Learning Through Failure: The Early Rush of the Scout Rocket Program


Failure analysis is basically research, when you get down to it. You recover and learn from mistakes; you don't do that with success.

- Eugene Schult, head of guidance and control work for the Scout at NASA Langley


[197] Nothing demonstrates the pitfalls of rushing into space more dramatically than the early history of the Scout rocket program. This relatively small, four-stage solid-fuel rocket was conceived in 1956 by NACA engineers in Langley's PARD as a simple but effective way of boosting light payloads into orbit. Scout eventually proved to be one of the most economical, dependable, and versatile launch vehicles ever flown not just by NASA but by anyone, anywhere. The program did not begin, however, with an impressive performance; it began with four years of confidence crushing failures. To make Scout a success, researchers had to climb a long and torturous learning curve, which resembled, at least to those involved, the infernal hill up which Sisyphus eternally pushed his uncooperative rock.


"Itchy" for Orbit


Max Faget, Joseph G. Thibodaux, Jr., Robert O. Piland, and William E. Stoney, Jr., formed the core of a notoriously freethinking group within Langley's PARD. Early in 1956, a year-and a half before Sputnik 1, this group began playing with the idea of developing a multistage hypersonic [198] rocket.1 These engineers had been launching dozens of rockets each year from the lonely beach at Wallops Island. To them, the idea of building one powerful enough to reach orbit did not seem at all farfetched.2

Moreover, the organizers of the IGY in 1955 had asked expressly for someone to put up the first artificial satellite as the highlight of the upcoming celebration. In response, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively, on two consecutive days, 29 and 30 July 1955, had announced their rival intentions to launch satellites. Each country, given its burgeoning ballistic missile program, expressed confidence that it, and not the other, would be the first to put an object in space. A few months later, in the fall of 1955, the Eisenhower administration made the ultimately history-turning (and in the opinion of some critics, disastrous) decision to endorse the navy's Vanguard proposal-and Viking booster-as the way to launch America's first satellite. Viking's competitor, the army's Jupiter C rocket, the darling of von Braun and associates in Alabama, had to wait in the wings, ready to perform when the Vanguard program flopped.3

But von Braun's rocket experts were not the only ones "itchy" for orbit. The PARD group felt that the boosting of a small, lightweight payload into orbit would require only an extension of the hypersonic solid-fuel rocket technologies that they had been developing at Wallops Island and Langley since the early 1950s. "Solid-fueled rockets have always had the advantage over liquid-fueled as far as simplicity, cost, and possibly reliability," remembers PARD engineer and later Scout Project team member Roland D. "Bud" English. The PARD group's idea was to employ solid propulsion and use as many existing solid-fuel rockets for the various stages of the proposed launch vehicle as possible. "It was the logical extension of the work going on in PARD on solid rockets," says English. "It was a natural progression from Mach 15 [ballistic velocity] to the audacity to think in terms of orbit," agrees his colleague James R. Hall.4

In the mid-195Os, large solid-fuel rocket motors such as the Cherokee and the Jupiter Senior-the latter being the largest solid-fuel rocket motor up to that time were undergoing rapid development to meet the need to power the U.S. military's growing fleet of ballistic missiles. The PARD engineers were convinced that by combining a few of these new motors intelligently into a three or four-stage booster configuration, the NACA in a relatively short period could develop a launch vehicle that would have enough power to shoot past ballistic velocity and fly into orbit. This would require a speed of at least Mach 18. The Honest John rocket, a five-stage vehicle under development for the army, had achieved speeds of Mach 15 in flight tests at Wallops in the summer of 1956, and the Sergeant, a five stage rocket also under development, was supposed to be capable of Mach 18. Other rocketstage motors were under way for the navy's Polaris and Vanguard project missiles. From this promising menu, PARD engineers believed they could assemble a stack of rocketry that could achieve orbit.5

[199] The only problems were that this stack would amount to "the most expensive vehicle ever developed by PARD" and "no funds were immediately available." 6 Furthermore, as the rocket was to serve as a satellite launch vehicle, it directly competed not only with the navy's presidentially anointed Vanguard and the army's overlooked Jupiter C, but also with the air force's Thor-Able, which was rapidly nearing completion. These long-range military rockets, all of them liquid rather than solid-fuel, made the case for the little Scout harder to advocate. The modest PARD proposal for a simpler, cheaper, and potentially more reliable bantam rocket simply could not compete with such heavyweights.

