Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 crew on January 17, 1967. Left to right: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Yesterday was the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Largely unknown to the public is a memorial ceremony held each year at Launch Complex 34, where the tragedy occurred. Because access to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is restricted, only those with a badge or other authorization can get to the site.

The memorial begins at 6:00 PM EST, with the lighting of three candles that symbolize the lives of the three astronauts. At 6:31 PM EST, the time of the fire, the candles are extinguished.

Betty Grissom and members of the Grissom family attended, as did a member of the Chaffee family. No member of the White family attended, although I'm told they attended in past years.

Click here to view a copy of the memorial program. You need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the document.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the STS-51L Challenger accident. February 1 is the eighth anniversary of the STS-107 Columbia tragedy. In a world where there are few heroes left, our fallen astronauts should always be remembered because they sacrificed their future for ours.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's a "Sputnik Moment"?

In last night's State of the Union speech, President Obama referred to the current economic climate as "our generation's Sputnik moment."

Last December 6, in a speech at Forsyth Technical Community College at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, President Barack Obama used the phrase "Sputnik moment" to describe his vision for unleashing a new period of innovation in the American economy.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported:

The heart of the speech focused on how America can reshape itself to meet the needs of a new economy, much as it did in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the Earth-orbiting satellite known as Sputnik.

The Soviets’ innovation was a surprise, and ultimately served as a wakeup call that galvanized the nation. The result was a pioneering space program that put the first man on the moon.

“So 50 years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment,” said Obama, standing in front of blue backdrop before a gymnasium crammed with students and faculty from Forsyth Tech. “If the recession has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot go back to an economy that’s driven by way too much spending, too much borrowing, running up credit cards, taking out a lot of home equity loans.… We’ve got to rebuild on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth.”

Obama repeated the theme in last night's State of the Union speech:

Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation. But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS. Just think of all the good jobs — from manufacturing to retail — that have come from these breakthroughs.

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t even there yet. NASA didn’t exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

I wrote a blog on December 7 suggesting that a "Sputnik moment" is really more of a myth than an historical fact.

The press reacts to the launch of Sputnik I. Photo source:

The United States hysterically overreacted to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik I into orbit on October 4, 1957. Many believed the Soviets now had the ability to nuke the country into obliteration, or at the very least they were spying on America from space.

I just finished reading Sputnik: The Shock of the Century, an excellent book by Paul Dickson. I'll write a review in a few days. Dickson's book is a thoroughly compelling read, not just for its detailed description of the events in 1957, but also places Sputnik in historical perspective.

I understand what the President means by his "Sputnik moment" phrase, but I cringe because to me it means, "A moment where everyone panics, overreacts, succumbs to hysteria and totally misses the point."

For those who were actually paying attention, the Sputnik I launch should have been no surprise. Both the U.S. and USSR agreed to launch satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year. The White House chose a Navy proposal called Project Vanguard, essentially building a new rocket from scratch rather than using an existing military weapon such as the Army's Jupiter rocket. The Russians weren't squeamish about such things, so when Sputnik I launched it was atop a Soviet R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile.

Neither the White House or the Vanguard scientists viewed IGY as a "Space Race." The program objective was to launch a research satellite by the spring of 1958. In fact, it was directed that Vanguard would have to take a back seat to military missile development programs already underway at Cape Canaveral.

Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, launches on January 31, 1958 atop a modified Jupiter-C rocket.

Did the United States have a rocket capable of putting a satellite into orbit? Absolutely. Dr. Wernher von Braun claimed his Jupiter rocket, a descendant of the Nazi V-2, could have launched a satellite in 1956. But launching a satellite wasn't a national priority. Delivering bombs was.

For the more sober, Sputnik suggested the Russians could strike the U.S. with an ICBM. The absence of an American satellite implied it could not retaliate. That was totally false, but the Eisenhower administration was reluctant to expose military secrets to respond to what they viewed as an overreaction.

If anything, the administration missed the propaganda value behind Sputnik until it was too late, until after the Soviets launched Sputnik II with a dog aboard. In May 1958, the USSR launched Sputnik III, which weighed over 1,300 kg (nearly 3,000 pounds); although the U.S. had launched satellites by then, none were even close in weight to the Sputnik III payload.

A cynic might conclude that this "Space Race" was more about phallic symbolism than anything else. The American standard of living was undoubtedly superior to that of the Soviet Union, and the Western world had contained the Soviet military threat. A Cold War waged, but it was for the hearts and minds of the Third World, and perhaps Sputnik was one small battle won in that conflict.

So what is a "Sputnik moment"?

Obama means it in the sense that its mythology teaches us. Like Pearl Harbor or perhaps 9/11, Americans don't like to be caught with their guard down. Few saw the Great Recession coming — although there were some economists and others who warned about the consequences of the real estate bubble and unsecured debt. They knew the bubble was about to burst, just as those paying attention in 1957 knew the Russians were going to launch a satellite.

Should the United States strive to be a global leader in innovation? Absolutely. Should we invest in the future, reduce the national debt and be more responsible with our personal finances? Certainly. I just don't think calling this a "Sputnik moment" is the proper metaphor.

Meanwhile, little Forsyth Tech basks this morning in the national spotlight. Today's Winston-Salem Journal reports that Obama invited a Forsyth student, Kathy Proctor, to sit with Michelle Obama last night during the speech.

Obama met Proctor while visiting Forsyth Tech in early December. On that visit, Obama delivered an optimistic speech that called for a new "Sputnik moment" that would unleash a wave of innovation.

That speech previewed much of what Obama said last night. He again called for a Sputnik moment, a reference to the way the United States shaped itself into a global leader in space exploration after the Soviet Union launched the earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik in 1957.

Dr. Gary Green, the president of Forsyth Tech, said Obama was impressed with the way Proctor had reinvented herself. She and other students seemed to embody the type of transformation the country needs to make in the changing global economy.

For those of us here in Brevard County, we should pay close attention to the details of Obama's FY 2012 budget proposal when it is released next month. Obama spoke last April about converting central Florida into the Silicon Valley of space. His FY 2011 budget proposal, and subsequent grants targeting the Space Coast, intended to upgrade Kennedy Space Center and retrain area workers for 21st Century technologies.

Obama noted in last night's speech that "NASA didn't exist" when Sputnik launched, implying this might have been one cause for the "Sputnik moment." We might infer from his remarks that more investment in Brevard County will be coming our way in the FY 2012 budget proposal.

But it's important to remember that no President's budget proposal has the force of law. Congress determines the budget, not the President, who can only sign or veto it. So the members of Congress can gleefully discard whatever a President proposes and do what they feel like. It should be noted that although the FY 2011 budget cycle began last October 1, Congress has yet to appropriate the money for that budget, so NASA and all other federal agencies cruise along in neutral, and the President can do nothing about it.

