Fifteen Years Apart: Apollo 6 and STS-6

Forty-five years ago today — April 4, 1968 — the final qualification flight of the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Apollo spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center.


(Apollo 6 launch. NASA image.)

Apollo 6 consisted of a complete three-stage Saturn V, a Command and Service Module, and a “boilerplate” or “pathfinder” Lunar Module. The mission encountered several major problems:

Two minutes and five seconds after launch, the Saturn V structure underwent a severe pogo oscillation, without damage to the spacecraft structure. Due to a manufacturing flaw and unrelated to the pogo oscillations, structural panels were lost from the lunar module adapter. Finally, after the completion of first stage firing and part way through the second stage burn, two of the five second stage J-2 engines shut down prematurely. The planned 175 km circular Earth orbit was not achieved, instead, after completion of the third stage burn, the spacecraft was in a 172.1 x 223.1 km, 89.8 min orbit. After two orbits, the third stage failed to reignite as planned, so the Service Module propulsion system was used to boost the spacecraft to an apogee of 22,225.4 km, from which the planned lunar reentry simulation took place at 36,025 km/hr, slightly less than the planned velocity of 40,000 km/hr. The Command Module splashed down 80 km off target 9 hr 50 min after launch and was recovered in good condition.

Fifteen years later, on April 4, 1983, the Space Shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center on its first flight, mission STS-6. Astronauts Paul J. Weitz, Karol J. Bobko, Donald H. Peterson and Story F. Musgrave spent 5 days in space and deployed the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite.

The STS-6 mission was not without its problems. The Inertial Upper Stage placed TDRS-1 in the wrong orbit, and later the satellite’s own thrusters were used to put it into the correct orbit (much like the service module’s thrusters being used on Apollo 6, and some recent spacecraft which have been recovered by judicious use of on-board propulsion). Nevertheless, the overall STS-6 mission was successful and featured the first spacewalk from a Shuttle.

Looking back at these two launches, it seems our space exploits have regressed instead of progressed. Given 10 years between Explorer 1 and Apollo 6, and 15 years between Apollo 6 and STS-6, and 30 years since then, you might think that we should have a colony on Mars by now. So this image of Challenger rolling out in the fog seems apt:


(STS-6 rollout to pad 39A, in the fog. NASA image.)

Here’s hoping we soon catch up to the future!

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Last Saturn-Apollo Block 1 Suborbital Test Flight

Fifty years ago today — March 28, 1963 — the Saturn-Apollo 4 mission was launched from Cape Canaveral.


(Saturn SA-4. NASA image.)

Saturn-Apollo (SA) 4, or Apollo SA-4, was the final “Block 1” Saturn test, the last of four test launches of the Saturn rocket’s first stage.

The rocket was launched on a sub-orbital flight to an altitude of 129 km and a peak velocity of 5906 km/hr. After 100 seconds of flight, a pre-set timer cut off engine no. 5 as planned to test the “engine-out” capability of the booster. Fuel was successfully routed to the other seven engines and the flight continued.

Also on this date in space history, 30 years ago, the first of an advanced series of remote-sensing spacecraft, NOAA 8, launched into a polar orbit atop an Atlas E rocket out of Vandenberg AFB. Unfortunately, the satellite did not live out its two-year planned operational life: it failed in June 1984.

Finally, 10 years ago today — March 28, 2003 — Japan launched a pair of reconnaissance satellites, IGS (Information Gathering Satellite) 1A and IGS 1B, from Tanegashima Space Center on an H-2A rocket. According to the National Space Science Data Center, “One of the two spacecraft uses optical cameras with a resolution of one meter; the other uses synthetic aperture radar to provide images at a resolution of a few meters,” but it is unclear which satellite carried which sensor.

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Project High Water II

Fifty years ago today — November 16, 1962 — another pre-Apollo test flight of the Saturn-1 launch vehicle was made from Cape Canaveral.


(SA-3 on the launch pad. NASA image.)

Dubbed SA-3, this mission was the first to be flown with the Saturn first stage fully-fueled. The upper stages carred 23,000 gallons of water which would be released in the “Project High Water II” cloud experiment.

When the vehicle reached the zenith of its sub-orbital flight, the upper stage was detonated to release the water. The resulting cloud of ice particles was intended to shed light on the physics of the upper atmosphere, but the telemetry was not good enough to produce reliable data.

Aside from the poor data from the “High Water” experiment, however, the main objectives for the flight test itself were all met.

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Space History: Saturn, Soyuz, Space Tourism, Pegasus, and Clouds

Today’s space history starts a half-century ago — on April 25, 1962 — with a Saturn-1 suborbital test launch out of Cape Canaveral.


(SA-2 launch. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Mission SA-2, or “Project High Water,” flew water-filled upper stages atop a Saturn-1, which was the Saturn-V first stage. The upper stages were blown up near the apogee of the suborbital flight, creating an “artificial cloud.” According to this NASA history page, “This was used to study the effects on radio transmission and changes in local weather conditions. At an altitude of 150km, explosive devices ruptured the S-IV and S-V tanks and in just five seconds, ground observers saw the formation of a huge ice cloud estimated to be several kilometers in diameter.”

Having nothing to do with clouds, on April 25, 2002, Soyuz TM-34 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a ferry flight to the International Space Station (ISS). In addition to its working crew of Russian cosmonaut Yuri P. Gidzenko and Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori, it carried South African Mark R. Shuttleworth as the second commercial space tourist.