Then came Sputnik, complicating this contest among American rocket initiatives. Engineer William Stoney, perhaps the earliest champion of what became the Scout Project, remembers feelings within PARD about Sputnik, "We were disappointed we weren't the first but in another sense it reassured us that we were really on the right track-that, boy, we really could get supported from now on, because this was important that the U.S. continue to try to catch up, and we were part of that game." Sputnik made the PARD rocketeers think "at a whole new level of exploration that heretofore was beyond consideration."7

In the hectic and uncertain months following Sputnik, PARD tried to push a formal proposal for its rocket development through Langley management for consideration by NACA headquarters. In January 1958, however, Ira H. Abbott, one of the NACA's assistant directors for research in Washington who had excellent connections to Langley, informed PARD that "NACA Headquarters would not be receptive to a proposal for development of another satellite vehicle."8 However, the political environment for such proposals was in a state of flux in early 1958, and Langley engineers knew it; therefore, they kept design studies for their rocket going even after such an emphatic refusal.

In late March 1958, another Langley veteran, John W. "Gus" Crowley, associate director for research at NACA headquarters, revived hopes for the rocket when he asked Langley to prepare a "Space Technology Program" for the prospective new space agency. In its report, submitted on 15 May, the Langley senior staff, "without any opposition," included the PARD concept "as a requirement of the program for the investigation of manned space flight and reentry problems." The report stated that, for $4 million, Langley could develop a booster that launched "small-scale recoverable orbiters" into space, and could do it in a matter of months.9

Even before the report circulated, on 6 May, Langley requested a research authorization to cover "the investigation of a four-stage solid-fuel satellite System capable of launching a 150-pound satellite in a 500-mile orbit." Formal approval, which took just a few weeks, meant that PARD's vehicle had officially made it into the space program.10 The air force's interest in an advanced solid-fuel rocket test vehicle, with mutually acceptable specifications for a joint system negotiated in July, further secured Scout's [200] position. Such a deal eventually complicated the Scout Project greatly, however, because Langley had to take on the added burden of handling many of the contractual details for the coordinated NASA/DOD project. The DOD objective was to obtain a fleet of solid-fuel boosters for support of the air force's wide range of space research projects, which at that time included Dyna-Soar support, anti-ICBM research, and nuclear weapons. The last of these was to lead to the development of the so-called "Blue Scout" rocket.11

After Scout won further approval, engineering analysis of the rocket system indicated that the proposed third-stage motor (an ABL X248) had to be replaced with a larger motor of the same type. This was a problem that could have killed an earlier proposal but now bothered no one. As one PARD veteran remembers, "The overall space plans for NASA were so grandiose when compared with NACA operations" that such changes, and such costs, were now relatively minor items.12


Little Big Man


Sometime during 1958, PARD's William Stoney, soon to be assigned overall responsibility for development of the new rocket, named it "Scout." Given engineers' propensity for acronyms, some believed Scout stood for "Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test System"; however, Stoney insists today that the various acronyms that have appeared attached to the name "Scout" (even in official publications) have all been "after-the-fact additions." According to him, Scout was named in the spirit of the contemporary Explorer series of satellites with which the rocket would often be paired. He and his colleagues gave no thought at the time to deriving its name from a functional acronym.13

As for the technical definition of the rocket, as suggested earlier, the Langley engineers tried to keep developmental costs and time to a minimum by selecting components from off-the-shelf hardware. The majority of Scout's components were to come from an inventory of solid-fuel rockets produced for the military, although everyone involved understood that some improved motors would also have to be developed under contract.* By early 1959, after intensive technical analysis and reviews, Langley settled on a design and finalized the selection of the major contractors. The rocket's 40-inch-diameter first stage was to be a new "Algol" motor, a combination of the Jupiter Senior and the navy Polaris produced by the Aerojet General Corporation, Sacramento, California. The 31-inch-diameter second stage,....



Scout on launchpad, Wallops Island.

