Friday, February 28, 2014

Saturday, March 1st, 1980

The original plans for the Renger Sky Slash II
Courtesy Estes & Jim Z's Rocket Plans
Saturday, March 1st, 1980 dawned crisp and clear. The temperatures outside were nice, typical late winter in northeast Florida. For me, it was an extremely important day.
My Catholic Youth Organization chapter was having a "kite day" in the field next to the Sandalwood neighborhood. I wouldn't be flying kites that day, however. My model rocket club, the United Star Fleet (USF) would be putting on a demonstration launch. We had launched from this field dozens of times, and during all seasons. This would also be the first competition we would have. 
We weren't an officially sanctioned NAR (National Association of Rocketry) chapter. Instead, we were a group of friends who loved rocketry and space travel. There were six of us initially that day including myself. My friends Alan Hastings, Joe Massal, the Horne brothers, Lance and Steve, and their father Gene, were there that morning. Shortly after arriving, though, the elder Mr. Horne had to leave, so in the end it was just the five of us. I was the club "president", as well as its founder. There were no formal rules. We built, and we flew.
This time, though, there would be that competition, with an emphasis on gliding time aloft. Four of the members had built Renger Sky Slashes II's. This design was one of the first successful boost gliders. The design, by Larry Renger, dated to May of 1963. One of my neighbors had been into model rocketry early on, but was now in college, so he gave me quite a bit of material from those early days. This plan was in one of those early publications, and was quickly passed around and copied by the members of the USF. I didn't have the time to build my Sky Slash II, but I did look on in envy at the slick looking gliders that Joe, Alan, and the Horne boys had built. Joe's was the most distinctive. It was overall gloss red with black trim and German Iron Crosses. The other gliders were more workman like in appearance, variously painted yellow, white and blue. Steve's was the only one that looked almost as daring as Joe's, being primarily golden yellow with dark blue trim, Sandalwood Jr. & Sr. High's colors. 
The Sky Slash II flying surface patterns.
Courtesy Estes  & Jim Z's Rocket Plans
By 11 A.M. that morning, we had our three launch pads lined up. A steady wind came from southeast, not strong but still brisk enough. This made us set up in the field behind an old two story boarding house on the southeastern corner of the field at Mindanao and Bahia Drives. We weren't allowed to use their parking lot, so we went further into the field. Lance and Alan had cars. For Lance, it was an old compact station wagon. Alan, on the other hand, showed up in a real classic, a Studebaker President, that belonged to his father. Joe and I arrived on bikes. For me, it really wasn't that much of a ride, since I only lived a few blocks away.
The field at the edge of the Sandalwood neighborhood,
the way it looked on March 1st, 1980.
The dot is where we launched
The first rocket to go up was going to be Joe's "Red Baron" Sky Slash. I don't remember why it was chosen, but believe it had to do with a coin toss. He took little time to prep the rocket, and soon it was sitting on one of our Estes Port-a-Pads. 
Joe was the thriftiest amongst us, as well as the most daring. A short time before, he had purchased, in bulk, a box load of older Estes and Centuri model rocket engines from Art's Hobby Shop (our local hangout). Many of these engines dated back to the 1960's, and were prone to misfires and the occasional CATO (Catastrophe At Take Off). This didn't faze Joe, and for this, the first flight of his Red Baron, he had chosen an ancient Estes B series engine. 
Once the glider was ready to go, we all participated in the standard five second countdown, and once zero was reached, Joe pressed the ignition button, and the red rocket glider shot skyward in a slightly backwards arching flight, with a very sparky engine providing the thrust. At about two hundred feet, the ejection charge kicked the engine out of the rocket glider, moving its center of gravity back to the wings and looping the glider. It then assumed a level, circling glide, and began following the wind deep into the field.
With Joe, Alan, Lance and Steve now involved with the recovery of the Red Baron in the waist tall golden meadow grass, I started back towards the launch pads. 
As I approached, I noticed something. 
There was a black disk in the grass that seemed to be radiating away from the Port-a-Pad. It was growing.
The grass was on fire.
It hadn't rained since mid-January. We had gone six weeks with barely any precipitation, and the grass in the field was extremely dry. By the time I spotted this expanding black disk, it was already over five feet in diameter. This burning disk was expanding with the wind, and moving towards the tall grass.
"We have a fire at the pads!" I shouted as loud as I could. Every head looked back in my direction, and soon the search for Joe's Red Baron was abandoned as everyone ran back to the launching area. 
Next to the boarding house, two kids were playing. I shouted at them if we could use their water hose. Instead, they just stood up and watched. Alan and Steve took off their jackets and were batting the fire, which within a few minutes had scorched an area over fifty feet across. 
It was heading towards the tall grass.
"We can't stop it!" someone yelled. 
With that, it hit the tall meadow grass, and the field seemed to explode into an inferno.
Within minutes, two fire companies arrived and began laying down a parameter. They were more interested in keeping it from reaching the Pic-n-Save and the other strip mall at the corner of St. John's Bluff Road and Atlantic Boulevard. Nearby Craig Field diverted air traffic for a time, due to smoke drifting over the airport. Twenty minutes in, an Army National Guard UH-1D with a bucket appeared, out of nowhere, and dumped water on the western end of the field. 
One of the saddest sights were the rabbits. Hundreds of them were running from the field, and it was breaking my heart. We had known that there was a warren in there for sometime, and I felt helpless as the scared animals ran from their homes and into the streets. 
As a third company arrived, the weather began to change. Clouds began rolling in, and it looked as though we might just get some rain. But it wasn't soon enough. 
Within an hour and a half, it was done.
The field was almost completely leveled. The few pine trees in the field still stood, their trunks blackened but otherwise unfazed.  The cabbage palms, as well as a large number of wax myrtles, were damaged even more severely. The only portions of the field that were relatively untouched were the western third as well as the area near the eastern edge (next to the playground equipment that generally stood unused alongside Mindanao Drive, and where we normally launched). Where the launch pads had first stood was untouched, though the cars and equipment were moved when the inferno began. There was an area behind both the Pic-n-Save and the neighboring stores that was untouched as well; a fire company parked their trucks along that strip, and sprayed the area down solidly. 
When it was all done, I walked resolutely into the field until I found the captain of the first fire company to arrive.
"Sir," I said, tears forming in my eyes, "my name is Robert Little, I'm president of the model rocket club. This was our fault. It was an accident. We didn't mean to start this fire, we've never had problems like this before."
He was a muscular man, with a really thick moustache. Judging from the salt and pepper in his hair, and his rugged looks, he had battled many blazes. I wasn't sure what was about to happen next.
Looking at me, he tilted his helmet back, looked around a couple of times, and then looked at me again.
"Son, we've been trying to have controlled burns here for months. Only got an acre or two done. By accident, you burnt the entire field down. We let it. All we did was to keep it contained." Then he laughed, "I should be thanking you!" 
I nodded.
"Next time, you need to keep someone by your launch pads, maybe get a fire extinguisher. Got it?" he asked.
"Yes sir," I said. He took his glove off, extended his right hand, and gave mine a firm shake.
"Just don't let this happen again, okay?"
"Will do, sir."

