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Today, NASA made a record; just not one it wanted to.

For the first time, a space program has been a complete failure. Sure, we've had explosions and flopniks and rockets that veered too high or too low. We've had capsules that popped their tops and capsules that got lost in the snow. But never has there been a clean streak of bad missions.

(see what happened at Galactic Journey!)
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It's enough to break an engineer's heart: yet another Atlas Able launch has gone awry, sending its Pioneer payload not to the Moon, but into the drink.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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Something very exciting happened this week: Spaceflight became routine.

Remember just a couple of years ago? The press was full of flopniks, grapefruit-sized spacecraft, and about a launch every other month. Every mission was an adventure, and space was the great unknown.

All that has changed. Not only are we launching more, and more advanced scientific satellites, but we are launching satellite systems. Only two months ago, the Navy launched the first of the Transit satellites. These satellites allow a ground-based observer to determine one's location to a fair degree of accuracy. But since there's no guarantee any one satellite will be overhead at a given time, you need a constellation of Transits.

Number two was launched last week on June 22. The age of reliable space utilization has dawned.

(learn more at Galactic Journey!)
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There was another mystery Atlas Agena launch from Cape Canaveral on May 24. My sources tell me it was in the same series as the mission late February that broke up before it could reach orbit. It appears to be some kind of infrared missile launch detection system. I even got my hands on some conceptual art, though there's no way of knowing how accurate it is. Its project name appears to be MIDAS--I'm guessing this stands for "Missile Infrared Detection Alarm System" or something like that.

I don't know if the system works or if the satellite performed properly, but I understand "MIDAS 2" did make it into orbit. With tensions between American and the U.S.S.R. at an all-time high, thanks to whole spy plane kerfuffle and the break-down of summit peace talks, we need probes like this more than ever.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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Photo found here

Hold onto your ears, folks, because the Pioneer 5 interplanetary satellite just turned on the big transmitter.

(see the rest at Galactic Journey!)
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Imagine doing brain surgery by remote control.

That's just what STL engineer, Robert E. Gottfried, did over the weekend, on an ailing deep space probe.

(read the rest at Galactic Journey!
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Remember the years before Sputnik when space news comprised semi-annual rocket launch reports, annual Willy Ley books, and the occasional Bonestell/Von Braun coffee table book?

Even after Sputnik, weeks would go by without a noteworthy event. But, slowly but surely, the pace of space launches has increased. Just this last week, I caught wind of four exciting pieces of news. I can imagine a day in the not too distant future when I have to pick and choose from a myriad of options rather than reporting on every mission.

So what happened this week?

Find out at Galactic Journey!
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Who calls a press conference at 2:00 in the morning?

And what sort of fool journalist covers a 2 A.M. press conference?

NASA and me, respectively.

Dr. Keith Glennan, NASA's administrator, admitted that it was an unorthodox time to gather scientists and reporters together, but given the unprecedented nature of the event to be discussed, it's quite understandable. After all, never before in the history of humanity has a message been received from an artificial probe 1,000,000 miles from Earth.

Pioneer 5, the interplanetary mission launched last week, is now four times as far from the Earth as the Moon, and its 5 watt transmitter is still being picked up loud and clear. In a dramatic flourish, just after the conference started, Dr. Glennan ordered the tracking station in Hawaii to query the spacecraft. The plucky probe responded in a jiffy (discounting the 5-second delay since radio signals travel at the speed of light) to the delight of the audience.

One of the great advancements of Pioneer 5 is its use of digital data. Earlier probes used analog data, faithfully transcribing experimental results as a steadily varying voltage that would be transmitted, real-time, to Earth. Not only can digital data be easily stored so complete results can be sent back to Earth at any time, it also requires no "translation" to a language ground-side computers can understand. This means that data can be analyzed far more rapidly.

In fact, Pioneer 5's latest space weather report on the cosmic radiation, magnetic field, and micrometeorite situation a million miles out was reduced and presented during the course of the half-hour press conference. How's that for instant service?

Pioneer also gave an account of its own health. NASA's week-old baby is healthy and happy: its interior remains at a balmy 63 degrees Fahrenheit, its solar-powered batteries are charging nicely, and the transmitter is strong.

