Monday, April 23, 2012

50 YA: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

X-15 #1 on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB, CA.

Fifty years ago this last week, NASA was making advances in aviation and space, while still suffering mishaps on the way to landing a man on the Moon. To help engineers and scientists better understand how to use technology to pilot craft in the fringe regions of the upper atmosphere, NASA continued using the X-15 rocket plane program. On April 19, 1962, NASA pilot Joe Walker flew the X-15 number 3 craft for its 50th successful flight. The X-15 was lifted high by a B-52 "mothership" and released over the Edwards AFB desert lakebed. The mission for this flight was to test an emergency flight control system. Walker reached a speed of Mach 5.84 (that's about 3,920 mph!) and an altitude of 150,000 feet!

Joe Walker posing with the number 2 X-15.

Joe Walker was NASA's first pilot to fly the X-15, even though he was chosen second after Scott Crossfield. On his first flight on the X-15, he hadn't been really ready for the crushing G-Force acceleration, and when he was shoved back into his seat he blurted out, "Oh My God!" A flight controller, hearing the exclamation, jokingly responded, "Yes, you called?"

Not one to sit on its laurels, NASA proceeded with additional flights. The next day, April 20, 1962, NASA pilot Neil Armstrong flew the X-15 #3 on a mission to 207,000 feet high at a speed of Mach 5.33. We'll hear more from Neil Armstrong, of course.

X-15 #3 lands at Edwards AFB, shadowed by an F-104 chase plane.

Neil Armstrong posing with X-15 number 1.

On April 22, 1962, famous woman pilot Jacqueline Cochran flew a Lockheed Jetstar (AF designation: C-140) over the Atlantic ocean to become the first woman to fly a jet over the Atlantic ocean. The flight took off from New Orleans, LA. and landed at Hannover, Germany for a distance of 5,120 miles. The flight as a woman pilot qualified her for 49 world records.

Cochrane in cockpit, with Chuck Yeager (first to break the sound barrier) standing.

NASA Jetstar.

While aviation records were being made, on April 23, NASA tried to send the Ranger IV probe to the Moon. Launched from the Atlantic Missile Range, an Atlas-Agena blasted off with the Ranger IV on board and successfully entered Earth's orbit. NASA then configured the Agena-B booster for a trajectory to the Moon and activated the engine. Evidently, a failure occurred in the timer on board the Ranger IV payload and the vehicle lost both internal and ground control. With the spacecraft off course, NASA engineers calculated the Ranger IV would skim the edge of the Moon and eventually would crash onto the far side of the Moon. No experiments survived and no data was recorded.

Atlas-Agena B liftoff. The Atlas rocket is the same rocket NASA was now using for the Mercury launches.

The crash would occur on April 26th. The Ranger IV spacecraft was very similar to Ranger III, and was designed to take several minutes of pictures before crashing into the surface of the Moon facing the Earth. Because of the faulty trajectory however, the crash onto the backside of the Moon prevented a line-of-sight radio transmission.

Ranger IV in the assembly room.

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