In this photo from October 1960, Scout Test-2 (ST-2) stands ready for launch at Wallops Island. L-60-6627


...."Castor," was derived from the army's Sergeant and was to be manufactured by the Redstone Division of the Thiokol Company in Huntsville, Alabama. The motor for the 30-inch-diameter third stage, "Antares," evolved under NASA contract from the ABL X248 design into a new version called the X254 (and subsequently into the X259); it was built under contract to NASA by ABL, a U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance facility operated by the Hercules Powder Company, Cumberland, Maryland. The final upper-stage propulsion unit, "Altair," which was 25.7 inches in diameter (34 inches at the heat shield), amounted to an improved edition of the X248 that was also manufactured by ABL. Joining these four stages were transition sections containing ignition, guidance and attitude controls, spin-up motors, and separation systems.

Upon assembly of the vehicle, which was to be done by Chance Vought of Dallas, the rocket's airframe and control-system contractor, the original Scout stood only 72 feet high from the base of its fins to the tip of its nose cone and weighed, at first-stage ignition, a mere 37,000 pounds. The thrust of the four stages added together totaled just over 200,000 pounds, which was easily enough to carry the proposed 150-pound payload into space, although at a 300-mile rather than a 500-mile orbit. (Later versions of Scout would [202] eventually fly missions with 300-pound and even 450-pound payloads, using an optional fifth stage.)14

For such a comparatively small rocket, Scout turned into something quite significant-the first large NASA project that Langley ran in-house. The only previous in-house project to match Scout was the Bell X-1 supersonic research airplane of a decade earlier. The X-1, however, was a joint effort with the air force and was physically remote from Langley at faraway Muroc Dry Lake in California. The plane never got to Langley Field, although NACA Langley was primarily responsible for its development. 15 The Scout project, on the other hand, was conceived, designed, and for the most part, built at Langley. Components were brought to nearby Wallops for launch and flight testing, thus making a "very tight Langley loop.''16

A formal "Scout Project Group" was not organized at Langley until February 1960 after a recommendation was made by a NASA headquarters review committee chaired by NASA Lewis Research Center's Bruce Lundin.17 Until that time, all the work on the rocket had been overseen first by regular PARD management and later, after the creation of the STG in 1958, by Bob Gilruth and his staff. Gilruth already had his hands full with Project Mercury, but he reluctantly took over the responsibility for a short period because Abe Silverstein, whose Office of Space Flight Development initially funded Scout, insisted on it.** Given Gilruth's intimate knowledge of PARD and its personnel, he trusted the Scout engineers to manage themselves. So did Langley Associate Director Floyd Thompson, who gave Scout personnel "remarkable freedom" to operate almost independently. "[Our work] was of course part of the race to catch the Russians," James Hall has stated. "But more important it was to prove something to ourselves. People worked hard and were selfless about helping each other." They were mostly young men "trying to do something that had never been done before."18 Such naive enthusiasts neither cared for nor would have benefited from top-heavy management.

The project office started small with nine personnel: Project Office Head Bill Stoney, Technical Assistant Bud English, Administrative Assistant Abraham Leiss, three project engineers (C. T. Brown, Jr., Eugene D. Schult, and William M. Moore), Field Director James Hall, Project Coordinator Elmer J. Wolfe, Secretary Edith R. Horrocks, plus two resident representatives from industry. Each division of the laboratory also made one employee responsible for coordinating support for Scout whenever it was required.19

This skeletal crew and associated shadow organization began to race against the calendar to build and launch Scout. The project team grew in size rather quickly, so by 1962 more than 200 Langley staff members....



James R. Hall, 1961.

James Hall, Langley's original field director for the Scout Project Group. L-61-5176


...were working almost exclusively on Scout, which even project leaders had to concede was "a very large segment of people to work on anything at Langley."20 At Wallops, Scout work dominated, taking over several assembly shops and other buildings. The core staff in the project office stayed relatively small, however, reaching its peak of 55 employees in 1965 and then dropping back to 34 by the time of Scout flight number 75 in 1971.