That evening, a gentle rain fell over Jacksonville, and it grew colder. The next morning, the rain turned into snow, though it barely accumulated. As we left for church, we passed the now blackened field. Nobody in the car said a thing, but I still felt a pang in my heart for what had happened. 
The following launches would never have a mishap of that magnitude. There would be CATO's, failed recoveries, launch clips snagging tails, and the occasional out of control bird. But there would always be one person standing guard at the launch pad, a fire extinguisher nearby when we could get one. It was a lesson that we learned the hard way.
Our luck was never that bad again.
The field the way it appears today. Since 1981, it was gradually
developed. Only the western half remains.

Vanguard & Other Fruit Sized Satellites, Part II

An engineering model of the TRS Mk. II satellite.
Image courtesy Smithsonian Institute, Air & Space Museum
The Vanguard would not be the last small satellite orbited. There would be many others that would follow, though the trend was towards larger, more complex satellites. 
Early on in the Space Age, two sets of satellites bucked the trend.
TRW was contracted by the US Air Force to build a series of small satellites for measuring things like radiation in the Van Allen Belts and the Earth's magnetic field. These were named after the Platonic solids they resembled. 
The first were the TRS, the "Tetrahedral Research Satellites", part of the ERS (Environmental Research Satellites) series. The smallest of the bunch were the TRS Mk. I. They measured 6.5" (162 mm) on a a side. Each face was covered with solar cells, and they had two antennae. Their mass was light, much like the Vanguard 1 satellite, ranging from 1.5 to 3.3 pounds (.9 to 1.5 kg). 
Unlike the Vanguard, there was no specialized launch vehicle; these satellites would be hitchhikers. When they were launched in the early through mid-1960's, they rode up with other USAF payloads, usually on Atlas-Agena rockets. They were not designed to function long, at most only a few weeks, after which they would reenter and burn up in the atmosphere. 
In many ways, these are the ancestors of today's CubeSats, though given the technology for the time, were far simpler. They did seem to start the trend of riding with larger payloads. 
Over time, the TRS Mk.I would be joined by bigger stable mates, starting with the TRS Mk. II, which were larger (around 9"/230mm on a side) and heavier. Other Platonic solid shaped satellites would join them as well, such as the Octahedral Research Satellites (ORS) and others. These would grow in complexity and mass, eventually ceasing to be tiny satellites. As a proof on concept, however, they were something of a success. 
Even smaller, though, were what qualify perhaps as the most unusual satellite system ever conceived, and somewhat controversial at that.
There were concerns during the Cold War about lines of communications being disrupted. As the Space Age began, the only certain way to communicate with Europe and Asia was by means of underwater cables or shortwave radio. Unfortunately, shortwave radio could not always be relied upon; you are bouncing signals off of the Earth's ionosphere, and a direct line of communication could not always be relied upon. Further, the range could vary. The underwater cables were more reliable but were vulnerable to attack.
Even though the idea of geosynchronous satellites had been around since at least 1945 (thanks, Arthur C. Clarke), many felt that this was still an uncertainty. This wasn't the case, mind you; there were groups working on it. However, the paranoia that gripped the United States during that period resulted in some unusual thinking. 
One idea that was popular at the time were passive communication satellites. This is what led to the ECHO balloons, that certainly were not tiny sats. Going to the extreme, it was surmised that perhaps an artificial ionosphere of some sort might be made.
Enter MIT's Lincoln Labs, who worked closely with the Department of Defense. They imagined an artificial ionosphere made up of millions upon millions of tiny dipole antennae, nothing more than .7" (1.78cm) long copper wire "needles". 
