Saturday, March 26, 2011

50 YA - Mercury-Redstone and Explorer X

Blast off from Cape Canaveral.

Fifty years ago on March 24th, NASA performed a successful test of the Mercury Capsule launched on top of the Redstone rocket. The capsule was a boiler-plate model; that is, a mock-up of the capsule with scientific measuring equipment on board. Problems that had been encountered during the launch of the chimpanzee Ham in January led Dr. Von Braun to design another test mission before he dared to place an astronaut on board. The rocket took off from Launch Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Remember that the Cape was not called Cape Kennedy yet.

Camera view from the capsule.

As a suborbital launch, the top altitude recorded was just over 113 miles up and it travelled about 300 miles downrange. The test launch confirmed that the changes made to the rocket after the previous flights were successful, and that NASA was nearly ready to launch an astronaut. The capsule did not separate from the rocket, and the rocket ended up in the Atlantic ocean, sinking to the bottom and detonating a Sofar bomb, used to send locating signals through the water to fix a location.

Mercury insignia.

Meanwhile, of course, the astronauts trained and prepared for their future flights. NASA continued to do tests on equipment, still holding off on confirming a launch date for the first manned flight. Outside of the Mercury program, of course, other space programs were under way.

Thor-Delta rocket combo on the pad.

On March 25th, 1961, Explorer X was launched from the Cape on board a Thor-Delta 3 stage rocket. The satellite was placed in a strange, elliptical orbit that reached out as far as 148,000 miles (more than halfway to the Moon!) and as close as 100 miles (VERY low orbit). On board was a special magnetometer and other instruments to study the boundary of Earth's magnetic field, and the particles and magnetic fields found there.

And of course, don't forget that the Soviets were very busy as well. On March 25th, they launched "Spacecraft 5" which contained a capsule inhabited by a little dog named "Lucky Star."

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