In the weeks to come, Pioneer 5 will remain on the air out to an anticipated distance of 25,000,000 miles. This flight will challenge NASA's ability to track and hear the probe to the limits of current technology.

And, apparently, any notions that I might have a reasonable sleeping schedule! Not that I'm complaining—it's an amazing time to be alive.


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The Space Race headlines were anything but exciting last month, but today's news makes up for February's doldrums in spades.

Last year, there was a great deal of fanfare regarding last August's launch of Explorer 6. This testbed of an orbital spacecraft was developed by Los Angeles based Space Technology Laboratories (STL), the Air Force's pet contractor. Its purpose was to make use of the experiments designed for the marginally successful lunar Pioneer probes (0-2) and also to test a new digital telemetry system that will allow communication with spacecraft over interplanetary distances.

Explorer 6 was a huge success, and it appeared that a Venusian probe utilizing the technologies pioneered and verified by the paddle-wheel satellite would be launched late last year. That launch never materialized, probably due to setbacks in the parallel Atlas-Able luar missions, which will use the same technologies in a larger package to explore the Moon. 

Instead, the folks at STL made an interstellar copy of Explorer 6 for a deep space mission past the orbit of Venus without the possibility of a planetary rendezvous.

Dubbed Pioneer 5, this morning it was successfully launched atop that proven workhorse of prior STL missions, the Thor-Able booster.

Pioneer 5 is now beep-beeping its way through interplanetary space on a journey of unparalleled distance and longevity. While both the Americans and Soviets have launched probes into solar orbit (Pioneer 4 and Luna 1), these were battery-powered ships whose transmissions faded shortly after whizzing past the moon.

Solar-powered Pioneer 5, with its long-range communications abilities, will relay information about the interplanetary medium up to a distance of 25 million miles away. That's 100 times further than the distance from the Earth to the Moon!

Such a long trip can hardly be summed up in a single article, so expect status reports as this intrepid little (100 pound) probe zooms through the vastness between Earth and Venus' orbits. For the first time, we will have an in depth analysis of the radiation and magnetic fields beyond terrestrial boundaries. Moreover, the lessons learned on this mission will be invaluable to future efforts, particularly upcoming flights to Venus and Mars.

Can you tell that I'm excited? I hope you are too!


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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It's enough to make a fellow cry.

There she stood, a proud and lovely Atlas Able booster, with the largest American lunar probe ever built at its tip. Well, perhaps it wasn't so lovely. The Atlas ICBM is impressive enough, with three mighty engines at its base and a hot temper that has resulted in an unimpressive operational record to date. On top were the second and third stages of the Vanguard rocket, the same "Able" that has served the Air Force so well when mated to the Thor IRBM. That's how NASA got its first Pioneers into space, if not to their desired target: The Moon.

The Able looked a bit like a silly Q-tip perched above the Atlas. Nevertheless, it's the best combo we've got at the moment to compete with the Russians at their game.

Just 30 seconds after the launch, early morning on Thanksgiving (November 26), a piece fell off the nose. Four-and-a-half minutes later, the second stage failed to ignite, and the rocket plunged into the ocean along with its precious cargo, the a 300 pound Pioneer posthumously dubbed "P3."

This setback may push the program back a full year. There is a back-up payload but no rocket to launch it, the Atlas being in high demand for both the military and the Mercury program.

What went wrong? I gave my friend, John Vehrencamp, a call last night to commiserate and get the inside dope. John designed the payload shroud, you see, which appears to be the likeliest culprit for the failure. Sure enough, his long face was clearly expressed in the morose tones of his voice. He took the full blame for the incident. You see, he hadn't taken into sufficient consideration the drop of air pressure outside the nosecone as the rocket ascended. The thing wasn't properly vented and exploded like a balloon in vacuum. It's going to be a many-beers kind of weekend for John, I'm afraid.

I don't think this mishap will have any impact on the Thor-Able deep space mission planned for early next year, thankfully.

In related news, the Air Force had another bad Discoverer mission on November 20. The eight in the series of "biomedical capsule recovery flights" (which ironically have not carried a biomedical payload in many missions) launched all right, though I understand the orbit was eccentric and not optimal. The recovery capsule ejected, but no parachute was spotted. Much like Thomas Edison, the flyboys are finding many ways to get the process wrong. Their losing streak can't continue forever, right?

