A Space History Tragedy

The date may not register with all of us every year, but few space enthusiasts — and probably few U.C. citizens — over thirty will ever forget the mishap that destroyed the Space Shuttle Challenger.

It’s hard to believe that it was 25 years ago today — January 28, 1986 — that the Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-51L, and exploded a little over a minute into the launch profile.

To this day, I find it almost painful to watch the video of the explosion. Indeed, I find it hard to compose this post, even though I’ve known it was coming for a long time.

So I will just post this picture of the Challenger astronauts — Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis — the way I like to remember them:

(STS-51L crew, leaving the Operations & Checkout Building. NASA image.)

Hopeful. Enthusiastic. Fearless.

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Discoverer-19: CORONA Meets Missile Detection

Fifty years ago today — December 20, 1960 — the Discoverer-19 satellite launched from Vandenberg AFB.

(Discoverer-19 “launch cover” postcard, cancelled the day of launch. From the “Unmanned Satellite Philately” site created by Don Hillger and Garry Toth at Colorado State University.)

Part of the CORONA program and listed as an Air Force photoreconnaissance satellite, Discoverer-19 “did not carry a film capsule,” but was launched “as a test for the MIDAS missile-detection system.” MIDAS, the “Missile Detection Alarm System,” was an infrared detection system and precursor to the Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared systems.

The National Reconnaissance Office produced an interesting history of MIDAS, declassified in the late 1990s. That history points out that Discoverer-19 carried instruments to measure the background IR radiation emitted by the Earth “to confirm the technical feasibility of the MIDAS concept.”

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Congratulations to the X-37B Team!

A little over 7 months after its launch, this morning the X-37B landed successfully at Vandenberg AFB, according to this VAFB press release.

(Artist’s conception of the X-37. NASA image.)

This program has elicited some interesting commentary in the press. As I wrote in the Space Warfare Forum the day after the launch,

I find it interesting that the news outlets make such frequent use of the word “secret” to describe something that a) they’ve been given pictures of and written articles about, and b) they knew ahead of time was going to launch. Fox News, “a mission shrouded in secrecy,” really? Metro UK, “secret military robot shuttle”? They don’t know what secrecy is.

What a far cry from the days when only the launch and payload crews knew what was on top of the rocket, and the first time most other people found out about the launch was when it thundered away in the distance. And most people never knew what the payload was.

For the curious, here’s more on the X-37 itself.

And again, congratulations to everyone involved — well done!

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Delivering a Secret Payload

Twenty years ago today — November 15, 1990 — Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a classified Department of Defense mission.

(STS-38 crewmembers in the crew compartment trainer. NASA image.)

STS-38 astronauts Richard O. Covey, Frank L. Culbertson, Jr.,* Charles “Sam” Gemar, Robert C. Springer and Carl J. Meade deployed their classified payload — which was probably classified higher than SECRET — and then returned to Earth on November 20th.

This Wikipedia article includes speculation about what that payload might have been. Don’t ask me: I don’t know, and if I did I still wouldn’t say.

*I met CAPT (Ret.) Culbertson last year, at the NASA Industry/Education Summit. In the “small world” department, our high schools used to be in the same conference, back when my high school still existed.

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Milstar Flight Two

Fifteen years ago today — November 6, 1995 — Milstar-2 launched from Cape Canaveral on a Titan-IV rocket.

(Artist’s conception of a Milstar satellite. USAF image.)

I was newly assigned to the 4th Space Operations Squadron when the Milstar-2 satellite was launched and went through its on-orbit checkout. This was not a Milstar “Block II” satellite, with the medium data rate payload, but the second of the Block I satellites.

Serving in the 4 SOPS at the time of the launch, since the launch vehicle was a Titan, made a nice combination of assignments: my previous assignment had been with the Titan system program office.

Bonus space history: On this date 45 years ago, the GEOS-1 (Geodetic Earth Orbiting Satellite) satellite was launched on a Delta launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral. It was “the first successful active spacecraft of the National Geodetic Satellite Program.”

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Space History at Two of My Duty Stations

Forty years ago today — October 14, 1970 — test pilot John A. Manke flew the X-24A lifting body on its first supersonic flight over Edwards AFB.

(X-24A on the lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The X-24A was one of several lifting bodies used to study Space Shuttle flight characteristics.

And 45 years ago today, in 1965, the second Orbiting Geophysical Observatory — OGO-2 — was launched by a Thor rocket from Vandenberg AFB. It was the first OGO launch from Vandy, and was placed in a polar orbit.

I feel privileged, and somewhat awed, to have served (and done some neat things) at both of those bases.

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First Flight for Shuttle ATLANTIS, and the First Repeater Satellite

Twenty-five years ago today — October 4, 1985 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis was in orbit on its maiden flight.

(First launch of the Shuttle Atlantis, October 3, 1985. NASA image.)

Atlantis actually launched from the Kennedy Space Center 25 years ago yesterday on mission 51J. This first mission was a DoD mission, in which astronauts Karol J. Bobko, Ronald J. Grabe, Robert A. Stewart, David C. Hilmers and William A. Pailes deployed what was later revealed to be a pair of Defense Satellite Communication System (DSCS, pronounced “discus”) satellites.


