A Space Anniversary for the Cold Warriors

Forty-five years ago today — September 24, 1964 — a Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile launched for the first time on a test flight from Cape Canaveral.

(Blast door at the entrance to Launch Control Center Delta-01. Image from the National Park Service.)

Hats off to all my missileer friends whose alert posture kept us safe during the Cold War and beyond — and deter nuclear aggression today. It was an honor to serve with you, even if my part was just to put together emergency action messages.

If you’re planning to visit South Dakota, you might consider adding the Minuteman Missile National Historical Site to your travel itinerary.

And 10 years ago today, in 1999, an Athena rocket launched the Ikonos-2 remote sensing satellite from Vandenberg AFB. Ikonos-2 was a non-military reconnaissance satellite, and the first of a “new generation” of high-resolution (1 meter) commercial imagers.

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A Busy Launch Day in Space History

Two interesting launches occurred 15 years ago today — August 3, 1994.

  • From Edwards Air Force Base, California, a Pegasus rocket launched the Advanced Photovoltaic and Electronic Experiments spacecraft off the wing of NASA’s B-52 carrier aircraft. APEX was part of the USAF Space Test Program, and carried instruments to study the effects of the Van Allen radiation belt.
  • And from Cape Canaveral, what might have been an “ordinary” launch (except that in space launch there’s still no such thing) of DIRECTV-2, except that this spacecraft carried the “SpaceArc” time capsule. SpaceArc — the “space archive” — consisted of a reel of 35-mm optical tape containing essays, poems, written music and artwork: “the personal expressions of more than 47,000 people from around the world, representing 52 countries,” according to the old web site. The archive included messages from then Vice-President Al Gore and his predecessor, Dan Quayle, and is intended to remain in orbit for thousands of years after the satellite’s useful life.

And five years ago — on this date in 2004 — the Messenger probe to Mercury was launched from Cape Canaveral. Messenger is scheduled to arrive at Mercury and begin orbiting the planet in March 2011 (591 days away, if you’re counting). Read more about the Messenger mission on the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory web site.

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Space History Today: Rockets, Retrieval, and that Moon Thing

Lots of interesting July 20th space history (even though I only concentrate on anniversaries in multiples of 5 years).

(View of Earth from lunar orbit, prior to the [I]Eagle‘s landing. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)[/I]

Forty-five years ago today, in 1964, the Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT-1) launched on a suborbital test flight from Wallops Island, Virginia. The vehicle tested electron bombardment ion engines. (I find this interesting because Area 1-14 at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Lab [my first assignment in the USAF] tested electric propulsion concepts and, I believe, some ion engines. Ion thrusters are used for stationkeeping on many different spacecraft.)

And for terrestrial history with a connection to space, ten years ago today, in 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was pulled up from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, about ninety miles northeast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom had flown in the Liberty Bell 7 on our country’s second manned spaceflight. (I find the retrieval particularly interesting, since my first project in the Titan System Program Office was to find and retrieve pieces of a failed Titan-IV rocket so the investigators could confirm the cause of the malfunction.)

That’s it, right?

Of course not. I’m actually pleased with the attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-11 landing, with dedicated sites like We Choose the Moon — and today is the day.

(Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. flag. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)

Forty years ago today, in 1969, the Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon in the first manned lunar landing. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to step out on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins orbited in the Command Module Columbia. A few hours later — at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, which was 2:56 a.m. Greenwich Mean (Universal) Time — Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon.

“One small step,” indeed.

I dream about the giant leaps.

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Space History: a Polar Explorer

(Explorer-52, or “Hawkeye-1”. Public domain image from Wikimedia.)

Thirty-five years ago today — June 3, 1974 — Explorer-52 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, aboard a Scout rocket. Built by the University of Iowa, the satellite was also known as Hawkeye-1.

According to NASA’s National Space Science Data Center Master Catalog,

The primary mission objective was to conduct particles and fields investigations of the polar magnetosphere of the earth out to 21 earth radii. Secondary objectives were to make magnetic field and plasma distribution measurements in the solar wind, and to study Type-3 radio emissions caused by solar electron streams in the interplanetary medium.

And now you know.

Since the satellite was launched into a polar orbit, I have to believe the Thule Tracking Station — callsign POGO, which I commanded for one year of my Air Force career — downlinked at least some of the data from it. That was many years later than this launch, of course, so it’s not much of a connection … but I’ll take what I can get.

