Three paths were initially advanced for reaching the U. S. goal of launching a satellite. Those were (1) a relatively heavy payload to be launched with the air force’s Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, (2) an extension of the army’s Jupiter Intermediate – Range Interballistic Missile (IRBM) development program by Wernher von Braun’s group at Huntsville, Alabama (Orbiter), and (3) a launch vehicle based on the navy – managed Viking and Aerobee-Hi sounding rockets (Vanguard).
Atlas With its origin in the early 1950s, and with the initiation of its all-out high-priority development in May 1954 following the first U. S. fusion nuclear bomb
OPENING SPACE RESEARCH
tests, the Atlas was being developed as the first U. S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).
In 1955, when the satellite launch vehicle debate was unfolding, the air force put forth a proposal for a 150-pound satellite to be launched by the Atlas rocket. They considered that weight to be the minimum payload required to perform the experiments that they envisioned. They emphasized that the Atlas would ultimately be capable of placing hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds into orbit. Furthermore, it would use proven components, use only two stages, subject the payloads to relatively low acceleration forces, and offer the advantage over the other two proposals of simplicity of design. They acknowledged clearly, however, that it would not be possible for them to launch even a minimal satellite without interfering with the ICBM development, because of competition for facilities, propulsion sources, and skilled personnel.
An additional negative factor was that the first test flight of the Atlas was not due until well into the IGY period, and its availability in time for a satellite launch before the end of the IGY was questionable. There was also concern that use of the country’s primary ICBM missile for the IGY satellite might confuse the desired distinction between the country’s military programs and the nonmilitary IGY research endeavor.1
The Atlas made its first (unsuccessful) test flight on 11 June 1957, and partly successful test launches were achieved by September 1958. The first completely successful launch, with a realistic payload and traveling the planned distance, took place on 28 November, over a year after the Sputnik 1 launch. Three weeks later, on 18 December 1958, an Atlas B was placed in Earth orbit as Project SCORE. That “Christmas Satellite” caused a major sensation by broadcasting a prerecorded Christmas message from President Eisenhower.
The Atlas eventually became a true workhorse of the spacecraft-launching stable, first for air force military and intelligence missions, and then for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space exploration missions.
It is a fascinating note of history that each of the first two space-faring countries used the launch of a payload into Earth orbit as the first public demonstration of the prowess of their ICBMs. The Soviet Sputnik 1 launch occurred only six weeks after the first fully successful R-7 ICBM test launch, and the Atlas SCORE launch occurred only three weeks after the first successful Atlas ICBM launch.
Since the Soviet Sputnik launch was achieved about 14 months before the U. S. SCORE launch, it led to a public perception that the USSR was ahead, not only in missilery, but by extension, in the whole broad arena of technology. That proved to be not true, as even at that time, the United States had a strong lead in missile guidance and general electronics technologies. Overtime, the advantage of the initially superior Soviet lifting capability was overcome by the U. S. lead in other high technologies. It
CHAPTER 7 • THE U. S. SATELLITE COMPETITION 179
resulted, in a little over a decade, in the United States placing humans on the Moon’s surface, while the Soviets had to abandon their efforts to do so.
Hermes, Redstone, Orbiter, and Jupiter C Wernher von Braun’s team moved from Fort Bliss, Texas, to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1950. That group formed the Guided Missile Development Division in the army’s Department of Ordnance. It was reorganized as the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) in February 1956 following the Department of Defense approval of their Jupiter program.
The group’s first task at Huntsville was to develop the Hermes rocket. Over time, that rocket evolved into the Redstone IRBM. Both were easily recognized descendents of the German V-2 rocket, which had demonstrated its technical soundness and utility through over 60 firings in Texas, plus two flights with Women’s Army Corps (WAC) second stages (called Bumper rockets) from Cape Canaveral, and one flight from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway.
Although the exact date of origin of the Redstone project is indistinct, the Redstone name was attached on 8 April 1952. The Redstone missile made its first test flight in August 1953 and its first successful full-range flight in January 1954.2 By the time of the president’s announcement in July 1955 of the U. S. intent to mount a satellite effort, eight Redstone test launches had been made with varying degrees of success. By the time of the Sputnik launch in October 1957, 19 additional test firings had occurred, and all but 4 of those performed successfully. By then, the missile was approaching operational deployment status. That deployment was made to Europe in June 1958.
