First Titan Launches on Solid Rocket Motors: Titan-IIIC

Forty-five years ago today — June 18, 1965 — the first Titan-IIIC (“three C”) launched from Cape Canaveral on a test flight.


(A 1978 Titan-IIIC launch. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The IIIC was the first Titan variant to use strap-on solid rocket motors for additional lift capacity. The Air Force flew a large number of SRM-augmented Titans through the years. This Aerospace Corporation article has a little of the Titan vehicle history.

The SRMs were built up in segments, with each full-size segment being ten feet in diameter and ten feet tall. The Titan-IIIC and IIID models used two five-segment SRMs each; the later Titan-34D used a pair of five-and-a-half-segment SRMs, while the Titan-IVA used two seven-segment SRMs. The last Titan model, the Titan-IVB, used the SRMU — solid rocket motor upgrade — which consisted of fewer, but larger, motor segments.

And why do I care about the SRM and SRMU details? Because I had the privilege of working on parts of the Titan program — primarily dealing with the solid rockets — during my assignments at Edwards (Titan-34D and Titan-IVA test firings, Titan-34D launches) and Vandenberg (Titan-IVA and -IVB launch processing facilities).

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First Pegasus Launch, Twenty Years Ago

On April 5, 1990, the first live launch of a Pegasus rocket carried the PEGSAT experimental satellite into orbit.


(July 1991 picture of a Pegasus rocket being carried by NASA’s B-52. NASA image.)

PEGSAT was an interesting combination of an instrumentation package to monitor this first Pegasus launch; a small Navy communications relay satellite; and a science experiment involving the release of barium to observe “interactions of photoionized barium with magnetic and electric fields in the Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere.”

The Pegasus rocket was carried aloft from Edwards AFB and released by the same NASA B-52 that had conducted drop tests and launches of various experimental aircraft, including the X-15. Later, Orbital Sciences Corporation commissioned its own L-1011 carrier aircraft, which they kept at Vandenberg AFB.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for this launch, so this space anniversary is special to me. And somewhere I have a picture of me in front of Orbital Sciences’ L-1011/Pegasus combination….

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Nukes in Space! (Well, One Little Nuclear Reactor…)

Forty-five years ago today — April 3, 1965 — an Atlas Agena-D rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying SNAP-10A, the first nuclear reactor to be launched into space.*


(SNAP-10A reactor undergoing testing. US Department of Energy photo.)

Part of the System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) program, the reactor tested nuclear power generation in the space environment.

The SNAP reactor was designed to be remotely started and operated in space. In this manner, any hazardous radiation associated with the nuclear fission reaction is not produced until after the reactor safely reaches orbit. The hazards to ground personnel are minimized and since radioactive fission products are not present before the reactor is operated, less of a hazard exists during launch if an accidental reentry should occur….

Twelve hours after launch, the nuclear reactor was automatically brought up to operating temperature and initially produced more than 600 watts of electrical power. Following 43 days of successful operation, the reactor was shut down as the result of a high voltage failure in the electrical system of the Agena spacecraft. All flight test objectives were met with the exception of the expected length of operation. The reactor remains in polar orbit today.

Also on this date, 15 years ago, a Pegasus rocket launched from its L-1011 carrier aircraft out of Vandenberg, carrying three small satellites. It launched the lightning mapping satellite MICROLAB-1, along with two ORBCOMM transponders. (To anyone else, that launch is probably not significant, but every Pegasus launch resonates with me because I played a very small role in that program when I was stationed at Edwards AFB.)

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*Several sources agree that this launch did indeed carry the SNAP-10A reactor; in contrast, the National Space Science Data Center page for this launch states that it carried a SNAP-9A radioisotope thermal generator (the same type to power the Transit series of navigational satellites). Normally the NSSDC pages are quite authoritative, but in this case I believe it has a typo. (As of today, anyway.)

