until the flyboys have perfected their rockets, or

2) There was a payload on Discoverer 4 equipped with eyes, but it wasn't an animate one.

Which one do you think is more plausible?


In other news, my F&SF and Astounding magazines have come in for this month, and I picked up last month's IF as well. I'm also reading Sam Merwin's Well of Many Worlds, one of the first "sideways in time" stories. So expect a lot of fiction reviews in the near future!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

It's a bad time to be an experimental animal, if there ever was (or will be) a good one.

The Air Force launched Discoverer III last night with a payload of four plump black mice. As you know, if you read the papers or my column, Discoverer is a satellite program for shooting missions into polar orbit (i.e. over the poles, ultimately covering the entire Earth) ostensibly for the purpose of sending biological specimens into space and then recovering them in a detachable capsule.

Of course, a polar orbit is particularly good for reconaissance, and a detachable capsule can carry film as well as mice. I'm sure the Soviets aren't buying the "space science" angle any more than I am. Still, if we get any science out of the program, that's an added bonus.

Unfortunately, the mice of Discoverer III can't catch a break. Last week, the launch was scrubbed because telemetry from the mice had ceased. The technicians thumped on the nose cone, thinking the mice were asleep. They were, in fact, dead, having eaten the krylon coating of their cages.

A few days later, the launch was scrubbed when the nose cone sensors returned a 100% humidity level. Turns out that the mice had urinated on the sensors (a similar incident looks to have happened on one of last year's Thor-Able flights).

Yesterday, the rocket finally launched, but the second stage of the Thor-Hustler rocket flipped the payload and drove it straight into the Pacific ocean. Nothing could have survived that.

I understand that this incident has piqued the ire of several organizations promoting the ethical treatment of animals, particularly as this comes right on the heels of a suborbital Jupiter test flight on May 28, which had the monkeys, Able and Baker, as unwitting passengers. Though the mission was a success, I have it on good authority that Able died the other day after an unsuccessful surgery to remove an electrode. Six months before, a similar flight resulted in the death of its passenger, Sam the monkey. I wonder if the Air Force will abandon the pretense of the bio-medical mission and just launch cameras from now on.

So that's that. I believe there's another Discoverer launch scheduled in a few weeks along with another Vanguard shot. I'll report on them if and when they happen. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this month's Galaxy, and I'll finish up my report on the August issue in two days!

In the meantime, let's hoist a glass to our intrepid, lost rodentnauts. You deserved better.

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)

galacticjourney: (Default)
It's been an exciting though disappointing week in the world of space exploits. Here is a summary of what you've missed if you haven't been following the papers:


The Air Force launched another Discoverer on April 13. After 17 orbits, the satellite ejected a capsule for recovery. The landing spot was supposed to be around Hawai'i, but a task force of ships and aircraft were unable to find the capsule. Now, there wasn't anything on board this one, but later shots are supposed to carry biological specimens. And maybe film for developing. Oops! Did I say that out loud?

In any event, no one knows where it landed. Since Discoverer is in a polar orbit (and still otherwise functioning, to all reports), I suppose the capsule could have fallen anywhere along its trajectory. If the capsule was ejected too early, it would have hit Antarctica or the South Pacific. If late, the track crosses Alaska, the Arctic ocean, and down through Scandinavia, the Eastern Bloc nations, and all along central Africa.

Assuming the latter, its destination could be somewhere in the ice, perhaps a communist station, or next to some frightened zebra. We may never know.


The Navy boys tried to launch a sequel to the orbiting but unsuccessful Vanguard 2. This shot was a two-fer--atop the slim rocket was not only a 10kg ball with a new magnetometer on board (for mapping magnetic fields) but a balloon for tracking air density.

Sadly, the rocket only got up a hundred miles before falling back to Earth. It's a shame--Von Braun's team is having success after success, but the Vanguard program is stuck in first gear. Let's hope they can get Vanguard 3 up before the year's end!


The Atlas is America's first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). It is being manufactured just a dozen miles from my house at Convair's Kearny Mesa plant. The first incarnation of the Atlas was test-launched in 1957 with a dummy warhead. Since then, Atlases have been launched with some regularity from Cape Canaveral, including the December launch of SCORE, which went on the improved Atlas B. The Atlas C was the last of the prototypes, and it may be used this year for an upcoming Venusian mission.

But the Atlas launched on April 14 was an Atlas D, a more-powerful version designed to be the first operational ICBM, the one they'll bury underground in protective silos to be turned loose on the Soviet Union on a moment's notice.

Eventually. The one launched last Tuesday malfunctioned right out of the gate, one of its three engines blasting at reduced capacity. It limped along for 20 seconds, burst into flames, and was destroyed 17 seconds later by ground control. And this is the booster that the Mercury astronauts will ride into orbit. Brave men they!

