Redstone — 70 Years of History, Much of it in Space

Seventy years ago today — October 6, 1941 — the U.S. Army activated the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

(Redstone Arsenal building 7101, with Redstone missile in front. U.S. Army image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Redstone Arsenal was originally built to produce chemical ammunition for use in World War II, which it did very well. Then, in the postwar years, that experience with handling dangerous chemicals made Redstone a natural place to experiment with rockets and rocket propellants and eventually to be the home for the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center; Army Space and Missile Defense Command; and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Of course, I can’t mention Redstone Arsenal without mentioning the online magazine Redstone Science Fiction, the third issue of which included my story “Memorial at Copernicus.”

Also on this date, 30 years ago in 1981, the Solar Mesosphere Explorer launched from Vandenberg AFB, California, on a Delta rocket. SME was built to “investigate the processes that create and destroy ozone in the Earth’s mesosphere and upper stratosphere,” and operated until December 1988. The small experimental UoSAT (Oscar 9) satellite, built by the University of Surrey, launched as a dual payload on the same Delta rocket.

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From the Land of the Rising Sun, a Satellite to Study the Sun

Twenty years ago today — August 30, 1991 — the Yohkoh solar astronomy satellite launched from Kagoshima Space Center, Japan.

(Artist’s conception of the Yohkoh spacecraft. NASA image.)

Yohkoh was originally named “Solar-A,” and was a joint venture between Japan, Great Britain, and the US. “Yohkoh” means “sunlight” in English.

The Yohkoh mission lasted a decade, until an anomaly ended the satellite’s life. According to this Marshall Space Flight Center page,

Yohkoh suffered a spacecraft failure in December 2001 that has put an end to this mission. During the solar eclipse of December 14th the spacecraft lost pointing and the batteries discharged. The spacecraft operators were unable to command the satellite to point toward the sun.

If you have a child interested in such things — or if you yourself have a childlike interest in such things — you can build your own model Yohkoh satellite, using actual satellite blueprints.

And in other space history, on this date 50 years ago the U.S. launched Discoverer-29 on a Thor rocket out of Vandenberg AFB. According to this Wikipedia page, Discoverer-29 was the first of the KH-3 series of reconnaissance satellites launched by the NRO in the Corona program.

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A FAST Launch, and the Hugo Awards

Fifteen years ago today — August 21, 1996 — a Pegasus-XL rocket launched the “Fast Auroral SnapshoT explorer” to study how particles funneled through the Earth’s magnetosphere produce auroras.

(FAST satellite, after installation of its body-mounted solar panels. NASA image.)
FAST was placed in a polar orbit, the better to observe auroras, in an interesting configuration: the craft is spin-stabilized but its spin axis is perpendicular to its orbital track, so it would appear to roll or “cartwheel” through space. Its Pegasus launch vehicle originated out of Vandenberg AFB, and was carried to the Pacific drop zone by its L-1011 mothership.

In more recent news — tangentially space-related, since the Hugo Award features a stylized rocket ship — last night my friend Mary Robinette Kowal won the Hugo for Best Short Story: “For Want of a Nail”, which appeared in the September 2010 issue of Asimov’s. The complete list of Hugo winners is available here.

Several other writing friends — Rachel Swirsky, Aliette de Bodard, and Eric James Stone — were also nominated for Hugos, and two — Larry Correia and Saladin Ahmed — were nominated for the Campbell Award … which is pretty awesome even though they didn’t win.

But, as I posted to Larry on Facebook, even though he didn’t win I’m pretty sure he’s the only nominee with a song written about his book.

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Dual-Satellite Mission: Dynamics Explorer

Thirty years ago today — August 3, 1981 — a Delta rocket out of Vandenberg AFB placed two satellites in orbit for a unique interactive mission.

(DE-1 image of an aurora over North America, taken with the University of Iowa’s Spin-Scan Auroral Imager. NASA image.)

Dynamics Explorer 1 and Dynamics Explorer 2 were high- and low-altitude spacecraft, respectively, intended to

investigate the strong interactive processes coupling the hot, tenuous, convecting plasmas of the magnetosphere and the cooler, denser plasmas and gases corotating in the earth’s ionosphere, upper atmosphere, and plasmasphere.

The spacecrafts’ orbits were such that one made high-altitude observations while the other made low-altitude observations, which could be compared to better understand atmospheric dynamics and the interaction of our atmosphere with charged particles from the Sun. Mission operations ended in 1991.

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PAGEOS: Triangulation Target in Space

Forty-five years ago today — June 23, 1966 — the Passive Geodetic Earth Orbiting Satellite was launched by a Thor-Agena rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

(Test inflation of PAGEOS. Note the relative sizes of the trucks and people in the lower right. The test took place in a blimp hangar in Weeksville, North Carolina. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The PAGEOS was an inflatable sphere exactly 100 feet (30.48 meters) in diameter, made of aluminized mylar. Being highly reflective, it was used as a tracking target by ground stations; triangulating on the spacecraft, since its orbit was known to a high degree of accuracy, allowed the ground stations to improve the accuracy of world survey maps.

