Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Fistful of Redstones

Fifty-one years ago today, on October 27th, 1961, the largest flying machine ever built by Wernher von Braun's rocket scientists to date smashed into a million pieces two hundred and fourteen miles southeast of Cape Canaveral. This event marked a veritable victory lap for von Braun's team, and also signaled the end of a technological battle between two branches of the United States military.

Don't you love stories that start out this way? I know I do. Let's back up a bit and go over the details.

Military Missiles

After the end of World War II, the three major branches of the military were crazy for establishing missile superiority - - not with other countries, but between the other branches of the US military. The Army led the development race, building Inter-Regional Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) such as the Redstone and Corporal rockets under the guidance of von Braun's Peenemuende team. The Air Force, denied the benefits of Operation Paperclip, built their own Goddard-derived rockets in the Atlas and Titan series. The Navy, having no budget for a big missile development program, concentrated on their tiny Vanguard missile program.
Picking the next generation of missiles was a matter of using what worked already.
 The success of von Braun's Jupiter rocket after the failure of the Vanguard rocket as a response to the launch of Sputnik put the Army's Redstone / von Braun team in the prime position to build future heavy-lift launch vehicles. The main restraint was that there was still a branch limitation on long-distance rocketry. The Army could still build interregional rockets, but the Air Force's Ballistic Missile Division was the only organization allowed to negotiate for boosters capable of intercontinental or orbital reach. Even after the Redstone group was assigned to the civilian NASA organization, the Air Force restrictions stood in place.

Wernher von Braun's team knew that the next generation of heavy lift vehicles would require multiple stages - - but the upper stages would have to be designed with the mandates of the Air Force in mind. Since upper stages would probably need to be designed around the Air Force's Titan booster, the next generation of the Army's first stage would need to be able to accommodate the Titan's 120-inch wide frame.

What von Braun's team didn't know was that the Air Force was working on a secretly-designed second stage named Centaur. Centaur would be fueled with liquid hydrogen (LH2), the most efficient fuel known to rocket scientists. The problem with LH2 is that although it's efficient, it's not very dense, so the requirements for fuel tank sizes would be significantly larger than the original planned Titan upper stages. In order to accommodate the Centaur upper stage, the von Braun team's new first stage would need to support a 160" diameter frame.

The USAF Centaur was also supposed to power the X-20 Dyna-Soar space glider.
The Huntsville team managed to rework the design of their heavy lift booster to meet the new requirement by wrapping eight Redstone tanks around a central Jupiter tank assembly. The new vehicle, first named Juno V and then Saturn I, would launch with eight Rocketdyne H-1 engines capable of delivering a total thrust of 1.5 million pounds of force. The eight Redstone tanks, plus the Jupiter core were known technologies, so redesigns of new tanks and feed mechanisms weren't necessary. The slight weight disadvantage of multiple tanks had a tremendous offset in multi-year development costs that were avoided.
Wrap a Jupiter rocket with eight Redstones? That's a Saturn I.

 Barging In

 The Huntsville rocket scientist slapped together a Saturn I booster in no time, and ready for launch in early 1961. A static test at the Redstone Arsenal broke windows eight miles away from the test stand. The booster was too large to be transported by rail, so the Saturn would travel by barge to Cape Canaveral. In a pre-GPS world, the barge ran into some literal snags, as nautical maps were not accurate enough to note sand bars and shallows along the Gulf Coast route. After un-beaching the barge on several occasions, the Saturn I arrived at Pad 34 in August of 1961.
Heading for Cape Canaveral aboard the barge Compromise. Managed to beach itself four times.

