Saturday, September 19, 2009

50 YA- Updates from 1959

Jupiter IRBM rocket with payload modification for science mission.

I have to do a catch-up here to cover some items for the 50 Years Ago category. It's been a busy week for me, and it was a busy week 50 years ago. On September 16, 1959, NASA launched a Jupiter rocket with biological test satellite in the payload. Evidently, after liftoff, the rocket began "fishtailing" which could have ended up with the rocket heading toward a population center. The safety range officer then was instructed to have the rocket self-destruct. If you've ever seen the film footage of one of these test failures, you can understand how many of us are wowed by the explosive potential of all that rocket fuel; but on that day, it had to be quite a let-down for all involved.

Preparing for Above-Ground Minuteman test.

On the same day as the Jupiter launch, there was a successful test launch of a Minuteman ICBM from a silo. The "silo" is the hardened underground launch tube where an ICBM is expected to survive a blast if necessary and then be launched at our enemies. The Minuteman was quite an advance over the Jupiters (short range IRBM) and the Atlas (ICBM long range). If you're interested, make a trip up to the Hill Air Force Base Museum up in Roy, Utah to see an actual Minuteman missile (although a later model).

Assembling the Transit-1A satellite.

A Navy satellite, Transit 1A, was launched from Earth on September 17 on a Thor-Able rocket. The Transit series of satellites were the fore-runners of our modern GPS satellites. The job of the Transit was to send signals to US submarines which had nuclear missiles onboard. The signals would help the submarine accurately plot its position and the course of the nuclear missile in case of nuclear war. This was a vital priority for our defense against nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the payload failed to separate from the third stage, and of course then failed to go into orbit. This seems like a bad week for launches in 1959...

X-15 (No. 2) safe on the runway.

Although the 17th had one failure, it also had a success. The X-15 program was performing well. The second craft for the program had previously successfully dropped from its B-52 mothership and landed on the long runways at Edwards AFB. Now it was time to test the rocket engine in a powered flight.

Scott Crossfield in pressure suit.

The pilot was Scott Crossfield, one of the best test pilots. The No. 2 was released and the rocket engine ignited, and we now had two successful X-15 rocketplanes. Scott was the first man to fly at twice the speed of sound in the Douglas Skyrocket, a successor to the X-1 series of rocketplanes. He had flown 99 missions in the X-1 and the Skyrocket, and helped design the X-15. Interestingly, he did not become a NASA astronaut. Keep in mind though, that X-15 pilots flew so high in their craft that they were awarded special astronaut wings.

The week ended on a very good note, despite the rocket failures.

Vanguard III replica in a museum.

On September 18, Vanguard III lifted off and reached orbit. The last in its series, this satellite had a main mission to study Earth's magnetic field, but it also completed experiments in X-ray radiation. It had sensitive micro-meteorite detectors so it could discover more about potential hazards of Earth-orbiting craft. Vanguard III is still up there, along with its siblings, and although it has long ago quit functioning, it should remain in orbit for about 241 more years - along with Vanguards I and II!
Because they can be detected from Earth, we can still study the effects of atmospheric drag on their cone-and-sphere-shaped bodies, which means we are still actually getting data with their help. Go Vanguards!

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