This was Project West-Ford.
You, too, can make a full scale model of a West Ford needle!
All you need is #32 gauge copper wire.
Image by Robert Little
There were two launches, one in 1961, the second in 1963. These "needles" would be deployed by a dispenser, which when carrying the tiny copper antennae that would be spun off would have a mass of 88 pounds (40 kg). Only the second one worked, and then not very successfully. In theory, a radio signal could be bounced off this cloud. In practice, not very well. 
There were plenty of concerns about this idea. Radio astronomers were not too pleased, as were their visual cohorts. Those fears proved for naught, pretty much as did the idea. At the time, there was little concern about the notion of orbital debris; by that point in time, there simply wasn't that much of it. Perhaps millions of those little high velocity needles are still in orbit.
A short time later, the first active geosynchronous communication satellite would be launched; Syncom 2, in July of 1963. This ended the idea of passive communication satellites. Considering those tiny high velocity space needles, this was a good thing.
The need for tiny satellites would continue. With improvements in technology, it was getting easier to pack more and more into these small spacecraft. Today, they live on in CubeSats and others. 
Still, most need to "hitchhike". There are some out there who are dreaming of tiny little rockets to lob these very specialized payloads into orbit. This has the potential to truly democratize space.
(Edited - RL)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Vanguard & Other Fruit Sized Satellites, Part I

Vanguard 1 - actually, a bit larger than a grapefruit.
Drawing by Robert R. Little

The first official civilian satellites designed by the United States, the Vanguard series, were small. Very small, in fact. The first one to orbit, Vanguard 1, was a mere 6.4" (165 mm) in diameter, and was 3.2 lbs (1.45 kg) in mass. Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev derisively referred to the American satellite as a "grapefruit".
He had room to brag, in a way.
The first satellite to be orbited was Soviet, Sputnik 1. It was launched atop a powerful R-7 rocket, a launcher that would remain something of a mystery in the west until the 1967 Paris Air Show. Sputnik 1 was actually a provisional design itself. The Soviets wanted the satellite that would be known as Sputinik 3 to be the first. But at over 2,900 lbs (1315 kg), it was going to be a bit challenging. 
Still, even the "Простейший Спутник", Sputnik 1, was much larger than the US Vanguard. Sputnik 1 was 23 inches (58 cm) in diameter, and had a mass of 184 lbs (83.6 kg). 
It was nonetheless no more capable than Vanguard 1.
Even the first American satellite to orbit, Explorer 1, was much larger than Vanguard, and carried a fairly sophisticated suite. It was over 30.8 lbs (13.37 kg) and was 6' 8.75" (2.05 meters) long. 
What set the Explorer and those Sputniks apart from the first Vanguard was not their size, but their launchers. The Sputniks used the R-7 series, which still fly today as the Soyuz series. This rocket was powerful enough that on the Sputnik 1 launch the second stage, which is essentially the rocket core, went into orbit behind the PS-1 (which is what most people were actually seeing orbiting, not Sputnik 1). The modified Redstone that carried the American Explorer 1 into orbit, the Juno I (an improved Jupiter-C), was still a fairly good sized rocket, though was little more than an evolved V-2/A-4. As it turned out, the Soviets also had these lineal descendants of the V-2 on hand, but the R-7, while somewhat troublesome, was more than enough rocket for the job.
The Vanguard, on the other hand, was being launched on its own specialized launcher, also named Vanguard. It was much smaller than the Redstone, and far smaller than the R-7. It produced a modest 30,303 lbs (134.79 kilo-Newton) of thrust, and was 75 feet (23 meters) tall. It was slender, looking every bit like the sounding rockets it evolved from. 
It was simply a hard push by the Soviets that put them ahead. While the Vanguard satellite looked promising, its launcher was not.

