Watching The Space Race by Walt Staples

A Light in the October Sky

A Pratfall to the Stars

Finally! America Enters the Race with Explorer

Why All of the Sudden?

Hidden Under the Tree

Well, One Worked

An Orb in Space

The World Got Smaller

Suborbital Radio Days

The Ley of Space

High Expectations and Low Comedy

Going Ape

The Marines Have Landed!

Some (School) Assembly Necessary

Popular Science Education

A Better Engineer than Economist

A Light in the October Sky

(Note from Karina:  Hooray!  Walt Staples is joining me in this blog.  He'll be posting on Saturday about the history of the space race through the eyes of someone who grew up in it.  (I was born in '67, but my family was not into space much.))

The chill wind rattled dry leaves in the dark. The slightly darker shadow that was my father pointed into the blue-black Virginia sky, “There. See it?” I sighted up his arm as I did when he pointed out deer and other game when up on the Blue Ridge. A tiny white star crawled across the starfield much slower than the aircraft I was used to watching at night. “That's that Russian Sputnik thing,” his voice sounded  slightly disgusted, as when the problem with the TV was down to two tubes and neither looked burnt out.

“What's it doing, daddy?”

“Going over us, boy. And there's not a thing we can do about that.” He spat in the dark. We watched the light pass out of sight over Bent Mountain. He fumbled in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. His frown showed as the Zippo flared. It wasn't his angry frown; rather, it was the one he wore while working something out in his mind.

The end of his Lucky Strike brightened a couple of times before I asked, “What are we going to do about it, daddy?”

I heard him sigh. Then the starlight glinted on his false tooth as he tipped his head to the side and grinned. “Well, boy, I guess we're going to pull up our socks and get to work on it.”


People today have no idea what a shock it was to those of us Americans living in 1957, when we were mugged by the space age courtesy of the Soviet Union and their 184 pound (83.6 kg) satellite, Sputnik I. I was six, going on seven (at that age, it's important), when it was launched at 19:28 GMT (22:28 local time at the launching site, Tyuratam in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic—present day Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan) on 4 October 1957. We civilians had no warning that anything of the sort was in the wind--especially not from someone like the Russians. Embarrassing to say, at that time a lot of Americans looked upon them as backward low-tech farmers. The fact that they'd dumbfounded us with the Mig 15 and tanks that our troops' antitank rockets bounced off of seven years before in Korea was ignored. The White House, however, was quite cognizant of the Soviets' progress thanks to reconnaissance overflights by CIA piloted U2s.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been happy to keep the knowledge of the Soviets' launch ability close to his chest as he watched them. A problem that he and his advisers wrestled with was how the Soviets would view overflights of their territory by non-Soviet satellites. Their reaction to aircraft overflights was violent. A number reconnaissance planes such as A-26s and RB-29s flying offshore over the Barents Sea and off the eastern U.S.S.R. had been shot down in the years since 1946, and the Soviets were trying their best to shoot down the U2s (something they would finally manage in 1960). That the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite solved Eisenhower's problem. Unfortunately, it also gave him a new one.

As the light moved across America's skies and the ham radio hobbyists listened to its beeps the few minutes it was above the horizons, the populace for the most part went ape. After the shock wore off, spaceflight, for Americans, went from old Buster Crabb “Flash Gordon” serials the kids spent a half hour watching on TV Saturday afternoons to very serious business indeed. Hour-long “white papers” were broadcast by the three television networks (something quite striking in an era of 30 minute shows), newspapers carried any number articles and editorials about America's slide to second place in the world (both the Roanoke Times and the Roanoke World-News managed at least one front section story per day and four or five editorials per week), and satellites popped up constantly on the radio during breakfast.

All was not lost though; the American people were promised an early Christmas present when Project Vanguard would launch its satellite on 6 December 1957 and put us back in the newly begun Space Race.

A Pratfall to the Stars

The scene on the little Admiral portable TV was a graded mixture of grays punctuated by details of black and grayish white given a greenish cast by the sunglasses I wore. The bedroom itself was dim with the shades drawn that Friday forenoon. Why sunglasses in a darken room? I was down with a case of the German measles and Dr. Greer at the clinic said it was the only way I could watch TV.

It had been a lousy fall so far. In the Shenandoah Valley, it seemed to be raining constantly, even when it wasn't. There was no iron work for my father. According to him, it was President Eisenhower’s fault somehow—being six, going on seven, the reasons were kind of beyond me—something to do with Stevenson losing the year before. My birthday a few days before Thanksgiving had been okay, but this year my father failed to get a deer. But the very worst happened in the early parts of October and November—the Soviets had put not one, but two Sputniks into orbit! The second even carried a dog named Laika (the adults were careful not to mention to us kids that hers was a one-way trip). But today it was all going to turn around. About noon, Eastern time, America was launching her first satellite!

The Vanguard rocket on the screen looked more like a #2 pencil than a proper rocket like those flown by Rocky Jones: Space Ranger and Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. It lacked the streamlined bullet shape and flaring tail fins ending in landing shocks that anyone who'd watched “Destination Moon” knew were required for a true spaceship. But Vanguard was going work in spite of its lack. We knew it would. Best of all, it wasn't a war rocket like the Reds had used—it was civilian through and through (at that age, it didn't really occur to us kids to wonder why the Navy was building and launching a civilian rocket).

The TV broadcast cut into the countdown. I called to my mother, in the other room, that they were going to launch the rocket. In return, I received a, “That's nice, dear.” I shrugged. The ways of adults are many and strange. The countdown progressed, “...T-minus ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-zero-Fire.” And fire it did. A great boiling ball of flame engulfed the lower half of the rocket, which fell over as its nose cone came off, and totally disappeared in a larger fireball. Time stopped. Apparently, the TV announcer was frozen just as was I. His silence stretched.

I don't remember what came next that soggy 6th of December in 1957. It didn't really matter anymore.


Project Vanguard was one of three programs in the running to loft the first American satellite. The Army was pushing its Explorer program to launch using a modified Redstone ballistic missile. The Air Force was pitching a program using their as then unbuilt Atlas missile. The Navy's Vanguard used an outgrowth of an atmospheric sounding rocket, the Viking. As the White House was unsure just how the Soviets were going to react to an American satellite passing overhead every 90-some minutes, it was decided to go for a launch system without the merest hint of military development in its linage. Vanguard got the nod as the least warlike.

The mission of Vanguard TV3 (or, as we knew it at the time, Vanguard I) was three-fold officially: Put a satellite in orbit for the International Geophysical Year, do at least one experiment while in orbit, and be successfully tracked from the ground while in orbit. Its unofficial mission was to ameliorate our looking like fools before the world.

The reaction of the American public, once it got over its collective cringe at Vanguard's failure live on TV within the 48 U.S. states (our ability to make fools of ourselves live on TV broadcast all over the world would come later with Telstar—a event five years in the future), was a combination of wry humor and a determination to get it right next time.

The gallows humor took the form of jokes such as:

            “How does a Cape Canaveral countdown go?”
            “...5-4-3-2-1-oh, hell!”

Even in the 1961 movie comedy “One, Two, Three,” an East German character when asked why he wants to build rockets for the Russians answers, “Because with Russian rocket, Mars! Venus! Jupiter! With American rocket, Miami Beach!”

The determination to succeed was signaled when concerns about the launch vehicle's bloodlines were cast to the winds and Wernher von Braun and the Army came up to bat.

Finally! America Enters the Race with Explorer


The TV picture was crystal clear—which by today's standards means it was grainy and in living black and white. The thing that caught the eye was the spinning cylinder at the top of the rocket, just below the last stage. That one side was painted white and the other black made it seem to almost blink. Black chevrons running between a pair of black bands encircling the second stage screamed that the launch vehicle was a product of Wernher von Braun's Redstone Arsenal shop (I didn't know it at the time, but the Army did this with their domesticated V2s and later American made rockets that they launched from White Sands so they could study the rockets' roll pattern). The night scene on the TV lit up as flame billowed up around the lower part of the rocket. Rather than tiredly falling over and exploding as in the previous launch attempt of an American satellite, the Army's rocket rose slowly into the dark sky. Explorer I was on it's way. We were in space!


