On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978

 
 
EVOLUTION OF UNMANNED SPACE EXPLORATION TO 1960
 
 
 
Pioneer and Troublesome Launch Vehicles
 
 
[25] Lunar exploration project Pioneer, America's bid in the early space competition, was approved in March 1958 under the initial direction of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which assigned hardware development to both the Air Force and the Army. But the two services each had a distinct approach to Pioneer, and the differences plagued the project from the start. On their first try, the Air Force team produced an unplanned pyrotechnic display when a Thor-Able launch vehicle exploded 77 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral on 17 August 1958. Pioneer 1, launched on 11 October that year, was another disappointment; an early shutdown of the second stage prevented its attaining a velocity sufficient to escape Earth's gravity. After a 115 000-kilometer trip toward the moon and 43 hours in space, the probe burned up when it reentered Earth's atmosphere. The next month, Pioneer 2 's third stage failed to ignite; this spacecraft was also incinerated as it fell back to Earth. Meanwhile, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were working on a Pioneer lunar probe to be launched by a combination vehicle called Juno II, a Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile with upper stages developed by JPL. A 6 December 1958 attempt to launch this four-stage rocket to the moon failed when the Jupiter first stage cut off prematurely. Pioneer 3 reentered after a 38-hour flight.
 
Pioneer 4, the last of the series initiated by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, rose on its Juno II launch vehicle on 3 March 1959 and traveled without incident to the moon and beyond into an orbit around the sun, but without passing close enough to the moon for the lunar-scanning instruments to function. The U.S. attempt to beat the Soviet Union to the moon had already failed: Luna 1, launched 2 January, had flown by its target on 4 January. Luna 2 next became the first spacecraft to land on another body in the solar system, crashing into the moon on 13 September 1959. Luna 3, launched 4 October, returned the first photographs of the moon's far side.
 
The U.S. effort continued to be less than successful. A sixth Pioneer lunar probe, a NASA-monitored Air Force launch, was destroyed when the payload shroud broke away 45 seconds after launch in November 1959. In 1960, two more NASA Pioneers failed, and the project died.* America's next entry was Ranger, NASA's first full-scale lunar project. 3
 
 
Ranger: Atlas-Vega versus Atlas-Agent
 
 
The Ranger spacecraft-designed to strike the moon's surface after transmitting television pictures and gamma ray spectrometry data during descent-was one of the payloads planned for the Atlas-Vega launch vehicle. Atlas, an Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile developed by General Dynamics-Astronautics, had been selected by Abe Silverstein's Office of Space Flight Development for early manned orbital missions and deep space probes, and the decision had been based on several sound premises. If Atlas could be so adapted and if Thor and other intermediate [27] range ballistic missiles could be used for lightweight Earth satellites, then most of the funds NASA had earmarked for launch-vehicle development could be used for the development of a family of much larger liquid-propellant rockets for manned lunar missions. The space agency could purchase Atlas missiles from the Air Force and provide upper stages tailor- made for any particular mission, whether science in deep space or manned Mercury missions near Earth.
 
As defined in December 1958, three basic elements composed Atlas-Vega: (1) the Atlas missile, with its so-called stage and a half; (2) a modified Vanguard engine for the second stage; and (3) Vega, a new third stage under development at JPL. Vanguard was produced by General Electric. JPL's Vega would provide the extra thrust to reach the velocities necessary for planetary flights. According to the estimates, the combination would be able to place 2250 kilograms in a 480-kilometer Earth orbit or send approximately 360 kilograms to the moon. The first Atlas-Vega flight was optimistically scheduled for the fall of 1960.
 
On 17 December 1958 in Washington, representatives from NASA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Army, and the Air Force considered launch vehicle development and agreed that a series of versatile, increasingly powerful launchers was a desirable goal. However, NASA wanted its first new launch vehicle to be Atlas-Vega, while the Air Force favored the smaller Atlas-Agena. Since neither vehicle could meet the requirements of both organizations, NASA and the Air Force agreed to pursue their separate courses. Both approved Atlas-Centaur, a higher-energy rocket under development for future use, but only the space agency projected a need for the much larger Saturn.
 
