First Titan 34D Launch from Vandenberg

Thirty years ago today — June 20, 1983 — a pair of satellites were launched from Vandenberg AFB atop a Titan 34D booster.


(Titan 34D launching from Cape Canaveral. DoD image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Launched from Space Launch Complex (SLC, pronounced “slick”) 4-East, the two DoD satellites were designated 1983-060A (or 14137) and 1983-060C (or 14139), but a 2011 Space Review article identified the primary payload of this particular launch as a KH-9 reconnaissance satellite. The Titan 34D Wikipedia page notes the June 1983 launch as the first Vandenberg launch for the 34D configuration.

As an old Titan System Program Office guy, I’d just as soon end there, but as an old Vandenberg guy I’ll toss in another space anniversary: On this date 5 years ago, the French and U.S. Jason 2 satellite was launched from Vandenberg on a Delta II rocket. Jason 2 was designed to monitor oceanic conditions from space, and was “a cooperative mission involving the French CNES, the European EUMETSAT, and the American NOAA and NASA.”

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Japanese X-Ray Telescope, and a Satellite’s Destruction

Twenty years ago today — February 20, 1993 — Japan launched the Asuka x-ray observatory from Uchinoura Space Center atop an M-3SII rocket.


(Representation of Asuka satellite. JAXA image.)

Asuka, also known as ASTRO-D before launch and ASCA afterward, was a joint mission in which NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both provided spacecraft components in exchange for observation time with the orbiting telescope. The spacecraft operated normally for over seven years; however,

A solar flare on 14 July 2000 caused heating and expansion of the upper atmosphere, which increased the drag and external torque on ASCA. The attitude was perturbed, so the solar panels lost lock on the Sun, resulting in discharge of the batteries. ASCA reentered the atmosphere on March 2, 2001.

This date in space history is also marked by another satellite’s destruction, but this time it was deliberate: 5 years ago today, the guided-missile-cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a missile to intercept a disabled reconnaissance satellite. You can read contemporary news reports at Spy Satellite’s Downing Shows a New U.S. Weapon Capability and Navy says missile smashed wayward satellite.

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Naval Communications and Surveillance

Two separate launches on this date in space history, five years apart. First, 35 years ago today — February 9, 1978 — an Atlas-Centaur launched from Cape Canaveral carrying FLTSATCOM 1 (Fleet Satellite Communications One).

FLTSATCOM satellite. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.
(FLTSATCOM satellite. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The FLTSATCOM system provided world-wide UHF communications for aircraft, ships, and submarines, with shore-to-fleet broadcast and beyond-line-of-sight capability. A few of its channels were used for emergency action messages and other communications with Strategic Air Command aircraft, the E-3A airborne warning and control (AWACS) aircraft, and so forth.

Five years later, on this date in 1983, an Atlas F launch vehicle out of Vandenberg AFB carried the latest Navy Ocean Surveillance Satellite (NOSS) to orbit. According to the National Space Science Data Center page,

It placed a cluster of one primary satellite and three smaller sub-satellites (that trailed along at distances of several hundred kilometers) into low polar orbit. This satellite array determined the location of radio and radars transmitters, using triangulation, and the identity of naval units, by analysis of the operating frequencies and transmission patterns.

The Space Review published an overview of the NOSS system in 2009, and this 2004 article notes that the formation-flying system may have been responsible for a number of UFO sightings. According to this recent Florida Today article, “None of the U.S. NOSS triplets remain in formation,” and the similar Chinese Yaogan 9A, 9B and 9C satellites “are the only intact example in orbit today.”

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First Launch of NRO's 'Poppy' Spacecraft

Fifty years ago today — December 13, 1962 — a Thor Delta rocket out of Vandenberg AFB launched the first set of electronic intelligence (ELINT) spacecraft in the Poppy program.


(Poppy Type II satellite. NRO image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Also known as 1962 Tau Beta (among other names), the Poppy spacecraft were a follow-on to the Galactic Radiation and Background (GRAB) series of ELINT satellites, pictured in this previous blog entry. Several Poppy spacecraft were launched together, in tandem with the Injun 3 instrumentation satellite.

The National Reconnaissance Office declassified the Poppy program in 2005, and prepared a report entitled Raising the Periscope that contains select details about it and the GRAB program.

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'Buckshot' Launch Attempt

A half-century ago today — January 24, 1962 — a Thor AbleStar rocket out of Cape Canaveral attempted, but failed, to launch a group of five small satellites for the U.S. Navy.


(SOLRAD-1, the precursor to SOLRAD-4. US Navy image.)

The launch was called Composite-1, or “Buckshot,” and intended to launch:

  • SOLRAD-4 (Solar Radiation or SR-4) — intended to measure and analyze solar emissions, but also incorporating the GREB IV (Galactic Radiation Experimental Background, also known as Galactic Radiation and Background, or GRAB) reconnaissance payload
  • Lofti III — Low-Frequency Trans-Ionospheric satellite, a follow-on to Lofti-I
  • Injun-II — a University of Iowa payload to study the Van Allen radiation belt
  • Secor — Sequential Collation of Range, an experiment in geolocation
  • Surcal — Surveillance Calibration satellite, used to calibrate the Naval Space Surveillance system

According to the 02/01/62 issue of FLIGHT International, the launch failed because “the second stage of the Thor AbleStar failed to build up thrust after ignition.”