On December 6th, 1957, the TV-3 launch vehicle lifted a short distance off the pad, only to collapse back into a fireball. 
On national television.
It does say something about the design of the Vanguard satellite that after the explosion it was found on the ground, transmitting away. 
Out of a total of eleven satellite launch attempts, eight would fail. The first successful Vanguard launch would be on the March 17th, 1958, over five months after the Soviets launched Sputnik 1.
Incredibly, the last two Vanguards to be orbited, Vanguard 2 & 3, were only slightly smaller than Sputnik 1, though close to half its mass. Even more incredibly, unlike their larger Soviet counterpart, all three Vanguard satellites, as well as some of their upper stages, remain in orbit. The little grapefruit (really, more like cantaloupe) sized Vanguard 1 will likely remain in orbit for another 150 years, while its two descendants still have perhaps as many as 250 yet to go.

Most of the early civilian American satellite and probe designs were fairly small. This is partially a function of the rockets that were available for them. There was a secret program to orbit spy satellites, WS-117, which would eventually evolve into Corona, and these were much larger satellites. With the launch of the large Soviet satellites, one of the questions troubling many was answered; overflight rights. With civilian satellites of small size, it was hoped that could be circumvented. When the first flights began in earnest, it was apparent that size didn't really matter. While the Russians orbited the entire second stage/core of an R-7 with the launch of Sputnik 1, it would be no time at all before the US showed it could do the same with Project SCORE, on December 18th, 1958. For that mission, an entire Atlas-B rocket was placed into orbit. 
It demonstrated that we could do the same, though not much else, aside from broadcasting a tape recorded message by President Eisenhower.
Many of the smaller civilian satellites were already in the works by this point, and had to rely on the retinue of Juno I, Juno II, and Thor-derived launchers. By 1961, a slender new solid fuel rocket, the Scout, began launching small satellites and probes. There were still plenty of smaller satellites that would be launched, but the availability of larger rockets, such as the various Atlas and Thor derivatives, meant that larger payloads could be carried aloft. Smaller experiments could be bundled in with these larger one, added to them, but fewer could be carried aloft as lone projects. 
In time, those smaller satellites would make something of a return, though in unusual ways.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Pessimism, & the Pessimistic People Who Push It

While I was researching last night, I stumbled upon some editorials by a former space scientist and professor. I'm not going to mention his name, as that will accomplish nothing, but for a few years starting around 2001, he was quite prolific. His work tapered off and now he is seldom seen. But his comments, which I had read before, still raised my ire. 
A lot of them made sense, however. He wasn't entirely off base. Too much of what he wrote, though, came across as simply bitter opinion. A lot of his insight was sloppy. He claims to have been a former "space cadet" himself, but saw the light.
He feels that he is being a realist.
Trouble is, realists seldom make history.
I'm not going to sit here and write about all those discoverers and explorers of yore. That's a tiresome exercise. If you want to, you can certainly look these things up and see where some person or persons had an idea, pursued it, and were dogged and nagged and belittled along the way.
I'm not going to do that.
To be honest, he just seemed pessimistic. Horribly so.
It just puzzles me, though, that someone can be so bitter and negative about something. Perhaps it's a function of age. Some of my oldest friends and acquaintances have become this way. Sorry, the Space Age didn't work out for you, but remember, I was right there with you, and I still hold out hope. 
Is it going to be complicated? Yes. Expensive? At the moment, sadly, yes. Does it need to be done?
Depends upon your viewpoint.
If you think that the fate of life will be forever tied to that of our planet, then of course you might take the stance that human expansion into space is a costly mistake.
That seems so pessimistic to me. Sorry, I don't want to see that happening.
Whenever I read things that are that pessimistic, I remember what Edward O. Wilson said at the Connecticut Forum "A Look Into The Scientific Mind", back in December of 2002. When asked how long he thought the human race would ask, his response was "forever, or at least until the end of time."
How more optimistic can you be than that?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lambda, Ōsumi, and Great Expectations - The Push for Japan's First Satellite

Japan's space program had remarkably modest beginnings. In a fifteen year time span, they went from rockets that were less than a foot tall and just slightly more powerful than the average model rocket to launching much larger rockets into space and into orbit. The journey to that goal was not that easy, though, as there were many stumbles along the way. That's the history of technology, however; you try, and if you fail, you try again.
It was with ISAS' first orbital rocket that the stumbles really come into play. That rocket was the Lambda 4S series.
Image courtesy
Orbital Aspirations,
Ed LeBouthillier