Kentucky Republican senator and self-described Tea Partier Rand Paul wants to cut NASA's budget by 25%, according to Space Politics. Apparently not everyone in Congress cares about this "Sputnik moment."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Photos of Buran

As mentioned on the Florida SpaceReport blog ...

The Soviet space shuttle orbiter Buran on exhibit at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Photo source: Kyle VanHemert on has photos posted by Kyle VanHemert from a recent tour of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. His photos include those of Buran, the Soviet space shuttle orbiter that flew and landed unmanned in 1988.

Click here for a March 20, 2010 blog I wrote about Buran, including videos of the launch and landing.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

When JFK Met with NASA

President John F. Kennedy recorded a November 21, 1962 meeting with NASA Administrator James Webb.

In a May 6, 2010 article, I exposed the myth that President John F. Kennedy was a space visionary who wanted to create a vigorous — and permanent — government-funded human space flight program.

The key evidence is an audio recording of a November 21, 1962 meeting in the Oval Office that included Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb, and various other executives from NASA and the Bureau of the Budget. In the recording, Kennedy can be heard telling Webb, "I'm not that interested in space," reminding the bureaucrats his priority was to show the world that American technology is superior to the Soviet Union, not science or space exploration.

The NASA History web site has the audio recording online, and a transcript. This is your opportunity to listen yourself, and/or read the transcript, to understand in context JFK's motivations behind the Moon program.

Click here for the two-part audio links. (You will need RealPlayer if you don't already have it; the download is free.)

Click here for the 28-page transcript. (You will need Acobe Acrobat Reader if you don't already have it; the download is free.)

The debate between Kennedy and Webb about priorities begins on Page 14 of the transcript. Here's one key statement by JFK:

[The Moon program] is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race. If we get second to the Moon, it's nice, but it's like being second any time. So that if we're second by six months, because we didn't give it the kind of priority, then of course that would be very serious. So I think we have to take the view that this is the top priority with us.

Keep in mind that, in the wake of Sputnik, Kennedy had criticized the Eisenhower administration for allegedly being too passive in its rocket development. He didn't want that same argument used against him, having established the precedent himself.

When Webb argued for more funding and priority for science, Kennedy bristled. In response to Webb's question asking why science can't be used to show American technological superiority, JFK replied:

Because, by God, we keep, we've been telling everybody we're preeminent in space for five years and nobody believes it because they have the booster and the satellite. We know all about the number of satellites we put up, two or three times the number of the Soviet Union . . . we're ahead scientifically.

Webb continued to argue his position, but Kennedy was blunt about what was the official policy.

I do think we ought get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of the Agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government. I think that that is the position we ought to take. Now, this may not change anything about that schedule, but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space. I think it's good; I think we ought to know about it; we're ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we're talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in this time or fashion, is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.

On January 20, 2011, Congress noted the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration. U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) recalled Kennedy's lunar program proposal. Like most people, he invoked the mythology rather than the reality behind Apollo.

He was right — it would be hard. Not just the technology, but also the politics. Opponents called his vision a "boondoggle" and a "science-fiction stunt." But President Kennedy knew from the start what was waiting for America in the stars.

On his first day as president, he invited the crowd gathered here at the Capitol — and the millions who were watching and listening — to join him in exploring the worlds beyond ours and seizing the wonders of science.

And throughout the brief time he was our nation’s leader, he insisted that our nation lead the sprint to conquer space — and that we finish that race first.

Reid was right that Kennedy wanted the United States to win the space race. But it was for reasons that had little to do with exploration or science.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Gasoline Tanker Explosion Disrupts KSC Traffic

A gasoline tanker explosion has severely damaged the 528 bridge over Courtenay Parkway, a major artery to Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: Zach Sutherland on web site.

A pickup truck rammed the rear of a gasoline tanker this afternoon, causing a massive explosion that could disrupt Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station traffic patterns for the next month.

Both drivers died in the accident at Highway 528 (the Beachline) where it passes over Route 3 (Courtenay Parkway). More coverage at:

Central Florida News 13

Florida Today

Route 3 is the major artery for traffic passing through the KSC south gate. Highway 528 is a major artery for traffic going to and from CCAFS as well as Port Canaveral.

For those of us who live in north Merritt Island, the public normally has only two ways to reach civilization. Route 3 under the 528 bridge is one. The other route is up through KSC out to the west and on to Titusville. Those with the appropriate security badge can enter KSC and drive east over a causeway to CCAFS, which eventually exits at the Port.

If north Merritt Island residents can't pass under the 528 bridge for the next month, we have a major problem, not to mention what it will do to the daily KSC and CCAFS traffic patterns.

UPDATE January 22, 2011 7:45 AM EST — According to Florida Today, the bridge may need to be rebuilt, closing the intersection for 30-45 days.

I called the Brevard County Sheriff's Office to find out about local traffic patterns. No vehicles will be allowed to pass under the bridge, north or south bound, until further notice. From Cape Canaveral, you can exit 528 at Banana River Drive and use Sea Ray Drive to reach Route 3 and turn northbound over the barge canal. Southbound on Route 3 under the bridge isn't going to happen any time soon, so the only other option is to head north through KSC and then west on 405 into Titusville. If you're badged for KSC/CCAFS, you can go through those bases to eventually exit near Port Canaveral.

UPDATE January 23, 2011 6:00 AM EST — Below is the latest update on traffic patterns from Florida Today:

Florida Today reports the Florida Department of Transportation will open bids today to repair the bridge and work will begin as soon as possible.

I drove both directions through the intersection yesterday. Traffic was light, so inconvenience was the major problem. It should be a different story on Monday, the first work commute day.

UPDATE January 24, 2011 7:45 AM EST — According to this morning's Florida Today:

Lane Construction has until Feb. 16 to open the overpass for traffic, said Steve Olson, DOT spokesman. Sunday afternoon, company surveyors and heavy equipment operators were working at the blackened bridge ... Lane Construction must pay damages of $50,000 per day if the Feb. 16 deadline is not met, Olson said ...

By afternoon, an excavator removed a portion of the North Courtenay Parkway median at Sea Ray Drive.

Olson said a turn lane and stop sign will be added so southbound traffic can take Sea Ray Drive eastward.

A second State Road 528 “through lane” will also be added just south of the bridge to accommodate eastbound traffic, he said.

“As the days play out and we see how traffic flows through here, we may make modifications,” Olson said.

A Florida Today photo of the 528 bridge demolition.

Analysis of NASA Woes

An article in the January 16 Orlando Sentinel detailed all the problems facing NASA as it struggles to survive in an era of limited budgets and shameless porking by members of Congress.