Von Braun’s eyes had been set toward space since his early rocket flights in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, and even during the wartime V-2 development at Peenemtinde. After he and his team came to the United States following World War II (WWII), and while their primary work under army auspices was being directed toward the development of short – and intermediate-range military rockets, he and his associates continued to dream of rocketing into space.3 4
Thus, from early in the Redstone development at Huntsville, von Braun was thinking of using it to launch a satellite. Ernst Stuhlinger, his senior scientist, recalled, “Sometime in 1952, von Braun remarked to me: ‘With the Redstone, we could do it.’—‘Do what?’ was my answer. ‘Launch a satellite, of course!’ And then, he described how three small stages of solid propellant rockets on top of a Redstone, ignited when the rocket had reached its apex point, could put a small satellite into orbit.”5
While that idea languished for some time within all governmental circles, enthusiasm for space flight was growing in other arenas. For several years beginning in about 1952, the American Rocket Society (ARS) and the British Interplanetary Society featured articles on possible launching rockets, satellites, and the mechanics of interplanetary flight.
OPENING SPACE RESEARCH
It was in late 1953 that several far-thinking individuals became increasingly convinced that the time had come for more concrete action. In June 1954, Commander George W. Hoover at the Office of Naval Research and Frederick C. Durant III, president of the International Astronautical Federation, convened a meeting in the navy’s old temporary wooden building T-3 on Constitution Avenue. That meeting included von Braun, Ernst Stuhlinger, Gerhard Heller, Rudolf Schlidt, and several others from Huntsville; as well as Fred L. Whipple (chairman of the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University); S. Fred Singer (physicist at the University of Maryland); David Young (Aerojet General Corporation); and Alexander Satin (chief engineer in the Air Branch of the Office of Naval Research). Hoover opened the meeting with the words, “Gentlemen, the time has come to stop talking and start doing. We will now go ahead and build a satellite.”6
Von Braun proposed using the Redstone rocket and a three-stage Loki cluster as the satellite launcher. The Loki was a simple antiaircraft rocket being routinely produced by the Aerophysics Corporation. The launcher’s second stage would consist of 24 Lokis, the third stage would use 6, and the final stage would consist of a single Loki with a five pound satellite payload. His concept was immediately embraced by the meeting attendees.
Fred Singer and some of his colleagues in Britain had suggested, as early as 1952, a 100 pound scientific satellite, which he called the Minimum Orbiting Unmanned Satellite of the Earth (MOUSE). At the 1954 meeting, it was clear that that large a satellite could not be lofted with currently available technology. Nevertheless, Singer was enthusiastic about the proposed five pound satellite program as a first step.
The overall concept that emerged from that meeting was code-named Project Slug to help keep it out of sight of the many who were heavily involved in military politics. The idea was presented to the Chief of Naval Research soon after the meeting. After study there by Milton W. Rosen and John W. Townsend Jr., he gave official approval for further investigation and authorized conversations between the navy and von Braun’s group at Huntsville.
On 3 August 1954, the navy representatives went to Huntsville for a meeting with then-colonel Toftoy and von Braun to discuss further details. Following that meeting, Toftoy went to Washington for a discussion with Major General Leslie Simon, the assistant chief of Army Ordnance. Simon stated that he would work with the navy on this project provided it would not slow the army’s missile weapons programs. The chief of naval research followed that by giving the Office of Naval Research’s Air Branch authority to proceed with preliminary studies. During those interactions, the name “Project Orbiter” emerged, and Commander Hoover became its project officer.
It was agreed that the army group at Huntsville would be responsible for the complete launching vehicle, while the navy would design the satellite and provide
CHAPTER 7 • THE U. S. SATELLITE COMPETITION 181
the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL’s) Minitrack system, other ground tracking facilities, and logistics support and would acquire the data. It was expected that they would be ready for a launch in 1956 from an island near the equator.
In September 1954, von Braun and some of his coworkers prepared a paper, “A Minimum Satellite Vehicle Based on Components Available From Missile Development of the Army Ordnance Corps.” The paper, submitted to army authorities as a classified document, provided many details of the design, performance, and operation of the suggested system. The paper asserted that a five pound satellite could be built with components available from their weapon developments. He suggested that a joint army-navy-air force “Minimum Satellite Vehicle Project” be established.
It was some time later that the Huntsville engineers suggested that the Redstone rocket might be upgraded by lengthening its tanks and substituting hydyne for alcohol as the fuel. With those changes, they believed that a satellite weight of 15 pounds could be orbited.