The Lambda was the fourth major solid fuel rocket design to come from the ISAS under Professor Hideo Itokawa. It built upon the successes of the earlier Kappa, which was proving to be quite a successful sounding rocket. Like its earlier siblings, the Lambda was a solid fuel rocket, though quite a bit larger. An even larger rocket was being designed to follow the Lambda, the Mu series, which were planned from the outset with satellite launching in mind.
These would be put on hold when it was discovered that with some simple modifications, the Lambda might be able to loft a satellite into orbit. The caveat was that the satellite couldn't be that big. By this point, earlier iterations of the Lambda rocket were being launched. As initially conceived, the Lambda series were designed to probe deep into space, with altitudes of over 1000 miles (1600 kilometers). This is different than an orbital launch, of course, but the potential was there. Professor Hideo Itokawa's team saw this as a means to an end. For them, this was about having the honor of launching the first satellite for Japan.
Indeed, they weren't alone. There were other groups within Japan that sought the same, but Itokawa wanted his team from the University of Tokyo and ISAS to be first. Development of the Mu series was slowed down so that efforts to convert the Lambda into a satellite could commence. 
The resulting design was the L-4S. 
This was a four stage design, hence the "4" in its designation (the "S" for satellite). To achieve the necessary first stage velocity, the rocket would use two slender solid fuel strap on boosters on the first stage. The complete solid fuel rocket stood just over 54 feet (16.5 meters), making it the smallest and lightest land based satellite launcher ever built. The satellite would physically attached to the fourth stage, a small spherical solid fuel rocket. 
But no guidance system would be used for the rocket. This rail launched rocket would use a combination of aerodynamics, gravity, and timing to carry its payload into orbit. The engineer's reasoning had to do with Japan's new constitution, as it was felt that a guidance system could be easily used for military, and potentially offensive, purposes. Rather than take that chance, they chose this simpler approach.
The problem was that while the Lambda sounding rockets were fairly capable, the L-4S was proving not to be. The first attempt to loft a satellite, in September of 1966, failed. So did the next two launches, in December of '66 and April of '67. 
The failure of the ISAS team to launch a satellite was proving to be something of crisis for Prof. Itokawa. In addition to the failures, the much more promising Mu rocket was delayed, one that it was hoped could launch a satellite into orbit in 1968. There were also accounting abnormalities at the institute, and the media attention painted the institute in a negative light. Professor Hideo Itokawa resigned as a result.
Before the ISAS could regroup, another problem surfaced, and it wasn't technical in nature. Fisherman expressed concern about the launches being done from Kagoshima. For seventeen months, there would be no rocket launches from the pads at Uchinoura. 
Once they resumed, a test launch, L-4T-1, was conducted, and while not perfect, pointed to where the problems existed and what steps needed to be taken. 
The fourth Lambda, L-4S-4, was launched in September 1969 to great expectations. Sadly, like the previous L-4S rockets, it, too, failed, the result of a collision between upper stages during separation.
One more attempt would be made.
On February 11th, 1970, the L-4S-5 would launch Japan's first satellite, Ōsumi, would be successfully orbited. It would have a fairly elliptical orbit, with a perigee of 220 miles (350 km) and an apogee of 3,190 miles (5140 km). While it functioned for less than a day (it is speculated that the temperature variations were greater than expected, thus leading to battery failure), this almost 53 pound (24 kg) satellite gave Japan the honor of being the fourth nation to launch a satellite on an indigenous booster, behind Russia, the United States, and France. 
In comparison, the delayed Mu series proved to be far more successful, leading to the MV series that would fly until 2006. 
When we look back at the history of the the Lambda series and the events leading to Japan's first satellite, one thing becomes readily apparent, and that is that it really is a human story. The rush for the honor of launching Japan's first satellite actually interfered with work on the more capable rocket design. However, it was just enough to give Japan the lead over the next spacefaring country, China, which would launch its Dong Fang Hong I satellite on April 24th, 1970. A Mu series rocket would finally orbit a satellite on February 16th, 1971, a full year after Ōsumi. One more delay would have placed Japan behind China.
More than anything else, however, the Lambda satellite attempts proved that a small, simple launcher could carry a small enough satellite into orbit. With today's technology, such a small payload could be made to do amazing work.
As for Ōsumi, a combination of gravity and atmospheric drag would eventually bring the long dead satellite down on August 2nd, 2003, more than thirty two years after it placed Japan's space program firmly in history.
Image courtesy Wikipedia/Rlandman
(I would like to thank Ed LeBouthiller for technical information, as well as the L-4S drawing. If you would like to read more on the technical aspects of the Lambda satellite launchers, I highly recommend his page on the subject - RL)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Charles Seife, NASA & Angry Pandas

A week or so back, science writer Charles Seife wrote a piece wherein he compared NASA to a panda.
Of course, there was more to it than just that. The main thrust of his piece was how NASA's focus on human spaceflight was endangering its other programs, namely the science programs, and how in many ways the agency was its own worse enemy. 
The piece raised some valid points. However, Mr. Seife did, as expected, raise more than a few eyebrows with some of his statements, and also raised the ire of many NASA supporters, including the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier, who wrote a piece answering Mr. Seife point per point.
Within the realm of social media, a storm brewed, and soon a flurry of tweets and posts appeared supporting the pro-NASA position. To these, Mr. Seife decided to respond.
And made the mess even worse.
He dug his heels in, and shared some of the tweets on his blog. He seemed to revel in the brouhaha he created, and didn't budge or explain his position. Which is all well and good, except that in responding as he did, he seemed to have come across as childish. In other words, while we are often told that popular science writers need to write to eighth graders, it is not necessary to act as one.. While I initially felt that he raised many salient points in his original piece at Slate, I now feel that his behavior is rapidly becoming one of an opportunistic publicity seeker. 
With that, he lost. His arguments, no matter how valid they were, now seem like a cry for attention.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

