Wednesday, June 5, 2013

50 Years Ago: Rocket Tragedies and Triumphs

Titan II on Launch Pad, Cape Canaveral.

Fifty Years ago, the US Air Force and NASA Engineers were continuing to test and modify a multitude of rockets and ICBMS (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles). The Titan series were being modified to carry astronauts in NASA's Gemini program, soon to start now that the Mercury Program had come to a conclusion. On May 29th, 1963, a Titan II rocket was launched from Launch Complex 15 at Cape Canaveral. It was the 16th launch from LC-15. Nine flights had been mostly successful, yet six had encountered problems or come up short in meeting the mission goals. The last Titan launch had been the 1,400th rocket launched from the Cape, on May 21 (may have been May 24th) which successfully placed its test payload more than 6,500 miles down the AMR (Atlantic Missile Range).

Not so successful.

Fifty seconds into the flight, fuel began to leak into the engine compartment and started a fire. The rocket lost control at at 55 seconds of flight, it blew up spectacularly.

Rocket garden at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.

Also on May 29, a target payload previously launched by a Titan I missile began to re-enter the atmosphere. Waiting for it was a Nike-Zeus rocket, fired from the Kwajalein Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The rocket warhead successfully intercepted the target coming down. This shows that even this early in rocket development, the US was able to see hope in the idea of defense against nuclear missiles. It would be politics that would shut that effort down eventually, only to see it be resurrected  later by Presidents Reagan and Bush (43).

Minuteman I on display.

Tests also continued on the Minuteman ICBMs, which used a solid rocket fuel motor. May 29th was a busy day, as a Minuteman took off from either LC31 or LC32 and placed its payload 4,000 miles down the AMR. This was the last launch of the Minuteman tests by Boeing personnel, future launches would be by the Air Force.

Minuteman II in flight.

Minuteman I on pad LC-31/32.

Minuteman family of vehicles.

On June 5, A minuteman II was launched over the Atlantic, successfully placing its payload all the way out near Ascension Island. On the other coast, an Atlas E rocket lifted off from Vandenberg AFB the day before.

Polaris missile on pad 29 at Cape Canaveral.

It wasn't just NASA and the Air Force launching rockets. The Navy was in on it, too. On June 6th, the Navy sent up a Polaris A-3 rocket from launch Complex 29. The Polaris system was designed for launch from nuclear-powered submarines.

Polaris family of rockets.

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