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A Space Platform for Laser Ranging

Thirty-five years ago today — May 4, 1976 — the LAGEOS-1 satellite launched on a Delta rocket from Vandenberg AFB.

(LAGEOS. NASA image.)

The Laser Geodynamics Satellite (LAGEOS) (also known as the Laser Geodetic Satellite) “was the first spacecraft dedicated exclusively to high-precision laser ranging and provided the first opportunity to acquire laser-ranging data that were not degraded by errors originating in the target satellite.”

The spacecraft itself was simple: a sphere covered with 426 “cube corner reflectors” or retroreflectors which return light directly to its source no matter the incident angle. According to this page, LAGEOS-1 also carried a small plaque designed by Carl Sagan:

The plaque is 4 inches by 7 inches (10 cm by 18 cm) stainless steel plate. The spacecraft carries two identical copies included in its interior. In its upper center it displays the simplest counting scheme, binary arithmetic. The numbers one to ten in binary notation are shown. At upper right is a schematic drawing of the Earth in orbit around the Sun, and an arrow indicating direction of motion. The arrowhead points to the right, the convention adopted for indicating the future. All arrows accompanying numbers are “arrows of time”. Under the Earth’s orbit is the binary number one, denoting the period of time used on the plaque — one revolution of the Earth, or one year. The remainder of the LAGEOS plaque consists of three maps of the Earth’s surface. The first map denotes the Earth 268 million years in the past. All the continents are shown together in one mass. The close fit of South America into West Africa was one of the first hints that continental drift actually occurs. The middle map represents the zero point in time for the other two maps. It displays the present configuration of the planets. The final map shows the Earth’s surface 8.4 million years from now — very roughly the estimated lifetime of the LAGEOS. Many important changes in the Earth’s surface are shown, including the drift of California out into the Pacific Ocean. Whoever comes upon the LAGEOS plaque needs only compare a current map of the Earth’s geography with that in the lower two maps to calculate roughly the difference between his time and ours.

Put it on your calendar: let’s meet up with LAGEOS-1 8 million years from now and see how accurate Sagan’s continental drift picture is.

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Military Shuttle Mission, Space Tourist, and Two Satellites Join the 'A-Train'

First things first, the military mission: 20 years ago today — April 28, 1991 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched on a dedicated DoD mission.

(Auroral image taken during the STS-39 mission. NASA image.)

The STS-39 crew — Michael L. Coats, L. Blaine Hammond, Guion S. Bluford, Gregory S. Harbaugh, Richard J. Hieb, Donald R. McMonagle, and Charles Lacy Veach — completed a combination of classified and unclassified mission objectives during their week in space.

On this same date a decade later — April 28, 2001 — the first “space tourist,” U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, rode aboard the Soyuz-TM-32 mission with cosmonauts Talgat A. Musabayev and Yuri M. Baturin. Their mission launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and docked with the International Space Station. I love the description of Tito in the linked write-up as “not a professional astronaut.”

And just 5 years ago today, the CloudSat and CALIPSO* meteorological satellites launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Delta-II rocket. They launched into the same orbit as the Aqua, PARASOL, and Aura satellites to join the A-Train of observational craft that pass overhead one right after the other.

*CALIPSO = Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, a U.S. and French collaborative spacecraft

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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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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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Polar: Studying the Magnetosphere

Fifteen years ago today — February 24, 1996 — a Delta-II rocket out of Vandenberg AFB lifted a spacecraft simply named “Polar” into a polar orbit.

(Diagram of the Polar spacecraft. See text below for acronyms. NASA image.)

Polar was one of several spacecraft in the International Solar Terrestrial Physics Project. (Here is a better project overview site.) Together with “Wind” and “Geotail,” Polar’s mission was to “obtain coordinated, simultaneous investigations of the Sun-Earth space environment over an extended period of time.”

Polar operations ended in April 2008.

In the image above, the labels point out different instruments on the spacecraft:

  • CAMMICE = Charge and Mass Magnetospheric Ion Composition Experiment
  • CEPPAD = Comprehensive Energetic-Particle Pitch-Angle Distribution
  • EFI = Electric Fields Investigation
  • HYDRA = Hot Plasma Analyzer
  • MFG (should be MFE?) = Magnetic Fields Experiment
  • PIXIE = Polar Ionospheric X-ray Imaging Experiment
  • PWI = Plasma Waves Investigation
  • SEPS = Source/Loss Cone Energetic Particle Spectrometer
  • TIDE = Thermal Ion Dynamics Experiment
  • TIMAS = Toroidal Imaging Mass-Angle Spectrograph
  • VIS = Visible Imaging System
  • UVI = Ultraviolet Imager
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