From A Pencil To A Space Program - The Humble Beginnings of Japan's Reach For Space

In the United States, the space program really began with the first tests of captured V-2 (A-4) rockets from Germany, as well as with American designs, not long after the end of World War II. This happened in the Soviet Union  as well, though instead of just using captured V-2's, they chose to build their own from components and plans found in the crumbling remnants of the Third Reich. Other countries would begin messing with rockets of their own, and by the 1950's, the atmosphere was being probed by a variety of countries. 
One country that wanted to get involved in rocket research was Japan. The strict rules laid down after its defeat mandated that they would have to wait a number of years before beginning anything that could be considered weapons research. By 1954, they were in a position to begin developing their own rockets. The man who led this research was Professor Hideo Itokawa.
In the late 1930's, this promising young aeronautical engineer kicked off his career with Nakajima, designing the Ki-43 Hayabusa for the Imperial Japanese air force. He followed this with the Ki-44 Shoki, which also proved to be a nimble fighter plane. When the war ended, he returned to University of Tokyo and completed his graduate studies. He took up a teaching position at the university, and began thinking about rockets. 
His first rocket was really a joke. He had a student build a paper rocket, ostensibly for wind tunnel testing. Once presented with the completed "rocket", he took it outside and photographed it on the lawn. He gave the photo to a local paper, which was published with a caption that read ""Domestic Rocket No.1 Manufactured Experimentally at University of Tokyo". This was early January of 1955.
Soon, he would manufacture his first true rocket. It was simply called "Pencil". 

(Image by Momotarou2012,

It was small, a little over 9" tall and less than 3/4" in diameter. Think about those measurements for a moment. If they sound familiar, it's because they are very similar to those of a typical model rocket. In fact, the first model rocket patented in the United States was larger, the Carlisle Rock-a-Chute Mark I.

That's where the similarity stops. The Pencil was made out of metals, such as aluminum, and used a solid fuel that ran almost the entire length of the body tube. This fuel was a based on a smokeless charge, a combination of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose. As a result, it was a bit more powerful than your stock model rocket.
When it was initially tested, it was somewhat captive, "flying" along a line and through a series of barriers that allowed Itokawa and his team of researchers to measure its speed and thrust. 
More tests were conducted, and eventually three different versions of the Pencil would be developed; a longer version, named "Pencil 300", so called for its length of 300mm (almost 12"), and a two stage version.

(Image courtesy JASA)
 The first truly free flight of a Pencil took place on August 6th, 1955, on the beach at Michikawa. The rocket used was a Pencil 300. After a false start, where the rocket fell off the pad at the point of ignition and did a few acrobatics on the beach, it was reloaded and fired again, this time with success. It soared to over 1950 feet, and downrange of almost 2300 feet. 
It was a roaring success. 
Michikawa would become the first launch site for Japan's reach into space. 

Prof. Itokawa at a launch. Quite an impressive setup.
(Image courtesy JAXA)
Soon, the Pencil would be replaced with the Baby, a much larger two stage rocket. 

Hideo Itokawa and a Baby
(Image courtesy JAXA)
The Baby, in turn, led to the Kappa series of sounding rockets, which Japan would use during the International Geophysical Year, 1957 - 1958. 

Kappa sounding rockets.
(Image courtesy JAXA)
Professor Itokawa's team would form the core of what would be the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, which is now a part of JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. The rocket that would follow in the footsteps of the Kappa would be the Lambda series. 

(Image courtesy Momotarou2012,
The sixth launch attempt with a Lambda rocket, the L4S-5, would launch Japan's first satellite, Ohsumi, on February 11, 1970, some fifteen years after Itokawa's first experiments.
And it all started with a Pencil.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Shuttle As Glider - MSC-042A & the Titan IIIL6

In the last months leading up to North American Rockwell winning the contract for the space shuttle, there was still plenty of push for some totally different designs. Since at least  the beginning of 1971, TAOS, or "Thrust Augmented Orbiter System" was becoming the leading concept. In this design, there would no longer be a flyback booster. Instead, the shuttle would carry drop tanks for its own engines, and use boosters to provide crucial thrust at  liftoff. 
The older designs persisted, but it was becoming apparent that they wouldn't make the final round. The leading orbiter design, MSC-040, was a delta winged spacecraft that would carry 3 engines and an orbital maneuvering system on a vehicle that was equipped with a 15' x 60' cargo bay.
A variation of this design was MSC-042A.
This design was a glider.
In plan, it was essentially identical to the MSC-040 designs, though one variation,  MSC-042B, did revert to the straight winged Faget DC-3 derived designs. Otherwise, the specifications were similar, though sometimes stated as having a smaller cargo bay, 12' x 40', and with a lower capacity.
To carry MSC-042A (and B) aloft, a booster would be used.
This idea had several proponents, notably George Low, deputy administrator of NASA. The Office of Management and Budget also liked it, as its development would be far less costly,  or so it was hoped. 
To lift this large space plane into orbit, a Saturn IB class booster would be required. The  folks at Martin Marietta had such a design in mind.
The Titan IIIL.
This was not just an evolved Titan II/III. This rocket was a beast. The liquid fueled core  would be 15' in diameter and be equipped with four engines. It could be flown with two, four or six solid fuel boosters, stretched versions of the ones found on the Titan III series.