One downside of the Huntsville crew's speed in construction was that the Air Force's upper stage (now called the S-IV) was nowhere near launch-ready in its development process. NASA decided to build a dummy upper stage, filling the large empty tank with water ballast equal to the proposed weight of the S-IV.
A working S-IV upper stage wouldn't be available for launch until 1964.
 On the morning of October 26th, 1961, the launch operations crew filled the nine tank assemblies with RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen. The only delay in the entire process was a brief hold for clouds and winds that would affect photography. After a one-hour delay, all holds were cleared, and the folks in the blockhouse ignited the eight solid propellent gas generator (SPGG) motors, that fired the liquid fuel pumps and started the H-1 engines. Saturn SA-1 lifted off the Pad 34 "milk stool" and headed out over the Atlantic, reaching an altitude of 84.6 miles only four minutes and nine seconds later. The water ballast accelerated to 3,611 mph before falling back to the ocean in an arc that stretched two hundred miles from Cape Canaveral.
We have liftoff, 27 October 1961, 12:30pm ET

Except for an early engine cutoff due to an underfilling of the tanks, the flight was flawless. The von Braun team displayed a mastery of heavy lift launch systems that would not be superseded by the Air Force ballistic missile group in building the way to the Moon landings.
After the success of SA-1, Saturn was the only way to the Moon for JFK.
 Pad 34 would become the initial platform for Apollo-Saturn development flights, and would provide key data for the follow-on Saturn V Moon ships. And all that work began fifty-one years ago today.
You can visit Pad 34 today on the Kennedy Space Center tour. The milk stool still stands.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Worth a thousand words

It's October 24th, so let's celebrate another space history anniversary.

War as a technology driver is an axiom, and no war seemed to drive technology as much as World War II. The atom was split to defeat Japan, radar technology was mastered to intercept German bombers over Britain, and a host of medical treatments, from antibiotics to skin grafts, were developed to save the lives of soldiers, sailors, and civilians.

Rockets, of course, also made a technological resurgence during World War II. Their absence  from the battlefield (apart from their cousins, the mortars) was due to their ineffectiveness in the War of 1812. Except for being excellent terror weapons (so much so, we turned a song about rockets into our national anthem), rockets did little damage to targets on the ground.

Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket scientists changed all that. Following in the developmental footsteps of American scientist Robert Goddard, von Braun's team created a continuously-improved collection of liquid-fueled missiles in the mid-1930s called the Aggregat series. Aggregat-1 was a 4-foot-tall rocket with a gyroscope in the nose, and incorporated Goddard's turbo-pump ideas to move fuel into the engine. The second group of Aggregat rockets were fully operational and flew in test launches to altitudes over a mile high. The A3 series, although never successfully launched, incorporated both a stabilizing gyroscope, plus two additional "steering" gyroscopes that manipulated thrust vanes placed in the path of the rocket exhaust.

Dr. von Braun, at right, explaining rocketry to his customer base.
"Nazi, Shmatzi," says Wernher von Braun.
Then came the A4, or as the Nazis named it, Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengence Weapon 2), or V-2. The V-2 was huge - over 45 feet tall, and capable of carrying a 500-lb. payload 55 miles into the sky, and then hit a target 200 miles away at more than four and a half times the speed of sound. It wasn't very accurate, but the speed and the magnitude of the destruction where it landed was a significant advancement in rocket warfare. By the time World War II ended, three thousand V-2s had killed over seven thousand military and civilians on the ground.

After the war, the United States military snapped up von Braun's rocketeers in Operation Paperclip, shuffling the German rocket scientists off to the desert of White Sands, New Mexico. Here, in what the license plates call the Land of Enchantment, von Braun's scientists were given access to the captured equipment from their V-2 days, and instructed to build follow-on missiles with extended range and payload-carrying abilities.
I thought the V2s were all black-and-white, but many were in yellow jacket color schemes.

Among the captured V-2 equipment were entire, unfired V-2 rockets. The Germans tinkered with the war machines, recalibrating the gyroscopes and aligning the rocket vanes to carry the payloads to higher altitudes.