The efforts to sell the Orbiter concept continued on other fronts. On 24 November 1954, the ARS Space Flight Committee that was mentioned earlier submitted an open proposal based on the Orbiter concept. Titled “On the Utility of an Unmanned Earth Satellite,” it was submitted to the U. S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The proposal stressed the use of such a satellite in studies of astronomy, astrophysics, biology, communications, geodesy, and geophysics. Although the NSF did not act on the proposal, being preoccupied with other planning for the upcoming IGY, the ARS continued to promote the idea using its own resources.
William Pickering and his staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) were brought into the Orbiter planning as a full partner after the ABMA and NRL sent their proposal to Pickering for JPL’s review in late 1954.
The evolving proposal was submitted to Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald A. Quarles, in charge of army research and development, on 20 January 1955. Recognizing the growing interest in launching satellites within all three of the U. S. military services, and of growing indications of a similar interest in the Soviet Union, Quarles, instead of acting on the proposal, established a new Ad Hoc Committee on Special Capabilities chaired by Homer J. C. Stewart. The committee came to be known as the Stewart Committee. Its task was to recommend which of the competing U. S. proposals ought to be supported.
An important decision was quietly made internally by the U. S. National Committee for the IGY on 14 March 1955 that the United States should initiate a satellite program. However, no public announcement of that decision was made, and it was only later that the Orbiter proponents learned of that decision.
Even as the Stewart Committee was being formed, planning for Project Orbiter continued. One feature of the Redstone-based launch vehicle was that it could be
OPENING SPACE RESEARCH
launched from a fully mobile launch platform that could be set up in short order at any location. In April, the Office of Naval Research began planning for a launch site survey in the Gilbert Islands in the Western Pacific. They planned that the survey expedition would depart in the spring of 1957, and that the actual Orbiter launch could take place in midsummer or the fall of that year.
Orbiter came to an abrupt end as an officially sanctioned project in September 1955, when the Stewart Committee made its recommendation and the Army Policy Committee and Quarles made the decision to proceed with the Vanguard launcher.
The Redstone rocket had a range of several hundred miles. The army needed a longer – range missile, and the Huntsville group proposed a 1500 mile IRBM in July 1955. Planning progressed throughout the rest of 1955, culminating in full approval of the program in December of that year and its official designation as the Jupiter program in April 1956.7
The first two phases of the Jupiter flight-testing program employed Redstone – based configurations to make early tests of certain critical new Jupiter technologies and components. Although built upon the Redstone rocket, they were considered part of the Jupiter development program and carried the Jupiter designation. Among other reasons, that kept them high on the priority list for procurements, and for testing at Cape Canaveral.
The first of those test configurations was called the Jupiter A. It made its first preliminary firing in September 1955 and its first fully successful flight to test the Jupiter inertial guidance system six weeks later. Over the Jupiter A lifetime, ending in June 1958, 25 vehicles were fired to test various components of the Jupiter IRBM. Twenty of those were mission successes, two were rated as partial successes, and only three failed.
Among other things, it was proposed that the Jupiter missile program use a new concept for dissipating the heat generated as the nose cone carrying the warhead reentered the atmosphere. The air force had adopted a heatsink approach for its ICBM. That depended on the absorption of the heat of reentry by a large mass of metal on the nose cone’s leading surface. The army team recognized that use of a high-temperature insulating ceramic on the nose cone offered the possibility of achieving the same result more economically. Ablation—conversion of the solid material directly into vapor as it heated—would carry away the reentry heat with a much smaller weight penalty.
The ablation approach represented completely new territory. Rather than incurring the delay, expense, and uncertainty of waiting to test that new concept by live firings of the full Jupiter missile after it became flight worthy, a new Redstone-based configuration was devised to provide a much earlier and lower-cost test, using readily available components. That second Jupiter test configuration, introduced into the program in
CHAPTER 7 • THE U. S. SATELLITE COMPETITION 183
mid-1955, was known as Jupiter C—standing for Jupiter-Composite. It was often referred to as the Reentry Test Vehicle (RTV). Permission and funds were obtained to build a dozen Jupiter C vehicles for that purpose
Not surprisingly, the RTV looked like an incarnation of the Orbiter launcher! It consisted of the Redstone first stage, plus two of the three upper Orbiter stages. The originally proposed Loki rockets were replaced in August-September 1955 by a smaller number of somewhat larger rockets, following a suggestion by Homer Stewart at JPL. The so-called scaled-Sergeant rockets were an outgrowth of JPL’s contract with the army to develop the Sergeant IRBM. The reduced size test rocket was built so that early developmental tests could be made on candidate formulations for the Sergeant rocket fuel. They were six inches in diameter, and 11 of those small rockets formed the Jupiter C second stage, while three made up its third stage.
