An Echo in Space, and a Mission to Mars

Fifty years ago today — August 12, 1960 — a Thor-Delta rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral* carrying the Echo-1 satellite.

(Echo-1 satellite, fully inflated, inside a Navy hangar in Weeksville, NC. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Echo-1 was a Mylar balloon 100 feet in diameter which reflected radio waves aimed at it. Its only transmitter was for telemetry: for communications, it was a passive reflector. One of the first signals reflected by Echo-1 was a recorded radio message from President Eisenhower.

The spacecraft should probably be known as Echo-1A, since the original Echo-1 was lost when its launch vehicle failed the previous May, but the Echo-1 name has endured.

Fast forward forty-five years …

Five years ago today, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas-5 rocket. It has been in orbit around Mars since March 2006, sending back detailed images of the red planet’s surface and sub-surface features.

*One source gave the launch site as Vandenberg AFB, which was the launch site for Echo-2 in 1964.

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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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Spacelab Mission, Plus Space History Tidbits

Twenty-five years ago today — July 29, 1985 — the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-51F. During the launch, the number one main engine shut down ahead of schedule; NASA declared an “Abort To Orbit,” but was able to re-plan the mission to complete all of its objectives.

Astronauts Charles G. Fullerton, Roy D. Bridges, Karl G. Henize, Anthony W. England, F. Story Musgrave, Loren W. Acton and John-David E Bartoe conducted life sciences, plasma physics, astronomy, and other experiments in the Spacelab-2 module before returning to earth on August 6th. They landed at Edwards Air Force Base.

(STS-51F landing at Edwards AFB (August 6, 1985). NASA image.)

(Of personal interest: When we were stationed at Edwards later in the 80s, General Bridges was the AF Flight Test Center commander. We only met him a couple of times, but his son was part of the Protestant Youth of the Chapel group we helped lead.)

Now, for those space history tidbits:

On July 29, 1955 — 55 years ago today — the White House announced the upcoming International Geophysical Year (IGY), for which the U.S. planned to launch a satellite. As you know, the Soviets’ Sputnik beat us to it.

Around this date 50 years ago — one source said July 29, another July 28 — NASA announced that the program aimed at the moon would be named “Apollo.” The name had actually been suggested six months earlier by NASA engineer Abe Silverstein. (Note that this was before President Kennedy was elected, and therefore long before he announced his support of the lunar landing program.)

Finally, on this date 50 years ago — July 29, 1960 — the first unmanned Mercury launch was attempted from Cape Canaveral. Mercury-Atlas-1 (MA-1) exploded at about eight miles altitude. We still had a long way to go.

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Two Payloads, Two Orbits, Two Space Firsts

Fifty years ago today — June 22, 1960 — a Thor rocket launched from Cape Canaveral and, for the first time ever, put two payloads into two different orbits. This launch set the standard for many multiple-launch missions to come. The rocket carried a Transit-2A navigation satellite and the Solrad-1 solar observation satellite.

Transit-2A was the newest in a series of navigation satellites put into orbit by the U.S. Navy. The Transit system proved that satellite navigation was possible, and set the stage for today’s Global Positioning System.

Solrad-1 was the other “first” scored by this launch.

(GRAB (Solrad-1) satellite model on display at the National Cryptologic Museum. Naval Research Laboratory image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Solrad-1 was also known as GRAB, the Galactic Radiation and Background satellite. Built by the Naval Research Laboratory, GRAB was the nation’s first reconnaissance satellite. As noted on this page, GRAB collected electronics intelligence on Soviet radar systems.

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Triple Play for Shuttle DISCOVERY

Twenty-five years ago today — June 17, 1985 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-51G. U.S. astronauts Daniel C. Brandenstein, John O. Creighton, Shannon W. Lucid, John M. Fabian, and Steven R. Nagel were joined by French astronaut Patrick Baudry and the first Arab astronaut, Sultan Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia.

(The SPARTAN-1 science package in the cargo bay during mission STS-51G. NASA image.)

