NASA Turns 60

The official logo for NASA turning 60.

As of today, the 1st of October 2018, NASA has turned 60. It was created as a new agency based on its precursor NACA, started in 1915. The cold war between the USA and the Soviet Union created a space race the late 1950’s. From 1946, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was experimenting with rocket planes. One of the famous ones was the Bell X-1 that took Chuck Yeager past the speed of sound (and was the first to do so). They were also the team behind the running of the X-15 rocket plane that Neil Armstrong famously flew. In the early 1950’s there was a call to look into launching artificial satellites towards the end of the decade, mainly driven by the International Geophysical Year which was 1957/58.

The x-15 rocket plane, currently the fastest plane ever, it reached mach 7, and was developed by NACA. Credit: NASA.

An effort towards this by the USA started with Project Vanguard, led by the 
United States Naval Research Laboratory, which ended in catastrophic failure. This was the perceived state of the US side of the space race at the time. On October 4th, 1957 Sputnik 1 launched and instantly grabbed the attention of the United States public. The perceived threat to national security was known as the Sputnik crisis, and US congress urged immediate action. President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his advisers worked on immediate measures to catch up. It eventually led to an agreement to create a new federal agency based on the activity of NACA. The agency would conduct all non-military activity in space. The Advanced Research Projects Agency was also created to develop space technology for the military applications.

The failed Project Vanguard by the Naval Research Laboratory, it was meant to be the first US satellite in space but ended in disaster.

Between 1957 and 1958 NACA began studying what a new non-military space agency would be, and what it would do. On January 12th, 1958 NACA convened a “special committee on space technology” headed by Guyford Stever (director of the national science foundation). The committee had consultation from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency headed by the famous Werner Von Braun, the soon to be architect of the Saturn V. On January 14th 1958, the NACA director Hugh Dryden published “A National Research Program for Space Technology” that stated:

It is of great urgency and importance to our country both from consideration of our prestige as a nation as well as military necessity that this challenge [Sputnik] be met by an energetic program of research and development for the conquest of space… It is accordingly proposed that the scientific research be the responsibility of a national civilian agency… NACA is capable, by rapid extension and expansion of its effort, of providing leadership in space technology

On January 31st 1958, Explorer 1 was launched. Officially names Satellite 1958 Alpha, it was the first satellite of the United States. Talked about in a recent post, the payload consisted of the Iowa Cosmic Ray Instrument without a tape recorder (there was not enough time to install it). A big turning point in the US side of the space race, it gave civilian space activities a chance in the spotlight to allow for more funding.

The logo for Explorer 1, the first US satellite in space. It was the first satellite to pick up the Van Allen belts. Credit: NASA/JPL.

In April 1958, Eisenhower delivered to the U.S. Congress an address to support the formation of a civilian space agency. He then submitted a bill to create the “National Aeronautical and Space Agency”. Somewhat reworked the bill was passed as the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 16th. Two days later Von Braun’s Working group submitted a report criticizing the duplication of efforts between departments on space related programs in the US government. On July 29th the bill was signed by Eisenhower and NASA was formed. It began operations on October 1st 1958. NASA absorbed NACA in its entirety, including its 8,000 employees, annual budget of $100 million, and the research labs under its jurisdiction. The three main labs were Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. It also inherited two small test facilities. Elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency were transferred to NASA, including Werner Von Brauns Working Group. Elements of the Naval Research Laboratory that failed to launch project Vanguard were also transferred to NASA. In December of that year NASA gained control Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It is important to remember that NASA was based upon the success of the rocket scientist Rober Goddard, who inspired Werner Von Braun and other German Rocket scientists brought over by project paperclip. There was also huge influences from the research conducted by ARPA and US Air Force research programs.

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space or electronics, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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Explorer 1 and the Van Allen Story

On February 1st, 1958 at 03:48 UTC (January 31st at 22:48 EST), the first Juno booster launched Explorer 1 into Low Earth Orbit. It was the first satellite to be successfully launched by the United States, and the third ever, after Sputnik 1 and 2 in 1957. Launched from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s (ABMA) Cape Canaveral Missile Annex in Florida, now known as Launch Complex 26. The launch played a pivotal part in the discovery of the Van Allen Belt, Explorer 1 was the start of the Explorer series, a set of over 80 scientific satellites. Although sometimes looked over in the history of space, it guided the US space program to what it eventually became.

William Hayward Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun display a full-scale model of Explorer 1 at a crowded news conference in Washington, DC after confirmation the satellite was in orbit.

In 1954 The US Navy and US Army had a joint project known as Project Orbiter, aiming to get a satellite into orbit during 1957. It was going to be launched on a Redstone missile, but the Eisenhower administration rejected the idea in 1955 in favour of the Navy’s project Vanguard. Vanguard was an attempt to use a more civilian styled booster, rather than repurposed missiles. It failed fairly spectacularly in 1957 when the Vanguard TV3 exploded on the launchpad on live TV, less than a month after the launch of Sputnik 2. This deepened American public dismay at the space race. Leading to the army getting a shot at being the first american object in space.