Vega was the first element in NASA's proposal for "A National Space Vehicle Program," a document sent to President Eisenhower on 27 January 1959 specifying four principal launch vehicles-Atlas-Vega, Atlas-Centaur, Saturn I, and Nova (subsequently replaced by Saturn V). NASA began its hardware development program by contracting with General Dynamics, General Electric, and JPL for the production of eight Vega launch vehicles, being considered for Ranger flights to the moon and for a 1960 Mars mission. To send a spacecraft to Mars "with sufficient guidance capability and sufficient instrumentation to transmit information to the Earth, we need at least a thousand pounds [450 kilograms] of payload," Milton W. Rosen, chief of the NASA Rocket Vehicle Development Program, reminded senators during April 1959 hearings on the agency's 1960 budget. Vega was the first launcher in the NASA stable that had "such payload carrying capacity." 4
 
Atlas-Vega, however, was not destined to fly to either the moon or the planets; a competitor blocked the way. The Air Force had been concealing a significant fact-Lockheed Missiles & Space Company had been developing a much more powerful version of Agena, the B model. 5 The uprated Atlas-Agena B was unveiled in May 1959, almost instantly killing Atlas-Vega.
 

 
[28] An artist's concept of the Vega Mars probe as seen from the Martian moon Deimos was presented to the Senate Aeronautical and Space Science Committee on 7 April 1959.
 

 
NASA began investigating the similarities between the two that spring, and in July the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee, established earlier to work out problems of mutual concern to NASA and the Department of Defense, ordered a review of the two systems. The committee's and NASA's findings agreed: one of the projects should be canceled. Since NASA was in no position to force the Air Force to terminate the somewhat more flexible Agena B, the agency conceded. On 7 December, Glennan telephoned JPL Director Pickering. All work on Vega would stop immediately. 6
 
Glennan and his staff at NASA Headquarters were discomfited by Vega's cancellation. The duplicative project had not only cost them $17 million labeled for launch vehicle research, its cancellation had returned them to dependence on new Air Force rockets. JPL's unhappiness over losing Vega was compounded by dismay over NASA's new 10-year plan, which was clearly geared toward lunar rather than planetary activities.7 Richard E. Horner, NASA associate administrator, wrote Pickering in December 1959 about the management's post-Vega thinking, discussing the recent transfer of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, to NASA (a transfer sought by NASA since October 1958) and Vega's cancellation. Although the cancellation was certainly "disturbing" and would "necessitate a major reorientation of the Laboratory work program,'' Horner believed that it would allow the entire NASA community to advance toward the agency's long-term objectives. Each NASA center working directly in space experimentation had been assigned "a major functional area of responsibility." The facility at Huntsville under the direction of Wernher von Braun was responsible for the development of launch vehicles and associated equipment. That organization would also control all launch-related activities to the point of orbital injection or some similar point in the trajectory of a probe. The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland would oversee the development and operation of Earth satellites and sounding-rocket payloads. Development and operation of spacecraft [29] for lunar and interplanetary exploration was JPL's task. "It is pertinent to note here that the Administrator has decided that our efforts for the present Šshould be concentrated on lunar exploration as opposed to exploration of the planets," Horner added in his letter to Pasadena. 8
 
Along will these clearly defined field assignments, major changes were taking place at NASA Headquarters. The former Office of Space Flight Development was divided into two directorates-the Office of Launch Vehicle Programs and the Office of Space Flight Programs.** Abe Silverstein would direct spaceflight, with JPL and Goddard reporting directly to him. Staff responsibility for launch vehicles would be directed by former Advanced Research Projects Agency specialist.Maj. Gen. Don R. Ostrander, to whom the von Braun team would be accountable. These assignments were designed to establish clearer lines of responsibility for both administrative and functional purposes. (See charts in appendix G.) 9
 
Within this new framework JPL, in carrying out its task of planning and executing lunar and planetary projects, would be in charge of mission planning, spacecraft development, experiments, mission operations, analysis of scientific data returned from space, and the publication of mission results. Since these activities could not possibly be carried out by JPL alone, headquarters "expected that a part of the developments will be contracted with industry and the Laboratory will assume the responsibility of monitoring such contracts,'' Horner noted. Pickering continued to resist such a role when he met with Silverstein a month later, but contracting for hardware development was agency policy. NASA would also exercise control over its field centers through annual program guidance documents written at headquarters. The Pasadena laboratory's independence was being curtailed as the men in Washington began to pull together a more centralized management system, but the relationship between headquarters and JPL was still not clearly defined.10
 
In December, going one step further in asserting headquarters' leadership, Silverstein outlined for JPL the space agency's plans for lunar and planetary missions for the next three years. Earlier that month the NASA Lunar Science Group, chaired by Robert Jastrow, had met to discuss proposals for lunar exploration. Harold Urey, Thomas Gold, Harrison Brown, and other scientists had agreed that a hard lunar landing, which by its crashing impact could help determine the nature of the moon's surface structure, would be an important first step. High-resolution pictures of the moon before impact would also be most important. Basing plans on the advice of the lunar group and the change in launch vehicles, Silverstein [30] advised Pickering that seven flights were planned through 1962. The first five would be launched by Atlas-Agena B for "lunar reconnaissance" in 1961-1962; two other spacecraft would be sent by Atlas-Centaur to Mars and Venue in 1962. 11 As part of an integrated lunar exploration program, the lunar spacecraft, Ranger, should also be capable of depositing an instrument package on the moon.
 