With the space shuttle set to retire this year, and no successor imminent, today's NASA is being pulled apart by burdensome congressional demands, shrinking federal budgets, greedy contractors, a hidebound bureaucracy and an ambitious new commercial space industry that wants to shake up the status quo.

I wrote on January 13 about Senators insisting NASA build a heavy-lift rocket within the parameters, cost and timeline they dictated, despite NASA's conclusion it wasn't feasible. The Senate design used parts from existing contractors.

The article notes:

In recent weeks, key aerospace companies have demanded that NASA open the new rocket project to competition or face the prospect of lawsuits.

One, aerospace giant Aerojet, told NASA in a letter Dec. 1, that "we do intend to compete" for the solid-rocket boosters and engines that Congress wants put on the new rocket.

Aerojet makes solid rockets as well as liquid-rocket engines. The company has long been unhappy that NASA awarded a no-bid contract for the first stage of the Ares I rocket to rival solid-rocket manufacturer ATK, in part on the erroneous grounds that it was the country's only producer of large solid-fuel rockets.

The article quotes SpaceX founder Elon Musk as saying he could build a rocket that could go to the Moon for $3 billion. That dubious number appears to have the space-industrial complex fearful for its pork. The article states:

But members of Congress are skeptical and reluctant to allow upstarts such as Musk to muscle in on what they regard as a unique government franchise. And traditional aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin are furiously lobbying against the idea, not least because Musk is a threat to their bottom lines.

Hat tip to Rand Simberg's Transterrestrial Musings for the link.

Grant May Help Launch Rockets from SLC-46

Florida Today reports the U.S. Air Force has awarded a $30,000 grant to Space Florida to "begin working out the details of a plan to launch to orbit small satellites aboard 60-foot Minotaur rockets from Cape Canaveral."

Earlier this month, the Space Launch Division of the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center/Space Development and Test Wing announced plans to spend up to $48 million to provide Florida-based launch services for the federal government.

The $30,000 first award starts the process for developing a plan for rocket launches from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The survey would determine infrastructure requirements for launches and requirements for facilities to process solid fuel boosters and payloads.

Proposal Could Cut NASA Budget 20 Percent

A proposal by the House Republican Study Committee to roll back federal spending to 2006 levels could cut NASA's annual budget by 20%.

The Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget is about $19 billion. According to Wikipedia, the FY 2006 NASA budget was $15.1 billion. Rolling back the NASA budget to 2006 would cut about $4 billion, or about 20%.

To quote from the committee's press release:

Compared to current projections, the Spending Reduction Act would save taxpayers $2.5 trillion through 2021. It starts by keeping House Republicans’ pledge to take current spending back to 2008 levels and repeal unspent funds from the failed “stimulus.”

At the beginning of the next fiscal year on October 1, 2011, spending is further reduced to 2006 levels and frozen there for the next decade. To help achieve these savings, the bill shrinks the size and cost of the civilian federal workforce and specifically targets over 100 budget items and spending reforms.

Click here the read the bill.

The proposal does not specifically mention NASA, however the space agency would fall within the category of non-defense discretionary spending targeted by the committee.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The New U.S. Space Policy

Three essays on the future of the United States human space flight program are now on The New Atlantis web site. The authors and links are:

"NASA's Course Correction" by Jeff Foust

"In Search of a Conservative Space Policy" by Rand Simberg

"Opening Space with a Transorbital Railroad" by Robert Zubrin

SpaceX Proposes Rocket-Powered Landing System reports that "SpaceX announced Monday it submitted a proposal to NASA last month to start an estimated $1 billion process upgrading the company's Dragon capsule, the first step in making the ship ready for crew rotation flights to the International Space Station."

The upgrade would include "an integrated launch abort rocket" that "could even be fired for a rocket-assisted touchdown on land, bringing astronauts home to a soft landing closer to recovery teams."

Click here to watch a SpaceX promotional video about their latest proposal.

Von Braun: Right Place, Right Time

Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster, produced this English-language documentary about Wernher von Braun.

I just finished reading Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun by former Huntsville Times reporter Bob Ward. Born into German aristocracy in 1912, Von Braun fell in love with rocketry as a youth, headed the team that developed the V-2 rocket Germany used to attack England in the last years of World War II, then came to America and led the effort to build the U.S. space program which culminated in crewed Moon missions from 1969 through 1972.

Today we no longer have the political will to spend the money for a robust government space program. According to Wikipedia, NASA spending peaked in the mid-1960s at the height of the Space Race with the Soviet Union. In 1966, NASA represented 4.41% of the federal budget. In 1964 through 1966, the annual budget (in 2007 dollars) was over $30 billion each year. In 2011, it will be about $19 billion, which is about 0.5% of the federal budget.

In reading Ward's book, I was struck by how von Braun happened to be in the right place several times in his career that allowed him to advance his vision for human space flight. In fact, if not for the Cold War, von Braun might have been no more than a footnote in World War II history books.

Before von Braun, there were three space visionaries — Russia's Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Germany's Hermann Oberth and American physicist Robert Goddard.

None were particularly well-known during their lifetimes. Tsiolkovsky became a belated hero of the Russian Revolution but never actually built a rocket; he was a theorist. Goddard was mocked in the mainstream press; The New York Times published an infamous editorial on January 13, 1920 which derided Goddard's assumption that thrust would work in a vacuum. Goddard eventually moved to Roswell, New Mexico (yes, that Roswell) to continue his research far away from the skeptical populace.

Of the three, only Oberth succeeded in starting a popular movement supporting rocket development, but that success was modest at best. He joined (but did not found) the German Society for Space Travel (a forerunner of today's National Space Society), and mentored a number of youthful rocket enthusiasts including a teen-age Wernher von Braun.

Society for Space Travel members in 1930. Wernher von Braun is the second from the right.

Von Braun and his rocketeers in 1930 used an abandoned storage depot on the outskirts of Berlin to begin a small rocket research company. They raised little money to support their efforts, until the German military took interest in 1932. This was the year before Adolf Hitler took power, so the military had no connection to the Nazi Party.

Military funding is the common theme that ran through the nascent years of the German, Soviet and American space programs. If not for war, or at least the threat of a potential conqueror, von Braun never may have advanced his work beyond the rocket club.

The World War I Armistice said nothing about rocketry, so the German military was quite interested in what they viewed as a potential new weapon. For von Braun, it was a reliable funding source. To quote from page 18 of Ward's book:

If advancing rocketry toward the ultimate goal of space flight meant joining forces for the present with the military, with those he knew were primarily interested in weapons development, then so be it. They had the funds and facilities, and he and his group needed them to continue. It was that simple.

Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933, but politics meant little to von Braun and his team. In late 1934, they launched two A-2 liquid-fueled rockets to altitudes of more than 1½ miles. These achievements drew the attention of the Luftwaffe, the German air force. They offered von Braun a lucrative contract to develop a rocket-powered fighter plane. The Army didn't want to lose von Braun, so they came up with a higher amount to support existing research.

