Two Space Anniversaries: a First for China, and Hubble Reaches Orbit

Forty years ago today — April 24, 1970 — China joined the “space club” by launching its first satellite, appropriately named China-1. China was the fifth nation to launch its own satellite.

And 20 years ago — on this date in 1990 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-31 to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope.

(STS-31 mission patch. NASA image. Click to enlarge.)

The STS-31 crew consisted of astronauts Loren J. Shriver, Charles F. Bolden (the current NASA Administrator), Steven A. Hawley, Bruce McCandless and Kathryn D. Sullivan. The HST had more than its share of problems, given its blurred optics and the need to mount a repair mission, but its launch was still a momentous occasion for space science. It has brought us remarkable images year after year, more than I can count.

(Hubble Space Telescope deployment from STS-31. NASA image.)

It was momentous for yours truly, also: when it landed on April 29th at Edwards AFB, I was once again on duty as part of the AF Flight Test Center shuttle recovery team. It really doesn’t seem like so long ago, yet it seems like another lifetime ….

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First Pegasus Launch, Twenty Years Ago

On April 5, 1990, the first live launch of a Pegasus rocket carried the PEGSAT experimental satellite into orbit.

(July 1991 picture of a Pegasus rocket being carried by NASA’s B-52. NASA image.)

PEGSAT was an interesting combination of an instrumentation package to monitor this first Pegasus launch; a small Navy communications relay satellite; and a science experiment involving the release of barium to observe “interactions of photoionized barium with magnetic and electric fields in the Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere.”

The Pegasus rocket was carried aloft from Edwards AFB and released by the same NASA B-52 that had conducted drop tests and launches of various experimental aircraft, including the X-15. Later, Orbital Sciences Corporation commissioned its own L-1011 carrier aircraft, which they kept at Vandenberg AFB.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for this launch, so this space anniversary is special to me. And somewhere I have a picture of me in front of Orbital Sciences’ L-1011/Pegasus combination….

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Nukes in Space! (Well, One Little Nuclear Reactor…)

Forty-five years ago today — April 3, 1965 — an Atlas Agena-D rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying SNAP-10A, the first nuclear reactor to be launched into space.*

(SNAP-10A reactor undergoing testing. US Department of Energy photo.)

Part of the System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) program, the reactor tested nuclear power generation in the space environment.

The SNAP reactor was designed to be remotely started and operated in space. In this manner, any hazardous radiation associated with the nuclear fission reaction is not produced until after the reactor safely reaches orbit. The hazards to ground personnel are minimized and since radioactive fission products are not present before the reactor is operated, less of a hazard exists during launch if an accidental reentry should occur….

Twelve hours after launch, the nuclear reactor was automatically brought up to operating temperature and initially produced more than 600 watts of electrical power. Following 43 days of successful operation, the reactor was shut down as the result of a high voltage failure in the electrical system of the Agena spacecraft. All flight test objectives were met with the exception of the expected length of operation. The reactor remains in polar orbit today.

Also on this date, 15 years ago, a Pegasus rocket launched from its L-1011 carrier aircraft out of Vandenberg, carrying three small satellites. It launched the lightning mapping satellite MICROLAB-1, along with two ORBCOMM transponders. (To anyone else, that launch is probably not significant, but every Pegasus launch resonates with me because I played a very small role in that program when I was stationed at Edwards AFB.)

*Several sources agree that this launch did indeed carry the SNAP-10A reactor; in contrast, the National Space Science Data Center page for this launch states that it carried a SNAP-9A radioisotope thermal generator (the same type to power the Transit series of navigational satellites). Normally the NSSDC pages are quite authoritative, but in this case I believe it has a typo. (As of today, anyway.)

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Studying the Magnetosphere, Pushing the Envelope

Ten years ago today — March 25, 2000 — the “Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration” spacecraft, also known as IMAGE, was launched from Vandenberg AFB, California, atop a Delta-II rocket.

(IMAGE launch. NASA image.)

IMAGE was designed to study the Earth’s magnetosphere for two years, but it exceeded all expectations and actually sent back observations for over five years.

IMAGE was the first satellite mission dedicated to imaging the Earth’s magnetosphere, the region of space controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field and containing extremely tenuous plasmas of both solar and terrestrial origin.

In other historical news, on March 25, 1960 — 50 years ago today — NASA test pilot Joseph A. Walker made his first X-15 flight at Edwards AFB, CA. Walker eventually

flew the research aircraft 24 times and achieved its fastest speed and highest altitude. He attained a speed of 4,104 mph (Mach 5.92) during a flight on June 27, 1962, and reached an altitude of 354,300 feet on August 22, 1963 (his last X-15 flight).

From a strictly personal point of view, I like these particular history items because I was stationed at both of those air bases during my career.

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X-Series Flight Testing Continues at Eddie's Airplane Patch

Forty years ago today — March 19, 1970 — USAF test pilot Major Jerauld R. Gentry made the first powered flight in the X-24A lifting body.

(X-24A with rocket engine ignited after being dropped from the B-52 carrier aircraft. NASA image.)

The same B-52 used in the X-15 program (and later in the Pegasus program*) carried the X-24A to about 40,000 ft (13,860 m) altitude, where it was dropped and its rocket engine took the rest of the way through its flight profile. It then glided to a landing on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB.

Over the life of the program, the X-24A made 28 powered flights, reaching a maximum speed of 1,036 mph (1,667 km/hr) and a maximum altitude of 71,407 ft (21,765 m). According to the project description on this page, NASA later used the X-24A’s shape as the basic profile for the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle demonstrator.

*Full disclosure: When I was stationed at Edwards (1986-90), I was on the Flight Readiness Review committee for the first Pegasus launch from that same B-52.

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Atlantis in Orbit

Twenty years ago, in 1990, the Space Shuttle Atlantis was in orbit on mission STS-36. It had launched on the Department of Defense mission on February 28, during a classified launch window.

(Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, taken from Atlantis on STS-36. NASA image.)

Astronauts John O. Creighton, John H. Casper, David C. Hilmers, Richard M. Mullane, and Pierre J. Thuot deployed a classified payload shortly after reaching orbit, and landed at Edwards Air Force Base on March 4th.

(Personal note: We were still at Edwards AFB at the time, but I don’t remember if I saw that landing. I was not on the recovery team for it.)

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Space History Just-in-Time Pickup: Shuttle Retrieves LDEF

Twenty years ago today — January 11, 1990 — Space Shuttle Columbia retrieved the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) as one of the key objectives of mission STS-32.

(STS-32 mission patch. NASA image. Click to enlarge.)

Columbia had launched on January 9th from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying astronauts Daniel C. Brandenstein, James D. Wetherbee, Bonnie J.Dunbar, Marsha S. Ivins, and G. David Low. The astronauts deployed the defense communications satellite Syncom IV-5 shortly after achieving orbit, then maneuvered the shuttle for the rendezvous with the LDEF.

(Long Duration Exposure Facility at the end of the shuttle’s manipulator arm. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

According to this LDEF archive site,

NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) was designed to provide long-term data on the space environment and its effects on space systems and operations….

LDEF had a nearly cylindrical structure, and its 57 experiments were mounted in 86 trays about its periphery and on the two ends. The spacecraft measured 30 feet by 14 feet and weighed ~21,500 pounds with mounted experiments, and remains one of the largest Shuttle-deployed payloads….

LDEF was deployed in orbit on April 7, 1984 by the Shuttle Challenger. The nearly circular orbit was at an altitude of 275 nautical miles and an inclination of 28.4 degrees…. LDEF remained in space for ~5.7 years and completed 32,422 Earth orbits…. It experienced one-half of a solar cycle, as it was deployed during a solar minimum and retrieved at a solar maximum.

And what made its recover “just-in-time” was the fact that it was about to fall from the sky.

… By the time LDEF was retrieved, its orbit had decayed to ~175 nautical miles and was a little more than one month away from reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Shuttle Columbia landed with the LDEF on January 20, 1990 at Edwards Air Force Base — where yours truly was again part of the USAF shuttle recovery team. Another good mission, another chance to dream.

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Rocket Sleds and Murphy's Law — and a Couple of Rocket Launches, Too

Fifty-five years ago today — December 10, 1954 — U.S. Air Force Colonel John P. Stapp rode a rocket sled at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, to over 600 mph. Stapp set a record for the greatest recorded g-forces endured by man when the sled decelerated. From his obituary in the New York Times,

Dr. Stapp was known as the ”fastest man on earth” for his 1954 ride, though the speed has since been surpassed and was never accepted by auto racing officials as an official land speed record. The speed was impressive, at any rate. Dr. Stapp accelerated in 5 seconds from a standstill to 632 miles an hour. The sled then decelerated to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds, subjecting Dr. Stapp to pressures 40 times the pull of gravity.

Stapp’s early rocket sled tests were done at Edwards AFB, and I remember seeing the old tracks and trenches out on South Base. It was during those early tests that Stapp fell victim to what became known as Murphy’s Law:

Dr. Stapp . . . suffered an injury in the experiment that inspired Murphy’s Law after a somewhat less rapid sled ride in 1949.

An assistant, Capt. Edward A. Murphy Jr., had designed a harness to strap in the rider. The harness held 16 sensors to measure the acceleration, or G-force, on different body parts. There were exactly two ways each sensor could be installed. Captain Murphy did each one the wrong way.

The result was that when Dr. Stapp staggered off the rocket sled with bloodshot eyes and bleeding sores, all the sensors registered zero. He had been strained in vain.

A distraught Captain Murphy proclaimed the original version of the famous maxim: ”If there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way.”

If rocket sleds don’t quite qualify as “space history” for you, there were two December 10th rocket launches that fit the bill. First, 35 years ago today, a Titan III-E rocket launched the Helios-1 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. Helios-1 was a joint effort by the U.S. and West Germany to measure the solar wind and examine the surface of the sun. And on December 10, 1999, the European Space Agency launched an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying their X-ray Multimirror Mission (XMM) telescope. XMM-Newton was the ESA’s equivalent of NASA’s Chandra space observatory.

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Report from the NASA Industry-Education Forum

Today I had the opportunity to attend a great meeting: the NASA Industry-Education Forum, held at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was an invitation-only event, for which I was actually an alternate in place of the Director of the North Carolina Space Grant; however, I feel as if I contributed a little bit to the proceedings.

The meeting started exceedingly well. We were greeted by the NASA Administrator, astronaut and Retired Marine Major General Charlie Bolden, who let us know that he considered it very important to NASA’s efforts to grow the nation’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) capabilities. Had I realized he was going to attend, I could’ve looked up his bio; then, when I introduced myself, I could’ve pointed out that I was on the Air Force Flight Test Center recovery team for his STS-31 shuttle mission that landed at Edwards Air Force Base, and also that one of his mission specialists on STS-60, Dr. Ron Sega, was one of the Under Secretaries of the Air Force for whom I wrote speeches. Ah, missed opportunities.

Following the introductions — including astronaut and International Space Station Expedition-3 Commander (and retired Navy Captain) Frank Culbertson and famed science correspondent Miles O’Brien — the meeting continued with a series of briefings on NASA’s education efforts, successful student programs such as the “Getaway Special” payloads that have flown on many shuttle flights, and the nationwide Space Grant program. It was good to note in the briefing about NASA’s University Research Centers that the centers at North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central University were both included.

The meeting split up into four working groups, each with about ten people, that met over lunch to consider three topics: how we can inspire young people to pursue STEM education and careers, how we can retain these young people in STEM courses of study after they’ve begun, and how we can help graduates find (and succeed in) aerospace jobs. Our working group had a very wide-ranging discussion that could have continued for long after our time was up. When we all came back together, each group presented their results; our NASA hosts are collecting and collating all of our ideas for distribution to the larger group.

Next on the agenda was a panel of four “early career” aerospace professionals, each of whom had been assisted by NASA at some point in their educational career (e.g., by fellowships, scholarships, internships, etc.). Finally, the meeting ended with a collection of action items, most of which were taken by the NASA education staff, though some had industry and industry association elements.

I had gone into the meeting with an idea that I had gotten from a member of the Codex writers’ group: specifically, that of making a space documentary suitable for a very young audience, as opposed to the usual space documentaries that seem to appeal more to my generation. My working group did not take to the idea with the enthusiasm I had hoped, so I didn’t pitch it to the larger group.

However, one thing in the larger group was that new social networking technologies represent an opportunity to reach young people with exciting information about the aerospace world and their opportunities in it. And even though very few people read my blog, I like to think that my occasional space history items would qualify — so that made me feel pretty good.

All in all, a terrific meeting, and I was happy to represent the NC Aerospace Initiative. (And I even got to plug Baen Books in my working group!)

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Space History: Military Space Mission, and My Role In It

Twenty years ago yesterday — November 22, 1989 — astronauts Frederick D. Gregory, John E. Blaha, Kathyrn C. Thornton, F. Story Musgrave, and Manley L Carter, Jr., lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-33.*

(STS-33 mission patch. NASA image. Click to enlarge.)

STS-33 was a classified Department of Defense mission, and one of the four shuttle missions I worked as part of the Air Force Flight Test Center’s Space Shuttle Recovery Team. Edwards AFB was the “abort once-around” recovery site, so we were in place (at the fire department) several hours before the launch in case the shuttle had to land right after liftoff. We also stayed on standby the entire time the shuttle was in orbit. And since this shuttle landed at Edwards AFB on November 27, we rolled out to meet the vehicle, parked right off the nose of the orbiter while NASA checked it out and the crew disembarked, and escorted the shuttle down the flightline to NASA-Dryden.

That was a fun job….

*Editor’s note: One NASA site had this launch listed for November 23, but it looks as if that was wrong. I think that may be when the crew actually deployed the classified satellite.

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