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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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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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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Space History Double Shot: a Lost Observer and a Space Station Transfer

Twenty years ago today — September 25, 1992 — a Titan-III rocket out of Cape Canaveral launched the Mars Observer. The launch was uneventful and the spacecraft’s journey to Mars was nominal until three days before it was scheduled to enter orbit — August 21, 1993 — when controllers lost contact with the spacecraft.

(Mars Observer conceptual painting. NASA image.)

Mars Observer was primarily designed to study the Martian atmosphere, but it never got the chance, and unless we find the spacecraft someday and examine it we only have educated guesses:

It is not known whether the spacecraft was able to follow its automatic programming and go into Mars orbit or if it flew by Mars and is now in a heliocentric orbit. Later investigation concluded the most probable cause of the mishap was a fuel line rupture during fuel tank pressurization which would have caused the spacecraft to spin uncontrollably.

On a much more successful note, on this date 15 years ago — September 25, 1997 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from Kennedy Space Center on a mission to the Mir space station.

STS-86 was the seventh Shuttle-Mir docking mission. Its crew consisted of U.S. astronauts James D. Wetherbee, Michael J. Bloomfield, Scott E. Parazynski, Wendy B. Lawrence, and David A. Wolf; French astronaut Jean-Loup J.M. Chrétien; and Russian cosmonaut Vladimir G. Titov. Wolf replaced Michael Foale aboard Mir, and Foale returned to Earth on Atlantis.

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A Cosmic Voyager, and a Space Pioneer

Today’s space history segment combines the recent past and the long past.

In the recent past, 35 years ago today — September 5, 1977 — the Voyager 1 space probe launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Titan IIIE-Centaur rocket.

(Conceptual drawing of the region of space around our solar system, with the two Voyager spacecraft. NASA image.)

Like its sister ship, Voyager 2 (launched about 2 weeks prior), Voyager 1 was designed to study Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 1’s trajectory was such that it reached both planets before Voyager 2. After its Saturn encounter in 1980, Voyager 1 began making its way toward the edge of the solar system.

Voyager 1 is speeding away from the Sun at a velocity of about 3.50 AU/year toward a point in the sky of RA= 262 degrees, Dec=+12 degrees (35.55 degrees ecliptic latitude, 260.78 degrees ecliptic longitude). Late on 17 February 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant man-made object from the Sun, surpassing the distance of Pioneer 10.

According to this June 14, 2012, NASA news release,

Data from NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft indicate that the venerable deep-space explorer has encountered a region in space where the intensity of charged particles from beyond our solar system has markedly increased. Voyager scientists looking at this rapid rise draw closer to an inevitable but historic conclusion – that humanity’s first emissary to interstellar space is on the edge of our solar system.

“The laws of physics say that someday Voyager will become the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, but we still do not know exactly when that someday will be,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The latest data indicate that we are clearly in a new region where things are changing more quickly. It is very exciting. We are approaching the solar system’s frontier.”

Very cool.

In the long past, on September 5, 1857 — Old Style, that is; it would actually be September 17 on the New Style calendar — Konstantin E. Tsiolkovskiy was born in Russia. The greatest early theorist of space travel, in 1903 he published an article in Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review) that he originally submitted in 1898. Entitled “Investigating Space With Rocket Devices,” the paper “presented years of calculations and laid out many of the principles of modern spaceflight.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, Tsiolkovskiy proved especially productive, publishing ten major works clarifying the nature of bodies in orbit, developing scientific principles behind reaction vehicles, designing orbital space stations, and promoting interplanetary travel. He also expanded the scope of studies on many principles commonly used in rockets today: specific impulse to gauge engine performance, multistage boosters, fuel mixtures such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the problems and possibilities inherent in microgravity, the promise of solar power, and spacesuits for extravehicular activity. Significantly, he never had the resources—perhaps not even the inclination—to experiment with rockets himself.

Even though the coincidence of dates is pure artifice — the product of changes to the world’s calendars — it seems a fitting coincidence. After all, the Voyager mission itself was presaged by Tsiolkovskiy’s original work.

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Last Titan-IIIB Launch … and the Latest Asimov's

Twenty-five years ago today — February 12, 1987 — a Titan-IIIB launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying a Satellite Data System (SDS) spacecraft.

(Undated Titan-IIIB [34B] launch. Image from Lee Brandon-Cremer via Wikimedia Commons. Almost certainly this was originally a USAF photograph.)