Explorer's launch was a bright spot in the winter of my family's discontent. The launch occurred near the cusp of 31 December-1 February 1958 (22:48 EST, 31 December and 03:48 GMT, 1 February). At the time, I was safely in bed (when you're seven, you have to put up with such ridiculous hours as a 20:00 bedtime—thank you, WSLS-Channel 10 for the early news on Saturdays). The Wednesday before, my mother and I put my father on a Piedmont DC-3 to Corning, New York. He'd given up trying to make ends meet working for a Roanoke exterminator and Corning Glass was the closest anyone was erecting steel. We'd get to see him for a weekend every three months.

Explorer's launch had an electric effect on Americans. Suddenly, we were in the race. The jokes stopped...mostly, and people were eager to scan the papers for stories about spaceflight. For us kids, Christmas came twice in 1958. As far as we were concerned, the Army was ten feet tall! (The Navy returned to our good graces when Monogram Models' 1/48th scale F4U Corsair appeared on drugstore shelves that spring—you just can't stay mad at a service that flew such a neat airplane.) Proof that America had entered the Space Age came Christmas 1958 when Marx Toys' Cape Canaveral playset pushed aside their Dinosaur Land playset from under the tree.

At the time, everyone knew the Explorer launch vehicle as the “Jupiter-C,” an outgrowth of the Army's Redstone nuclear-capable ballistic missile. To the illuminati, it was actually designated the Juno 1 to distinguish it from the original Jupiter-C which was used in 1956 and 1957 for suborbital flights as a re-entry vehicle testbed.

The Explorer satellite, itself, was shaped like a mini-rocket rather than a ball like its predecessors, weighing in at about 31 pounds (14 kg), and was produced by the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), a truly wonderful place.

One of the things the Army was keeping under its helmet was that the data on cosmic ray strikes they were receiving from Explorer wasn't adding up. Instead of the nice steady rate of comic ray strikes they expected, when the satellite was at about 300 miles (500 km), Explorer received the expected hits; when it rose to 1,250+ miles (2,000+ km), it said there were no hits at all. It wasn't until the launch of Explorer III that a team under Dr. James Van Allen at the University of Iowa tumbled to what was going on—the Earth's magnetic field had a pair of belts of charged particles trapped in space and the detector was swamped at the higher altitude. These belts were christened the “Van Allen Belt” for some reason. (Oh, and Explorer II? It failed to reach orbit when it was launched on 5 March 1958, so we don't like to talk about it.)

A second thing under that helmet was that, supposedly, von Braun and the Army were ordered in 1956 by the White House not to attempt to orbit a satellite. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted the first satellite orbited by a squeaky-clean civilian rocket. After the civilian bird (built by the Naval Research Laboratory) laid an egg, Washington burnt up the phone lines to Huntsville looking to get something—anything--into orbit. And orbit they did.

Why All of the Sudden?

The Sputnik I and II, Vanguard I, and Explorer I launches all hit around the end of 1957--beginning of 1958. Why? Even at the advanced age of seven, it never occurred to me that this was a nexus in history. At that age, things just happened with little or no rhyme or reason. The only things you could depend on were Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy—everything else was up for grabs.  About all a kid could do was enjoy the good parts and try to keep their head down through the bad. I was really only aware that suddenly rockets seemed to be popping out of the woodwork as the Americans and Soviets tried to outdo each other.

The reason for this somewhat unsightly scramble was that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had pledged to join just about every other country in the world in taking part in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18 month period that would encompass research on the Earth sciences. The only two major  countries that didn't take part in the IGY were the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Peoples Republic of China (the mainland), who were too busy trying to kill each other at the time to worry about minor matters such as the Earth and what made it tick.

One of the main thrusts of the IGY was research revolving around the polar regions. True to the IGY's roots in the periodic International Polar Year scientific efforts, Antarctica was the scene of intense collaboration involving around 68 scientific organizations. For those of us following from the sidelines through TV, radio, newsreels, newspapers, and magazines such as Life and Look, it was pretty much accepted as a seamless continuation of the Navy's Operation Deep Freeze (the first two, Deep Freeze I and II, 1955-57), the building up of bases, stores, and equipment for the coming studies.

Aside from the two Sputnik orbital launches and the Vanguard misstep, there were 92 successful or attempted suborbital launches in support of the IGY from July 1957 to the end of the year, and, in 1958, 6 successful orbital missions out of 28 tries and 133 successful or attempted suborbital launches. Most of the suborbital launches were small sounding rockets such as the Aerobee and Britain's Skylark (the latter launched from Woomera, in South Australia). It's thought that some of the Soviet launches may have been in support of the IGY, but, as is often the case at that time, things start getting murky once one moves east of the Fulda Gap.

1958 also ushered in a number of failed efforts to launch exploratory probes to the moon. The Americans were ahead of the Soviets in blowing up lunar probes, with their first unsuccessful try at sending Pioneer 0 to the moon in August. The Soviets weren't able to lose their first lunar probe, Luna E-1 1 (NASA designation Luna 1958A), until September. Pioneer 1 and Luna E-1 2 (NASA designation Luna 1958B) were lost the same day, 11 October. The pain continued with Pioneer 2's failure to reach the moon in early November.

While the IGY was wildly successful with such discoveries as the Van Allen Belt, the corpuscular nature of radiation from the solar wind, and the non-space related evidence for the theory of Continental Drift provided by the discovery of the mid-ocean ridges, one question still stumped the American people--the why of an 18 month year eluded just about everyone not actually involved. Even the characters of Walt Kelly's popular comic strip, “Pogo,” seemed equally bemused, as Howland Owl and Churchy the turtle wonder if it meant the imposition of the ten-and-a-half-day week. I think my father summed up the feelings of many when, having just watched several heavy-hitters of science trying to explain it to “Today Show” host Dave Garroway, he quietly remarked, “I'm not totally sure some of those folks are from this planet.”

For more information:

Hidden Under the Tree

If you are the U.S. Air Force and you need to hide a spy satellite and its 95 foot (29 m) long launch vehicle from the KGB, where would you stash it? In 1959, the answer was: in plain sight under the Christmas tree of nearly every nine-year-old boy in America.

It was the day after Christmas, 1959, and times were good. We'd moved north from the Shenandoah Valley to the Virginia suburbs of Washington the year before. With the military building like crazy, there was enough steady ironwork that my father was able to live at home, and my mother had a job at the five-sided puzzle palace next to the Potomac. The trend for me that Christmas revolved around the Cold War and things airborne, the two major gifts being a Steve Canyon Jet Fighter Helmet and a Jet Interceptor Fighter Cockpit. Among the lesser--but still very appreciated--gifts were several model kits. This is where I and my parents colluded with the CIA and the Air Force in their security subterfuge, as one of the kits was a plastic model of the Discoverer weather satellite and its Thor-Agena launch vehicle.


The Corona program was a CIA “black” operation that used satellites launched by the Air Force for photo reconnaissance and electronic signals intelligence gathering (ELINT). The Air Force also provided in-flight recovery of the reentry capsules or “film buckets.” Discoverer was the “cover” for the secret program. This continued until 1962, when the Discoverer program was officially retired with Discoverer 38 and all flight activities moved over into total secrecy. The Corona program finally ended in 1972.

Development of Corona began in 1956 as the Discoverer program. From 1958 to 1969, The equipment was manufactured at Lockheed's Hiller Aircraft facility in Palo Alto. After that production was moved to Lockheed's Sunnyvale plant.

An interesting wrinkle of the program was the preferred method of recovery. A specially equipped U.S. Air Force C-119 “Flying Boxcar,” using a trapeze, would snatch the film bucket in midair as it descended after reentry. The bucket would then be brought aboard the aircraft through the open rear cargo doors between the tail booms. If the aircraft missed the catch and the film bucket hit the water, a time-delay device would allow it to float long enough for the Navy to recover it or, failing that, would sink it before anyone else could grab it.