So, as they say, "All the news that fits, we print!" See you in two days!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

In any nascent endeavor, it is human nature to trumpet even the most modest of achievements. Sure, Pioneer I, didn't make it to the moon, but it went pretty high and confirmed the Van Allen Belts. Sure, Vanguard I was the size of a grapefruit, but it taught us that the Earth is pear-shaped.

In that vein, sure, Pioneer IV, NASA's latest moon shot, may not have been entirely a success, but at least it will be the first (American) probe to sail beyond our planet's celestial companion and into solar orbit.

Launched yesterday on a Juno II, Pioneer IV is essentially an exact duplicate of the less-successful Pioneer III, with a little extra shielding around one of its charged particle detectors to better measure cosmic radiation. In the tradition of focusing on the positive, I will note that Pioneer IV's mission is not just to take snapshots of the moon, but to duplicate the mission profile of its predecessor so as to provide a comparative data set. This is the soul of science--the repeating and repeatability of experiments.

As far as the trip to the moon is concerned, there have only been a couple of minor hiccoughs: one of the three scaling factor taps on one of the counters got knocked out when Pioneer IV's engines shook it a bit too roughly. In English, a scaling factor allows scientists to convert the raw voltages, recorded when charged particles hit the spacecraft, into usable numbers. I don't think this critically damages the instrument. Pioneer IV's transmission also went on the fritz for about 30 seconds while the craft traversed Earth's outer radiation belt.

While we're on the topic of problems, it looks like the little spacecraft is going to pass wide of its target, missing the surface of the moon by some 37,000 miles. This is too far to activate the photoelectric sensors on the spacecraft, which would have been used to activate a camera--if the probe had been heavy enough include a camera! Not a huge loss.

What will really be exciting is to finally give the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's deep space tracking network a full run through its paces. We've never tried to monitor a spacecraft several hundred thousand miles from Earth before. On the other hand, if the Soviets can do it, I suspect we can, too.

So there you have it. We launched a probe that weighed sixty times less than Luna I and which missed its target my a distance ten times greater. And we did it two months after Luna I.

A success? You be the judge...

P.S. Following up on Discoverer I, the Air Force is claiming that they are still receiving sporadic signals from their spacecraft. They've also confirmed that their new rocket is a Thor-Hustler, whatever that is. The Swedish press is calling Discoverer I "The Whispering Satellite" since they can barely hear it, if at all.

I'm still unconvinced. Something's fishy. I just can't tell you exactly what.

See you on March 6 with a book review!

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)
galacticjourney: (Default)

Something went into orbit on the 28th. Maybe.

Normally, I herald each new space launch with the strident fanfare. After all, when Vanguard or Explorer go up, it's big news and everybody knows about it. But the Air Force's announced launch of "Discoverer" on February 28 has that same sort of strangeness and after-the-fact quality I've come to associate with Soviet Sputnik launches.

Let's back up.

Yesterday, the Air Force announced that it had launched "Discoverer" into polar orbit from its California launching facility, Vandenberg Air Force Base. They said it was an engineering flight designed to test what will someday be a biological sample return mission (i.e. the Air Force will send up animals, retrieve them after several days in space, and study them to determine the effects of space on living things). Apparently, this is the second time they have tried this; the first time was on January 26 of this year, but it was reportedly unsuccessful.

Here is where the story gets a bit dicey:

1) Why was Discoverer launched into a polar orbit? Normally, spaces launches are done from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Aided by the Earth's rotation, the go out on an Easterly course over the Atlantic. This restricts their track to a narrow range of latitudes. A satellite in a polar orbit eventually covers the entire Earth as the planet rotates underneath the track of the probe's flight, making it better suited for mapping and reconnaissance missions.

2) Why wouldn't strictly scientific missions be done under the auspices of NASA, as the Air Force did with the Pioneer moon shots?

3) If Discoverer made it into orbit, why have independent stations been unable to pick up its telemetry on their radios?

4) What did they use to launch it? A capsule-return spacecraft isn't a light vehicle, and neither the Thor-Able nor the Juno II are strong enough to send one into orbit.

Now, I don't want to be visited by the fellows in gray suits for my observational acumen, but putting two and two together, I'd conclude that Discoverer must be a prototype surveillance satellite. If I really wanted to get far out with my speculations, I'd conclude that it's a fake surveillance satellite designed to gauge the reaction of the Eastern Bloc to having a spy probe overhead.

Apparently, the Communists don't care much. Aside from one stern protest from an East German radio station (I know--all Commies are the same), the Warsaw Pact has been conspicuously silent about Discoverer.

Maybe they know it's a fake...

(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what's really going on)


galacticjourney: (Default)

September 2017

3 45 67 89
101112 1314 1516
17 1819 20212223



RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 22nd, 2017 03:26 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios