Exploring Earth’s Atmosphere, a Lunar Flyby, and a Space Odyssey

Fifty years ago today — April 2, 1963 — two quite different launches happened in the U.S. and the Soviet Union.


(Explorer 17. NASA image.)

The U.S. launched Explorer 17, also known as Atmospheric Explorer A, the first in a series of satellites to study the upper atmosphere. The satellite launched in the late evening — already April 3rd, UTC —¬†on a Thor-Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral, and operated until its batteries failed in July 1963.

Earlier in the day, the Soviet Union had launched Luna 4, the “first successful spacecraft of their ‘second generation’ lunar program.” It launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Molniya rocket — a Modified SS-6 (Sapwood) ICBM. Interestingly, the USSR did not reveal Luna 4’s intended mission, but “was announced it would travel to ‘the vicinity of the Moon.'”

Rather than being sent on a straight trajectory toward the Moon, the spacecraft was placed first in a 167 x 182 km Earth orbit and then was rocketed in a curving path towards the Moon. Luna 4 achieved the desired initial trajectory but during trans-lunar coast the Yupiter astronavigation system failed (most likely due to thermal control problems) and the spacecraft could not be oriented properly for the planned midcourse correction burn. Communications were maintained, but Luna 4 missed the Moon by about 8400 km (sources give reports of 8336.2, 8451, and 8500 km) at 13:25 UT on 5 April 1963 and entered a 89 250 x 694 000 km equatorial Earth orbit. The spacecraft transmitted at 183.6 MHz at least until 7 April. The orbit is believed to have been later perturbed into a heliocentric orbit.

… It was speculated the probe was designed to perform a soft landing on the Moon based on the trajectory and on the later attempted landings of the Luna 5 and 6 spacecraft, as well as the advances made over the 3 years since the successful Luna 3 flyby. (And the fact that a lecture program entitled “Hitting the Moon”, scheduled to be broadcast on Radio Moscow at 7:45 p.m. the evening of April 5, was cancelled.)

Before all of this happened, on this date 55 years ago President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent “draft legislation to Congress establishing the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Agency.'” The name was soon changed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. You can read more about NASA’s beginnings here.

Finally, 45 years ago today — April 2, 1968 — 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered at the Uptown Theatre in Washington, DC. This page includes a retrospective on its early run.

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Three Days, Three Lunar Launches … A Few Years Apart

It seemed interesting that the anniversaries of three lunar launches fell on three consecutive days, so I’ve grouped them all in one blog post.


(Lunar Prospector. NASA image.)

The first of the three launches happened 45 years ago today — January 7, 1968 — when Surveyor 7 launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas Centaur rocket. The spacecraft landed on the Moon on January 9, making it the fifth of the Apollo pathfinder series to achieve a soft landing.

And 40 years ago tomorrow — January 8, 1973 — the Soviet Union launched Luna 21 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton K rocket. Luna 21 carried and deployed Lunokhod 2, the USSR’s second lunar rover. The rover covered about 37 km during its four months of operations.

Finally, 15 years ago yesterday — January 6, 1998* — Lunar Prospector launched on an Athena 2 rocket out of Cape Canaveral. Lunar Prospector entered a low lunar polar orbit in order primarily to map the Moon’s surface for possible polar ice deposits, though it also carried instruments to study the Moon’s magnetic and gravity fields.

The mission ended on 31 July 1999 at 9:52:02 UT (5:52:02 EDT) when Lunar Prospector was deliberately targeted to impact in a permanently shadowed area of a crater near the lunar south pole. It was hoped that the impact would liberate water vapor from the suspected ice deposits in the crater and that the plume would be detectable from Earth, however, no plume was observed.

The spacecraft was sent into Shoemaker crater, and carried a portion of the remains of astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, which became a topic of discussion among the lunar colonists in my unpublished novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

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*It was already January 7 under Greenwich Mean Time (Universal Time).

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The Final — No, the Most Recent — Lunar Mission

Forty years ago today — December 7, 1972 — Apollo 17 lifted off aboard a Saturn V rocket out of Cape Canaveral as the last Apollo lunar mission.


(Gene Cernan, the most recent man to walk on the Moon. NASA image.)

Astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, and Harrison H. Schmitt comprised the Apollo 17 crew. On their first day in space, the crew took the iconic “Blue Marble” photograph with a hand-held Hasselblad camera.

Cernan and Schmitt landed the Lunar Module “Challenger” in the Taurus-Littrow region of the Moon on December 11. Evans stayed in lunar orbit aboard the Command and Service Module “America.”

Apollo 17 focused on surveying surface features and sampling geological materials in a region selected because it would yield both older and younger samples than previous Apollo missions, and featured Schmitt as the first scientist to land on the Moon. Schmitt and Cernan drove the lunar rover a total of 30.5 kilometers during their 75-hour stay on the Moon, and collected 110.4 kilograms (243 pounds) of lunar material.

When Cernan climbed aboard the Lunar Module to depart the moon, he said, “We leave as we came and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”* Usually he is referred to as the last man to walk on the Moon, but I prefer to think of him as the most recent man to walk on the Moon.

And even though I won’t get to be the next person to walk on the Moon, I hope someday to see another person walk on the Moon, and Mars, and even other worlds.

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*Shameless plug: I made that sentiment a key part of my short story, “Memorial at Copernicus.”

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Another Election is Over … Plus Some Space History

“Every country has the government it deserves.” So said Joseph de Maistre, and his words ring true to me.

What is it we deserve, then? On a national level, it seems that the politics of class warfare, handouts, and cradle-to-grave coddling have again won the day, and since the resulting system is unlikely to be sustainable over the long term, it seems that we deserve to — or we have at least voted to — decline as a nation. I hate to think it, and I will work to postpone and even correct it, but we seem to be living out the aphorism about the people destroying the republic by voting themselves largesse out of the public treasury.*

Meanwhile, the calendar turned over, and it is another day. And forty-five years ago today — November 7, 1967 — Surveyor 6, the fourth in the series to soft-land on the Moon, was launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas Centaur rocket. It would be less than two years before human beings — our countrymen — walked on the Moon.


(We went there, a long time ago, remember? NASA image.)

We had ambitions then, and big dreams. Those were the days.

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*Attributed in various forms to several different people, including Benjamin Franklin, George Orwell, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Alexander Fraser Tytler.

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Space History: Chinese Lunar Orbiter, and Mistaken Identity in a Near-Nuclear Crisis

Five years ago today — October 24, 2007 — the People’s Republic of China launched a spacecraft to orbit and study the Moon.


(Chang’e 1 launch. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Chang’e 1, “named for a Chinese legend about a young goddess who flies to the Moon,” entered lunar orbit on November 7, 2007. It carried eight different scientific instruments, and its objectives were to

obtain three-dimensional stereo images of the lunar surface, analyze the distribution and abundance of elements on the surface, survey the thickness of lunar soil and to evaluate helium-3 resources and other characteristics, and to explore the environment between the Moon and Earth.

The spacecraft remained in orbit around the Moon until March 2009, according to the Wikipedia entry.
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In other space history, 50 years ago today — October 24, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis — the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 22, which was intended to be an interplanetary mission to fly by Mars. The spacecraft and the upper stage of the rocket

either broke up as they were going into Earth orbit or had the upper stage explode in orbit during the burn to put the spacecraft into Mars trajectory. In either case, the spacecraft broke into many pieces, some of which apparently remained in Earth orbit for a few days.

That debris reportedly showed up on the radar at the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) site in Alaska, and “was momentarily feared to be the start of a Soviet nuclear ICBM attack.”

Those were scary times. This incident points out the simple fact that space launch technology is of a kind with ballistic missile technology, which is why we spent so much time and effort protecting our U.S. designs and methodologies when I served in the Defense Technology Security Administration.

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One Space Launch, One Space Landing

Fifty years ago today — October 18, 1962 — Ranger 5 was launched from Cape Canaveral on its mission to the Moon.


(Ranger 5. NASA image.)

Ranger 5 launched atop an Atlas Agena rocket, but unfortunately it did not complete its mission. It was intended primarily to “transmit pictures of the lunar surface to Earth stations during a period of 10 minutes of flight prior to impacting on the Moon, to rough-land a seismometer capsule on the Moon,” and to complete other objectives, but

Due to an unknown malfunction after injection into lunar trajectory from Earth parking orbit, the spacecraft failed to receive power. The batteries ran down after 8 hours, 44 minutes, rendering the spacecraft inoperable. Ranger 5 missed the Moon by 725 km. It is now in a heliocentric orbit.

In more successful space history, on this date 45 years ago, the Soviet Union’s Venera 4 landed on Venus.

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Japanese Lunar Mission

Five years ago today — September 14, 2007 — the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) launched the Kaguya lunar orbiter aboard an H-2A rocket from Tanegashima Island.


(The Moon, as seen by Kaguya’s high-gain antenna monitor camera. JAXA image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Kaguya was originally named SELENE, for SELenological and ENgineering Explorer, but was renamed Kaguya after Kaguya-hime — i.e., Princess Kaguya — who came to Earth from the Moon in the 10th century Japanese folk tale “Taketori Monogatari” (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter).

Upon reaching lunar orbit on October 3, 2007, Kaguya deployed two smaller satellites, “Okina” and “Ouna,” named for the old couple in the folk tale who find and adopt Kaguya-hine.

The Kaguya mission completed a global survey of the Moon, looking at its composition, topography, gravity, and other conditions. The mission ended on June 10, 2009, with a pre-planned impact on the lunar surface that was timed to allow observers on Earth to see the flash of impact.

Very cool!

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Surveyor 5: Pathfinder for Apollo 11

Forty-five years ago today — September 8, 1967 — an Atlas Centaur launch vehicle carried the Surveyor 5 lander out of Cape Canaveral on its way to the moon.


(Surveyor and Apollo landing sites. Note the close proximity of Surveyor 5 (S5) and Apollo 11. NOAA image.)

Surveyor 5 landed on the moon on September 11, 1967, but not until mission controllers overcame a hardware problem. After the midcourse correction

the spacecraft began losing helium pressure. It was concluded that the helium pressure valve had not reseated tightly and the helium was leaking into the propellant tanks, causing an overpressure which opened the relief valves, discharging the helium. A new emergency landing plan was adopted. Early vernier engine firings were made while there was still helium to slow the spacecraft, reduce its mass, and leave more free volume in the propellant tanks for the helium. The burn of the main retrorocket was delayed [to] an altitude of 1300 meters at a velocity of 30 m/s rather than the planned 10,700 meters at 120 to 150 m/s.

Surveyor 5 landed in the southwest area of Mare Tranquillitatis — the Sea of Tranquility. Two years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would land Apollo 11 about 30 km away from Surveyor 5’s landing site.

The Surveyor 5 spacecraft operated on the lunar surface for 4 lunar days — shutting down during each 2-week-long lunar night — and sent its final transmission on December 17, 1967.

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Farewell, Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, first human to walk on the moon, has taken his final small step, his final giant leap into the great unknown.

Other people with deeper insight will pen better tributes than I. All I can contribute is a measure of how much of an inspiration Armstrong and his astronaut colleagues have been to me: in my decision to join the Air Force and to work specifically in space and missiles, and in my desire to explore space in my imagination and my stories.

Thank you, Neil Armstrong, and Godspeed.

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Previous Armstrong-related space history posts:
Apollo 11’s 40th Anniversary
Happy Birthday, Neil Armstrong

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Last of the Pre-Apollo Lunar Orbiters

Forty-five years ago today — August 1, 1967 — Lunar Orbiter 5 was launched by an Atlas Agena from Cape Canaveral.


(Lunar Orbiter 5. NASA image.)

As noted, Lunar Orbiter 5 was the last of the series, “designed to to take additional Apollo and Surveyor landing site photography and to take broad survey images of unphotographed parts of the Moon’s far side.”

The spacecraft acquired photographic data from August 6 to 18, 1967, and readout occurred until August 27, 1967. A total of 633 high resolution and 211 medium resolution frames at resolution down to 2 meters were acquired, bringing the cumulative photographic coverage by the 5 Lunar Orbiters to 99% of the Moon’s surface.

Mission Control commanded Lunar Orbiter 5 to de-orbit and hit the lunar surface five months after its photography mission was completed.

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