Corona/Discoverer was declassified by President Bill Clinton starting in 1992.

Thinking back to that Second Day of Christmas, Boxing Day, or Feast of Stephen (as you prefer), it makes a body feel good to know that at the tender age of nine, I was aiding in my country's defense as I opened the supposed weather satellite kit's box and surveyed the white plastic parts.

Well, One Worked

It was two days after my ninth birthday that NBC's Chet Huntley announced yet another Pioneer mission failure. This time the third stage and the Pioneer lunar orbiter (Pioneer P-3, fifth in the series) were stripped off of the Atlas-Able launch combination by the slipstream after its aerodynamic shroud (read nosecone) was shredded. At the time, this didn't particularly upset me. Watching American efforts since Vanguard had taught me that most American launches go wrong—it was like me and spelling tests.

The watching the early Pioneer program was rather like watching the progression of Commanders of the Army of the Potomac during the War Between the States/American Civil War (“Our own beloved General George Mead is now Commander; the fifth if you keep count as they go by.” – Buster Kilrain in the movie, “Gettysburg”). Unfortunately, this fifth Pioneer launch was a dud just as were the previous four. NASA would have to launch an eighth before they found their George Mead.

Four months later, something weird happened at Cape Canaveral. At 13:00 GMT on 11 March 1960—a Pioneer launch actually worked. Pioneer 5 (eight in the series), known to us kids as the “paddle-wheel satellite,” was inserted into a solar orbit by its Thor-Able launch vehicle.

We referred to the 75 pound (34 kilo) satellite as the “Paddle-wheel Satellite” for good reason. Protruding from its 26 inch (66 cm) diameter sides were what could only be described as four “paddles.” The paddles in reality were solar arrays to power the four science packages on board. The  four packages consisted of an instrument to detect charged solar particles, a magnetometer to measure magnetic fields of both of Earth and those in interplanetary space, a cosmic ray detector, and a micrometeorite impact detector. The solar cells were so few that collected data had to be saved and sent to Earth in four 25 minute spurts spread over 24 hours. The signals were received at England's Jodrell Bank Observatory (a place familiar to Dr. Who fans) and the Air Force's Hawaii Tracking Station at Kaena Point on Oahu (originally built for the Discovery/Corona program of reconnaissance satellites). The last data was received on 30 April 1960 and the last signal of any kind was received at Jodrell Bank on 26 June 1960 when Pioneer 5 was 22.5 million miles (36.2 million km) from Earth.

The results from the instrumentation were mixed. Magnetic fields were successfully measured, as was cosmic radiation and particles from solar flares. Unfortunately, the micrometeorite counter was overwhelmed with hits.

Two more lunar Pioneer missions returned to the project's accustomed trend with failures. The last being Pioneer Z, on 15 December 1960, when the upper stage of its Atlas-Able failed.

The early Pioneer program, whether attempting to put up a lunar orbiter, solar orbiter, or lunar flyby, was a reasonably consistent string of disasters, marred only by its single success. As one English friend put it, “I think it just shows the sheer bloody-mindedness of you Yanks.” (I prefer to think of it as being “firm and steadfast of purpose.”) The “Pioneer” name would later be resurrected for a wildly successful series of interplanetary probes that would launch between 1965 and 1978.

An Orb in Space

I must admit to a disgusting family trait—we're morning people. I was actually awake and alert when I saw the balloon floating in space that warm August 1960 morning. I was up at my usual 05:00, had eaten breakfast (found the dinosaur in the cereal box—same one as in the last three), and was waiting for Sunrise Semester to come on TV. The Friday before, a photo of a huge silver balloon in a hanger was shown on NBC's Huntley and Brinkley (I forget which one did the story). Across the front was “N.A.S.A.” in equally huge letters—they didn't lose the periods until years later. According to the report, a radio signal had been bounced off the balloon, Echo 1. Standing in the darkness of our backyard, I watched the horizon over the small pine thicket. After some 15 or 20 minutes, a bright point of light, about the magnitude of Aldebaran (0.87) crawled into sight. I watched until it disappeared over the ridge of Colonel Coon's roof across the street. Then I went back in and watched part whatever of a lecture on the Peloponnesian War—I think—before getting ready for the bus to summer day camp.


Project Echo involved the launching of a self-inflating mylar balloon into LEO (Low Earth Orbit—100 to 1,240 miles/160 to 2000 km). Upon reaching orbit, the balloon would inflate and ground stations would send microwave signals to it, and the signals would be reflected back to another ground station.

What is referred to as Echo 1 was actually Echo 1A. The original Echo 1 was lost on 13 May 1960 when the Air Force Thor-Delta lofting it missed orbit because the attitude control of its upper stage went sour. Not a way for a launch vehicle to impress on its debut flight. At 09:39 GMT, on 12 August 1960, another Thor-Delta got 'er done and put the latest incarnation of Echo 1 into orbit. (That day in August 1960 was a particularly hazardous day for birds. At 13:00 GMT, an Air Force Atlas suborbital test was also launched from Cape Canaveral; followed at 18:28 GMT by a test of the Polaris submarine-launched missile by the Navy from their end of the Cape. Meanwhile, the Air Force was launching a Kiva-Hopi sounding rocket from the Pacific Missile Range on California's Point Arguello*. On the other side of the world, the Soviets were test-firing a R-12 Dvina medium range ballistic missile from what would later be renamed “Baikonur Cosmodrome,” Kapustin Yar.)

Once in orbit, the balloon inflated to its full 100 foot (30.5 meter) diameter. A signal was sent up to it from JPL in Pasadena and bounced down to the Bell Laboratories in Homdel, New Jersey. Echo 1's silver surface was used to bounce TV, radio, and transcontinental and intercontinental telephone signals. Because of its large sail-area and tiny mass—about 90 pounds (180 kilos)--the solar wind had a noticeable effect on it. The larger Echo 2 (135 feet/41.1 meters) was successfully orbited aboard a Thor-Agena on 25 January 1964. Echo 1 reentered on 24 May 1968, while its sibling deorbited on 7 June 1969.

What was not mentioned at the time was another part of the missions. The pair of balloons were used to more accurately fix the location of Moscow to aid in targeting for ICBMs.

I remember standing in line at the East Springfield, Virginia, Post Office that December so that I could buy the commemorative First Class stamp the Post Office had issued on 15 December. First Class postage at the time was a whopping four cents—something my father grumped about quite regularly (the year before, it had skyrocketed from three cents).

* Another thing of interest about Point Arguello is that in 1923, seven U.S. Navy destroyers (part of a 14 ship formation on a speed run from San Francisco to San Diego) piled into the point at flank speed in fog. 23 crewmen were lost in the sinkings.

The World Got Smaller

There are few things as exasperating as receiving orders to break off an operation just as you're ready to take the other guy in the flank. Unfortunately, when Aunt Geneva called your name from the backdoor, an immediate truce ensued. This July afternoon in 1962 was no different. I dropped the muzzle of my weapon of choice, a .45 Thompson submachine gun—one of the finest examples of Mattel's firearms production—and told Tommy Huddleston I'd see him later.

I wasn't sure why my Aunt wanted me. We'd had dinner; it was sometime after two and supper was usually at six. I'd learned during the summer that I stayed with them, that she and my Uncle Jack were very punctual folks.

She was drying her hands on her apron as I stepped up on the porch. “Come on in; there's going to be something on television we need to see.” This was a bit out of the ordinary. Usually, in the afternoon we might watch the “Channel 10 Matinee for an Afternoon” together, but that came on at two and the cat clock on the kitchen wall showed a few minutes until three.

“What's on?”

Her answer nonplussed me. “Pictures from Europe.” I raised an eyebrow (a bad habit for an eleven-year-old when dealing with adults). Reading my mind, she continued, “No, I don't mean pictures like we usually see. I mean live pictures, not on film. They're going to be showing pictures of what's going on right now, this minute. They're sending them through that satellite, Telstar.”

