Pioneer 11: First Spacecraft to Saturn

Forty years ago today — April 5, 1973 — an Atlas Centaur rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the Pioneer 11 space probe.

(Pioneer 11. NASA image.)

Pioneer 11 launched at 02:11 April 6th UTC, though it was still April 5th in Florida when it lifted off. It followed its sister ship, Pioneer 10, which had launched a little over a year before (on March 2, 1972).

Pioneer 11 was the first spacecraft to travel to Saturn, and returned close-up pictures of the ringed planet. On its way to Saturn, it used Jupiter’s gravity for course correction, and in so doing became the first spacecraft to photograph Jupiter’s polar region.

Pioneer 11 passed by Saturn on September 1, 1979, and then continued on toward the edge of the Solar System and the constellation Sagittarius. Contact with the spacecraft was lost in late 1995.

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Cassini Heads to Saturn

Fifteen years ago today — October 15, 1997 — the Cassini/Huygens mission launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket.

(Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in front of the ringed planet. NASA image from the Cassini spacecraft.)

The Cassini orbiter and the Huygens lander were launched together, and since Huygens was destined to land on Titan it was appropriate that they launched on a Titan vehicle. Huygens, built by the European Space Agency, landed on Titan in January 2005.

The Cassini launch was somewhat controversial: the orbiter is powered by three radioisotope thermal generators, and the mission faced protestors who were afraid the launch vehicle would fail and the RTGs’ plutonium dioxide fuel would end up in the ocean. Having spent a good portion of my assignment at Edwards AFB working on the Titan 34D Recovery Program, and then serving from 1993-95 in the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg AFB, I was very pleased when this launch succeeded flawlessly.

For current mission status, and access to dozens of spectacular images like the one above, visit this Jet Propulsion Laboratory page or the main Cassini mission page.

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First Saturn Suborbital Test Flight

Fifty years ago today — October 27, 1961 — Saturn-I launched from Cape Canaveral. This launch was, as the title stated, the first test flight of the Saturn family of rockets that were intended to propel the Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

(Saturn SA-1 launch. NASA image.)

Also known as SA-1, the upper stages of the Saturn-I were filled with water ballast. The vehicle reached 84.8 miles altitude and flew 214.7 miles downrange into the Atlantic Ocean, achieving its mission objective of “verifying the aerodynamical and structural design of the Saturn 1 booster.”

Oh, to have been a part of that program! But at least I have a small collection of Saturn-related relics I salvaged during my time at the Rocket Lab.

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Suborbital Apollo-Saturn Test Flight, and Bill Dana Goes Supersonic

Forty-five years ago today — August 25, 1966 — NASA launched another suborbital Apollo-Saturn vehicle to test Command & Service Module systems in advance of manned Apollo launches.

(AS-202 launch. NASA image.)

AS-202‘s flight objectives were to verify the Saturn 1B launch vehicle’s integrity, loads, and performance, and to evaluate the separation system, emergency detection, and heatshield of the Apollo spacecraft.

Mission controllers fired the CSM’s engines multiple times to test their rapid restart capabilities, accelerating the capsule for reentry to test the heatshield. It performed very well: “Maximum temperature of the spacecraft exterior was calculated at about 1500 deg. C, temperature inside the cabin was 21 deg. C (70 F).”

Jump ahead five years in time …

On this date in 1971, NASA pilot William “Bill” Dana made the first supersonic flight in the M2-F3 lifting body.

(NASA lifting body pilots with M2-F3 in the background. NASA image.)

Last November, I blogged about Dana making the first flight in the M2-F3. I likely will continue posting occasional references to Dana’s flights, because he’s one of the most interesting people I ever met (during my first USAF assignment, we were both on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for the very first launch of the Pegasus system). If you want to know more about him, check out his Wikipedia page.

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First Saturn-1B Test Launch

Forty-five years ago today — February 26, 1966 — AS-201 (or “Apollo-Saturn-201”) launched from Cape Canaveral.

(AS-201 launch. NASA image.)

AS-201 was a suborbital test flight, and the first flight of the Saturn-1B with the Command and Service Modules. The flight test objectives were to:

  • Verify Saturn-1B structural integrity
  • Measure Saturn-1B launch loads
  • Evaluate Saturn-1B stage separation
  • Validate Saturn-1B subsystem operations
  • Evaluate Apollo spacecraft subsystems
  • Evaluate Apollo heatshield
  • Exercise Apollo mission support facilities

All of the objectives except the heatshield evaluation were met, marking another milestone on the way to the Moon.