Von Braun was apolitical, as were most of his group, but as Hitler consolidated power there was no escaping the reality that the Nazi regime would never fund space exploration. The only way von Braun could advance knowledge of rocketry was to continue working for the military.

What were his options? That fateful decision is still debated long after his passing. He could have chosen to cease his research, but other team members would have remained. Most likely he would have been imprisoned. Escape to another country was unlikely because he was guarded as a military asset; even if he did manage to escape, no other nation at that time was seriously funding rocket research.

Von Braun joined the Nazi Party on December 1, 1938. According to page 34 of Ward's book:

For several years after Hitler had come to power, von Braun still had not joined the Nazi party. The Peenemünde base, if not the A-4 [later known as the V-2], was in advanced development. Von Braun was in a high position, and the dictatorship looked unfavorably on officials who were not loyal, card-carrying members of the party.

Beginning in 1940, von Braun was pressed to join the Schutzstaffel (known to Westerners as the SS) as a power play by Heinrich Himmler to bring the rocket program under his control. From page 35 of Ward's book:

Thirty years later, von Braun told American associate Charles Hewitt that he "had to make a very difficult choice" in the SS commission matter. "And he said he felt his choice was to live or not to live, and he decided to live," recalled Hewitt, the mid-1970s executive director of the National Space Institute. Less melodramatically, others said the apolitical von Braun reasoned that an SS officer's status would help him deal more authoritatively with the storm troopers present at Peenemünde in growing numbers over the years.

Although many war atrocities were committed in relation to the V-2 program, the overwhelming evidence suggests von Braun was not personally responsible. Slave labor was provided by the military and the Schutzstaffel, and he had no authority to stop it. Had he objected, most likely he would have been imprisoned or even executed. Himmler jailed von Braun in March 1944 and accused him of sabotaging the war effort. It was probably another power play by Himmler to wrest control of the rocket program from the Army, but Armaments Minister Albert Speer obtained a release from Hitler about two weeks later, arguing the V-2 program would fail without von Braun's leadership.

This was certainly not an environment where dissent was tolerated.

Film footage of Wernher von Braun and A-4 (V-2) rocket launches in the 1940s.

As the Allied armies approached in the summer of 1945, von Braun and his team chose to decide their own fates. Most of them concluded their best opportunity for rocket research was with the United States. They set out to surrender to the U.S. Army, although the Soviets also captured their share of Peenemünde workers.

The Army sent the captured Germans to Fort Bliss, Texas near what is known today as the White Sands Test Center. Once again, von Braun found his work being used for military purposes. Bumper 5, a modified V-2 rocket, reached an altitude of 243 miles on February 24, 1949, the first man-made object to escape the Earth's atmosphere. But there was no government interest in peaceful exploration of space.

The von Braun team relocated in 1950 to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. It was a step up from the deserts of New Mexico, but they still saw no opportunity for space exploration.

Until the International Geophysical Year.

I chronicled those events in this January 1, 2011 article, so I won't retread familiar ground.

For von Braun, the IGY was an opportunity to finally send a satellite into space, but the Navy proposal won out over the Army's Project Orbiter. Von Braun and his team secretly continued development of a vehicle that could orbit a satellite payload.

When Sputnik I launched on October 4, 1957, von Braun saw his opportunity. Always a charismatic figure and easily accessible by the press, von Braun made it known both publicly and privately that he could have orbited a satellite much earlier if authorized. The White House gave permission for the Army team to prepare their own launch, no longer restricted by political concerns that a supposedly peaceful endeavour would ride on a military weapon.

A Navy test launch, called Vanguard TV-3, exploded live on national television on December 6, 1957. The Soviets had launched a second Sputnik on November 3, 1957, with a dog aboard; the two Russian launches coupled with the Vanguard failure on live TV placed von Braun in the right place at the right time. On January 31, 1958, his team launched Explorer 1 from Launch Complex 26 at Cape Canaveral.

Von Braun became a national hero, if not national asset, and his Nazi past was overlooked by most people. He became so popular that he even appeared in this Walt Disney space documentary:

You probably know the history from there. NASA was formed in 1958, von Braun's team was transferred to this nascent civilian space agency, and they developed the rockets that took men to orbit and the Moon.

Along the way, von Braun made plenty of enemies. His popularity and charisma made some colleagues jealous. Other NASA space centers, Houston in particular, fought Huntsville for primacy and funding. Some couldn't forgive his Nazi past, even though he had no reasonable alternative.

So once Apollo placed men on the Moon, the stars no longer aligned for von Braun. Major layoffs began at Huntsville, as the government no longer had an interest in sustained human space flight. As I wrote last May 6, President Kennedy's goal was never a permanent human presence in space. It was to show the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union, by placing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.

Mission accomplished.

And with the mission over, the government no longer had an interest in spending a significant part of the federal budget on space exploration.

Von Braun eventually accepted a position at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC, but found himself in a dead-end job surrounded by political rivals. With his health failing, in July 1972 he accepted a job in the private sector. Von Braun died from cancer on June 16, 1977.

For decades, space enthusiasts have argued what can be done to spark again the national political will to resume a robust human space flight program.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from von Braun's life is that if you expect the government to fund human space flight for the sake of science, you're going to have a very long wait. The only leaps forward in space flight came due to military needs, offensive or defensive.

Moon missions serve no military purpose, nor is there any commercial venture that would profit now from lunar flights. That day will come, but it's not in our near future.

Given the lack of national political will, our only other option is to support commercial access to low Earth orbit.

What would von Braun think?

We can't speak for him. But his goal was always a permanent human presence in space, with eventual trips to the Moon and Mars. He took funding whereever he could find it. I suspect that, if he lived today, he'd realize the government won't be spending much on human space flight any more, but he'd see all the new and exciting ventures in commercial space for peaceful purposes and jump right on board.

My next book is Sputnik: The Shock of the Century by Paul Dickson. I'm about 100 pages in, and it's a hoot. Order the book now if you want to read along.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Senators in Denial

Early 20th Century Senate Chaplain Edward Everett Hale might recognize the follies of that chamber's members more than 100 years later.

After he was named Chaplain of the U.S. Senate in 1903, Edward Everett Hale was asked:

Do you pray for the senators, Dr. Hale?

His reply was:

No, I look at the senators and I pray for the country.

One hundred years later, I suspect Dr. Hale's opinion wouldn't change much if he could see what the Senate is doing to NASA and government-funded space.

Florida Today reports that although a NASA study concludes the heavy-lift rocket program directed by the Senate cannot be built within the timeframe specified or for the money allocated, key Senators think they know more about rocket development than the experts.

Click here to read the full report on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee web site. You'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read it.