Also on this date, but twice as long ago — October 4, 1960 — the world’s first repeater satellite, Courier-1B, was launched from Cape Canaveral on a Thor “Ablestar” rocket. The first Courier satellite had been lost due to a launch vehicle failure. For more on the Courier experimental communication satellite, see this article.

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A Special Stop on the Tour, and I Provide Commentary on a Web Video

(Cross-posted, with minor edits, from the “Manufacturing Makes It Real” tour blog.)

Yesterday the “Manufacturing Makes It Real” tour stopped at Scott Health & Safety in Monroe, NC, where they make Scott Air Paks — self-contained breathing apparatus used by firefighters and emergency responders all over the world.

Of all the places we’ve been, why was the Scott Health & Safety tour stop so special to me?

When I was stationed at Edwards AFB, California, at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory,* I was the chief of the Disaster Response Force. Not only did I don Scott Paks and Graylite suits** in training, but I had occasion to wear them several times for real-world accident responses. (Ask me about them sometime.)

Yet as many times as I wore a Scott Pak, I never thought about where it was made or by whom. That’s the way it is with a lot of things we use — we take for granted that they exist and that they will work when we need them to, but we too often forget that real people made those things.

So I had no idea that Scott Paks were made by a company in North Carolina, nor did I have any idea of the pride they take in making products that help save lives. But I saw it firsthand yesterday afternoon, and that was nothing short of fantastic.

I know the weather is threatening to impact our next few stops on the tour, but I hope folks will come out to hear more about the great people at these companies who make terrific products that are vital to our lives.


Yesterday morning, during our stop at ArvinMeritor in Fletcher, I took local radio reporter Dan Hesse (News Radio 570, WWNC) through our display trailer so he could shoot some video for the station’s website. I answered some questions and provided some commentary, and for a few seconds you can catch my ugly mug on the video. The segment is six minutes long, and you can watch it on YouTube.


*The name changed twice while I was there; when I left, it was the AF Astronautics Laboratory. Now it’s part of the Phillips Lab, but it will always be the “Rocket Lab” to me.

**Or, “rocket propellant handler’s ensemble.”

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Operation Paperclip

Sixty-five years ago today — September 20, 1945 — “Operation Paperclip” brought Dr. Wernher von Braun and six other German scientists to the United States.

The first seven technicians arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Air Base, just south of Wilmington, Delaware, on September 20, 1945. They were then flown to Boston and taken by boat to the Army Intelligence Service post at Fort Strong in Boston Harbor. Later, with the exception of von Braun, the men were transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to sort out the Peenemünde documents. These would be the documents that would enable the scientists to continue their rocketry experiments.

Finally, von Braun and his remaining Peenemünde staff were transferred to their new home at Fort Bliss, Texas, a large Army installation just north of El Paso. Whilst there they trained military, industrial and university personnel in the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles and helped to refurbish, assemble and launch a number of V-2s that had been shipped from Germany to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.

(From this article on Operation Paperclip.)

This Wikipedia article also mentions September 1945, though it locates Fort Strong in New York instead of Boston Harbor; in contrast, this article states that the first scientists did not come to the U.S. until November 18th.

But come to the U.S. they did, and they helped us win the space race. As Dan Berlinrut, one of my USAF colleagues, put it many years ago, we beat the Soviets to the Moon “because our Germans were better than their Germans.”

However, their Germans were very good — and the Russian rocket scientists were no slouches themselves. We see whose launch systems are being abandoned and whose continue to operate, don’t we?

We ran the space race as a sprint, but it’s really a marathon. Will we decide to run a different race, or will we continue to lag?


I missed a space anniversary yesterday: 50 years ago yesterday, on September 19, 1960, NASA launched an Argo D-8 rocket from Vandenberg AFB carrying the “Nuclear Emulsion Recovery Vehicle.” As stated on this history page, the suborbital launch “reached an altitude of 1,260 miles before landing 1,300 miles downrange where it was picked up by U.S. Navy ships. It was the first manmade object to travel to such an altitude in space and be recovered upon its return to Earth.” (It was also NASA’s first launch from Vandy.)

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Satellite Triple Play, Plus One

Twenty-five years ago today — August 27, 1985 — astronauts Joe H. Engle, Richard O. Covey, James D. Van Hoften, William F. Fisher and John M. Lounge lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.

(Unidentified STS-51I astronaut in the Shuttle Discovery’s open cargo bay. NASA image.)

Mission STS-51I lasted a week, during which the crew deployed three communications satellites: American Satellite Company 1 (ASC-1), Australian Communications Satellite 1 (AUSSAT-1), and Synchronous Communications Satellite IV-4 (SYNCOM-IV-4), also known as LEASAT-4 because most of its communications capacity was to be leased out to the military.

The crew also retrieved SYNCOM-IV-3 (LEASAT-3), which had been launched the previous April by STS-5lD but had failed to activate. As described on this Boeing page,

After attaching special electronics assemblies to LEASAT 3 during two days of space walks, astronauts manually launched the satellite again. The electronics allowed ground controllers to turn on the satellite and, at the end of October, fire its perigee rocket and send LEASAT 3 into orbit.

While LEASAT-3’s repair was a success, LEASAT-4 developed its own problems. The satellite reached its intended orbit, but its ultra high frequency (UHF) downlink failed during testing and it was declared a total loss.

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