Two DoD Comsats in One Launch

Thirty years ago today — October 30, 1982 — two Defense Satellite Communication System spacecraft were launched from Cape Canaveral on a single Titan 34D vehicle.

(DSCS III. USAF image.)

The launch of DSCS II (pronounced “discus two”), flight 15, and DSCS III, flight 1, marked the first use of the Titan 34D with the Inertial Upper Stage.

Several years later, after two failed Titan 34D launches, I would become involved in the Titan 34D Recovery Program; specifically, setting up the facilities for, and monitoring the environmental effects of, the first-ever full-scale nozzle-down test of one of the solid rocket motors, at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB.


And 10 years ago today, in 2002, Soyuz TMA-1 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying cosmonauts Sergei V. Zalyotin and Yuri V. Lonchakov, along with Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne, to the International Space Station (ISS). Later in 2002, I ended up at Baikonur for the launch preparations of the Nimiq-2 satellite.

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Happy Birthday, Wernher von Braun

One hundred years ago today — March 23, 1912 — Dr. Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany.

(Wernher von Braun in front of Apollo-11’s Saturn-V launch vehicle. NASA image.)

Dr. von Braun was responsible for some of the best and some of the worst of space history.

As a youth he became enamored with the possibilities of space exploration by reading the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and from the science fact writings of Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 classic study, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space), prompted young von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry so he could understand the physics of rocketry.

His V-2 ballistic missiles pounded Britain and other countries during World War II, and were notorious as much for the slave labor that went into them as for the damage they inflicted. After being brought to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip, he developed U.S. ballistic missiles.

Before the Allied capture of the V–2 rocket complex, von Braun engineered the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans. [von Braun] and his rocket team were scooped up from defeated Germany and … installed at Fort Bliss, Texas. There they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army, launching them at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. In 1950 von Braun’s team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala, where they built the Army’s Jupiter ballistic missile.

When NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was established at Huntsville, von Braun was named its first director. In this capacity he was able to build new rockets — including the mighty Saturn-V — that allowed for peaceful exploration of the heavens and took the first explorers to the Moon.

(Wernher von Braun in front of a Saturn vehicle and its F-1 rocket engines. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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An Important Day in Rocket History

Eighty-five years ago today — March 16, 1926 — Dr. Robert H. Goddard made history near Worcester, Massachusetts, when he launched the first liquid-fueled rocket.

(Dr. Robert Goddard with his first liquid-fueled rocket. Image from the USAF Museum. Click to enlarge.)

Operating on gasoline as its fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer, the vehicle reached the lofty height of 41 feet during its 2.5-second flight, but it proved the concept and led to bigger and more powerful vehicles.

In Dr. Goddard’s memory, the Goddard Space Flight Center was established in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1959. The facility was dedicated 50 years ago today, on the 35th anniversary of his historic rocket launch.

You can read more about Dr. Goddard on this NASA page and this USAF page. You can also examine archives available through Clark University.

Fulfilling the promise of Dr. Goddard’s first launch, 45 years ago today astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dave R. Scott launched on the Gemini-VIII mission. Their Titan-II rocket put them into the proper orbit to perform the first manned docking of one spacecraft with another, in this case an Agena target vehicle that had been launched earlier in the day.

The Gemini-VIII mission did not go exactly as planned, however:

About 27 minutes after docking at 5:41 p.m. the combined vehicle began to go into a violent yaw and tumble. Armstrong disengaged the Gemini capsule from the GATV causing it to roll, pitch, and yaw even more rapidly than when it was connected to the GATV, approaching and possibly exceeding a rate of one revolution per second. Armstrong and Scott managed to deactivate the OAMS and in a final attempt to counteract the violent tumbling all 16 reentry control system (RCS) thrusters were utilized to damp out the roll. This manuever succeeded in stabilizing the spacecraft at 6:06:30 p.m. but ended up using 75% of the RCS fuel. It was then discovered that one of the 25-pound Orbit Atitude and Maneuver System (OAMS) roll thrusters (roll thruster no. 8) on Gemini 8 had been firing continuously, causing the tumbling.

Because of the use of so much propellant, Gemini-VIII was forced to end its mission early and make an emergency landing. Still, they had achieved another milestone of rocket-based travel, presaged by Dr. Goddard’s launch not too many years before.

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U.S. Rocket Mail

Three weeks ago I posted about the first official “rocket mail” flight, 80 years ago in Austria. Technically that was “rocket history” instead of “space history,” but I don’t care. I find it interesting.

Along those same lines, today in “rocket history” marks the 75th anniversary of the first official U.S. rocket mail flight, on February 23, 1936, in Greenwood Lake, NJ. This past Sunday the town held a commemorative event at the Greenwood Lake Public Library to mark the occasion.