The Senate committee inserted into the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 a requirement that the space agency develop a heavy-lift vehicle (HLV) capable of launching objects into cislunar space (i.e. the space between Earth the the Moon), and that it would be fully operational by December 31, 2016. Complicating matters was an edict in Section 304 that NASA:

... to the extent practicable utilize ... existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the Space Shuttle and Orion and Ares 1 projects, including ... Space Shuttle-derived components and Ares 1 components that use existing United States propulsion systems, including liquid fuel engines, external tank or tank-related capability, and solid rocket motor engines.

The legislation appeared to be a sop during an election year for space workers who vote in their districts, which typically include NASA space centers and/or contractors. It had nothing to do with allowing NASA engineers to start from scratch and design an HLV with 21st Century technology.

Section 309 of the Act required the NASA Administrator to submit a report within 90 days that would provide "an overall description of the reference vehicle design" along with "the plan for utilization of existing contracts, civil service and contract workforce" and "the schedule of design and development milestones and related schedules leading to the accomplishment of operational goals established by this Act."

That's the report delivered earlier this week by NASA to the Committee. But its conclusions included a refreshing whiff of honesty that the Senators didn't want to hear.

NASA recognizes it has a responsibility to be clear with the Congress and the American taxpayers about our true estimated costs and schedules for developing the [Space Launch System (SLS)] and [Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV)], and we intend to do so, to the best of our ability in this preliminary report, as well as in the follow-on report. To this end, NASA commits to obtaining independent (outside of the Agency) assessments of cost and schedule for SLS and MPCV design options as part of its decision process this Spring or Summer, and further to make these assessments public.

Currently, our SLS studies have shown that while cost is not a major discriminator among the design options studied, none of the design options studied thus far appeared to be affordable in our present fiscal conditions, based upon existing cost models, historical data, and traditional acquisition approaches ...

A feature of the Shuttle/Ares-derived reference vehicle is that it enables leveraging of current systems, current knowledge base, existing hardware and potentially current contracts, thereby providing schedule and early-year cost advantages. However, a 2016 first flight does not appear to be possible within projected FY 2011 and out year funding levels, although NASA is continuing to explore more innovative procurement and development approaches to determine whether it can come closer to this goal.

In short ... You haven't given us enough money to build it, and we can't do it within your timeframe.

Imagine if President Kennedy had told Congress on May 25, 1961:

This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth — but let's do it by the end of 1966 without an increase in the NASA budget. Oh, and let's use Mercury program contractors without regard for pricing or quality.

The senators didn't react well to the truth.

According to a joint statement on the Committee web site:

"We appreciate NASA’s report and look forward to the additional material that was required but not submitted. In the meantime, the production of a heavy-lift rocket and capsule is not optional. It’s the law. NASA must use its decades of space know-how and billions of dollars in previous investments to come up with a concept that works. We believe it can be done affordably and efficiently — and, it must be a priority."

Last April, I wrote an article on denialism, the ability of people to deny the logic of science despite the overwhelming evidence.

Constellation was cancelled because of these same problems. It was behind schedule, over budget, had been underfunded for years by the Bush administration and Congress, and "lacked a sound business case" to quote an August 2009 GAO report. But that didn't matter to the members of Congress who perpetuated the project, not because it was going to actually accomplish anything, but because it funded jobs in their districts.

The Obama administration delivered that harsh truth when it proposed the project's cancellation. Congress responded by simply proposing what appears to be Constellation 2.0 — an equally improbable program that only funds jobs but can't be completed on time or on budget, and lacks an actual mission or destination.

If presented with all this folly, I suspect Dr. Hale would reply, "I look at the senators and I pray for NASA."

UPDATE January 14, 2011Space Politics has posted a letter from Senators Bill Nelson and Kay Bailey Hutchison repeating their demand earlier this week that NASA build a heavy-lift vehicle despite the study showing it can't be done within the time frame their committee dictated for the money their committee allocated.

If the law directed NASA to start with an entirely new development without the use of existing contracts, technologies, and infrastructure, we can see where affordability may come into question, but this conclusion suggests a misunderstanding of the Congressional intent ...

By building on current capabilities and previous investments, and making effective use of NASA's existing workforce and contracts to focus on the immediate development of a heavy-lift rocket and crew vehicle, NASA can reach initial operating capability much more quickly than it can by conducting another vehicle study.

The latter paragraph is rather astonishing, because the Senators provide absolutely no proof that this assumption is true. In fact, history suggests the opposite. Constellation was based on these assumptions and failed miserably, as documented by the August 2009 GAO report and the October 2009 Augustine Committee report.

They are arguing that NASA use technology rooted in the 1970s which has proven to be cost-inefficient and unreliable. STS-133 has been grounded for months while NASA tries to understand why foam still fails on the external tank, more than 130 missions into the program. Do we really want to rely on that technology for the next-generation launch vehicle?!

The letter is just more evidence that the members on the House and Senate space subcommittees view NASA as pork for their districts, nothing more.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The ISS X Prize

Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize for his 1927 flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis.

In 1919, after the end of the first World War, New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig attended a dinner honoring flying ace Eddie Rickenbacher, who spoke of his hope that the United States and France would one day be linked by air. Inspired by this speech and his friendship with French military aviators, the hotelier conceived a contest that was dubbed the Orteig Prize.

The challenge — to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, or vice-versa, in a fixed-wing aircraft. The prize — $25,000.

Before Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize in 1927, others tried and failed. Some died. According to Wikipedia:

Although advancing public interest and aviation technology, the Prize occasioned expenses many times the value of the prize and cost six men their lives in three separate crashes. Another three men were injured in a fourth crash. During the spring and summer of 1927, 40 pilots would attempt various long-distance over-ocean flights, leading to 21 deaths. In August 1927 alone, the Orteig Prize-inspired $25,000 Dole Air Race to fly from San Francisco to Hawaii would cost ten lives before it was over.

The Orteig Prize was the inspiration for the X Prize Foundation, which according to its web site is "an educational nonprofit organization whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity thereby inspiring the formation of new industries, jobs and the revitalization of markets that are currently stuck." lists several prize challenges over the centuries designed to spur technological development.

In May 2004, the X Prize was renamed the Ansari X Prize after a multi-million dollar donation from the Ansari family. The first Ansari X Prize was awarded to Scaled Composites for the flight of SpaceShipOne. To quote from the X Prize web site:

To win the prize, famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen led the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice within two weeks.

Spaceflight was no longer the exclusive realm of government. With that single flight, and the winning of the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, a new industry was born.

That success led to the creation of more X Prize challenges. One is the Google Lunar X Prize, "a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth."