The two of us settled on the couch. At three sharp, we entered the world of real-time international TV. An American TV news anchorman (at this point, I frankly can't remember whether it was NBC's Chet Huntley or CBS's Walter Cronkite—or both) welcomed the viewers. I remember seeing an American Flag, the Statue of Liberty, and—I think—Mount Rushmore. This was replaced by a tweedy gentleman who said in a plummy BBC accent that he was speaking from Brussels. The picture switched to Paris and the Eiffel Tower. The broadcast closed, as I remember, with a shot of the huge white bubble that enclosed the antenna in Andover, Maine. Interestingly, the pictures from the American side were crystal-clear (at least as judged for that time), but the pictures from Europe rippled as if seen through heat waves or water. The pictures we watched were in living black and white—whether they were broadcast in color or not, I don't know; my aunt and uncle, like most at that time, owned a black and white set (it wasn't until 1964 that my father bought a RCA color console model—the local TV repairman had to study a week and a half before he could adjust the colors that had been scrambled on the trip from the store in Roanoke over the mountains into the wilds of West Virginia—he didn't charge us because of the learning opportunity).


Telstar 1 was owned by AT&T and developed by Bell Labs (part of the Bell Telephone System--”Ma Bell”). It was lofted by a NASA Delta rocket which limited its size to a 34.5 inch (87.6 cm) sphere.  The satellite turned the scales at around 170 pounds (77kg). It was powered by solar cells producing a staggering 14 watts and was spin-stabilized.

Telstar first broadcast a picture on 11 July 1962, a nonpublic “Is this thing working?” broadcast. The first public broadcast, the one my aunt and I marveled over, was on 23 July 1962 at 15:00 EDT. As it was in a non-geostationary orbit, unlike the norm for communications satellites these days, Telstar 1 was only above the horizon for 20 minutes during each 150 minute orbit.

Telstar 1 established several firsts besides being the first rebroadcasting telecommunications satellite. It was also the first privately owned payload launched by NASA . It was the first satellite, to my knowledge, to have a song named for it (Joe Meek's instrumental which is on the first record I bought with my own money, “The Ventures Play Telstar and the Lonely Bull”--which I'm listening to as I write this). It's also the first satellite to have a soccer ball named for it, Adidas's design for the FIFA World Cups competitions—the black and white one that most of us in the U.S. think of when the word, “soccer ball,” is mentioned.

Telsar 1 continued in service routing TV, telephone, and fax and data traffic until a number of its transistors were fried by Van Allen Belt radiation excited by high-attitude detonations during both American and Soviet nuclear testing. It first went off the air in early December of 1962, was resuscitated a month later, and finally died on 21 February 1963. At last word, Telstar 1 is still orbiting the Earth, a victim of the Cold War.

Suborbital Radio Days

It was the merry month of May, and I was greeting it in my usual fashion—that is to say, coughing my head off. There is something of early May that doesn't like me and, I must admit, I ain't real fond of it either. My mother and I had pulled into a parking place outside Springfield Pharmacy to pick up a new prescription which was sure to cure what ailed me (yeah, right, just like the last six or eight) and a model kit and a couple of comic books to sooth my un-fevered brow (okay, the lady knew the way to a grumpy ten-year-old's heart).

We had been half-listening on the old Buick's radio to the chatter from Cape Canaveral as the newsmen tried to keep each other and their audience from sliding into terminal ennui while yet another hold on the countdown crawled by. NASA had been trying to get Freedom 7 off the pad since the 2nd of May, and the cancellation the day before hadn't inspired much hope in us that the bird wouldn't continued to hang fire on this Friday morning, 5 May 1961. Just as my mother reached for the key to cut the engine off and put the broadcasters in Florida out of their misery, somebody said, “We have go at countdown.” The two of us leaned back against the wide bench seat; okay, we'd play along a tad more. We were rewarded with “T-minus ten-nine-eight-seven”—and on down to liftoff. We sat entranced staring at the front of the AM radio with its missing station selection button.

It seemed like a couple of years later that the announcer reported “splashdown”--a new word--for Alan Shepard, the first American to “ride the stack,” and that both astronaut and Mercury capsule were safely aboard the carrier. At that point, life returned to its more-or-less normal course--at least until the next launch.

The U.S. had been doing a slow burn since Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Air Force senior lieutenant, had become the first man to orbit the Earth on 12 April 1961. It was galling to always be following the Soviets' tracks. So far, the closest an American had come to spaceflight, were the pilots of the X-15 program out at Edwards AFB skipping along the vague boundary between the atmosphere and space. It was spaceflight, sort of, but pretty much unsatisfying to the citizenry.

At 09:34 Eastern Time, we finally got a biped that didn't chatter and pick up things with his feet into space, if only for a few minutes. The launch vehicle was one of von Braun's Redstones (the basis for the Jupiter-C/Juno 1 that lofted Explorer 1 into orbit three years before). The entire flight lasted a bit over 15 minutes from launch to splashdown off the Bahamas. The Mercury capsule measured 81 inches (32 cm) long by 74.5 inches (29.5 cm) in diameter at its widest--the reentry heat shield--and had sat atop the 63 foot (19 m) tall Redstone.

The word is, that originally, NASA was going to go for a totally automatic flight system like the reported Soviet practice, the astronaut more along for the ride rather than piloting the Mercury capsule—the “Spam in a can” school of spaceflight. There are various versions of why this was changed, but Alan Shepard was able to control the Freedom 7's movements in three axis. The flight had lasted 15.5 minutes, traveled 302 miles (486 km), and reached a max altitude of 116 miles (187 km). The time from splashdown to astronaut and capsule arriving on the USS Lake Champlain's deck was around 11 minutes—a speedy performance which would not be equaled again any time soon on later flights. Especially not with Gus Grissom's following suborbital Liberty Bell 7 flight on 21 July 1961or that of the first American to orbit, a “Mig-Mad Marine,” five months after that.

The Ley of Space

The old green fan slowly oscillated with a barely discernible electric whirl. The only other sound in the Williamson Road Branch of the Roanoke City Library was the soft thump as the Librarian stamped the book of the occasional patron. Like church and funeral parlors, this cool, quiet refuge from the heat of a 1957 July afternoon was one of those places one did not talk. At the very most, a kid could whisper to the august personage who ruled the vault of the written word. I now approached that tall, thin lady with her cat's-eye glasses hanging by a chain and a pencil thrust through the hair bun on the back of her head. Being one of the ones she didn't have to shush, she smiled at me as she leaned down and whispered, “May I help you, sonny?”

I whispered back, “Yes, ma'am. I'm looking for a book about rockets and outer space, please.” When you're from the South, you talk like that.

She sized me up, then stepped around the counter and hooked a finger for me to follow her. Librarians wore rubber-soled nurses' shoes back then, so she cat-footed ahead as she led me to the 600s. She looked down at me again, came to a decision, and unerringly plucked a yellow dust-jacketed book from the shelf. On the front was a breathtaking picture of a pair of spaceships, one all cylinders and spheres and the other sporting huge wings in addition. In large black letters, the title above the picture read, Rockets, Missiles, & Space Travel. At the bottom in red letters of a size, was the author's name, Willy Ley. After the Librarian softly stamped the book, making it mine for the next two weeks, I sat at a table, opened the book, and was never quite the same afterward.


Willy Ley, as far as I know, never actually launched a spaceship. Rather, he did something perhaps more important; he helped launch the idea of the spaceship. Rather than a designer or a technician, he was what's known as a “popularizer,” and a darn fine one. A popularizer is one who takes an arcane subject and makes it and its implications clear to the nonspecialist. To do this, the author has to know the ins and outs of the discipline and be able to explain it clearly and entertainingly. Very few technical types have this, what I consider, innate ability to communicate to the population at large while avoiding producing either drivel or dryness reminiscent of Death Valley.