According to the National Space Science Data Cnter, SDS satellites operated in highly elliptical orbits and

served as a communications link between the Air Force Satellite Control Facility at Sunnyvale, CA, and 7 remote tracking stations located at Vandenberg AFB, Hawaii, Guam, Nahe Island, Greenland, the UK, and Boston.

This is significant to me because I know the tracking station in Greenland well. Many years later I commanded it: callsign POGO, the Thule Tracking Station.

According to this Wikipedia page, this was the last launch of the Titan-IIIB series. This particular vehicle was one of the -34B variants.

At the time of that launch, I was stationed at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB, helping prepare for a static test of a full-scale solid rocket motor in support of the Titan-34D “recovery” program. But that’s another story.

And speaking of stories: yesterday my contributor’s copies of the April/May issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction arrived, and there on page 72 is my story, “Sensitive, Compartmented.”

So … space history that relates in part to my own USAF experience, and a new short story. That makes for a pretty good weekend.

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Another Step Toward Apollo: Gemini-9

Forty-five years ago today — June 3, 1966 — Gemini-9 launched from Cape Canaveral on a Titan-II rocket.

(Gemini-9 in orbit. NASA image.)

The crew of Gemini-9, Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan, carried out a series of maneuvers to simulate future Apollo rendezvous maneuvers. They were supposed to actually dock with a target vehicle, but they saw “that the launch shroud … had failed to deploy and was blocking the docking port.”

Another part of the mission profile was to test the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, but that test also ran into difficulty:

On 5 June at 10:02 a.m. EST the Gemini capsule was depressurized and the hatch above Cernan opened. Cernan was out of the spacecraft at 10:19, attached by an 8 meter long tether which was connected to Gemini’s oxygen supply. He had no gas maneuvering unit as was used on Gemini 4. He retrieved the micrometeorite impact detector attached to the side of the capsule and then moved about the spacecraft. He had great difficulty manuevering and maintaining orientation on the long tether. He took photographs of Gemini from the full length of the tether and finally moved to the back of the capsule where the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU) was mounted. He was scheduled to don the AMU, disconnect from the Gemini oxygen supply (although he would still be attached to the spacecraft with a longer, thinner tether) and move to 45 meters from the capsule. The task of donning the AMU took “four to five times more work than anticipated”, overwhelming Cernan’s environmental control system and causing his faceplate to fog up, limiting his visibility. It was also discovered that the AMU radio transmissions were garbled. These problems caused Stafford to recall Cernan to the spacecraft. He reentered the spacecraft at 12:05 p.m. and the hatch was closed at 12:10. Cernan was the third person to walk in space and his total time of 2 hours, 8 minutes was the longest spacewalk yet.

The image above shows one of the pictures Cernan took of the Gemini spacecraft.

Stafford and Cernan de-orbited and splashed down on June 6th.

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Blowups Happen

Having nothing to do with the short story of the same name, and with apologies therefore to Robert A. Heinlein …

Twenty-five years ago today — April 18, 1986 — Titan-34D-9 blew up during launch at Vandenberg AFB.

(Titan-34D-9 exploding. USAF image from the linked Space Review article.)

This Space Review article shows several close-up images of the explosion, including the one above, while this Photobucket page shows several photos taken from farther away.

I found it interesting to peruse the accident investigation report. I recognized several names of people on the investigation board.

This doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should make the space history files, except for this personal connection: as a direct result of this mishap, the Air Force chose to conduct a full-scale nozzle-down test firing of a Titan-34D solid rocket motor at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB. My first assignment was to the AFRPL as a bioenvironmental engineer, and that test program — the “return to flight” for the Titan-34D — was one of the biggest projects I worked on while I was there.

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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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First West Coast Titan-IV Launch

Twenty years ago today — March 8, 1991 — a Titan-IV rocket carrying a DoD payload launched from Vandenberg AFB.

(Titan-IVA launch. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The Titan-IV, an “A” model, was the first to be launched from Vandy, and carried a satellite identified as USA-69 for the National Reconnaissance Office.

A few years earlier, I had conducted environmental monitoring of a Titan-IV solid rocket motor test firing, and two years later I joined the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg and worked on a number of related projects. At the time of this launch, however, I was stationed back in South Carolina and, if memory serves, was on leave — having welcomed my son into the world a few days before.

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