Rocket Sleds and Murphy's Law — and a Couple of Rocket Launches, Too

Fifty-five years ago today — December 10, 1954 — U.S. Air Force Colonel John P. Stapp rode a rocket sled at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, to over 600 mph. Stapp set a record for the greatest recorded g-forces endured by man when the sled decelerated. From his obituary in the New York Times,

Dr. Stapp was known as the ”fastest man on earth” for his 1954 ride, though the speed has since been surpassed and was never accepted by auto racing officials as an official land speed record. The speed was impressive, at any rate. Dr. Stapp accelerated in 5 seconds from a standstill to 632 miles an hour. The sled then decelerated to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds, subjecting Dr. Stapp to pressures 40 times the pull of gravity.

Stapp’s early rocket sled tests were done at Edwards AFB, and I remember seeing the old tracks and trenches out on South Base. It was during those early tests that Stapp fell victim to what became known as Murphy’s Law:

Dr. Stapp . . . suffered an injury in the experiment that inspired Murphy’s Law after a somewhat less rapid sled ride in 1949.

An assistant, Capt. Edward A. Murphy Jr., had designed a harness to strap in the rider. The harness held 16 sensors to measure the acceleration, or G-force, on different body parts. There were exactly two ways each sensor could be installed. Captain Murphy did each one the wrong way.

The result was that when Dr. Stapp staggered off the rocket sled with bloodshot eyes and bleeding sores, all the sensors registered zero. He had been strained in vain.

A distraught Captain Murphy proclaimed the original version of the famous maxim: ”If there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way.”

If rocket sleds don’t quite qualify as “space history” for you, there were two December 10th rocket launches that fit the bill. First, 35 years ago today, a Titan III-E rocket launched the Helios-1 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. Helios-1 was a joint effort by the U.S. and West Germany to measure the solar wind and examine the surface of the sun. And on December 10, 1999, the European Space Agency launched an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying their X-ray Multimirror Mission (XMM) telescope. XMM-Newton was the ESA’s equivalent of NASA’s Chandra space observatory.

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Four Launches: Scout, Thor-Delta, Atlas-Centaur, Titan

This day in space history, November 21, was a busy day for launches. They were launched at five-year intervals, but still …

Today in 1964 — 45 years ago — NASA launched its first dual payload when it sent up Explorer-24 and Explorer-25 on a Scout rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

(A Scout vehicle launch from 1967. National Air & Space Museum image.)

Forty years ago today, in 1969, the United Kingdom sent up its first communications satellite. Skynet-1 launched on a Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral.

On November 21, 1974 — 35 years ago — an Atlas-Centaur rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the Intelsat IV F-8 communications satellite.

And 30 years ago today, in 1979, a Titan-IIIC rocket out of Cape Canaveral sent up two Defense Satellite Communication System satellites, DSCS II-13 and DSCS II-14.

We shouldn’t forget, of course, that 40 years ago today the U.S. also had astronauts returning from the moon. Mission Commander Charles Conrad, Jr., Command Module pilot Richard F. Gordon, and Lunar Module pilot Alan L. Bean made their transearth injection at 3:49 p.m. EST on November 21st, 1969.

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Once again, I am a Relic

A few years ago, when they shut down the 55th Mobile Command & Control Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, I became a relic of the Cold War. Later, when the last Titan rocket launched, I became a relic of the space program.

Now, again, it seems I am a relic: this time of the attempt to keep militarily critical U.S. technology in U.S. hands.

At the Defense Technology Security Administration from 2001-04, I recommended provisos for hundreds of State Department export licenses and agreements, to ensure U.S. companies didn’t reveal design methodologies or other insights into U.S. capabilities. I reviewed reams of technical data to ensure the companies didn’t go beyond the restrictions in their licenses. And I monitored dozens of face-to-face meetings between U.S. and foreign companies to ensure all parties stayed in bounds. It was often fascinating, sometimes frustrating work that was born out of the Cox Commission and the defense authorization that, among other things, had moved export authority for communications satellites from the Commerce Department to the State Department (see below).

Now we find out that, by executive fiat, our President delegated his responsibility for certifying critical space exports to the Commerce Department. It was actually done back on September 29th, via this Presidential Determination.

The responsibility is found in Section 1512 of the 1999 National Defense Authorization Act:

The President shall certify to the Congress at least 15 days in advance of any export to the People’s Republic of China of missile equipment or technology (as defined in section 74 of the
Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2797c)) that —
(1) such export is not detrimental to the United States space launch industry; and
(2) the missile equipment or technology, including any indirect technical benefit that could be derived from such export, will not measurably improve the missile or space launch capabilities of the People’s Republic of China.