Willy Ley was born in Berlin during the reign of the emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1906. At Berlin's university, he studied physics, astronomy, zoology, and vertebrate paleontology (considering his course of study, one is left with an impression like that of Buckaroo Banzai, who reputedly was born going in several directions at once). He moved to the University of Koenigsberg in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad in Russia) where he took a degree in journalism. After reading Hermann Oberth's By Rocket into Planetary Space (bear with me here—I haven't the foggiest notion how to get umlauts using Open Office, so all titles will be translated into English...probably badly), Ley became taken with the idea of spaceflight. In 1926, he was one of the founding members of “Spaceflight Society,” Wiemar Germany's amateur rocket club and edited the club's journal, “The Rocket.” Among other members were Wernher von Braun, Hermann Oberth, and many of the men who would design and build the V2 ballistic missile used against London, Paris, and Antwerp in 1944 and, after 1945, America's launch systems.

In 1935, Ley, sensing which way the wind was blowing after the Hitler's Nazis were voted into office in 1933, left for the United States by way of England. Arriving in the U.S., Ley joined the American Rocket Society and participated in experiments with mail carrying rocket planes in New York's Orange County (home of screaming chopper builders).

A fan of science fiction, Ley was dismayed at the general American opinion that rockets and space travel were something for the next century, if then. He set out to change this this by authoring nonfiction articles on rockets and spaceflight that ran in the popular press. Among the magazines to which he contributed factual articles was Astounding, a science fiction magazine skippered by a very no nonsense editor by the name of John Campbell. Ley also wrote a regular science column for Galaxy Magazine for 19 years, beginning with its premiere issue and ending only on his death (I only got to enjoy his columns for the last seven or eight years of their run).

Besides, his columns and articles, Willy Ley produced a stream of books (approximately 28 different titles). The one I held in my hands that summer afternoon started life as Rockets in 1944 (three printings), went on to become Rockets and Space Travel in 1947 (two printings), Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel in 1951 (six printings), Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel: Revised Edition 1957 (two printings)--the edition I was reading, and Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel with Sputnik Data 1957—the copy lying on my lap as I type this. The final incarnation was entitled Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space (first printing in 1968, and Lord only knows how many times that and its predecessor were reprinted—for the purposes of this column, I'm counting this book and all its ancestors as only one title). He also teamed with the first great planetary painter Chesley Bonestell to produce The Conguest of Space (on order from at the moment), The Conquest of the Moon with Wernher von Braun and Fred Whipple (maybe next month?), and a number of others dealing with space and Earth sciences.

Besides his writing, Ley acted as a technical advisor for several movies and TV shows (including Fritz Lang's movie, “The Woman in the Moon” in 1931, “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” 1950-1955—which I vaguely remember watching in a 34 foot Spartan house trailer somewhere in the wilds of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley-- and the animated serials,“The Space Explorers” and “The New Adventures of the Space Explorers,” in the late 50s—which I watched religiously on WTOP-Washington's “Ranger Hal” each morning before launching for school—yeah, I'm proud to say I've been a “space case” most of my life).

Another advisory gig in which I ran into Willy Ley was when Monogram Models hired him to design  several spaceship kits and write a informative booklet to go in the box of each. Ley was the kind of writer who caused kids pull the booklet out first and read it a couple of times before turning to build the kit.

As hard as Willy Ley worked toward the realization of spaceflight to other worlds, he just barely missed the denouement of his career. Willy Ley, age 62, died 26 days before Neil Armstrong set his foot on the lunar surface.

High Expectations and Low Comedy

The lights of Deerfield twinkled below as I sat watching the fire. It was the week of deer season west of Blue Ridge and I was counting the days until Thanksgiving that November of 1960. In just three more days, I'd be ten. On the other side of the campfire, Junior glanced at his watch. “Hey, it's about six. Let's go see how the launch went.”

His father, slouched in a lawn chair, said, “You boys go ahead. I'm comfortable.” My father nodded his agreement.

Four of us were in the party that year; me, my father, a friend of his who worked for the government, and the friend's teenaged son, Junior. It had snowed the night after we'd made camp at the spring atop Virginia's Elliott Knob. On the way up to the Knob after seeing my grandmother and uncles, my father had decided that he smelled snow, so we stopped in Craigsville and picked enough groceries to keep us the week.

This deer season was special for me. It was the first in which I was allowed to carry a gun. I carried my father's old Stevens .30-30 bolt-action whose butt stock he'd cut down to fit me. At four foot tall and and about 80 pounds, the Stevens knocked the dust off me every time I fired it, but I figured it'd be worse on the deer's end of the equation. There were a couple of strings attached, though. One of the adults had to be with me and he had to give me the “go” signal before I could take the shot. In preparation before we came down from Northern Virginia, I had had to hit in the target's 10 ring seven out of eight shots. Also, I had to keep all the rifles and shotguns clean.

Inside the tent, Junior pulled the radio from under his cot. It was a special one as it could pick up FM broadcasts in addition to the normal AM, which explained why this small (for its time) radio was slightly larger and much heavier than a boombox. As he snapped it on and we waited for its tubes to warm up, I pulled out the gun cleaning kits, made sure the guns were indeed unloaded, and set to work. After sound began to come out of the speaker, he tuned the radio back and forth until a rich voice said, “...Evening, this is Douglas Edwards with the news. At Cape Canaveral today”--he had our whole attention--”the Mercury-Redstone test did not launch due to technical difficulties. The capsule's escape tower did, however, successfully attain an altitude of some 4000 feet. NASA reports technicians are examining the Redstone booster as we speak. It is expected that this will move the suborbital test launch of the unmanned Mercury capsule into December. In other news, UN troops clashed with Congolese government forces in Leopoldville...” Junior and I looked at each other—huh? The rocket didn't launch but the escape tower worked?


The technicians at Canaveral were indeed examining the Mercury-Redstone, MR-1, but from a very long distance. A very long, safe distance. The reason for their standoffishness was that they had a fully fueled booster rocket sitting on the pad with live batteries and live explosive devices just waiting to make a very spectacular fireworks display.

Until 7 November 1960, MR-1 had been fully two days ahead of schedule. This alone should have had people rubbing rabbits' feet and watching for incoming asteroids. It is an old engineering truism that if things are moving smoothly, you're probably missing something. What the folks at Huntsville and the Cape were missing was that the MR-1 Redstone with its increased tankage and the capsule weighed more than a normal Redstone. Possibly, they were lulled when things seemed to return to normal with the scrubbing of the 7 November launch because of a drop in helium pressure within the capsule control system. After removing and tearing down the capsule to replace a helium relief valve and hydrogen peroxide tank, and to redo some wiring, the bird was reassembled and readied for launch on 21 November.

Well, it launched...sort of. When ignition occurred, the MR-1 rose majestically to an altitude of approximately 4 inches (10 cm) and the engine cut off. The bird settled back on the pad, no doubt with a thud (with all the racket of the Rocketdyne A-7 engine's initial firing, this, mercifully, was drowned out). The escape tower's engines fired next and the tower, leaving the capsule--that it was supposed to lift to safety--firmly in place atop the booster, rose to 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) and traveled 400 yards (366 meters) downrange—the epitome of “suborbital.” A few seconds later, the cover of the capsule's parachute compartment flew off and the drogue chute deployed, followed by the main chute and, then, the reserve chute; the three of which draped fashionably down over the side of the capsule and booster. Potentially, the entertainment wasn't over yet, as sitting atop 20 tons (18,160 kg) of liquid oxygen, ethyl alcohol—aka: ethanol—and hydrogen peroxide (a unfriendly mix at the best of times) were live retro rockets, explosive bolts, and a number of other pyrotechnic devices outlawed for 4th of July festivities, in addition to fully charged batteries in the ungrounded booster. Piling on yet more joy, the innocent parachute trio hanging over the side, if caught by the wind would topple the booster-capsule combination with unpleasant results. Happily, for Wernher von Braun and the NASA crew, Flatus, German god of winds, apparently relented and the airs stayed calm.

The next morning, when the batteries hopefully were exhausted, an extremely brave team led by Walter Burke of McDonnell Aircraft Corporation—builder of the capsule—disarmed the pyrotechnics and removed the hanging umbilical cord from the ungrounded rocket.