In late December, Homer Newell, Newell Sanders, Joseph A. Crocker, and Morton J. Stroller traveled to California to discuss how the projected flights fitted into the agency's long-range plans. Crocker explained that development should begin on four different spacecraft (designations in brackets indicate projects that emerged from this planning):
 
a. A spacecraft for use with the Agena on lunar work [Ranger],
b. a spacecraft for use with Centaur for planetary and lunar orbit, with perhaps a modification for soft landings [combination of Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter and Mariner B],
c. a spacecraft for use with Saturn on planetary work [Voyager] with some modifications, perhaps for instrumented landings of lunar rover vehicles [Prospector], and finally,
d. a spacecraft for use with the Saturn for unmanned circumlunar missions and return leading to perhaps some modifications for manned circumlunar missions and return.
 
Rather than be developed independently, the spacecraft would evolve, with more advanced spacecraft growing out of generation-to-generation experience. 12
 
Pickering was still not fully reconciled to the moon-first priority laid down by Washington, believing that the limited opportunities for flights to the planets made it absolutely imperative that work begin immediately on planetary spacecraft. Newell and his colleagues relieved the director's anxieties somewhat by assuring him that there would be planetary flights "every time the near planets, Mars and Venus, were in optimum position." The JPL group was reminded, however, that the planetary program would be relying on the yet-to-be-developed Centaur launch vehicle for some time, until the more advanced Saturn family was ready. 13
 
 
Surveyor, Mariner, and the Centaur
 
 
As headquarters directed, JPL personnel set about defining a lunar impact mission, but Atlas-Centaur-boosted spacecraft of the future were also an active concern. NASA hoped Surveyor, the first of these advanced craft, would allow a "tremendous stride forward in lunar exploration," since it would land softly on the moon, carrying a number of experiments,*** [31] including a surface sampler and an atmosphere analyzer. These instruments would provide scientists and designers information they needed to plan more sophisticated unmanned and manned landing missions. Mariner, the second spacecraft family to be powered by Atlas-Centaur, would be directed toward Venus and Mars. Two kinds of Mariner spacecraft were planned: an A model that would simply fly by those planets and a B model that could release a landing capsule toward Mars or Venus as the main bus flew by. A 1962 Mariner was expected to be launched toward Venus to measure the planet's surface temperature distribution, examine the atmosphere, and determine the extent of the magnetic field as it flew by.
 
Still later in the 1960s, two multipurpose spacecraft, Prospector and Voyager, atop mighty Saturn launch vehicles were to extend the scope of unmanned lunar and planetary exploration even further. Prospector was being designed to roam about the lunar surface as directed from Earth and examine the moon with a sophisticated array of instruments. Subsequent lunar rovers were to be used as logistic vehicles to marshal supplies for manned missions to the moon, or possibly as an early means of returning experiment samples. Voyager, too, was being designed with growth in mind. From the first missions in 1964 to either Venus or Mars with slightly larger landed payloads than the Mariner B capsule, Voyager was to grow larger and larger until a mechanized rover was sent to Mars or Venus. Prospector and Voyager represented the very distant future, but by the summer of 1960 JPL and NASA Headquarters were beginning to give serious attention to Surveyor and Mariner. 14 Both of these craft were scheduled for launch by Atlas-Centaur-the number two vehicle in NASA's plans-but development problems with the Centaur stage would seriously affect the timetable.
 

* In 1965, NASA revived Project Pioneer with a new objective: to complement interplanetary data acquired by Mariner probes.
 
** The distinction between programs and projects was first made clear by G. F. Schilling, Office of Space Science, late in 1959. Programs signified a related and continued series of undertaking greared toward understanding a broad scientific or technical topic; programs (e.g., examining the solar system) did not necessarily have foreseeable ends. Projects were the building blocks for programs and as such had limited objectives, limited duration (e.g., Project Mariner, Project Viking). While the space science personnel at NASA tended to maintain this distinction over the years, the concept was not as clearly observed in manned spaceflight, where the Apollo project grew so large it became a program.
 
*** The term experiment, as NASA uses it, refers to any exercise whose purpose is to gather scientific or engineering data (and also to the equipment used to perform an experiment). Few scientists would apply the term to some NASA experiments, e.g., photography of Earth from orbit.