On October 24th, 1946, the thirteenth post-war V-2 was launched in a near vertical configuration. Inside the nose of the rocket, a 35mm motion picture camera was bolted next to an inspection porthole and aimed perpendicular to the direction of travel. A steel ball bearing in a tube leaned against a lever that sat atop the camera's shutter release. When the engine thrust ceased after 45 seconds, the ball bearing (and everything else in the ship) would experience zero gravity, and would no longer be pressing down on the lever. The shutter clicked at an altitude of 65 miles, and this is the first image created by that action:
High over New Mexico

The camera took another picture every 1.5 seconds for the rest of the trip, as the V-2 coasted up to an altitude of 107.5 miles before falling back to Earth. The ship pranged into the desert floor a few minutes later, destroying the rocket and the camera, but leaving the sturdy frame of the film cassette unscathed.

Before the launch, the most distant photos of Earth were taken from balloons at an altitude of 13 miles. This mission moved that record to an altitude five times the previous height. This photo, showing the curvature of the Earth, and taken from the edge of space, can easily be considered the first photograph of the Space Age.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Airship America

I have to tell two related stories about October the 15th. We're at a flight anniversary that gets neglected because its end was a failure, but the adventure was an amazing feat of daring. The anniversary also falls on a similar achievement in flight that's overshadowed by advances in aeronautics a century later.

Middle school history books promote the idea that the Age of Flight began with the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but people had been flying long before then. Another set of brothers, the Montgolfiers, worked on conquering flight more than a century before the Wrights.

Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier were the sons of a paper manufacturer in south central France. Joseph, a scruffy-looking guy who had an inventive streak, tried to come up with a workable method of attacking Gibraltar -- a British fortress said to be impenetrable. Joseph had the idea that perhaps soldiers could somehow be airlifted by the same force that drove burning embers up a chimney. He explained his idea to his business-minded brother Jacques-Étienne, and built a small paper model balloon that would capture hot air and lift objects via a frame built around the balloon. The model worked, and Joseph built larger and sturdier models based on his previous successes.
Scruffy Joseph-Michel, and suave Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier

In September of 1783, the marketing-oriented Jacques-Étienne went to Paris to sell the idea of human flight (in a much larger test balloon) to the Court of Louis XVI. Government contracts were as lucrative then as they are now, so hawking a high-tech vehicle to the highest levels of government made a lot of sense. Jacques-Étienne was a more polished guy than his nerdy brother Joseph, so he was the point man on construction and operations in the Paris venture.

King Louis was certainly interested, but concerned about the effects of altitude on humans. Could Jacques-Étienne try this new vehicle with condemned prisoners, before regular passengers were boarded? Jacques-Étienne refrained from the offer of human test subjects, choosing to launch a sheep, a duck, and a rooster instead. On September 19th, Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier's balloon lifted the menagerie to a height of 1,500 feet over Versailles. The sheep, duck, and rooster landed with no ill effects, so human air flights would soon commence.
A sheep, a duck, and a rooster get into a balloon...
 Thanks to the success of the mission, King Louis XVI commissioned the largest balloon built to date. It was 75 feet tall and more than 50 feet in diameter. The inner surface contained a volume of more than 60,000 cubic feet, which would be plenty to lift several men off the ground.

The public demonstration would be scheduled for late November of 1783. Of course, Jacques-Étienne would not risk the possibility of a public failure, so on October 15th, 1783, he climbed aboard the just-completed balloon and began a tethered flight to a height of 80 feet. That day, Monsieur Montgolfier became the first man to fly aboard an actual air vehicle.

Let's skip ahead through the next century. The Montgolfiers continued their hot air balloon experiments, while another set of brothers, Anne-Jean and Nicolas-Louis Robert, constructed hydrogen balloon vehicles. Hydrogen became the predominant lift method in ballooning, and was used in achievements such as crossing the English Channel in 1785. Speculative fiction about ballooning increased in popularity, with novels such as Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon laying out the possibilities of long-distance air flight.

Do yourself a favor and read the book instead of watching the movie.

While all this interest in ballooning continued through the 19th Century, the unexplored margins of the world began to be filled in. Sir  Richard Francis Burton explored the headwaters of the Nile, while Heinrich Barth investigated the deepest mysteries of Sudan and the Congo. While voyages on land and sea pushed back the edges of the unknown parts of the planet, it became obvious to many adventurers that aerial exploration could be faster and easier than terrestrial-based expeditions.