So, what caused NASA's shortest flight? When the Redstone's engine fired and the rocket began to lift, it moved slower than the original Redstone missile because it was heavier. A modified, too-long ground (another account says “control”) cable pulled out before the umbilical was pulled away. This caused a relay to trip as the ground plug came out more slowly than on the earlier missile, shutting down the engine. At shutdown, the escape tower thinking that the rocket had reached its normal engine shutoff altitude, blew its explosive bolts and jettisoned itself as no longer needed. The capsule getting an abort message below 10,000 feet (472 meters) began its proper parachute deployment sequence. So, for want of a nail—or in this case, a proper-lengthed cable--NASA ended up with a wrinkled rocket, an altitude record it really didn't want, and egg on its face.

The next effort, MR-1A, involved a Frankenstein's monster made up of parts cannibalized from future missions. As the capsule was undamaged, it was mated with the escape tower from spacecraft number 8, and the antenna fairing from number 10, and seated atop a new booster, MR-3. The MR-1 booster was shipped back to the Huntsville shop and now receives visitors at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Going Ape

The monkey glared down at me with the sort of naked hatred one primate can only feel for another. Were I him, I'd have felt pretty much the same. Torn from his nice toasty jungle at an early age, he now found himself constantly chilly and confronted by a troop of primates so outsized that even the smallest outweighed him by a factor of seven. Basically, Ivan Denisovich in Brobdingnag. But, he held his own; whenever one of them came near, he bared his teeth. If that didn't stop them, he'd set forth a scream that guaranteed that all the dogs and cats would immediately evacuate the house and yards. His final line of defense was to attempt to find an appendage on one of the brutes small enough to get in his mouth. The only thing he wanted was to be gone. By the second month after my usually level-headed uncle had picked up the prisoner at the Sears and Roebuck catalog store in Staunton and brought him to the dairy farm as a Christmas present for his six-year-old daughter, he was sorely in agreement with that ambition. Among my uncle's brothers, the betting was equal money between the escape involving a firearm or a loosened chain followed by some lucky predator. As it turned out, winter in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley ended the tragedy.

All of which explained my shock at the photo in the Washington Star of a chimpanzee apparently cordially shaking the hand of a sea captain. The captain displayed no tooth marks or bandages, and the ape looked pretty relaxed. Of course, shaking a captain's hand was probably a relief after what he'd just been through.

Throughout most of history, lesser beings have generally been tasked with being the first to try something new, whether it was seeing if the dinner at the Borgia's was up to standards or if there really were Zulus hiding around the spring. The space program was no different. As enlisted men could no longer be pilots, other primates went into space first.

The first tests involving animal payloads began with the U.S. Army's launch of domesticated V2s (read: captured from the Third Reich and demilitarized) in the late 1940s. One of the things learned from these flights was that mammals could survive spaceflight. Another thing learned was that mice are a lot more resistant to a sudden stop at the end of the flight than primates. All of the primates on these missions were named “Albert” (probably for the same reason animals raised for the table tend to be anonymous—you don't name your breakfast).

Over on the other side of the hill, the Soviets preferred dogs as passengers. Not having opposable thumbs, the feeling was that they tended to be less trouble to deal with. There is the story that one of the dogs went AWOL* a day before its scheduled launch. A stray found near the base's canteen was grabbed and substituted (lending a whole new meaning to “dog robber”**). One of the puppies from a dog the Soviets had orbited was given to President John F. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, during a brief warm spot in the Cold War.

The subject of the photo op with the captain of the recovery ship USS Donner, Ham, was born and captured in Cameroon in 1956 and purchased in Florida by the Air Force. Like Patrick McGoohan in the TV show, “The Prisoner,” Ham's official name was a number, 65, though the staff referred to him as, “Chop Chop Chang.” It was felt that losing a named chimp on a flight would be bad publicity.

He trained for his mission at Holloman Air Force Base. Training involved learning to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a blue light. If he preformed correctly, he received a banana pellet; if he didn't, what's described as a “mild” shock was administered to the soles of his feet. He would be the first biological payload that would be required to preform a function while in flight.

Ham became “Ham” with his successful suborbital flight aboard Mercury-Redstone 2 on 31 January 1961. His new name was an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. During the flight, his vital signs and lever pushing were monitored with the result that his functioning was only slowed by a fraction of a second. This suggested that humans could also readily preform tasks during spaceflight. The only untoward happening while in flight was a partial cabin depressurization, which was successfully handled by his space suit. After 16 and a half minutes, the Mercury capsule splashed down in the Atlantic and was recovered by the Donner. On examination, Ham's only injury was found to be a bruised nose. The handshake and photo with the skipper followed.

After the flight, Ham lived at the National Zoo in DC for 17 years before ending his days at age 26 at the North Carolina Zoo at Asheboro. His remains, minus his skeleton, are buried beneath a memorial plaque at the New Mexico Museum of Space History at Alamogordo. His skeleton is in the collection at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology's National Museum of Heath and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The next Mercury capsule would carry Alan Shepard on the first American manned suborbital flight.

* AWOL—Absent WithOut Leave

** ”dog robber”--military slang for an officer's servant, normally called an orderly or batman depending on the army.

The Marines Have Landed!

February is such a lousy month that back in 1962, two holidays were necessary to get through it, Lincoln's Birthday (12 February) and Washington's Birthday (22 February).  Valentine's Day was in there too, but that was for girls. On 20 February of that year, though, we effectively had a third real holiday. That day, Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr., USMC, was the first American to orbit the Earth and nothing got done all day.

It was its usual miserable Northern Virginia February morning, that Tuesday, as I walked the mile and a quarter to my elementary school for another jazzy day of fifth grade boredom. It was cold, gray, and spitting snow ineffectually. It matched the mood of most of us kids. The Russians had orbited a cosmonaut nearly a year before, Soviet Air Force Captain Yuri Gagarin. It was bad enough that the U.S. was playing catch-up as usual, but with delay after delay, it seemed Col. Glenn might be drawing retirement before the bird got off the pad.

Things were different as I slouched through Garfield Elementary's doors this morning. Rather than allowing the first-through-sixth graders to gravitate to their respective rooms, a number of teachers formed a skirmish line directing us to the cafeteria. Entering, we saw a 24 inch TV sitting atop a high cart. Mrs. Peachtree, my teacher was at the door and told us to sit on the floor, forming lines facing the TV. Oh, ho—maybe?

CBS News' evening anchor man, Walter Cronkite, was sitting out in the sun at a news desk at Cape Canaveral, wearing a huge pair of headphones, and talking animatedly with a blocky-looking blondish man who might have been Dr. Wernher von Braun. The sound of the black and white TV was off and there was the usual cacophony of four hundred kids suddenly released from the depression of arithmetic, spelling, and penmanship. The principle (whose name completely escapes me, never having had direct dealings with him) came in, walked to the set, raised the volume, and grinned at the sudden kid-silence as Cronkite turned to the camera and said, “We now go to Mission Control for the countdown.” The countdown picked up at, “...T-minus ten-nine-eight-seven, etc.” and the Friendship 7 Mercury-Atlas combination lifted off.

The TV in the cafeteria was left on all day. Each lunch shift was preternaturally quiet as every eye stayed glued to the screen, not that there was a whole lot to see. While there was a camera trained on the astronaut during the flight, the pictures weren't broadcast back to the ground yet. Instead, a drawing, looking over the astronaut's right shoulder, showed the instrument panel and the supposed view from his periscope of the ground and water Friendship 7 was passing over via an animation appearing in a circle in the panel's center.

We were marched back into the cafeteria about 14:15 to see the splashdown. What we saw was a map of the Atlantic Ocean with a big Maltese cross marking where the Mercury capsule was to land. We waited and waited and nothing on the screen changed. It began to dawn on some of us that NASA had apparently misplaced Col. Glenn and Friendship 7. After what seemed like forever, a scratchy voice from the recovery task force flag ship, aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15), reported that Friendship 7 had missed the target area. The Marine kids looked at each other—Col. Glenn got “Maggie's Drawers?!” The voice continued that astronaut and capsule were safe and had been picked by the destroyer USS Noa (DD-841).