NASA nears the completion of the Internationl Space Station, fulfilling the promise of a space program dedicated to science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act lists the objectives of NASA. Nothing in the Act requires NASA to send humans into space, to explore other worlds, or to own its rockets. Much of NASA's intended purpose was scientific research, but that got lost in the Space Race of the Cold War, when President Kennedy redirected NASA into prioritizing a Moon mission not for scientific purposes but to show the world American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

To this day, we still hear politicians claim that NASA's purpose is national security and/or jobs, not scientific research.

Now that it's complete, it's time to show the world the International Space Station can fulfill its promise.

NASA's web site describes the scientific research on the ISS, but how many of us could name any experiment currently being conducted, or any results?

So let's have a series of X Prizes for ISS research.

The X Prize Foundation is an independent non-profit organization, but NASA has has created similar competitions before. One example is the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. According to the NASA web site:

NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program is investing financial and technical resources to stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective space transportation capabilities. The Program manages Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) partnership agreements with U.S. industry totaling $500M for commercial cargo transportation demonstrations and is investing $50M towards commercial crew development initiatives.

The recent success of SpaceX is one example of how these challenges can spur technological development with a modest investment of government funding.

Whether it's the X Prize Foundation or the federal government or a combination thereof, I'd like to see $1 billion set aside for five X ISS challenges ($200 million each). What would those challenges be? That can be debated, but here's my list:

(1) Research that significantly contributes to a cure for cancer.

(2) Research that leads to a significant advance in computer technology, e.g. increased processing time or data storage.

(3) Research that leads to a new propulsion sytem resulting in less travel time from Earth to Mars.

(4) Research that leads to a significant improvement in solar energy that lessens the cost of using that technology here on Earth.

(5) The first photo of either a new planet within our solar system, or a planet in orbit around a nearby solar system.

Because the ISS is owned by a consortium of spacefaring nations, obviously that group would have to approve use of the ISS for such purposes. But we're already talking about using private launchers such as SpaceX to send private researchers to ISS or the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space station. If the ISS doesn't want to participate, then do it with Bigelow.

The Obama administration has proposed extending the ISS lifespan to at least 2018, and possibly to 2028. An ISS X Prize might inspire the world to use this facility in a way the world was inspired by the Apollo program in the 1960s — or by Charles Lindbergh in 1927.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Shot in Tucson

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. Photo source:

Tucson congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot today in Tucson. She is the wife of astronaut Mark Kelly, the commander for the STS-134 flight scheduled for April 1, 2011.

Giffords was a member of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics during the last two-year session of Congress.

The White House has released a statement by President Obama:

This morning, in an unspeakable tragedy, a number of Americans were shot in Tucson, Arizona, at a constituent meeting with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. And while we are continuing to receive information, we know that some have passed away, and that Representative Giffords is gravely wounded.

We do not yet have all the answers. What we do know is that such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society. I ask all Americans to join me and Michelle in keeping Representative Giffords, the victims of this tragedy, and their families in our prayers.

Tucson TV station KVOA reports that "13 other people were shot, and at least 6 are dead after a man opened fire at a 'Congress on your Corner' event, hosted by Giffords, at the shopping center near Oracle and Ina Rd.'

The suspected shooter is in custody.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Richard Branson, C'Mon Down ...

New Mexico's then-Governor Bill Richardson (left) with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson as VSS Enterprise soars overhead at the opening of the Spaceport America runway on October 27, 2010. Photo source:

Space Politics reports that some folks in New Mexico are concerned the Spaceport America project may “slow down or fall apart pretty quickly” under new governor Susana Martinez.

During the 2010 gubernatorial election campaign, Martinez was less than enthusiastic about the project. Here's the comment she gave to

The spaceport has an impressive potential to bring development opportunities to southern New Mexico, with high-tech, good-paying jobs leading the way. We might also anticipate benefits to our educational system as the workforce required to support this industry will be highly educated and highly trained.

The state has already contributed a substantial initial investment to the project – more than half of the project construction costs to date. Given our budget realities, additional large investments would be a misguided use of our taxpayer funds. In addition, higher local taxes have been implemented on surrounding counties to help fund the construction of the project. Along with our tax increases levied by the state government, we are placing an undue burden on local residents during these very difficult economic times.

State government can continue to be a partner in the spaceport project, although no longer its major financier. We must attract more industry and private business to the spaceport facility to assist with future development costs. We need to look at further expanding the scope of the spaceport beyond personal space flights at a cost of $200,000 per flight and attract other private industries willing to venture as a partner in this endeavor.

As with all major state investments, as governor, I would order a review of spaceport financing and operations to make sure we are seeing the most equitable return on taxpayer dollars and look to continue to be a partner in the project by drawing more private industry and economic development opportunities to the area to support ongoing efforts. reports that project executive director Rick Homans was forced to resign in a general purge by Republican Martinez of political appointees by her predecessor, Democrat Bill Richardson. He fears the project could "slow down or fall apart pretty quickly" without support from the Martinez administration.

Hopefully local leaders here in Brevard County are monitoring the situation.

Without knowing the technical needs of Virgin Galactic, it seems to me that the Space Coast can offer all but a turnkey operation to Branson should New Mexico withdraw from the project.

Virgin Galactic joined with Orbital Sciences and Sierra Nevada Corp. last December to bid for space taxi services to the International Space Station. It's unclear where they would launch.

According to, Spaceport America aggressively courted Virgin Galactic after Virgin's SpaceShipOne captured the Ansari X Prize in October 2004. The blog explains why Virgin didn't come to the Space Coast:

According to [New Mexico Spaceport Authority Technical Director Bill] Gutman, as soon as SpaceShipOne -- the original model of the spaceplane now used by Virgin Galactic -- was awarded the prize, the spaceport started pursuing a partnership. [Spaceport America co-founder Bernie] McCune was among those tasked with making a presentation to woo Virgin Galactic into choosing New Mexico as its future launch site.

Spaceport America administration set out to determine what Virgin Galactic was looking for and then put together a report based on that, McCune said. "Later we were told that nobody -- meaning Florida or California -- talked to them about airspace control or winds in the upper atmosphere," McCune said. "It was a marketing thing for California and Florida; we treated it as a technical challenge."

The spaceport's founders said taking commercial spaceflight seriously allowed them to attract the kind of successful private industry partners -- such as Virgin Galactic and other companies who are already launching rockets -- that other spaceport projects couldn't. This early lead could place Spaceport America in an ideal spot to take advantage of a transitional period for human spaceflight.

The Space Coast hadn't taken seriously commercial space tourism at that point. The local aerospace industry was still geared towards government-funded human space flight. The Space Shuttle was still flying to build the ISS and Constellation was promised as Shuttle's replacement.

Six years later, Shuttle struggles to fly its final missions while Constellation was cancelled as a failed boondoggle. SpaceX has shown the private sector can launch and orbit a crew vehicle, and other vendors such as the Orbital/Sierra Nevada/Virgin Galactic group are looking to join the game.