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In Recent News: Operationally Responsive Space

I was surprised to see two news items about ORS this week: the ORS demonstrator TacSat-3 launched Tuesday on a Minotaur rocket, and then ORS-1 — which would be the first operational spacecraft, and an infrared imager, no less — showed up as the third-highest item on the Air Force’s unfunded priorities list.

I posted blurbs about both items in a dedicated thread in the “Space Tactics, Techniques, & Procedures” section of the Space Warfare Forum. I’d love to be convinced that my original misgivings about ORS — which I developed while still in the service, based on the briefings and articles I saw — have been overcome.

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Bouncing Signals Off the Moon, a Half Century Ago

Today in space history — 50 years ago, in fact — an intercontinental radio transmission was made using the moon as a relay station. The signal went from Jodrell Bank, England to the Air Force Cambridge Research Center in Bedford, MA.

(Click to enlarge.)

It was a neat idea, and perfectly reasonable in the age before long-lived, reliable communications satellites had been built. This book chapter details the Jodrell Bank work, and this page discusses an earlier U.S. Navy program to use the moon as a communications relay.

(Image from Flickr, by longhorndave, Creative Commons licensed.)

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A Lifting Body and a 'Misty' Launch

Two space history anniversaries today:

Forty years ago today — May 9, 1969 — John A. Manke flew the HL-10 lifting body in its first supersonic flight at the Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base.

(HL-10 on the Edwards AFB lakebed, with B-52 flyover. NASA photo ECN-2203. Click to enlarge.)

And fifteen years ago — May 9, 1994 — a Scout rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying the second Miniature Sensor Technology Integration spacecraft: MSTI-2, pronounced “Misty-two.” I was stationed at Vandy at the time, though I confess I don’t remember that particular launch.

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Hindsight and Outrage — Much Ado about Not Much

So, one of the VC-25 Presidential airlift aircraft (it’s not “Air Force One” unless the President is on board) flew over Manhattan the other day, with F-16 chase planes carrying combat photographers to update photos of the aircraft with the Statue of Liberty in the background. The mission was conceived and authorized by the White House Military Office, according to reports; at least, the WHMO director has done the right thing and taken responsibility for it.

For reasons unknown to me, the mission was not announced ahead of time; however, I can guess one reason had to do with security. If announced ahead of time, crackpots (or worse than crackpots) could have stationed themselves with weapons to damage or destroy the aircraft — it would be an enticing target for anyone wanting to demonstrate their contempt for the United States.*

With hindsight, many people have said that, had they known about the planned flight, they would have predicted the reactions of people working around Ground Zero — but some of that is undoubtedly political grandstanding. I don’t think they would have predicted it. Many of these same people believe the Terror War is only an overseas contingency, and not a fundamental campaign for the safety and security of free people in the face of bellicose extremists. Why, then, would they have predicted panic among civilians if we are only engaged in overseas contingency operations? The reactions of New Yorkers show that the contingency is not just overseas — at least not in the minds of ordinary citizens.

But along with this hindsight, we also hear expressions of outrage, not just over the training mission that had cameras on it but the cost of the training mission. Ridiculous.

Many of the people complaining about the cost, and trying to label it an extravagance in an age that demands austerity, would — until January 20th of this year — have cheered any flight by that glorious symbol with “United States of America” emblazoned on its side. Their complaint is not that the VC-25 costs a lot to operate, but because this President’s VC-25 costs a lot to operate. Ladies and gentlemen, the cost has not changed with the new administration. It is what it is.

And here’s the kicker: that training flight was going to be flown somewhere. Flight crews have to maintain proficiency, new crewmembers have to be trained, and even these special aircraft must be put through their paces. I used to see the VC-25 flying into and out of Andrews Air Force Base from time to time, and I bet few of those times were actual AF-1 missions. If the photo mission had been flown over the open ocean, or over the great plains, or even high over Manhattan, you wouldn’t even have known about it — nor would you have cared, about the mission or the cost.

So now it’s much ado about not much: time for accusations and posturing and apologies, and possibly even for resignations. And that’s a shame, because we have many more serious things to think about and work on.

Please, save your outrage for something that really matters.

*It may have been possible to balance OPSEC — operational security — with public awareness by announcing the flight just an hour or so ahead. We’ll never know.

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First X-24 Flight, Forty Years Ago

Forty years ago today — April 17, 1969 — Air Force test pilot Jerauld R. Gentry flew the X-24 lifting body demonstrator on its first glide flight at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, California. The X-24 program investigated the flight regime of unpowered vehicles returning from space, and provided important data for developing the Space Shuttle.

(NASA Image ECN-2006. Click to enlarge.)

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