Courtesy the Aerospace Projects Review Blog
George Low, and others,  felt that this approach might lead to a more incremental development path for the shuttle that was potentially lower in costs. 
From late summer of 1971 to at least November, this design was considered. However, it had its opponents, among them LeRoy Day, the deputy director of the shuttle program. In T.A. Heppenheimer's "The Space Shuttle Decision", you find this from Day - 

"You had to put this thing on top of on enormous booster which you had to 
throw away each time. And so you had an operating cost that was getting to 
be kind of ridiculous. The vehicle size and everything — it didn 't have much 
utility. It was kind of a demonstration. It would certainly have been a 
research vehicle that you could have studied re-entry with. When you got all 
through with that then you would have said, ''Gee, that would be nice if it was 
big enough to really do something." Then you would have to turn around and 
build another vehicle. And with the way the budget climate looked, we were 
pretty sure that we 'd be shut out. We 'd never be able to say, "Okay, now let's 
start up a real program and build another one that will be an enlarged version 
and have more capability." The 0MB and Congress would never support 
it; it would be like two different programs, and we said, "That'll be the death 
of it for sure."

He probably had a point. NASA was already reeling from one cut after another to its human spaceflight program, and the shuttle was beginning to become unpopular. In the end, the  glider design would never progress. There were studies undertaken in the 1980's (prior to  the loss of Challenger) that proposed an engineless orbiter being carried into space on a  stack where the three SSME's would be moved to the bottom of the external tank (the  so-called "Class IV Shuttle Derived Vehicle). The company conducting these studies? None  other than Martin Marietta. 
If NASA had gone with a glider, it is of little doubt that the program would have been  entirely different. In many ways, it would have been like an American version of the Buran,  which was essentially the same idea.
When you study the history of the program, one thing you notice, early on, is how closely  North American Rockwell's designs were to official NASA designs, and vice versa. I have  always suspected that they were in the lead for winning the contract from the beginning. If  they had gone with the MSC-042A design, I wonder if NAR would have wanted to participate;  most of their designs relied on TAOS or flyback boosters. In my study, I chose an MSC-042A  that was based on an MSC-040 derived design from McDonnell Douglas. It would have been a  pure delta, but still familiar. It also would have been very tall, between the height of a  Saturn V and Saturn IB. We see it after the six solid rocket motors have ignited, and the  whole stack has begun to move.

Like LeRoy Day, I believe that if NASA had gone that route, the outcome might have proven to  be a far cry from what finally happened, and not necessarily for the better. With the big  stack design like the MSC-042A/Titan IIIL6, there was plenty of room for error. 
In the end,  we can only speculate.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Columbia +11

I wrote this initially for my blog, but instead posted it to my Facebook page - 

"Today is February 1st, 2014. 
It is a Saturday.
Eleven years ago today was also a Saturday. 
My wife Tracie and I were sitting in the Twin Colony Diner in Torrington. This was a fairly typical thing for us on Saturday mornings. Shortly, we would commence to doing our normal weekend routine; hit a couple of book stores, do some scenic driving, as it wasn't that cold a day.
I ordered my usual (a waffle, two sausage links, glass of milk). 
The diner has televisions hung in various locations, almost all turned to FOX News. The food had only just arrived at the table when I caught an interesting video on the screens. It was a blue sky, with something streaking through it, leaving numerous trails. This looked familiar.
I looked at my watch. As I recall, it was about 9:25 am. My blood instantly ran cold.
Two weeks before, we gathered all the students in the main lobby at the Talcott Mountain Science Center to watch the launch of Columbia. It looked to be a fairly typical flight. I had to explain to my students that this was not an ISS launch, and how there had been talk of converting Columbia into something called a "long duration orbiter". Some of the students followed the mission. 
And now, I was certain I knew what I was seeing.
I got up from my booth and walked to the television, and asked the waitress to turn it up. 
By this point, there was little doubt.
Columbia had broken up over Texas.
As had happened seventeen years before, tears started flowing. I returned to the table, and Trae asked what's wrong. I pointed to the television, as more videos were now being posted.
I think all I could say was "Columbia. We lost Columbia."

A few days later, we stopped at the diner again, this time for dinner. It was on a Tuesday night, as I recall. The air was crisp, a little colder, but unlike Saturday, was clear. At my desk, I had been running a couple of satellite tracking programs, and knew to look up as we left. It was about 6:30 pm. As we approached the car, I looked up. Far overhead, the International Space Station traced a path across the winter sky. It looked so lonely as it passed so far overhead."