If New Mexico wants to walk away from Spaceport America, hopefully America's original spaceport attracts Virgin Galactic to where astronauts have flown for fifty years — Cape Canaveral.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fifty Years Ago

This was engraved in a concrete walkway at Launch Complex 34. All 2011 photos courtesy Carol Smith.

My wife Carol and I went exploring Monday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Among our stops was Launch Complex 34, infamous for the death of three astronauts in the January 27, 1967 Apollo 1 fire.

This map will give you an idea of the general layout of the complex:

We parked in the lot near the launch pad. As we walked up, my wife found scrawled into the concrete the date 1-4-61.

“That's tomorrow,” she commented. Then I realized, That's fifty years ago.

By sheer serendipidity, we'd found some cement layer's handiwork one day short of the fifty-year mark.

Six years passed from that incident to the Apollo 1 fire, so I was curious what had happened in those intervening years.

According to Wikipedia, LC-34 construction began in 1960. The complex was dedicated on June 5, 1961. Its first launch, a Saturn 1 test, was on October 27, 1961. The Saturn class vehicle would one day send astronauts to the Moon.

The next manned launch after the Apollo 1 tragedy was Apollo 7 on October 11, 1968. It was the last crewed launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Apollo 8 and subsequent crewed launches were from Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center.

That record should be broken later this decade, when SpaceX or United Launch Alliance or another commercial vendor launches a crewed vehicle to the International Space Station from somewhere at CCAFS.

A more thorough exploration of LC-34 awaits another day. But here are a couple photos from Monday's visit.

The concrete launch platform is all that remains of the original structure. The photo is taken from the perspective of where the “1-4-61” was scrawled fifty years ago.

Looking up through the launch platform ring.

A Saturn vehicle on LC-34. The photo on is dated August 25, 1966.

The Apollo 1 crew on January 17, 1967. Left to right: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The “1-4-61” would be on the walkway behind Grissom's right shoulder.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Vanguard Revisited (Part II)

Vanguard I on the pad at Launch Complex 18 sometime in 1958.

The roar of the ocean surf is easily heard these days at Launch Complex 18. The dual-pad facility was deactivated in 1967. It's a storage facility and dumping ground.

LC-18 was originally built for the Air Force to test the Thor, an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Thor was to use the adjacent LC-17 and LC-18 facilities, but LC-18 wouldn't be needed for years.

Looking for a Cape Canaveral home, Project Vanguard agreed to share LC-18 with Thor. Vanguard was a nominally civilian research program that would launch America's first satellite in space as part of the International Geophysical Year.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in October 1957 and Sputnik II in November 1957, Vanguard was viewed by many as our nation's response, which it was never intended to be. The third Vanguard test vehicle exploded live on national television on December 6, 1957. "Vanguard" became synonymous with failure.

So it's perhaps symbolic that today LC-18 is used to store portable toilets, among other debris.

On December 31, 2010, I went to LC-18 to explore what remains of this historic launch complex. Below are photos of what I found.

This map shows the location of LC-18 and nearby facilities. LC-17 is adjacent to the southwest. Beyond that is LC-26, the home of the Air Force Space & Missile Museum. To the northeast is LC-31, where the remains of the Shuttle orbiter Challenger are buried.

Looking southwest past the blockhouse to the LC-17 gantries.

The front door of the abandoned blockhouse.

The rear of the abandoned blockhouse looks towards Pad 18-A. Note the cableway running towards the pad.

The horizon window has long been obscured by Nature.

Behind the blockhouse, looking southwest towards the LC-17 gantries. The rails in the foreground were used to move the service tower gantry. Discarded light poles lie between the rails.

The approach to Pad 18-B. Note the partially exposed cableway.

Inside the Pad 18-B cableway. The blockhouse was close to the pads due to the limitations of 1950s electronic communication technology.

Looking towards Pad 18-A, where the Vanguard rockets were launched. Note the rails.

Contrast the previous photo with this image of a 1958 static test firing.

A closeup of the launch pad. Note the scorch marks. Beyond the pad is the deluge pond where water ran off.

Pad 18-A from the perspective of the horizon window. Note the cableway.

Pad 18-A as seen from the front of the blockhouse.

Portable toilets are stored next to the LC-18 parking lot.

PREVIOUSLY: How history maligned Project Vanguard.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Vanguard Revisited (Part I)

Vanguard TV-3 explodes shortly after launch, December 6, 1957. Photo source: NASA Images.

Pundits called it "flopnik," "kaputnik" and "sputternik." Time magazine suggested it be renamed Project Rearguard. Conventional wisdom regards it as one of the great national embarrassments of the 20th Century.

But does Project Vanguard deserve such derision?

A 2009 book titled Project Vanguard: The NASA History concluded that it was “a landmark on the unending road to new scientific knowledge.”

Paul Dickson is the author of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. He wrote in the introduction to the Vanguard book, “Historic inaccuracy often prevails over the subtleties of what really happened and the blurred conventional wisdom today sees Vanguard as metaphoric of failure.”

The book was originally published in 1970 by the Smithsonian with the title, Vanguard: A History. The 2009 edition added Dickson's introduction and made slight corrections to the original text. The authors were Constance McLaughlin Green, a 1963 Pulitzer Prize winner in history, and Milton Lomask, who had written about the Guggenheim Foundation's subsidizing the pioneering research of Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry.

They make a persuasive argument that Vanguard was smeared by the political hysteria of the era. Vanguard was never intended to be the front line of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But if one looks at the history of the entire program and not just one launch, Vanguard's successes were a remarkable achievement for its time.

It all began with the International Geophysical Year. In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed international scientific cooperation to study the Earth during an 18-month period from July 1957 through December 1958 that would coincide with a period of maximum solar activity.

The United States said it would particpate. So did the Soviet Union. To quote from the book:

While the American scientists in September 1954 did not discount the possible Russian challenge, some of them insisted that a satellite experiment must not assume such emphasis as to cripple or halt upper atmosphere research by means of sounding rockets.

The politics of the project were long and complicated; it's best to read the book for the details. In summary, the main issues were what experiment to perform, how much would it cost, who would pay for it, and who would have ultimate authority over the project.

Keep in mind that in the middle 1950s there was no civilian space program in the United States. Rocket development was the purview of the military. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists were working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. The Naval Research Laboratory was doing the same for that military branch. The Air Force also was performing rocket research.

This posed a problem for both the civilian scientists designing the American project, and for the Eisenhower administration. How could the United States perform a peaceful scientific experiment in space using a military rocket intended as an intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missile? But there was no escaping the fact that only the military had the capability of reaching space.