The STS-51G crew’s “triple play” involved launching three separate communications satellites during this one mission. They deployed the Mexican satellite Morelos-A on the 17th, the aptly-named Arabsat-IB satellite on the 18th, and finally Telstar-3D on the 19th.

The crew also released the SPARTAN-1 (Shuttle Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy) on the 20th. Its X-ray instruments made observations of the center of the Milky Way, as well as of the Perseus cluster of galaxies. The crew retrieved SPARTAN-1 from orbit on the 24th, just prior to their return to Earth.

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Satellite Navigation, a Half Century Ago

Fifty years ago today — April 13, 1960 — the first navigational satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on a Thor Able-Star booster.

(Transit satellite. Smithsonian Institute image from

Called Transit-1B (the 1A spacecraft had been lost in September 1959 when the launch vehicle’s third stage failed), the small spin-stabilized Navy satellite and its later companions proved the feasibility of using satellite signals for geolocation. Transit paved the way for the Global Positioning System we know today.

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Satellite Communications Go Commercial

Forty-five years ago today — April 6, 1965 — the “Early Bird” satellite (also known as Intelsat-1) was launched by a Thor-Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral.

(Thor-Delta rocket on the launch pad, with Echo-1 satellite, 1960. NASA image. Click to enlarge.)

Placed in geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic Ocean, Early Bird was the first commercial communications satellite. It operated for three and a half years, and was the precursor to the dozens of spacecraft providing global communications today.

For more information, see this short history of communication satellites.

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First Weather Satellite (No Foolin')

Fifty years ago today — April 1, 1960 — TIROS-1 (Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite 1) was launched on a Thor rocket from Cape Canaveral.

(First television image sent back by TIROS-1. NASA image.)

TIROS-1 was the first weather satellite, and transmitted the first television images of the Earth from space. It only operated until the middle of June 1960, but during that time it sent back thousands of images and proved the feasibility of global weather observation from space.

In related non-news, TIROS-1 was mentioned by President Kennedy in his “we choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University in September 1962. And many years later, yours truly wrote TIROS-1 into a much less important speech for one of his bosses in the Pentagon.

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Farewell to the First U.S. Satellite

Forty years ago today — March 31, 1970 — Explorer-1 burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere. The first successful U.S. satellite, it had been launched on January 31, 1958.

Explorer-1’s primary scientific instrument, a cosmic ray detector, returned lower than expected results, which led Dr. James Van Allen to postulate that

the instrument may have been saturated by very strong radiation from a belt of charged particles trapped in space by Earth’s magnetic field. The existence of these radiation belts was confirmed by another U.S. satellite launched two months later, and they became known as the Van Allen Belts in honor of their discoverer.

During its lifetime, Explorer-1 orbited the Earth over 58,000 times and traveled 1.66 billion miles (2.67 billion kilometers).

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Our Geeky Church, and a Little Space History

Before we get into today’s space history, a “quote of the day” from last night’s small group Bible study. As we were gathering, Maria grabbed one of our STAR TREK coffee mugs for Elliott, so I mentioned that ReConStruction, the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFic) is coming to Raleigh in August. True to the nature of our science fiction church, Elliott said, “If that’s not a church trip, I don’t know what is!”

Yes, we’re geeks. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Back to the topic at hand, an interesting launch 40 years ago in space history. On January 23, 1970, a Delta rocket out of Vandenberg AFB carried two satellites, ITOS-1 and Oscar-5.

ITOS-1 was the first prototype of the “Improved TIROS Operational System” — that is, a new and improved version of the remote sensing satellite featured in yesterday’s space history item. ITOS-1 was built “to provide improved operational infrared and visual observations of earth cloud cover for use in weather analysis and forecasting.”

Oscar-5, on the other hand, was an amateur spacecraft built by students at the University of Melbourne, Australia. It has the distinction of being the first remotely-controlled amateur micro-satellite.

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