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From the Land of the Rising Sun, a Satellite to Study the Sun

Twenty years ago today — August 30, 1991 — the Yohkoh solar astronomy satellite launched from Kagoshima Space Center, Japan.


(Artist’s conception of the Yohkoh spacecraft. NASA image.)

Yohkoh was originally named “Solar-A,” and was a joint venture between Japan, Great Britain, and the US. “Yohkoh” means “sunlight” in English.

The Yohkoh mission lasted a decade, until an anomaly ended the satellite’s life. According to this Marshall Space Flight Center page,

Yohkoh suffered a spacecraft failure in December 2001 that has put an end to this mission. During the solar eclipse of December 14th the spacecraft lost pointing and the batteries discharged. The spacecraft operators were unable to command the satellite to point toward the sun.

If you have a child interested in such things — or if you yourself have a childlike interest in such things — you can build your own model Yohkoh satellite, using actual satellite blueprints.

And in other space history, on this date 50 years ago the U.S. launched Discoverer-29 on a Thor rocket out of Vandenberg AFB. According to this Wikipedia page, Discoverer-29 was the first of the KH-3 series of reconnaissance satellites launched by the NRO in the Corona program.

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Space History: Once More to the Moon!

Actually, twice more, a few years apart: once for the Soviets, once for us.

Today was quite a busy day in space history: 50 years ago — on January 31, 1961 — the reconnaissance satellite Samos-2 launched from the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range (now part of Vandenberg AFB) , while a few hours earlier Mercury Redstone-2 had launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying Ham the chimpanzee. Ham performed well despite enduring higher g-forces than planned and an accidental cabin depressurization.

But as for the lunar missions …

Five years later, on this date in 1966, the Soviet Union launched Luna-9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Luna-9 was the first craft to successfully make a “soft landing” on the Moon, and sent back several panoramic images of the lunar surface.

But the main event on this day in space history occurred 40 years ago today — January 31, 1971 — when Apollo-14 launched from the Kennedy Space Center carrying astronauts Alan B. Shepard Jr., Stuart A. Roosa, and Edgar D. Mitchell.


(Alan Shepard, during the Apollo-14 mission to the Moon. NASA image.)

Roosa stayed aboard the Command and Service Module “Kitty Hawk” while Shepard and Mitchell descended to the surface in the Lunar Module “Antares”. They landed in the Fra Mauro highlands, where Apollo-13 was supposed to land, and spent over 30 hours there — including over 9 hours exploring the surface.

I could go into various personal science fictional tie-ins to today’s space history, but I get tired of self-promotion. So I think today it’s best to let the day’s accomplishments stand on their own.

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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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First Successful CORONA Mission

Fifty years ago today — August 18, 1960 — Discoverer-14 launched from Vandenberg AFB. It was known to the public by that name, but to insiders in what would become the National Reconnaissance Office it was known as CORONA Mission 9009.


(Aerial recovery of Discoverer-14. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Discoverer-14 was the first CORONA mission in which the film canisters were successfully recovered from orbit.

The National Space Science Data Center describes the film recovery process:

Over Alaska on the 17th pass around the earth, the Agena ejected Discoverer 14 from its nose and retrorockets attached to the reentry vehicle fired to slow it for the return from orbit. After Discoverer 14 reentered the atmosphere, it released a parachute and floated earthward. The descending parachute was sighted 360 miles southeast of Honolulu, Hawaii, by the crew of a US Air Force C-119 recovery aircraft from the 6593rd Test Squardon based at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. On the C-119’s third pass over the parachute, the recovery gear trailing behind the aircraft successfully snagged the parachute canopy. A winch operator aboard the C-119 then reeled in the Discoverer after its 27-hour, 450,000 mile journey through space. This was the first successful recovery of film from an orbiting satellite and the first aerial recovery of an object returning from Earth orbit.

The NSSDC also notes that “38 Discoverer satellites were launched by February 1962,” although the CORONA project itself continued until 1972. CORONA was declassified in 1995.

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Spy Satellite Proof-of-Concept Launch, 50 Years Ago

A half-century ago today — August 10, 1960 — Discoverer-13 launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Thor-Agena rocket.


(President Eisenhower presented with U.S. flag flown inside Discoverer capsule. Dwight D. Eisenhower Library image from the National Air & Space Museum.)

Discoverer-13, and indeed the entire Discoverer series of spacecraft, was part of the highly classified CORONA program managed by the National Reconnaissance Office. Discoverer-13 did not take any images itself, however, as it was used to prove that all the systems would work. Discoverer-14 took the program’s first images a few days later.

The Discoverer-13 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and became the first man-made object recovered from space. The first segment of this YouTube newsreel video shows President Eisenhower being presented with a U.S. flag that flew inside the capsule.

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