So now, rather than the President making such certifications to Congress, the Commerce Department will do so. If I recall, people complained because George W. Bush seemed to delegate things instead of tending to them himself; but according to this Washington Times article, neither he nor Bill Clinton ever delegated this particular responsibility.

Thankfully, the determination did not seem to immediately get around Section 1513 of the 1999 NDAA, which states,

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, all satellites and related items that are on the Commerce Control List of dual use items in the Export Administration Regulations (15 CFR part 730 et seq.) on the date of the enactment of this Act shall be transferred to the United States Munitions List and controlled under section 38 of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2778).

But how long until that gets changed? There are a lot of rumblings in the aerospace industry about rescinding some of the current export controls, as if the reason U.S. companies have lost market share to foreign satellite makers is that they can’t tell foreign customers why U.S. satellites work so well. It’s not price, it’s not that foreign manufacturers build fine spacecraft, it’s lack of technology transfer? The notion is ridiculous, but the impulse to blame our lack of competitiveness on anything other than internal business practices runs very deep in this country — witness the U.S. auto industry. Disturbingly, this “determination” seems to indicate that the Administration is willing to entertain the idea of sacrificing national security in order to make a quick buck.

I found that attitude among representatives of some of the companies I monitored: the short-sighted notion that it didn’t matter if they transferred technology to another country, as long as the other country paid well. The possibility that a foreign company might end up as their competitor in the future, and take away their customers using adapted U.S. technology, never seemed to occur to them.

Eight months before President Obama was elected, I expressed concerns about his national (in)security rhetoric. I didn’t foresee this potential relaxation of export controls, but I can’t say I’m very surprised.

And I’m still concerned. But I would be: after all, I’m a relic.

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Space History Today: Rockets, Retrieval, and that Moon Thing

Lots of interesting July 20th space history (even though I only concentrate on anniversaries in multiples of 5 years).

(View of Earth from lunar orbit, prior to the [I]Eagle‘s landing. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)[/I]

Forty-five years ago today, in 1964, the Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT-1) launched on a suborbital test flight from Wallops Island, Virginia. The vehicle tested electron bombardment ion engines. (I find this interesting because Area 1-14 at the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Lab [my first assignment in the USAF] tested electric propulsion concepts and, I believe, some ion engines. Ion thrusters are used for stationkeeping on many different spacecraft.)

And for terrestrial history with a connection to space, ten years ago today, in 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft was pulled up from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, about ninety miles northeast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom had flown in the Liberty Bell 7 on our country’s second manned spaceflight. (I find the retrieval particularly interesting, since my first project in the Titan System Program Office was to find and retrieve pieces of a failed Titan-IV rocket so the investigators could confirm the cause of the malfunction.)

That’s it, right?

Of course not. I’m actually pleased with the attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-11 landing, with dedicated sites like We Choose the Moon — and today is the day.

(Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. flag. Click to enlarge. NASA image from the Apollo-11 Image Gallery.)

Forty years ago today, in 1969, the Lunar Module Eagle landed on the moon in the first manned lunar landing. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to step out on the lunar surface, while Michael Collins orbited in the Command Module Columbia. A few hours later — at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, which was 2:56 a.m. Greenwich Mean (Universal) Time — Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the moon.

“One small step,” indeed.

I dream about the giant leaps.

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Jupiter, Up Close and Personal

Thirty years ago today — July 9, 1979 — Voyager-2 made its closest approach to Jupiter. Voyager-1 had already visited the planet on March 5, and was on its way to Saturn. After Voyager-2’s flyby of the gas giant, it also headed toward the ringed planet.

(Voyager spacecraft and trajectories. Click to enlarge. Images from NASA.)

In August 2007, 30 years after its launch on a Titan-Centaur rocket, Voyager-2 entered the heliosheath, that “region at the edge of our solar system where the solar wind runs up against the thin gas between the stars.” Because it entered the region far away from where Voyager-1 did, it proved that the region is not spherical but is “pushed in closer to the sun by the local interstellar magnetic field.”

The Voyager spacecraft represent a marvelous engineering achievement. Built to last five years, they are still probing the mysteries of the local interstellar neighborhood.

You can read more about the Voyager missions on this NASA page.

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Space History Today, Space Collision Yesterday

Thirty-five years ago today – February 11, 1974 – the first Titan/Centaur vehicle was launched. Titan-Centaur Proof Flight [Titan IIIE-Centaur D] or TC-1 “lifted off from Complex 41 at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station at 9:48 AM EDT,” according to this NASA page.


Yesterday an Iridium commercial communications satellite collided with COSMOS-2251, a Russian communications relay satellite that was believed to be inoperative. The story is at this Spacefight Now page, and my Space Warfare Forum post on the subject is here.

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