The RTV (Jupiter C) configuration, though inelegant, was remarkably simple and robust. Three firings were made as a part of the Jupiter nose cone-testing program. The first, to demonstrate the soundness of the multiple-stage design, took place on 20 September 1956, over a year before Sputnik 1 was launched by the Soviets. For that launch, Von Braun was explicitly directed not to include an active fourth stage, to ensure that it would not “end up in space” and preempt the Vanguard program. In fact, the Pentagon brass, being fully aware of the great passion of the Huntsville group for space flight, sent a monitor to Cape Canaveral for the express purpose of ensuring that a live fourth stage was not “accidentally” mounted on top of the assembly. The payload for that first test consisted primarily of sand to simulate the weight of a scaled Jupiter nose cone. That test was fully successful, with the inert payload achieving a maximum velocity of about 12,000 miles per hour, a height of 682 miles, and a range of 3400 miles.
It was clear to all involved that a live final stage could have achieved orbit.
Two more flights of the Jupiter C carried scaled nose cones as their payloads. One on May 1957 was a partial flight success, with the missile taking an erratic course because of a guidance system malfunction. The nose cone from that flight lit at sea too far from the planned impact area to be recovered. A brilliantly successful third flight took place on 8 August 1957, with the nose cone being recovered and publicly displayed by President Eisenhower.
The success of that flight demonstrated the validity of the ablation-type nose cone design, and the nose cone-testing program ended. Nine remaining sets of Jupiter C hardware were in various stages of construction but no longer needed for their original purpose. Some of them were carefully stored “for any possible future use” (i. e., for launching satellites).
Aerobee, Aerobee-Hi, Viking, and Vanguard As the V-2 program in Texas was winding down in the late 1940s, the two stage Aerobee rocket was developed to provide
OPENING SPACE RESEARCH
a vehicle for continuing the country’s upper atmosphere scientific research program. It was developed by the Aerojet General Corporation and Douglas Aircraft Company under contracts from the Navy Office of Research and Inventions (predecessor to the NRL). Funding was provided by the U. S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance.
James A. Van Allen, at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, was a major instigator and overseer for the Aerobee program. He provided technical oversight throughout its development and early use, and prepared some of the instruments for Aerobee flights until he left Johns Hopkins in late 1950.
The completely assembled Aerobee, with its booster, main rocket, and nose cone, measured a little over 26 feet in length and 15 inches in diameter, with a gross weight at launching of 1068 pounds.8 Unguided, it was capable of carrying 150 pounds of payload instruments in a nose cone about 88 inches long by 15 inches in diameter at its base. During launch, the solid stage booster carried the rocket to a height of about 1000 feet, where the liquid-fueled main engine ignited. The 45-second thrust of that main engine, followed by its coasting after burnout, carried the rocket to its peak height.
The Aerobee enjoyed a remarkable record of performance in the U. S. suborbital high-altitude research program.9 Its first static test firing occurred on 25 September 1947, quickly followed by the first successful launch of an instrumented payload on 24 November. Most of the early Aerobees were launched from the army’s White Sands and nearby Holloman Air Force Base range facilities near El Paso, Texas. Five flights were made from two cruises of the USS Norton Sound. By the time of the Stewart Committee decision on the satellite launcher in August 1955, 55 Aerobees had been launched.
The Aerobee continued for a long time as a true workhorse—as of 17 January 1985, 1037 had been fired for a wide variety of investigations in atmospheric physics, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, astronomy, and other fields.10 The majority of the successful research flights achieved peak altitudes of from 40 to 65 miles, depending on payload weight and other factors. A record height of over 91 miles was achieved by U. S. Air Force flight 56 on 15 June 1955.
In response to a continuing need for even higher performance, an extension of the Aerobee rocket was developed, again, expressly as a carrier for upper atmospheric scientific research. Design and development began in 1952, when the navy and air force began working together with the Aerojet General Corporation. The resulting rocket retained the basic two-stage Aerobee design, but improved on the thrust-to – mass ratio of the main stage, increased the efficiency of the thrust chamber, and added more propellant.11
It was built in two versions, both designated Aerobee-Hi. The air force version, sometimes called the Air Force-Hi, was contracted in 1952, under direction of the Air
CHAPTER 7 • THE U. S. SATELLITE COMPETITION 185
Force Cambridge Research Center and the Wright Air Development Center. The navy version, likewise occasionally referred to as the Navy-Hi, was contracted in 1953, with direction from John W. Townsend Jr. of the NRL. The two versions were much the same, but the navy version contained more propellant. The air force version could carry a payload of 120 pounds to 160 miles, or 150 pounds to 145 miles. The navy version could carry 120 pounds to 180 miles, or 150 pounds to 170 miles.