I should note that The Rocket Mail Page mentions an earlier rocket mail flight in Ohio in June 1931, but this excerpt from Aerospace America magazine* makes it clear that the earlier flight could not be considered official.

*The magazine of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

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Rocket Mail

Eighty years ago today — February 2, 1931 — Friedrich Schmiedl launched the first official “rocket mail,” sending 102 covers (i.e., envelopes)* and postcards to Radegund, Austria.

Several old photographs of rocket mail attempts are found on this Scienceray page.

At least one source listed the official date as being in May, but sources such as The Rocket Mail Page (which includes a photograph of Schmiedl later in life) and this astrophilately site agree that Schmiedl’s launch occurred on this date in space history. (The Rocket Mail Page does note, however, that rockets were used to send mail from ships to islands in Fiji as early as 1902.)

Wonder how much a stamp would cost today, if we were still sending mail by rocket ….

*Postal covers are envelopes or other outer wrappings that have been through the mail, usually with cancelled postage, and are often collected and valued for their historical significance.

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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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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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Eight-in-One Launch, With a Repeater

Today in space history, 45 years ago — March 9, 1965 — a Thor-Agena D-model rocket launched eight satellites at once from Vandenberg AFB.

(A 1962 Thor-Agena-D launch. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Not only was it the first time eight spacecraft had been launched at the same time, but one of those satellites — Oscar-3 — was the first solar-powered amateur radio repeater in orbit. More than a thousand amateur radio operators in 22 countries around the world used Oscar-3 (Orbital Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) for 18 days before its transponder failed.

You can read more about Oscar-3 and amateur satellite radio on this page.

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World Speed Record: 7,000 MPH

Five years ago today — November 16, 2004 — the X-43A hypersonic test vehicle broke the world speed record.

(X-43A initial velocity was provided by a Pegasus rocket. NASA image.)

Its scramjet engine accelerated it to mach 9.6, nearly 7,000 miles per hour. The record it broke was its own, of mach 6.8 (nearly 5,000 mph), set on a March 2004 flight.

Of personal interest to me, a Pegasus rocket dropped from NASA’s B-52 provided the initial thrust to get the X-43A up to the flight regime where the scramjet engine would work.

(X-43A, Pegasus, and B-52 mothership. The X-43A is the small dark vehicle covering the words “U.S. Air Force.” NASA image.)

That gives me a personal, though indirect, connection to the flight: I was on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for the very first Pegasus launch when I was stationed at Edwards AFB.

Yes, I had a most fascinating Air Force career. (Fascinating to me, anyway.)

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Dual-Use Space Technology in Space History

Forty-five years ago today — August 19, 1964 — a Thor Delta rocket launched the Syncom-3 satellite out of Cape Canaveral.

(Syncom-3 satellite. Image from NASA’s Space Science Data Center.)

The rocket was the first Delta to use strap-on solid rocket motors, and the spacecraft was the first geostationary satellite. Its predecessor, Syncom-2, had been the first geosynchronous satellite, the difference being that Syncom-2’s orbit was inclined slightly with respect to the equator while Syncom-3’s orbit was more precisely equatorial. The satellite, orbiting over the Pacific, relayed live television coverage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Space Science Data Center also notes that

Operations were turned over to the Department of Defense on 1 January 1965, [sic] Syncom 3 was to prove useful in the DoD’s Vietnam communications.

I find this immensely interesting, since from 2001-04 I worked in the Defense Technology Security Administration and enforced restrictions on the export of satellite and launch vehicle technology. Even back in 1964, when I was a “wee bairn,” it was clear that space technology could be dual-use: useful, that is, for civil and military purposes.

Our government seemed to forget that simple fact during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and allowed companies to export space technology a bit more freely; during that time, a few U.S. companies managed to help other countries solve technical problems that enabled them to improve their space technologies. My job at DTSA was to protect those technologies, which not only protected our military advantage but also — though the companies were loathe to admit it — protected the technological edge our U.S. corporations had built up over the years.

Now we seem to be in danger of turning the calendar back and allowing companies to be more laissez faire in exporting militarily critical technologies. The current Administration, under pressure from industry groups that would rather sell technology today even if it means giving up their technological advantage tomorrow, is considering taking satellites off of the U.S. Munitions List. (See this article from July, and this article from last Friday.)

Let me go on record as saying I think this is a bad idea. One, because we don’t need to be giving potential adversaries — or even friendly competitors — the same tools on which we may rely in a conflict. Two, because we don’t need to spare them the years of research and development it will take to catch up — which cost us billions of dollars and included many failures from which we learned valuable lessons — and thereby put them in better positions to compete with us in the future.

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