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Studying the Magnetosphere, Pushing the Envelope

Ten years ago today — March 25, 2000 — the “Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration” spacecraft, also known as IMAGE, was launched from Vandenberg AFB, California, atop a Delta-II rocket.


(IMAGE launch. NASA image.)

IMAGE was designed to study the Earth’s magnetosphere for two years, but it exceeded all expectations and actually sent back observations for over five years.

IMAGE was the first satellite mission dedicated to imaging the Earth’s magnetosphere, the region of space controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field and containing extremely tenuous plasmas of both solar and terrestrial origin.

In other historical news, on March 25, 1960 — 50 years ago today — NASA test pilot Joseph A. Walker made his first X-15 flight at Edwards AFB, CA. Walker eventually

flew the research aircraft 24 times and achieved its fastest speed and highest altitude. He attained a speed of 4,104 mph (Mach 5.92) during a flight on June 27, 1962, and reached an altitude of 354,300 feet on August 22, 1963 (his last X-15 flight).

From a strictly personal point of view, I like these particular history items because I was stationed at both of those air bases during my career.

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Eight-in-One Launch, With a Repeater

Today in space history, 45 years ago — March 9, 1965 — a Thor-Agena D-model rocket launched eight satellites at once from Vandenberg AFB.


(A 1962 Thor-Agena-D launch. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Not only was it the first time eight spacecraft had been launched at the same time, but one of those satellites — Oscar-3 — was the first solar-powered amateur radio repeater in orbit. More than a thousand amateur radio operators in 22 countries around the world used Oscar-3 (Orbital Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) for 18 days before its transponder failed.

You can read more about Oscar-3 and amateur satellite radio on this page.

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Shuttles and Deltas and Thors, Oh, My!

Fifteen years ago today — February 3, 1995 — Space Shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-63. Astronauts James D. Wetherbee, Eileen M. Collins, C. Michael Foale, Janice E. Voss, and Bernard A. Harris, Jr., along with cosmonaut Vladimir Titov, completed a close-up flyby of Russia’s MIR space station.


(MIR space station as seen from mission STS-63. NASA image.)

STS-63 was the first time a shuttle approached and flew around space station MIR, as part of the preliminary phase of the International Space Station program. Also on this mission, Eileen Collins became the first female shuttle pilot.

Thirty years earlier, on February 3, 1965, Orbiting Solar Observatory 2 (OSO-2) was launched on a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral. Finally, to complete today’s space history trifecta, in between the two — 40 years ago, in 1970 — a Thor-Agena rocket launched the second Space Electric Rocket Test (SERT-2) from Vandenberg AFB.*

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*Some sources say SERT-2 launched on February 4th, but I believe those are noting UTC rather than local time.

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Our Geeky Church, and a Little Space History

Before we get into today’s space history, a “quote of the day” from last night’s small group Bible study. As we were gathering, Maria grabbed one of our STAR TREK coffee mugs for Elliott, so I mentioned that ReConStruction, the North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFic) is coming to Raleigh in August. True to the nature of our science fiction church, Elliott said, “If that’s not a church trip, I don’t know what is!”

Yes, we’re geeks. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Back to the topic at hand, an interesting launch 40 years ago in space history. On January 23, 1970, a Delta rocket out of Vandenberg AFB carried two satellites, ITOS-1 and Oscar-5.

ITOS-1 was the first prototype of the “Improved TIROS Operational System” — that is, a new and improved version of the remote sensing satellite featured in yesterday’s space history item. ITOS-1 was built “to provide improved operational infrared and visual observations of earth cloud cover for use in weather analysis and forecasting.”

Oscar-5, on the other hand, was an amateur spacecraft built by students at the University of Melbourne, Australia. It has the distinction of being the first remotely-controlled amateur micro-satellite.

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Remote Sensing, 60s- 70s-Style

Forty-five years ago today — January 22, 1965 — the Tiros-9 satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Delta rocket.

(Tiros satellite. Lockheed Martin image from JPL Mission & Spacecraft Library. Click to enlarge.)