Walter Wellman was one such adventurer. A reporter, explorer, self-promoter, and general Type 'A' personality in the days before we had such classifications, Wellman wrote newspaper articles about his exploits for the Chicago Record-Herald. In 1892, Wellman journeyed to the supposed landing site of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas and built a stone monument to note the 400th anniversary of the Santa Maria's arrival. In 1894, Wellman mounted an expedition to the North Pole from Svalbard, Norway, but only managed to get to 81° North Latitude. He made two further attempts in 1898 and 1899, but succeeded only in reaching 82° North Latitude.
Walter Flippin' Wellman

After the failure of the Norwegian expedition, Wellman decided that it would be more practical to launch a fast trip to the North Pole by balloon, bypassing the massive equipment logistics and spending weeks trudging through the arctic snows. In 1905, he announced that he would make an attempt at the North Pole in a French-built airship the following year. The voyage, named the "Wellman Chicago Record-Herald Polar Expedition,"would be funded by his employer's newspaper to the tune of $250,000. A French balloonist, Mutin Godard, designed Wellman's airship using the latest in ballooning technology.

Never sausage a ship.

Wellman's ship, named America, would be a sausage-shaped affair, with a leather tube ballast compartment running the length of its 165-foot base. Suspended from the sausage would be a metal gondola, capable of lifting a crew of five and three kerosene-fired engines. America was delivered to Wellman and his crew in Norway late in July of 1906. Unfortunately, when the crew attempted to attach the engines to the propellers, the gondola fell apart and the ship dismantled itself on the beach at Dane's Island. Wellman packed the whole thing up and shipped it back to Paris for improvements.
Back to the Paris drawing boards.

The next year, Wellman added an additional twenty feet of balloon length to improve the ship's lift capability, but the second attempt at the Pole failed after just two hours, when the crew couldn't maintain level flight with the balloon. The ship crash-landed in the sea, and the crew (and the ship's remains) were hauled onboard a fishing trawler.

The ship was a really popular image on cigarette packs.
By 1910, Wellman had decided to attempt a different balloon feat, in more temperate latitudes. His 1910 expedition would be the first attempt at a transatlantic crossing, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to wherever in Europe it was possible to land. Wellman's patched-up America ship had been lengthened again, and a wireless transmitter had been installed in the gondola in order to maintain communication with his ground-based followers.
Looking out the back of the expanded "America" gondola.

Saturday, October 15, 1910, Walter Wellman and his crew launched America from the beach at Atlantic City.  Unlike the dry climate of Norway, though, the Jersey shore was very humid, and condensation on the surface of the balloon kept the ship from gaining altitude. Despite this early setback, the sunshine on the ship slowly evaporated the water from the damp balloon, and the America gained altitude.
The gondola was not really a great place for restless sleepers.

By Monday morning, though, things had turned extremely bad. The early morning brought a severe storm, making navigation nearly impossible. Later that morning, the overtaxed (and possibly beach sand-contaminated) engines seized up off the coast of New Hampshire, leaving the ship at the mercy of the weather. The crew ditched all excess weight, including the now-useless engines, and clung helplessly to the ship as America was blown south with prevailing winds.
The RMS Trent's last view of the "America."

On Wednesday, the crew found themselves just west of Bermuda. They spotted a Royal Mail steamship, the RMS Trent, and sent a distress signal in the first wireless communication between airship and sea vessel. After venting most of their hydrogen, the crew ditched their gondola in the ocean near the Trent. The entire airship crew, and a stowaway cat, were saved, but the America lifted into the air as the crew abandoned ship, and was never seen again.
The stowaway cat, "Kiddo" became a celebrity in NYC and lived at
Gimbel's Department Store for many years.

A successful transit of the Atlantic by air wouldn't occur until 1919, but Wellman's flight was an amazing first try. If his attempt actually succeeded, maybe we would be hailing Wellman as a pioneer like the Wright Brothers. Unfortunately for Wellman, the winds didn't blow the right way.