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Cassini's Jupiter Slingshot

In today’s space history installment, ten years ago — December 30, 2000 — the Cassini spacecraft made its closest approach to Jupiter on its way to its rendezvous with Saturn.

(Jupiter, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. NASA mosaic image.)

Cassini used Jupiter’s gravity in the now almost passe “slingshot” maneuver to propel it farther out in the solar system toward Saturn. It flew by Jupiter at a distance of 6 million miles (9.7 million kilometers).

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Voyager Visits Saturn, Atlantis Launches to Mir

Thirty years ago today — November 12, 1980 — Voyager-1 made its closest approach to Saturn.

(Image of Saturn and its moons Tethys and Dione, taken on November 3, 1980, as Voyager-1 approached the planet. The shadow of another moon can also be seen on the planet itself. NASA image.)

Voyager-1 flew by the ringed planet at a distance of about 78,000 miles. It sent back wonderful close-up photographs of Saturn and many of its moons. Voyager-1 continues to operate even now, along with its sister spacecraft Voyager-2, exploring beyond the boundary of the solar system. (This Voyager Interstellar Mission page has a neat counter ticking off how far away both Voyagers travel every second.)

On this same date, 15 years ago, the Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-74. U.S. astronauts Kenneth D. Cameron, James D. Halsell, Jerry L. Ross, and William S. McArthur, Jr., along with Canadian astronaut Chris A. Hadfield, delivered the Russian Docking Module to the Mir space station on only the second Shuttle-Mir flight.

Personally, I look forward to the day when people get to visit the outer planets, too. I wish I could.

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Space History from 1610 (and later)

Four hundred years ago this week — in 1610 — Galileo Galilei turned his telescope toward Saturn and observed the giant planet’s rings. He didn’t recognize them as rings, however.

(Hubble Space Telescope edge-on view of Saturn’s rings. NASA image.)

(N.B. I’ve found three different dates for the event: today, July 30; July 25; and July 15. July 25th shows up more often than the other dates, so I feel safe in saying “this week.”)

Galileo’s telescope was not powerful enough to resolve the rings; they appeared as separate bodies on either side of Saturn. Galileo wrote that “the star of Saturn is not a single star, but is a composite of three, which almost touch each other, never change or move relative to each other, and are arranged in a row along the zodiac, the middle one being three times larger than the two lateral ones, and they are situated in this form o O o.”

In his 1612 observation they were gone entirely, because he was viewing them edge-on as in the Hubble image above. In 1616 he observed them again and they appeared as two half-ellipses. He did not recognize them as rings even then: that explanation came from Christaan Huygens in 1655.


Moving forward to the last century, 55 years ago today (July 30, 1955) the Soviet Union announced its plan to launch a satellite — which the world came to know later as Sputnik — as part of the upcoming International Geophysical Year.

And on this date in 1965 — 45 years ago — NASA launched Saturn-10 from Cape Canaveral, carrying the third Pegasus micrometeroid detection satellite and Apollo Boiler Plate BP-9.

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Thirty-five years ago today — July 15, 1975 — the two spacecraft of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project were launched.

(Soyuz spacecraft, as seen from the Apollo spacecraft. NASA image. A higher-resolution image is available here.)

The Soviet Union launched Soyuz-19 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying cosmonauts Alexei A. Leonov and Valeri N. Kubasov.

The USA launched its ASTP contribution from Cape Canaveral atop a Saturn-1B launch vehicle. Astronauts Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, and Donald K. Slayton docked with Soyuz-19 two days later in the first-ever international space docking.

Unfortunately for space enthusiasts, it was also the final flight of an Apollo spacecraft flight.


In tangentially related news, Donald K. “Deke” Slayton plays an important role in my alternate history story, “Memorial at Copernicus,” which is slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the online magazine Redstone Science Fiction.

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Apollo Boilerplate Mission: Micrometeoroid Detection

Forty-five years ago today — February 16, 1965 — the Apollo boilerplate mission SA-9 launched from Cape Canaveral. The Saturn-I booster carried a “boilerplate” Apollo capsule and tried out elements of the Apollo launch sequence, but also carried its first live payload: the Pegasus-1 micrometeoroid detection satellite.

(Wernher von Braun in front of a Saturn-IB rocket, 1968. NASA image.)

The Pegasus-1 spacecraft was equipped with large wings — 29.3 x 4.3 meters, nearly 100 feet by 14 — that detected impacts by micrometeoroids in the flight regime through which Apollo astronauts would fly on their way to the Moon. This Wikipedia page has more information on the Pegasus itself.

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