The overall length of the navy Aerobee-Hi rocket, including both stages and the nose cone, was about 31 feet, and it had a diameter of 15 inches. The payload configuration was similar to that of the Aerobee—an approximately 88 inch long nose cone could accommodate up to 150 pounds. As with the Aerobee, there was no active guidance—a slow roll provided lateral stability.
At the time of the Stewart Committee’s Vanguard decision in August 1955, the Aerobee-Hi was just coming on line. The air force had test-fired two of its versions, and the navy made its first flight on 25 August.
The Aerobee-Hi rocket, too, had a distinguished record. By mid-1957, six air force launches had been made (including four test flights), and four flights achieved heights of over 100 miles. By the same time, the navy had launched 13 of theirs (including four test flights), and 7 of them reached heights of over 100 miles.
A rocket considerably larger than the Aerobee was developed for further expansion of upper atmospheric research. The NRL, under Milton Rosen’s leadership, contracted production of the rocket with the Glen L. Martin Company. The rocket was originally dubbed the Neptune, but that name was changed to Viking to avoid confusion because the navy was developing an aircraft named Neptune.12
Twelve Viking firings were made by the time of the Stewart Committee’s decision in 1955. Its record of success was outstanding throughout. There were no rocket-only developmental flights—all 12 carried instruments for upper atmospheric research. The first, launched in May 1949, achieved a height of 50 miles. Number 8 failed during a static firing. All others reached altitudes of from 31 to over 150 miles. Number 4 was fired from the afterdeck of the USS Norton Sound in May 1950 to a height of 104 miles. The others were launched from the White Sands Proving Ground in Texas.
The various launches included instruments for upper air pressure, temperature, density, winds, ionization, and composition; Earth photography; and solar and cosmic radiation studies. Especially notable firsts included the measurements of positive ion composition at an altitude of 136 miles on Viking number 10 in May 1954, and cosmic ray measurements at an altitude of 158 miles on Viking number 11, also in May 1954.
The Viking was believed at the time to be the most efficient rocket in existence. However, because of its high replication cost of about $450,000, it never became a pervasive feature of sounding rocket research. By the time of the satellite launcher
OPENING SPACE RESEARCH
deliberations, two more Vikings remained on hand out of the original purchase and were offered for use in the Vanguard program.13
In 1954, when the possibility of launching an Earth satellite was growing in the United States, and especially after President Eisenhower announced his decision to launch one in 1955, the suggestion was advanced by a group at the NRL under John P. Hagen’s leadership that a combination of the navy-developed sounding rockets be used to launch it.
That concept, named Vanguard, would employ an improved version of the Viking rocket as a first stage, a modification of the main stage of the Aerobee-Hi as a second stage, and a solid propellant rocket as a third stage. As stated above, the Viking had already achieved an enviable record of success, the Aerobee was in regular service, and the Aerobee-Hi was successfully entering service. The development of a suitable third stage was believed to be a simple extension of the currently available technology.14
The fully assembled Vanguard launch vehicle was to be 72 feet long and 45 inches in diameter at its thickest point, with an all-up weight of 22,000 pounds. The first stage Viking would burn a mixture of alcohol and gasoline, with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. Its thrust was to be 27,000 pounds during a burn of 140 seconds. Its motor was mounted in gimbals and steered to maintain the desired flight path.
The second-stage Aerobee-Hi derivative was to be powered by nitric acid and hydrazine. Its motor was also gimbaled for steering. Auxiliary jets provided stabilization during the coasting phase and spun it on its long axis just before final third-stage ignition. The second stage contained the control system for all three stages.
The second-stage nose cone contained the third-stage solid fueled rocket and its satellite payload. The third-stage rocket was unguided, but the spin imparted by the second stage averaged out variations in the thrust of its motor to keep it on a straight course.
The written Vanguard proposal included extensive content related to the development and building of the research instruments. That benefited greatly from the experience at NRL in building and flying scientific instruments in its sounding rocket programs. It was also proposed that a navy-developed system would be used for satellite tracking and data transmission. That would be a derivative of an instrument development in the Viking program—the Single-Axis Phase-Comparison Angle-Tracking Unit, later known as Minitrack.