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2014-09-18 05:55 am

[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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2014-08-22 06:32 am

Big and Little Booms (Discoverer VI and Little Joe 1; 8-22-1959)

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.

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2014-04-09 05:22 pm
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Lucky Seven! (The Mercury astronauts; 4-09-1959)

The results are in! NASA has picked its first seven astronauts, dubbed "The Mercury Seven" since they will be flying the new one-man spacecraft when it debuts for piloted missions, perhaps next year.

The newspaper mistakenly described them as "GI"s the other day, but they are, in fact the best of the best American military test pilots from all of the services except the Army. 110 candidates were winnowed to 31, and of them, 24 were sent packing (though I suspect we may see some of them in later astronaut groups).

The chosen seven are a homogenous bunch in several ways: white, married with children, mildly Protestant, in their 30's. But they come from a variety of places and service backgrounds. In alphabetical order, we have:

The astronauts expressing confidence that they will all come back from space safe and sound; L to R: Slayton, Shepard, Schirra, Grissom, Glenn, Cooper, Carpenter

Navy Lieutenant. Malcolm "Scott" Carpenter: 33, much has been made in the local paper since he is a native, though adopted, son from Garden Grove, California. His wife registered him for the astronaut program while Scott was at sea. He has the least flight time of the astronauts, but this is more than compensated by the man's dreaminess quotient. What a hunk!

Air Force Captain Leroy "Gordo" Cooper (for those not militarily inclined, this rank is the same grade as Navy Lieutenant): 32 and a Colorado resident. He's flown the fancy new planes, including the F-102 and F-106B. Gordo speaks with an Okie drawl, but I understand he's quite a sharp tack.

Marine Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn: 37, from Ohio, may have the most impressive credentials. He flew 59 combat missions in World War 2, more than a hundred in Korea, and he has the highest rank of the candidates. He's also the most religious, the nicest, and the (reportedly) the most abstemious. I'd put odds on this fellow getting a plum spot in the line-up.

Air Force Captain Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom: 33, from Indiana, is the youngest and shortest of the group, but he has the most combat records under his belt (in Korea) than anyone in the group but Glenn.

Navy Lieutenant Commander (between the Lieutenants/Captains and Lt. Colonel Glenn in Rank) Walter M. "Wally" Schirra: 36, from New Jersey, he's apparently the prankster of the group. He comes by his talent honestly, his father having been a stunt pilot and his mother a wing walker!

Navy Lieutenant Commander Alan B. Shepard Jr.: 35, from New Hampshire, has the most flight time but zero combat experience. He has an intense air about him suggesting he may be a leader type. He confidently declared that he expected orbital flight would be no more hazardous than testing out a new plane on Earth.

Air Force Captain Donald K. "Deke" Slayton: 35, from Wisconsin, he's got almost as much flight time as Shepard, and World War II combat experience. He has a smart, no-nonsense look about him. I suspect he'll get a good mission. He said he signed up because we'd pretty much finished exploring the Earth, and it was time to pierce the next frontier.

L to R: Grissom, Glenn, Cooper, Carpenter

Unmanned test flights of the Mercury spacecraft, which looks a bit like a thimble, are expected to start in the summer. The capsules will be launched sub-orbitally first on "Little Joe" test rockets and then Redstones (which were used to launch the first American Explorers.

I'm willing to wager that, now that American's first spacemen have been identified, our upcoming science fiction will make many and copious references to them, either directly or allusive. For decades, authors have written how the first men would go into space--now they know for certain (that is, unless the Soviets beat us again to the punch...)

See you in a couple of days with news of Fred Pohl's latest novella, really a short novel. It's excellent. Until then...

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galacticjourney: (Default)
2014-02-10 07:35 am
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The first toehold (Project Mercury: 2-10-1959)

For a little over a year, both Superpowers have lobbed unmanned payloads of various (generally increasing) sizes into orbit. But the real question in the public's mind is when either side is going to get around to sending a person into orbit. After all, things that go beep-beep are all very well, but can a dumb robot really stand in for an independently thinking human?

We all know that the Russians plan to send someone into space--their rocket is certainly big enough for the job. They just need to figure out how to get it safely back to Earth. For the moment, the United States does not have a rocket strong enough to send a manned spacecraft, but we will soon. It will probably be an adaptation of the Atlas ICBM, the most powerful missile in our arsenal.

As it turns out, our new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been working on a manned space program since it first came into existence last October. Just one month later, on November 26, Project Astronaut came into existence. Apparently, they didn't like that name because when NASA Director Keith Glennan officially announced America's manned space program, he gave it the evocative and all-American name, Project Mercury. Perhaps the next one in the series will be Project Lincoln. Let's hope neither turns out to be an Edsel.

From all accounts, Mercury is going to be a simple, one-manned ship. I haven't heard what it's going to look like, but it will probably have a wingless, ballistic shape. I'm sure the Air Force would love to have a sleek spaceplane in its stable, but with the X-15 as yet untested, its big brother is probably many years off.

So now the question is who will they get to fly the thing? Well, back in January, NASA put forth the following qualifications: age, less than 40; height, less than 5 feet 11 inches; excellent physical condition; bachelor's degree or equivalent; graduate of test pilot school; 1,500 hours flight time; and a qualified jet pilot.

Sadly, while I qualify for three (four if you push it) of the seven qualifications, I've logged all of seven hours piloting an airplane, and it wasn't a jet. I have it on good authority, however, that NASA has gotten plenty of applicants, and they will survive just fine without me. These applicants have just begun an arduous medical screening that will likely wash out a good number of eager would-be spacemen.

How ignominous: before vaulting off into the wild black yonder, they first have to bend over and cough for Uncle Sam, or at least his team of nurses. I suppose the prize is well worth it, though.

We won't know who or how many astronaut candidates will be selected for a while. I am given to understand, however, that all of the astronauts will be from the military service, which leaves hotshot civilians like Scott Crossfield out of the running. I'm not sure why this is. Maybe it's a security issue.

I hope you are enjoying the interplay of science fact and fiction in this column. I think the two are so intertwined these days that it would be silly to eschew coverage of one of them.

Back on the 12th!

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