Proposals were solicited from the three military branches. It was decided to use the Navy's Viking program as the launch vehicle. Viking was a sounding rocket used for atmospheric research. On October 5, 1954, an NRL Viking rocket took the first picture of a hurricane and a tropical storm from an altitude of 100 miles.

Von Braun and the ABMA presented their own proposal, using a Jupiter rocket descended from the V-2 missiles brought over from Germany after World War II. These rockets were considered to be more powerful and were already established as a technology. So why wasn't the ABMA proposal chosen? "Conventional wisdom" has suggested many reasons. One was its link to von Braun and its Nazi heritage. Another was that the Jupiter was a military weapon, while Viking was a research rocket. The book suggests that it boiled down to the NRL making a much more impressive and detailed presentation, although most certainly there were many other competing factors, such as interagency rivalries and various political interests vying for control of the project.

One directive was clear — the Vanguard project was not to interfere with higher priority military research and development programs.

The 1957 newsreel reporting the failure of the Vanguard TV-3.

Vanguard's evolution suffered from the same problems that affect many nascent government cutting-edge technology projects to this day. Government officials and project scientists clashed with the private sector contractor, Glenn L. Martin. The factions fought for dominance. The rocket design had to be capable of lifting the payload's weight, but just what was the payload? That decision would come from the scientists. And the military at the Air Force Missile Testing Center in Cape Canaveral made it clear that Vanguard could not delay or interfere with other programs.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, went about developing their IGY program. It wasn't exactly a secret. They didn't talk about it much either. But they did talk about it.

The authors wrote:

When the impending start of the IGY brought a number of internationally known scientists to the National Academy in June 1957, the presence of several eminent Russian astronomers and geophysicists added greatly to the interest of the occasion. Contrary to later popular hearsay in the United States, the Soviets talked of their plans, and I.P. Bardin turned over to Lloyd Berkner a document entitled “U.S.S.R. Rocket and Earth-Satellite Program for the IGY.”

The authors concluded that American scientists and the military simply didn't take the Soviets all that seriously. Apparently that was a fear of the Soviets too. Sputnik I was designed to prove it was really up there more than any other reason, by emitting its infamous "beep-beep" sound. The frequency had circulated among amateur radio operators around the world; although the date was not known in advance, once the Soviets announced Sputnik had launched those with the frequency were able to quickly confirm its presence in orbit.

Sputnik posed no military threat, but it wasn't spun that way by the American media, especially after the USSR launched Sputnik II with a dog aboard. Time magazine ran an article in its November 11, 1957 issue titled, THE NATION: A Time of Danger. It concluded:

The U.S. needs to reawaken to the whole sense of the struggle. Specifically, it needs to re-gear and speed its missile program, and to reshape its alliances with a far greater sense of urgency than Washington has thus far displayed.

The Vanguard project people were puzzled. What's the big deal? The goal was defined as the launch of a scientific research payload into orbit by the end of December 1958. Vanguard was not a military weapon. The United States military had plenty of ballistic missiles capable of attacking the Soviet Union, and had nuclear superiority.

Whether or not the hysteria was justified, the nation's eyes turned to Cape Canaveral and focused on the next Vanguard launch test. It was titled TV-3, short for "Test Vehicle #3," and that's exactly what it was intended to be — a test. (The actual missions would be labelled SLC-1 through SLC-6, for "satellite-launching vehicle.") But the media spun it as if this launch was America's response to Sputnik, which it was never intended to be. The Vanguard project had fourteen total launches planned, including the tests before the real thing.

TV-3 launched live on national television, from Launch Complex 18 at 11:44 AM Eastern time on December 6, 1957. It rose four feet, then two seconds after liftoff it lost thrust and fell back onto its launch stand. The fuel tanks ruptured and exploded.

The satellite payload miraculously survived. It was found in the nearby brush, too damaged to launch again but still intact.

The damaged TV-3 satellite is now in the hands of the Smithsonian.

The December 16, 1957 Time magazine issue reported:

News of the failure of TV3 was flashed out around the nation and the world. Impact: shock, scorn, derision. Almost instantly the U.S.'s tiny, grounded satellite got rechristened stallnik, flopnik, dudnik, puffnik, phutnik, oopsnik, goofnik, kaputnik and—closer to the Soviet original—sputternik. At the U.N., Soviet diplomats laughingly suggested that the U.S. ought to try for Soviet technical assistance to backward nations. An office worker in Washington burst into tears; a calypso singer on the BBC in London strummed a ditty about Oh, from America comes the significant thought/Their own little Sputnik won't go off. Said a university professor in Pittsburgh: "It's our worst humiliation since Custer's last stand." Said Dr. John P. Hagen, director of Project Vanguard, as he got ready to face a doleful press conference in Washington: "Nuts."

But the article correctly noted:

... Vanguard's Boss, Dr. Hagen, handed out some afterthoughts. "This program," he said, "has had unprecedented publicity in the development stage, which is not usually the case, and in many respects I think it is unfortunate. In this case, I think the enthusiasm of the country carried people beyond the point where the fact that this is a test phase was lost sight of."

He was right: somewhere between accurate reporting and scientific enthusiasm the U.S. and the world lost sight of the fact that the complete Martin rocket had never before been test-fired, and first firings of test missiles are remarkably uncertain affairs.

That opened the door for ABMA and von Braun to make history.

After Sputnik I, the Army was authorized to go ahead with their proposal as a backup should Vanguard fail. On January 31, 1958 from nearby Launch Complex 26, ABMA launched a modified Jupiter-C rocket with Explorer I aboard.

That's usually where the story ends.

But if the story-telling continues, Vanguard went on to achieve several space-pioneering landmarks.

Vanguard I launched on March 17, 1958. To quote from the NRL web site:

Vanguard I achieved the highest altitude of any man-made vehicle to that time and established beyond doubt geologists' suspicions that Earth is pear shaped. It carried two radios and a temperature sensor and was the first orbiting vehicle to be powered by solar energy. Photovoltaic silicon solar cells provided the electrical power to the 6.4-inch, 3.5-pound satellite until its experiments and transmitter fell silent in 1964. Vanguard I orbits Earth today as the oldest man-made satellite and will remain in orbit well into the 22nd century.

Vanguard II also remains in orbit. Intended to map the Earth's cloud cover, it developed a large precession causing it to move erratically.

Vanguard also pioneered the use of miniaturized circuits and solar cells. The Air Force bought the rocket's second- and third-stage designs for use in Thor-Able, an early ancestor of today's Delta rockets.

The authors concluded:

All in all, the record is clear. Project Vanguard justified the faith of its supporters not only by putting instrumented satellites into orbit during the IGY but by developing a vehicle with "growth potential," and, in the process, by advancing the art at a cost in money that, in 1961, looked incredibly small to experts.

NEXT: A photographic visit to the remains of Launch Complex 18.