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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?

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

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


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