Finally, on this date 5 years ago, a Pegasus XL rocket launched from its L-1011 carrier aircraft flying out of Vandenberg AFB, carrying the AIM (Aeronomy of Ice in Mesosphere) satellite. The small spacecraft’s mission brings us back to the topic of clouds, as it was built to study “Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs) that form about 50 miles above the Earth’s surface in summer and mostly in the polar regions.”

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Space History: The Moon, Then and Now

Forty years ago today — November 14, 1969 — astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., Alan L. Bean, and Richard F. Gordon, Jr., blasted off atop Saturn V rocket SA-507 on Apollo-12, the second lunar landing mission. President Richard Nixon attended, and became the first U.S. President to attend a launch.


(Apollo-12 launch. NASA image.)

On the ascent, the Saturn V was hit by lightning while it passed through a low cloud. This was the first such event in the program; the electrical discharge passed through the Saturn vehicle to the ground. After NASA confirmed the lightning had done no damage, the crew proceeded to the Moon.


(Apollo-12 mission logo. NASA image.)

While Gordon orbited in the Command Module “Yankee Clipper,” Conrad and Bean descended to the lunar surface on the 19th of November in the Lunar Module “Intrepid.” They landed on Oceanus Procellarum, the “Ocean of Storms,” and began their excursions. The mission included several milestones:

  • First time the surface crew went out on two EVA periods.
  • Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) deployed for the first time.
  • First time a geologist planned lunar surface activities in real time.
  • First-ever return of spacecraft parts from the lunar surface: from the Surveyor-3 lander.
  • First multi-spectral imagery of lunar terrain from lunar orbit.

That was then, and this is now: If you didn’t catch the news from NASA yesterday, the recent LCROSS mission confirmed the presence of water in the shadowed crater Cabeus at the Moon’s south pole. This is great news for future lunar exploration — and for those of us who have written stories about lunar exploration!

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Apollo-11's Journey Begins, 40 Years Past

Forty years ago today — July 16, 1969 — Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Saturn V booster (number SA-506) on Apollo-11, the first manned mission to land on the moon.


(Apollo-11 mission patch. NASA image.)

I’m not old enough to remember President Kennedy and his bold proposal to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth. I wish I remembered more about the lunar landings as they happened, but memory is a fickle thing and my childhood memories are fleeting at best.

Thankfully I have access to the Internet to augment my memory. From one of the NASA history sites, here’s a list of the firsts accomplished by Apollo-11:

  • First lunar landing and return mission.
  • First test of landing radar and other landing systems on the Lunar Module under operational conditions.
  • First lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA).
  • First human foot print on the lunar surface: Neil Armstrong’s left foot.
  • First man-made items on the lunar surface, including: the first seismometer, first laser reflector, and first solar wind experiment deployed on the Moon.
  • First lunar soil and rock samples returned to Earth.
  • First use of mobile quarantine facility.
  • First use of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now Johnson Space Center).

And, my personal favorite: the first meal eaten on the Moon “consisted of four bacon squares, three sugar cookies, peaches, pineapple-grapefruit drink and coffee.”

If you want to learn more, NASA’s Human Space Flight Office has a good web page about Apollo-11, and the “We Choose the Moon” site is a nifty interactive tribute to the mission.

I don’t know if it’s because of the Apollo program and the space enthusiasm that permeated the country when I was young, or because of STAR TREK, Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, and the many science fictional adventures I enjoyed, but when I look at the moon I still want to go there, live there, explore and build there. And since I can’t do that in real life, I do it in my imagination and in my stories — even if only I and a few friends will ever enjoy them.

So Godspeed, Apollo-11, and thanks.

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Monkeys on Saturn? No, Monkeys on Jupiter

Two space history items for today, May 28th:

Fifty years ago — on this date in 1959 — a Jupiter rocket lifted off from the Eastern Space and Missile Center at Cape Canaveral, carrying two female monkeys, “Able” and “Baker.” Able was a seven-pound rhesus monkey and Baker was a squirrel monkey that weighed less than a pound. The monkeys traveled 1700 miles downrange, reached an altitude of 360 miles, and survived “in good condition.”

In our second item, a Saturn rocket — designated SA-6 — launched from Cape Canaveral on this date in 1964. The unmanned launch tested the rocket and spacecraft components for the Apollo mission to the moon. It did not, however, carry any monkeys.

You can read more about Able and Baker on this Smithsonian page or in this NPR article.

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This Day in Space History: Apollo-X Launch

Forty years ago today — May 18, 1969 — astronauts Thomas P. Stafford, John W. Young, Jr., and Eugene A. Cernan lifted off on the Apollo 10 mission. Their Saturn V launch vehicle (number SA-505) launched at 12:49 a.m. EDT from the Kennedy Space Center, on “the mission before THE mission.”

(Apollo-X launch. Click to enlarge.)

Travelling in Command Module “Charlie Brown” and Lunar Module “Snoopy,” the astronauts tested all aspects of the lunar mission except the actual lunar landing, and accomplished several “firsts” including:

  • First transmitted color photographs of the full Earth from a crew in space
  • First demonstration rendezvous in lunar orbit
  • First burning of LM descent stage engine in lunar landing configuration
  • First LM steerable antenna at lunar distances
  • First LM within 15,240 meters [8 nautical miles] of the lunar surface
  • First crew-assisted navigational, visual, and photographic evaluations of the moon
  • First and only Apollo launch from Launch Complex 39B



(Views of Earth from Apollo-X. Click to enlarge.)

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Images from the Johnson Space Center Digital Image Collection.



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