See you soon—December looks to be a great month (he said hopefully).

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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Isn't it frustrating when you try to tune into your favorite program and hear nothing but static?

Sorry folks! I'd planned to give you Part 2 of this (last) month's F&SF. Well, the last third of the issue is taken up by a Poul Anderson novelette, and I know I won't be able to devote a whole article to just that, assuming I can even get through it. But I don't have enough to fill an article with the remaining stories.

Therefore, I have resolved to just give you all an extra-long column day-after-tomorrow! It will be worth the wait, I promise. There are some fine stories this month. And who know? Maybe the Anderson story will be good.




All right, I can't hold my breath that long.


In other news, if you've been tracking the flight of Pioneer IV, you may have heard that we finally lost communications with the plucky little probe at more than 400,000 miles away. This isn't the fault of the ground antennas, which could probably track the vehicle much further out. The satellite's batteries just ran out of juice. Hopefully, when we have bigger rockets (perhaps the Air Force's Thor "Hustler"?), we can send out satellites with solar panels on board that can broadcast indefinitely.

Anyway, the Russians are crowing that their Mechta made it further, but we're saying that our science was better. But can we really trumpet our mission as a triumph without a sodium flatulence experiment?

See you on the 10th!

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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!

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Well, at least we're consistent.

The past few months, the newspapers have run headline after headline describing America's failures in trying to shoot the Moon. The Air Force had the first at-bat with its three Pioneers. #0 blew up so early that it wasn't even dignified with a name. #1 limped about halfway to the Moon before falling back down. #2's performance was somewhere in the middle.

If you believe the papers (and/or the Vice President), all of these flights were successes. After all, any launch, even one that doesn't meet its goals, is a learning experience. Sarcasm aside, Pioneers I and II were not total washes--they sent back a lot of good data on the Earth's magnetic field and the radiation trapped therein. Moreover, they went a lot higher than any of our previous probes, certainly higher than anything the Russians have sent up.

The day before yesterday (Dec. 6, 1958) was the Army's chance to step up to the plate. If hitting the Moon is a Home Run, I'd say they hit a double. Pioneer III, a teeny 13-pounder launched on a Juno II made it out about 67,000 miles before falling back to Earth.

As always, I collected as many papers as I could and kept my ears glued to the radio. Early editions simply announced the launch, but it was clear pretty quickly that something had gone wrong. Apparently, Pioneer's rocket ran out of fuel about four seconds early, which sent the probe off at too low an angle. Even though Pioneer III left Earth with more speed than Pioneer I, its journey was only half as high. 38 hours after launch, the poor little probe was ashes in the ionosphere.

Silver lining: A good 22 hours of data was collected from the probe, and it is already adding to our knowledge regarding the two (count them: two!) radiation belts girdling the Earth. As a matter of fact, those belts are the only phenomenon Pioneer III could report on. Unlike Pioneers 0-II, which had a whole suite of experiments including even a TV camera, Pioneer III had just one experiment: a pair of Geiger-Muller tubes for counting the cosmic radiation particles hitting the spacecraft. I am not sure why Pioneer III was such a simple probe. It may be that the Army got the assignment in a hurry and had to rush things. It might also be that the Army's Juno II doesn't have the enough strength to lift anything heavier.

In any event, this isn't the last we'll be hearing from the Army. Pioneer IV will be up sometime soon, though Major General John Medaris, head of the Army's rocket development center in Alabama, had no firm dates for the press.

"See me after Christmas," he told the television people.

Get a load of that puss. That looks more like a toothache than a booster failure.

Here's an interesting question: The Space Race has been marked by more failures than successes. Did anyone ever write a science fiction story that predicted this level of teething pain in a space program? It seems to me that space vehicles in fiction simply work. If they don't work perfectly, they have maintenance issues like those that afflict an automobile or perhaps a naval vessel. This goes back to my previous comments regarding the focus of science fiction on the pilot rather than the large and necessary logistical tail.

It's a pity we don't see more stories incorporating launch failures. They could be an exciting dramatic device.

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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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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 depicted 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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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 Earth 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 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 Soviet 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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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, 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 a second Pioneer is scheduled for launch next month. I'm crossing my fingers and toes!

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