The launch
Launch of Jupiter-C/Explorer 1 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 31, 1958.

In somewhat of a mad dash to get Explorer 1 ready, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had been creating reentry vehicles for ballistic missiles, but kept up hope of getting something into orbit. At the same time Physicist James Van Allen of Iowa State University, was making the primary scientific instrument payload for the mission. As well this, JPL director William H. Pickering was providing the satellite itself. Along with Wernher Von Braun, who had the skills to create the launch system. After the Vanguard failure, the JPL-ABMA group was given permission to use a Jupiter-C reentry test vehicle (renamed Juno) and adapt it to launch the satellite. The Jupiter IRBM reentry nose cone had already been flight tested, speeding up the process. It took the team a total of 84 days to modify the rocket and build Explorer 1.

Preparing the explorer 1
Explorer 1 is mated to its booster at LC-26

The satellite itself, designed and built by graduate students at California Institute of Technology’s JPL under the direction of William H. Pickering was the second satellite to carry a mission payload (Sputnik 2 being the first). Shaped much like a rocket itself, it only weighed 13.37kg (30.8lb) of which 8.3kg (18.3lb) was the instrumentation. The instrumentation sat at the front of the satellite, with the rear being a small rocket motor acting as the fourth stage, this section didn’t detach. The data was transmitted to the ground by two antennas of differing types. A 60 milliwatt transmitter fed dipole antenna with two fiberglass slot antennas in the body of the satellite, operating at 108.3MHz, and four flexible whips acting as a turnstile antenna, fed by a 10 milliwatt transmitter operating at 108.00MHz.

Explorer 1 parts
A diagram showing some of the main parts of the Explorer 1 satellite

As there was a limited time frame, with limited space available, and a requirement for low weight, the instrumentation was designed to be simple, and highly reliable. An Iowa Cosmic Ray instrument was used. It used germanium and silicon transistors in the electronics. 29 transistors were used in the Explorer 1 payload instrumentation, with others being used in the Army’s micrometeorite amplifier.  The power was provided by mercury chemical batteries, what weighed roughly 40% of the total payload weight. The outside of the instrumentation section was sandblasted stainless steel  with white and black stripes. There were many potential colour schemes, which is why there are articles models and photographs showing different configurations. The final scheme was decided by studies of shadow-sunlight intervals based on firing time, trajectory, orbit and inclination. The stripes are often also seen on many of the early Wernher Von Braun Rockets.

NASM flight spare
The flight ready spare of the Explorer 1, now shown at the National Air and Space Museum.

The instrument was meant to have a tape recorder on board, but was not modeled in time to be put onto the spacecraft. This meant that all the data received was real-time and from the on board antennas. Plus as there were no downrange tracking stations, they could only pick up signals while the satellite was over them. This meant that they could not get a recording from the entire earth. It also meant that when the rocket went up, and dipped over the horizon, they had no idea whether it got into orbit. Half an hour after the launch Albert Hibbs, Explorers System designer from JPL, who was responsible for orbit calculations walked into the room and declared there was a 95% chance the satellite was in orbit. In response, the Major snapped: “Don’t give me any of this probability crap, Hibbs. Is the thing up there or not?”.

Explorer 1 Mission Badge
The official JPL mission pac=tch for the Explorer 1 mission.

The instrument was the baby of one of Van Allens graduate students, George Ludwig. When he heard the payload was going into the Explorer 1 (and not the Vanguard) he packed up his family and set off for JPL to work with the engineers there. He has a good oral history section on this link, talking about designing some of the first electronics in space. He was there watching the rocket launch and waiting for results. From the Navy’s Vanguard Microlock receiving station they watched the telemetry that reported the health of the cosmic-ray package. The first 300 seconds were very hopeful, with a quick rise in counting rates followed by a drop to a constant 10-20  counts per second, as expected. The calculations told them when they should hear from the satellite again, but 12 minutes after the expected time, nothing showed up but eventually, after pure silence, Explorer 1 finally reported home.

The Van Allen Belt
This diagram showcases the Van Allen belts, which were first detected by instruments aboard Explorer 1 and Explorer 3. The Van Allen belts were the first major scientific discovery of the space age.

Once in orbit, Explorer 1 transmitted data for 105 days. The satellite was reported to be successful in its first month of operation. From the scientist point of view, the lack of data meant the results were difficult to conclude. The data was also different to the expectations, it was recording less meteoric dust than expected and varying amounts of cosmic radiation, and sometimes silent above 600 miles. This was figured out on Explorer 3 when they realised the counters were being saturated by too much radiation. Leading to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belt. Although they described the belt as “death lurking 70 miles up” it actually deflects high energy particles away from earth, meaning life can be sustained on earth. The satellite batteries powered the high-powered transmitter for 31 days, and after 105 days it sent it’s last transmission on May 23rd 1958. It still remained in orbit for 12 years, reentering the atmosphere over the pacific ocean on March 31st after 58,000 orbits.