Monday, October 1, 2012


The word "stevedore" has a great heritage. It comes from the Spanish word "estevador," for "one who stuffs things." Being a stevedore was an occupation for many people working at seaports, where loads of cargo needed stuffing into the holds of freight ships.
Stevedores getting ready to stuff the stuff in with the other stuff on the ship.
 The job of stevedore shouldn't be confused with that of the longshoreman. Longshoremen unload freight ships, stacking the cargo on docks for delivery to warehouses. It's a different skill set, and actually made for two distinct unions during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Most of us have only a cinematic understanding of  modern dock operations. We think not much has changed since the days of On the Waterfront, where burly, Vic Taybeck-looking guys would offload a ship full of wooden crates with hand-held freight hooks and hemp rope hoists.
If containerized shipping had been established in the 50's, maybe Lee J. Cobb
wouldn't have gotten into that big fist fight with Marlon Brando on the Hoboken docks.

The world's moved on, though. Since 1969, when the US Department of Defense established a standard size for containerized freight, a revolution in cargo transport has changed every job at ports throughout the world. Gone are the days of guys shoving wooden crates into excelsior-lined hulls. Today, the roles of both stevedore and longshoreman have been combined into that of crane operators, a mechanical method of loading and unloading ships without requiring a bunch of guys to crawl all over the cargo. While the number of folks employed by the dockside industry has declined, the amount of merchandise and material shipped worldwide has grown exponentially, expanding employment in related fields such as logistics, transportation, and warehousing.
Today: less Elia Kazan movies, more Denny's Claw games

All this leads up to something going on in outer space next week. On October 7th, SpaceX will launch the first production mission of its Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. The previous launch of Dragon was an experiment to see if the process would work - - this time, the cargo is for real.
SpaceX Dragon: this time, it's professional.

Why are the Dragon missions so important? Besides being the precursor to future manned American trips to the ISS, the Dragon is unique among its cargo-carrying rivals (Europe's ATV, Japan's H-III, and the stalwart Russian Progress modules) in that it not only can bring cargo to the ISS, but also bring equipment back to Earth. The other cargo ships are built for one-way trips. They don't have heat shields, parachutes, or any method of surviving re-entry. Even the manned ship, Soyuz, is only capable of returning less than 110 lbs of station equipment back to Earth, and that would only be small things that could fit through the Soyuz's narrow 27-inch hatch.
Puny 27" Soyuz hatch.

Dragon, by comparison, is a proverbial supertanker of downmass cargo. Instead of using the Soyuz probe-and-drogue connector, or even the Shuttle's old PMA linkup, the hatch to Dragon connects directly with any available Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) port, which allows for a full 50-inch pass through width for equipment. H-III and ATV also use the CBM ports, but as I said before, they can't bring anything back home. The Dragon's downmass capacity (6,614 lbs) equals half the amount it can carry into orbit (13,228 lbs); in fact, this first production ship is going to bring more down than it carries up.
Un-be-freakin'-lievable 50" Dragon CBM hatch.
 How is this such a game changer? Simply, because it's brought the return of downmass capability to ISS operations back to the station program that's been missing since the retirement of the Shuttles last year. Experiments that didn't fit through Soyuz's tiny hatch, or weighed more than 110 lbs were stuck in orbit or doomed to fiery destruction in the old one-way cargo ships. Dragon, built specifically to accomodate the standard ISS experiment rack, makes possible the completion of dozens of station experiments that can now be studied back on Earth. Equipment is now capable of making round trips, so expensive, disabled hardware can be returned to Earth, repaired, and sent back into orbit on a future freight run - - all at a cost about 1/100th of a Shuttle mission.
Round-trip ticket, baby.

A dozen cargo missions by Dragon are scheduled for next year, followed by manned Dragon missions six months to a year after that. The routine-ness and simplicity of Dragon missions will finally make ISS missions safer and more affordable. Like its ocean-going counterpart, the two-way containerization of space cargo will change the economics of space -- for the better.