Two Obscure Space Anniversaries

Today we offer two space anniversaries that are a bit more obscure than usual:

Fifty years ago today — April 13, 1959 — the Discoverer-2 satellite launched from Vandenberg AFB on a Thor Agena rocket. Discoverer was the cover name for the CORONA photoreconnaissance program. Here’s a fascinating page about CORONA on the National Reconnaissance Office web site.

And thirty-five years ago today — April 13, 1974 — Westar-1, the first domestic communication satellite, launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta rocket.

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Why does the Chinese military need a space station?

Back in the early days of space launch, the U.S. conceived the idea of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL (pronounced “mole”), and built Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg AFB from which it would be launched. But when unmanned satellites proved both capable and robust, DoD dropped the idea of a manned military outpost as both unnecessary and cost-prohibitive. The MOL program was cancelled, and SLC-6 mothballed until the next program came along.

I have to wonder, then, why the Chinese have apparently decided that they want to orbit a military space station as early as next year.

As I wrote yesterday in the Space Warfare Forum,

That’s right, folks: a Chinese MILITARY space station. Not a Chinese module on the International Space Station, not a Chinese civilian, scientific space station, but a Chinese MILITARY space station.

Here’s the story, complete with images of the model unveiled during Chinese New Year celebrations.

And here’s what we have in the works: .

Looks as if we’re giving up the high ground.

I haven’t seen much other discussion about this, and that bothers me. I can only hope that my old Air Force compadres are on the case, but keeping mum about it.

Meanwhile, maybe I’ll dust off the nonfiction space superiority book I wrote a few years ago and see if I can update it and interest someone in publishing it.

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Space History (That Repeats Again and Again)

Fifty years ago today — February 28, 1959 — the Discoverer-1 satellite was launched by a Thor Agena rocket from Vandenberg AFB. It was the first joint U.S. Air Force/Advanced Research Projects Agency launch of a reconnaissance satellite — what would eventually become the CORONA satellite program.

Unfortunately, the Agena upper stage apparently malfunctioned and the satellite is believed to have landed near the South Pole. And fifty years later, the OCO satellite earlier this week also failed to make orbit — and ended up in the ocean near Antarctica.

I look forward to the day when space launch is routine and reliable — and if it can be affordable, too, so much the better.

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Space Launch Again Proves to be Hard

A Taurus rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base this morning, but it failed to put NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory into orbit. Launch personnel indicated that the payload fairing did not separate properly.

Here’s the Spaceflight Now “Mission Status Center.”

Launch vehicles are incredibly complicated machines, with thousands if not millions of things that could go wrong in construction, preparation, and launch. I consider it a minor miracle every time one of them does what it’s supposed to do.

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Space History Yesterday — Clementine

A day late and a dollar short, as my Dad says, but I couldn’t leave out a launch I actually saw, could I?

Yesterday — January 25, 2009 — was the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Clementine mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. In 1994 I was stationed at Vandy as part of the Titan (launch vehicle) System Program Office, and we watched the Titan-II launch from the parking lot of our building. One of my office-mates — Deb Fort, with whom I was stationed years earlier at the Rocket Lab — worked facilities support for the mission.

Clementine, for those who don’t remember it, was also known as the Deep Space Program Science Experiment, and was “designed to test lightweight miniature sensors and advanced spacecraft components by exposing them, over a long period of time, to the difficult environment of outer space.” So says this Naval Research Lab page, and they should know since they built the thing.

The Clementine mission plays an important role in my novel, MARE NUBIUM, as it was the first mission to return data that indicated ice in craters at the lunar south pole. Even though subsequent data show the ice probably isn’t as plentiful as once thought, it still makes (in my opinion) a good prop for a story.

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Fifty Years Ago in Space and Military History

On October 4th, 1958, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, was dedicated — and a few years later we were stationed there. For those who don’t know, Vandenberg is also known as the Western Space and Missile Center, and we spent two years there (1993-95) managing launch facility refurbishment projects as part of the Titan System Program Office.

Congrats, Vandenberg, on 50 years of service to the nation!

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Today in Space History: Great Imagery Lunar Flyby

As I’m working on MARE NUBIUM, my near-future novel of lunar colonization, I’ve run across some interesting space history items that I thought I’d post from time to time.

Today was the 40th anniversary of the launch of CORONA mission 1968-065A, a KH-4 (“Keyhole”) satellite that launched aboard a Thor rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (I was stationed at Vandy from 1993-95, and toured one of the Thor launch pads while a student at Undergraduate Space & Missile Training.) According to the National Space Science Data Center, “The spacecraft had the best imagery to date on any KH-4 systems. Bicolor and color infrared experiments were conducted on this mission.”

A year later — and three weeks after Apollo 11 landed on the moon — the Russians launched the Zond-7 spacecraft from Tyuratam, i.e., the Baikonur Cosmodrome. (I spent three weeks at Baikonur in late 2002.) The mission flew by the moon on August 11th and took two sets of photographs, then returned to earth on August 14th.

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Congrats to Vandenberg Launch Team

According to Spaceflight Now, “The inaugural launch of an Atlas 5 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base occurred as scheduled this morning, thundering skyward at 3:02 a.m. local time (6:02 a.m. EDT) carrying a classified national security satellite.”

That’s good news to wake up to. Congratulations to the launch team and the NRO! Keep up the good work, and thanks for keeping us safe and secure.

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