The involvement of contractors was essential. Especially helpful were the people from Chance Vought soon to be organized into the LTV Missile Group of the Chance Vought Corporation-who had won the bid to develop the Scout airframe and launching capability.21 The partnership between Langley and LTV grew into one of the most cooperative, fruitful, and long-lasting (30 years) in NASA history. As James Hall remembers so fondly, from almost the beginning, the Scout Project Office made "no distinction between government people and contractors. We were all on the same team and did what we had to do regardless of the color of our badges." The feeling was mutual. According to Ken Jacobs, who worked many years on Scout for LTV, "We were very much more liable to work together than we were to work apart. If your counterpart in the government had a problem or a question, he would contact you on the telephone and [we would] be able to come up with a mutual agreement or solution. The end result was that the program would be much better off for experiencing this degree of cooperation between the two individuals who had the task." Milt Green, another LTV employee, remarks, "We all had one common goal." The teamwork resulted from "a mutual respect for each other. It wasn't an adversarial relation with a lot of gnarling of hands. [It was] strictly a job that had to be done, and done in the most reliable manner."22



LTV Scout team, 1967.

In this picture from June 1967, 32 LTV employees pose in front of the Scout S-159C, which a few months later on 19 October 1967 would successfully carry the RAM C-1 experiment into orbit. L-67-95


This deeply felt sense of mutual reliance and cooperation, at least on Langley's part, related to the deeply ingrained, 40-year-old NACA culture. If Langley's work included Scout, and Scout needed LTV to succeed, then Langley needed LTV and would consider it a member of the family; that was the formula. The LTV staff appreciated it. "It was just a close knit, dedicated group," remembers Larry Tant, a Scout operations manager for Langley. "We had a lot of pride in what we were doing. We were like brothers." "There was something about the program," declares Jon Van Cleve, an early Scout team member from Langley. "You worked in it for a little while and really got involved in it. When that happened, you lost the lines of whether you were agency, LTV, or air force. You became a Scout person." 23

These warm testimonials, which came years after Scout had amassed its remarkable record, were mostly made in the early 1990s when NASA honored members of the Scout team in official ceremonies. Both government and industry Scout staff reminisced about Scout's record, which no other booster, large or small, foreign or American, had surpassed. Langley's Scout Project Group enjoyed incredible strings of 22 and 37 consecutive launches without failure during two long periods, the first lasting from July 1964 until January 1967 and the second from September 1967 until December 1975. In 1991, when NASA Langley reluctantly turned over the direction of the Scout Project to NASA Goddard and the commercial production of the vehicle to LTV, the scorecard of 113 launches showed an overall success rate of an astounding 96 percent.

[205] The retrospective comments about the great teamwork on the Scout Project need to be understood within the context of that final glorious record. The feelings between government and contractor could not have been so positive in the early years of the Scout program, when one rocket after another self-destructed or otherwise failed. In the Scout program, such can-do, throw-your-arm-around-your-buddy camaraderie developed only gradually and was tested severely by frequent early experiences with misfortune. These are trials that Scout team members understandably prefer to forget.


Little Foul-Ups


On 18 April 1960, only 14 months after the creation of the Langley Scout Project Office, the first experimental Scout sat ready to be fired from a new launch tower at Wallops Island. For weeks NASA headquarters had been demanding that "some type of flight test be made in the Scout program as soon as possible."24 The only way for Langley and its contractors to meet this demand was to work hours of overtime. James Hall recollects the days before this and other early Scout launches: "It was schedule driven. People worked very hard and long hours. This was such a dynamic program, people felt compelled to work however long it took. The closer to launch, the more demanding the schedule became. At the launch site, people would often go without sleep to make up time or make something work or correct a problem. People were consumed by the program's schedule."25

On 7 March, after deflecting the demands of NASA headquarters for as long as he could, Langley Director Floyd Thompson gave in and conceded that an unguided Scout, one greatly reduced in scope from later Scouts, could be fired under the direction of Langley's Applied Materials and Physics Division (the old PARD) to obtain "some information on the overall configuration," but preparations would take a month. The second stage of the rocket would have to be a weighted dummy, one of several supplied by the contractors for fitting transition sections during construction and for checking "overall alignment and general suitability including freedom from interference with components supplied by other contractors." Thompson, reflecting the concerns of his Scout Project team, wanted it to be known that this was "not an official Scout test." It was an "expedited launch," a "Cub Scout," meant only to obtain engineering data on the vehicle. 26

Several problems occurred during this hurried, "unofficial" test flight of Cub Scout. The rocket rolled more than anticipated during ascent, thus causing a structural failure near the burnout of the first stage. This failure prevented the third stage (atop the second-stage dummy motor) from test-firing. In addition, the heat-shield design proved defective by breaking away from the fourth stage as the vehicle passed through the transonic region. This was not the start everyone had hoped for. Scout Project personnel.....