“Maggie's Drawers” refers to the uncomfortably large (for the embarrassed marksman) red flag waved back and forth in front of a target on the range signifying a complete miss. The reason Glenn missed his splashdown target was that he'd been forced to use more fuel than expected because of a faulty automatic attitude thruster control. It allowed thrusters to fire, caused the Friendship 7 to yaw out of position unless he manually flew the capsule. The heavy use upset the calculations for the expected splashdown site.

A second problem he experienced was overheating in his spacesuit. When he attempted to remedy this, he began to receive warnings about the amount of humidity in the cabin atmosphere.

The third problem was the heart-stopper. A number of times, Glenn was requested to make sure that the landing bag deploy switch was in the “off” position. This controlled the deployment of a inflatable bag between the capsule and its heat shield that had been added to the Mercury capsules due the sinking of Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 after his suborbital flight the year before. After the umpteenth time a ground communicator made this request, he began to suspect he might have a problem. On the ground, they were receiving a message that the heat shield was no longer locked in place. If true, when the retro rocket pack was released during reentry, the heat shield would move out of place and astronaut and capsule would burn-up. If, on the other hand, the retro rocket pack was retained, there was the chance of an explosion if all of the pack's propellent had not been exhausted. Mission Control decided the pack would stay on.

Over the U.S., on its third orbit, Friendship 7 began reentry. Flaming pieces of the retro rocket pack gave Glenn pause as they flew by his window, causing him to worry that they might be part of his heat shield disintegrating.

Just past the highest G force, the capsule began to oscillate strongly, fluttering “like a falling leaf,” in Glenn's words. At 28,000 feet (8,615 meters), the drogue chute automatically deployed rather than at the programed 21,000 foot (6,462 meter) altitude. Friendship 7 splashed down 40 miles (64 kilometers) short of her target. USS Noa spotted the capsule descending and radioed Glenn from six miles as she sped toward him.

Coming along side, she hoisted the capsule aboard. Glenn warned the crewmen to stand aside, and blew the explosive bolts on his hatch. As he stepped onto the deck, a sailor painted a circle around where his feet first touched. Glen was ushered below to Sick Bay for a quick check over and three hours later was helicoptered to the USS Randolph.

As it turned out, the “Segment 51” sensor, that caused so much worry, had malfunctioned and there had been no danger of the heat shield becoming displaced.

Naturally, with the exception of Friendship 7's being semi-lost for 20-30 minutes as far as the TV audience was concerned, none of the problems listed above and their seriousness became known outside the program until sometime later.

The next Saturday morning, I was in line at the post office with my four cents to purchase a first-class Project Mercury stamp.

Some (School) Assembly Necessary

Recently, I read about an presentation that packed in well over 3,000 in the the small town of Wise, Virginia. Considering Wise has an official population of 3,286, this isn't that shabby a house. I can think of a number of reasonably successful bands that would cheerfully sacrifice their lead singer—on stage—for those kind of numbers. So who were the headliners who brought people from five rural mountain counties to over-fill the University of Virginia at Wise's Convocation Center? One gentleman who was there, and two who weren't.

The draw in this case was astronaut Leland Melvin in the flesh, and astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit, who happened to be about 250 miles (400 km) overhead. They were taking part in something NASA does right--outreach to students. While Melvin hosted, Burbank and Pettit aboard the International Space Station fielded questions on camera from the kids.

Somehow, these talks seem to make more of an impression on country folk. Perhaps, it's because they're less distracted than city dwellers, or they're less into “cool” for coolness sake. Either way, the citizenry comes away with the feeling that this view of their tax dollars in action is very acceptable.

Being a hick, I remember these shots of rural and small town excitement very well. The first one I experienced occurred when I was in third grade in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. I was more than pleased when Mrs. Whitlock announced that we were going to go to an assembly that afternoon. I don't remember her saying exactly why we were going to it, but it would short-circuit my bete noir, spelling—a very good thing. We trooped into the cafetorium (a combination cafeteria and auditorium that did neither function well) along with the other eleven grades and seated ourselves with some expectation. Standing down front behind a table was a man who looked remarkably like Don Herbert, the host of NBC's Saturday science show for kids, “Watch Mr. Wizard.” On the long table before him were a number of drop cloth-covered objects. He raised his hands, and magic happened—we all fell silent. You might say he had presence. He announced that he was a scientist for the new Federal agency, NASA, and he was there to talk to us about spaceflight. He began sweeping the drop cloths from their hidden treasures with a flourish very like a stage magician. It worked beautifully, we were his. Among the items disclosed were a number of models of rockets such as the Explorer-Jupiter C and Vanguard and full size models of the two satellites. He explained why satellites didn't fall from orbit and that rockets operated using Newton's Third Law of Motion—reaction--and that they worked just fine in a vacuum as they didn't need to push against anything to move forward. To close his talk, he drew our attention to what appeared to be a three foot long piece of pipe resting horizontally on a wooden stand. He said it was a working jet engine that he would start, and warned us that it might be a bit loud. The man was a Jedi master of understatement. He touched it off and our eardrums met in the center of our heads (nowadays, such an action would result in six or eight Federal, state, and local agencies being all over him like a cheap suit and Lord only knows how many non-cheap lawsuits would be launched). Ears ringing as we walked back to our classrooms, I made a decision: to heck with the Flying Tiger P-40 model I'd planned to blow my one dollar allowance on that Friday, I was getting a rocket!

Nine years later, I was sitting in the bleachers of the county's only high school. We now lived on the south bank of the Potomac River. And standing down on the floor of the gym was another man from NASA. He was an astronaut in training for the follow up to the Apollo program and had the look and air of an aviator--unfashionable crewcut and all. He too had a number of models, only this time, they were of the Saturn V booster and Apollo spacecraft, the Apollo capsule with its Service Module, the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), and a model of a moon-suited astronaut. One other model looked a whole lot like a truncated trumpet. He explained that it was a model of one of the five rocket engine nozzles on the first stage of the Saturn booster. He told us about the gazillion pounds of thrust it produced and asked the guys in the audience to consider how something like that might improve the performance of the Camaros, Furys, and Mustangs some of us were lucky enough to drive. He produced a model of a Mustang Fastback and remarked that there might be just one sticking point. He explained that the car and the nozzle were the same scale. He then demonstrated the problem by completely covering the car with the nozzle. Yep, a modification or three might be in order. He sent us off with one last word; in three months time, we would be the only people ever to witness the first time a man set his foot on soil that was not the Earth's.

He was very right. We few, we lucky few...

Popular Science Education

When the reality of spaceflight jumped out at Americans in the fall of 1957, we kids at least were primed for it by our long hours of education, mostly spent in front of black and white TVs and occasionally in darkened movie theaters on Saturday afternoons.

With the exception of half hour snippets of intense scientific information from TV shows such as “Tom Corbett: Space Cadet,” “Rocky Jones: Space Ranger,” and “Science Fiction Theater,” long term study opportunities were afforded by WDBJ Channel 7's “Science Fiction Saturday” and downtown Roanoke's American Theater.

Television broadcast of movies tended to lag six and seven years behind their theatrical showings, thus, we were able to view such select fare as:

“Cat Women of the Moon” (1953)

            Lesson learned: The last few woman surviving on the moon could control Earth women by mental telepathy and Earth men by wiggling. (Happy, being six-years-old, we were immune.) Looking at the lunar inhabitants' costuming, it's possible this is where the term “cat-suit” originated.

“Radar Men from the Moon” (1952)

            Lesson learned: Tony Stark had a predecessor—Commando Cody, a wealthy industrialist and mind-boggling engineer. We also learned that “Cat Women of the Moon” was  apparently incorrect that the moon was airless; both good guys and bad guys wandered it's surface under an atmospheric pressure of around 15 pounds per square inch (it's 1957, we haven't heard of metric yet) and within a 1G gravitational field. The grip of this serial masterpiece was so strong that 15 years later the world was enlivened by the music of Commando Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (the group's lead said he lost the toss so he had to be Commando Cody).

“Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953)

            Lesson learned: The importance of good navigation. Like Voltaire's remark about the term, “Holy Roman Empire,” being a fallacy, there was a basic flaw involved in this one's plot, it'weren't Mars they hit. Instead, they ended up on a Venus ruled by (what else?) beautiful women, by way of New Orleans (a planet all its own). This movie blazed the way for a later movie entitled “The Queen of Outer Space” (a 1958 satire on this more serious work).

“Rocketship X-M” (1950)

            Lesson learned: If you're a lousy navigator, maybe chemistry can save your fantail. In this jewel, the intrepid astronauts (a term coined eight years in the--then--future) manage to miss the moon—hey, it could happen to anybody; after all, it's only 2,160 miles wide—and fly on to Mars. The rocket's engine cuts out half way to the moon (those old Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems A6s did tend to vapor lock at high altitudes) and the crew mixes a special fuel and restarts the engine with it. The EPA mileage must have been pretty impressive as they find themselves waking up an hour later and 50,000 miles from Mars. The acceleration involved to travel 50,000,000 miles in a hour makes for an interesting thought picture of the number of Gs they must have pulled. (Actually, I may do them wrong, with that much “umph,” they may have hit the moon, blown through, and out the other side—if you're going to chuck small matters like physics over the side, why stop there?) Another thing learned is that Mars is so cold and the atmosphere so thin that people on the surface must dress in leather A2 flight jackets and use World War II era aviator's oxygen masks.

“Destination Moon” (1950)

            Lesson learned: Somebody in Hollywood was actually awake during high school physics and astronomy. This movie stands out from the rest because George Pal tried very hard to get the science right. No monsters, no fatal women—actually, no women at all in the last two-thirds of the movie—and lunar vacuum can kill you. In this one, a consortium of private businesses build and fly a mission to the moon and back because the government can't or won't afford it (I wonder if the folks at Orbital Science Corporation, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic saw this movie as kids). The space suits (NASA uses “spacesuit,” but it's several years in the future when I'm watching this) were so good and “right” looking, that they were used in films and TV shows into the mid-to-late 60s. Chesley Bonestell's moon was harder surfaced and craggier than that seen by TV audiences all over the world 19 years later, but the actors did indeed appear to be functioning in one-sixth gravity.

“Conquest of Space” (1955)

            Lesson learned: Even your mom can be interested in science fiction if it's done well enough. I got to stay up 'til nine on a school night when she took me with her to see this one downtown at the American Theater (unlimited buttered popcorn refills). As in “Destination Moon,” George Pal worked hard to get the science right on this trip to Mars. Everything was 1955 state-of-the-art—the Mars ship and space station were straight out of Wernher von Braun's books, Project Mars: A Technical Tale (a novel he wrote in the late 40s as he cooled his heels in Fort Bliss while the Army decided what to do with him—frankly, it probably reads better in the original German) and The Mars Project (this is the one with lots of graphs, charts, formulae, and a requirement for heavy-duty slide rule slipping). It also included von Braun's horizonal aircraft-type Mars landing and erection of the return portion of the ship. Pal's Mars is red, dusty, cold, and very thin-atmosphered—kinda like the real thing.

Thus, when the Soviets shoved the U.S. into the space age, the kids of America were ready.

A Better Engineer than Economist

The face of America's space effort from early on was Dr. Wernher von Braun. In the mid-to-late 50s, we kids became aware of him and indulged in some harmless hero worship. I first saw him on Walt Disney's “Disneyland” TV show, when von Braun appeared in “Disney's Man in Space” episodes (“Man in Space”--spring 1955—and “Man and the Moon”--Christmas 1955). He had everything going for him that NASA could ask for; good looks, a slight German accent, a comfortable speaking style, and the ability to make you believe that manned space flight was just around the corner. This was increased by the release of his movie biography in 1960, “I Aim at the Stars,” in which he's portrayed by the guy who played the honorable U-Boat skipper opposite Robert Mitchum in “The Enemy Below” (Curt Jurgens).

Half a century later, feelings about von Braun are rather more mixed. One of the problems with being an adult is that your heroes become real people having the warts with which we're all prone.  Like most of us, he had a history—in his case, one NASA's PR folks would have cringed over if it had been noised around at the time. Whether there was guilt or innocence, I'll let the final Arbiter decide. Instead, there's von Braun and his vision and the fact that he was no economist.

Looking at a manned flight to Mars, as depicted in his books, Project Mars: A Technical Tale (1950) and The Mars Project (1953), one must admit that the man thought big.

The first step he called for was to lift the parts required to build ten interplanetary ships for the flight to Mars to Earth orbit. According to the 1953 book, three of the craft would be winged landers and the rest would carry consumables to Mars orbit and return. To lift these parts and consumables would require 950 flights to low MEO (Medium Earth Orbit*) by 46 three-stage transports, each of which would carry a payload of 80,000 pounds (36,290 kg). Each flight would burn 11,166,000 pounds (5,064,812 kg) of propellant—the total for all the flights would run to 10,640,000,000 pounds (4,826222,817 kg)--as he helpfully points out, this is about ten times the total amount of fuel used during the 1948 Berlin airlift or about 443 tankers of the period having a displacement of 12,000 tons. He figures this would cost about $500,000,000 in 1953 dollars using $100 per ton (about a nickle a pound or approximately seven times what a gallon of gasoline would have cost at the time—as a WAG on my part, this comes out to something like $7,600,000,000 in present day dollars). And yes, we are throwing around units of billions here, boys and girls. To help visualize the amount we're talking about, NASA's total budget for 2010 was $18,724,000,000 (its initial budget of $89,000,000 when started in 1957 was equivalent to $448,000,000 in 2007 dollars). Mind you, that this is merely the fuel cost to MEO; it doesn't include the fabrication of any of the spacecraft, either orbital or interplanetary, their crewing and supplies, or ground support. On these small items, his book is silent.

Once the parts were in orbit and the interplanetary craft were assembled and stocked, the 70 man crew (and remember, this is 1953, so it would be “man”) would depart Earth orbit and begin their 260 day-long voyage to Mars orbit.

On reaching Mars, the three “landing boats” carrying a total of 50 men would use their extremely large wings to make aircraft-type landings on the surface. The wings in question would be required to give lift in an atmosphere whose pressure he gives as 1/12th that of Earth's 15 pounds per square inch at sea level (63 N). Von Braun considered this offset somewhat by the lighter Martian gravity which he gives as .38 G. The first lander would make a ski-equipped landing in the polar region. The crew would then abandon the spacecraft, trek to the Martian Equator, and prepare a landing strip for the other two wheel-equipped  landers.

After 400 days on the surface, the pair of Equatorial landers, with wings removed and fuselages raised to a vertical orientation, would return to Mars orbit where they would be abandoned. The total crew would then depart in the remaining spacecraft on their 260 day flight back to Earth orbit, where they would transfer to winged transports for return to the surface.

To my mind, von Braun envisioned an effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project. In his novel, Project Mars: A Technical Tale, he puts forth a UN-like “World Legislature” that fulfills the mission (one suspects that the book was largely finished before Kim Jong-un's grandaddy decided that he wanted all of Korea and came boiling across the 38th Parallel in the summer of 1950). The reason for this massive push is the evidence that Mars supported intelligent life (another thing to remember, Martian canals were still fairly respectable into the 1960s. It wasn't until the 1965 Mariner 4 flyby that the stake was finally driven into their hearts). Unfortunately, here von Braun's imagination falters, and the reader learns that the inhabitants of Mars are just folks like us (though having big heads, of course, and being much wiser and friendly—haven't I tripped over this meme somewhere before?).

The result leaves me, at least, of the opinion that Wernher von Braun was a far better engineer than a economist--or a xenobiologist.

*   LEO = up to 1,243 miles [2,000 km]--MEO = from LEO to GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit), 22,236 miles [35,786 km]

Walt died on March 14, 2012, so he'll be watching the space race from the Heavens themselves. Rest peacefully, Walt, and thank you for sharing your memories with us.

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