Tiros-9 was the first of the Television Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS) series to be launched into a polar orbit. Intended for a sun-synchronous orbit, it ended up in a highly elliptical orbit due to a failure in the onboard guidance system. Tiros-9 was also the first meteorological satellite to operate in a “cartwheel” fashion in which the “spacecraft spin axis was maintained normal to the orbital plane” by means of electromagnetic torque between an electrical circuit loop in the vehicle and the earth’s magnetic field. Tiros-9 suffered a series of system failures and ultimately retired from service in February 1967.

Ten years after Tiros-9, and on the other side of the continent, Landsat-2 — another remote sensing spacecraft — launched from Vandenberg AFB. Landsat-2 also launched on a Delta rocket. As proof of how much had been learned about spacecraft design in the interim, Landsat-2 remained operational over three times as long as Tiros-9: it retired from service in February 1982.

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Economic Recovery Blues

Introducing my second foray into songwriting: “The Economic Recovery Blues,” the 2009 Industrial Extension Service (IES) Song, now available on YouTube.

And now, the story behind the song …

Friends from the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg AFB may remember that I penned quite a few Titan-related lyrics to Beatles tunes, but “The Economic Recovery Blues” was only the second time I’ve tried to write lyrics and something of an original tune. Back in late 2008, my first attempt was “The I-E-S Song” — I wrote the lyrics and had the basic tune in mind, and Mark Minervino (my Pastor at North Cary Baptist Church) fleshed out the music. He also did all the instruments and the background vocals — his versatility is boundless — and I just sang the main lyrics. Then I put together a video montage and showed it off at our annual Christmas luncheon.

The original “I-E-S Song” was a big hit with the folks at work. Several of us wanted it to go on YouTube, but the humor was a little too sharp — mostly self-deprecating, but it got in digs at some other North Carolina institutions of higher learning. Maybe the powers-that-be will change their minds one of these days.

I had so much fun doing the first “I-E-S Song” that I figured, why not do another one? So in December 2009 the process repeated. I had the lyrics and the beginning of a tune, and Mark figured out (and performed!) the rest. Because I didn’t get started as early as the first one, we didn’t get this song done in time for the IES Christmas luncheon, so at that I sang another song — this one a work-related lyric sung to “Oh, How I Love Jesus” — and then finished up “The Economic Recovery Blues” over the holiday break. The video montage is rougher than the first one,* but the office folks decided to post it “as is.” So this is the first song I’ve done to be posted online. Hope you enjoy it, if you go in for that sort of office-related-silliness thing.

Meanwhile, if you know of anyone who needs some business consulting in lean manufacturing, “Six Sigma” statistical process control, ISO quality management standards, safety and health, or growth services, point them at the Industrial Extension Service — and at “The Economic Recovery Blues.”

Ah-one, and ah-two ….

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*A note on the video montage. For the first one, we purchased some nifty graphics off the web; for the new song, I used Creative Commons images and put attributions in the credits at the end of the song.

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Three Solstice Launches

As Jethro Tull sang, “Ring, solstice bells!” Happy midwinter, everyone.

Forty-five years ago today — December 21, 1964 — Explorer-26 launched on a Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral, to study the Van Allen radiation belt. Also known as EPE-D, or the Energetic Particle Explorer, it measured trapped particles in the geomagnetic field.

Twenty years later, in 1984, the Soviet Union launched the second of its probes to Venus and Halley’s Comet. Vega-2, or Venera-Halley-2, launched atop a Proton-K rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. They’d launched Vega-1 back on the 15th, as I noted in this blog entry.

And ten years ago, in 1999, ACRIMSAT — the Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor satellite — launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Taurus rocket.* ACRIMSAT was launched as a secondary payload with the Korean KOMPSAT, and was designed to study variations in solar radiation.

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*Note that this launch took place late at night on December 20th on the West Coast; it was already December 21st on the East Coast, so different references list the launch date as one or the other. I think it made a nice trifecta to list it with these others.

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