There is so much more I'd like to say, like how I knew this would be the death knell for the shuttle program and how it could possibly be the same for the US manned space program. But not now.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Junk Man & The Moon - “Salvage 1”, The “Vulture”, & Andy Griffith

1979 rolled around and was looking somewhat dreadful where my love of space was concerned. Not only was I a sophomore, which is hard enough, but it was looking, to me at least, like space was slipping from too many peoples' collective radars. The shuttle program was woefully behind schedule. Any talk about space colonization within government circles, and in most circles actually, had been subdued, almost defeated. We were still months away from President Carter's "malaise" speech, but for most of America, that was definitely the feeling.
Within my own life at that time, it was pretty damned descriptive. 
Even as a young person, I knew that if you wanted to keep such a big idea going, you had to keep it in the public eye. I was hoping that "Star Wars" would do that for space, and to a degree it did. The summer of 1978, however, saw the release of "Capricorn 1", about a faked Mars missions; a movie that used Apollo hardware no less, and was more than just a veiled hint that the lunar landings might have been faked. 
That didn't help.
When "Battlestar Galactica" premiered during the fall of 1978, I was, once again, hopeful. The movie, and the first few episodes, were really good. But then, it started to get somewhat, well, silly. 
Around this time, I was buying "Starlog" magazine on a fairly steady basis. I didn't catch every issue, so I was a bit surprised one night when sitting through an episode of "Galactica" that I see a commercial for a movie coming up on our local ABC affiliate on the night of January 20th. 
That's how I remember it, though it was actually "Salvage1". It starred Andy Griffith, an actor who was crucial to my growing up. For a long time, he was the dad I wanted. Him and Mike Brady, actually. There were also some other actors in the movie, names I didn't recognize, but with faces that looked familiar.
And the 20th was that Saturday.
We didn't have a VCR. They were very expensive, something my working class family could not afford. But I did have a nice GE Mini-Cassette recorder. A two hour movie meant I would need two C-60 tapes. As I had always done, I could always listen to it, and play the video back in my mind. 
It's ironic, as around the same time, my interest in model rocketry had grown deeper, and a lot more serious. I had a new Estes' Tilt-a-Pad that needed to be broken in. From a neighbor, I purchased an older Electro Launch pad that needed to be tested (these were old, even in 1979). As for rockets, I had four ready to fly; an Avenger, an Icarus, a Streak, all Estes, and an MPC ASP. This movie was simply whetting my appetite to start launching. 
When the movie came on, I wasn't sure what to expect. As it turned out, it was pretty harmless entertainment, especially for a sixteen year old. It was the sort of movie that was pretty typically 1970's. Some said that the plot was very similar to Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon"; I never saw a similarity. The plot was still interesting, though. Salvage yard owner Harry Broderick (Andy Griffith) hears that there might be money to be made by salvaging the equipment leftover on the Moon from the Apollo missions (forget the legality of that). He decides to put together a team and build a rocket from bits and pieces that can be bought surplus, as well as material from his own junkyard. The rocket would be known as the "Vulture". 
For the show, a full sized Vulture was made, and it looked... interesting.

To get to the Moon, they would use a powerful propellant known as "monohydrazine". I was already familiar with unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine, as it was half of the propellant combination used in the Titan II and III series (the other half was nitrogen tetroxide). Monohydrazine was an extremely powerful substance, with, as they like to say in rocketry, an extremely high specific impulse. A drop was able to send a heavy engine block quite a ways into the air. Since this fuel was so powerful, it would allow the Vulture to use a very slow acceleration. Normally, a rocket needs to have fairly high acceleration, obtaining escape velocity for lunar missions, or orbital missions if you aren't so adventurous. The Vulture would simply go straight up, steadily gaining speed and altitude until it was within the Moon's gravitational influence. At that point, it would turn around and decelerate. One of the features built in to the Vulture was an accordion main fuel tank. As fuel was depleted, it would create more room for cargo. Pretty clever. The Vulture was unique enough to earn a spot in Ron Miller's "The Dream Machines".
Anyway, the movie had fairly common plot devices, such as the federal agent trying to put a stop to the mission, a problem during the mission, awkward humor. And I really liked it.
And as with "Battlestar Galactica", the series that followed disappointed me. There were a total of eighteen episodes, and I watched only a handful.
Over the next few months, my own rockets would punch their own tiny holes in the sky. That summer would see some space oriented science fiction movies, most notably "Alien". Also that summer, the space shuttle Columbia would be ferried cross country, and lose many of its temporary tiles, making many question whether it was a even good idea. In July, the American space station Skylab would finally lose its battle against gravity, and would break up over western Australia.
My own, very modest attempts would climb into the very lowest part of the troposphere, and I would listen to my recording of "Salvage", and wish it had been more than it was. 
Still, I liked the movie. At least what it represented.