Spectators at Wallops Island rocket launch.

Spectators-mainly the families of NASA employees-usually filled the makeshift grandstand at Wallops island to witness the launch of NASA's small unmanned rockets. L-63-5567


....tried to put on a happy face, remarking that the test provided valuable experience assembling the rocket's components on the new launcher and actually firing from it. No one, however, was fooled. The launch had been important to the test program and was meant to develop confidence in the systems. As one Langley engineer at the launch later recorded, "The failure was a blow to the prestige of the project, and efforts to complete the first actual Scout were redoubled."27

With these efforts, the first launch of a full-fledged Scout-ST-1-was to take place on 1 July 1960, less than three months after Cub Scout's little foul-up. The anticipation level was extremely high. By the time of Scout Test-1, Langley had been firing rockets at Wallops for 16 years, since 1944. To Langley engineers launching rockets might have been "old hat," but this launch was different. "Everybody was excited," James Hall remembers with a gleam in his eye. "The concept of launching an orbital vehicle was a new and a really exciting challenge. That launch was the culmination of two years of intensive work. We had a number of practice countdowns and dry runs. We got our timing down and got things all set up. In fact, we were almost wearing that thing out testing it. That's what you're up....



The first Scout launch, 1 July 1960.

The first Scout was launched on the evening of 1 July 1960. L-60-2565


.....against in space. But you reach a point where you have to come down to the countdown."28

The countdown lasted 11 hours. As it progressed, the Scout launch team gradually moved away from the vehicle. During the last hour or so, the rocketeers moved into a little cinder block building with three racks of switches, controls, and displays. By later launch system standards, it was simple, crude technology, but it was enough to light the fuse. Compared with ICBMs, Scout was tiny, but compared with all the previous rockets launched at Wallops, it was quite large. When the first-stage Algol motor was lit up, with its approximately 100,000 pounds of thrust, an awesome energy was released. As Hall describes it, "The ground shakes and the fire and smoke appear. It's a very splendid thing."29 It was similar to being close to the heart of an earthquake, with massive pressure waves bouncing off the chest.

The rocket was to ascend into space and then use its last-stage Altair motor to fire a 193-pound acceleration and radiation package back through the atmosphere as a probe. But Scout did not reach a high enough altitude to fire the package. One of the new built-in features of the full-fledged Scout system was a destruct capability to be used if the rocket flew off course and endangered populated areas. Scout Test-1 would appear to do just that.

At 136 seconds after launch, radar tracking on the ground showed that the rocket had gone off course. A rolling moment (i.e., an aerodynamic....



The cone-shaped cinder block building was the site of Scout's launch control. L-62-6440


Scout control room, Wallops.

Worried looks on the faces of the NASA men in the control room at Wallops bear witness to the vicissitudes of launching rockets into space. L-67-212


[209] ....tendency to rotate the body about its longitudinal axis) developed with the Antares motor, and then it just as quickly dissipated. However, the rolling caused a very slight disorientation of the radar tracking. As the postflight test analysis would later show, the shift of the radar that was indicated on the plotboard meant that "the vehicle had taken a violent turn in azimuth and a dip down in elevation." The rocket seemed to be about 50 degrees off course and heading somewhere it definitely was not supposed to go. This deviation forced the radar safety officer inside the blockhouse to take action. He actuated the "hold-fire" signal for the fourth stage, then, as James Hall, who was also in the blockhouse bitterly recalls, the range officer "waited as long as he could, looked over to us, and we had to concur. He hit the destruct button."30 The radar tracking recovered quickly, thus showing that there really never had been a significant problem.

"That was a crushing blow to destroy a rocket that was doing exactly what it was programmed to do," Hall laments 30 years later, "but which just indicated on a range safety plotboard that it was on an incorrect trajectory. You can't imagine how hard people worked as a group to bring this to the launch point." Inside the blockhouse the men kicked cans and cussed the unfortunate safety officer. "But after an hour," according to Hall, "most people recognized there was only one thing to do. That was to work and build the next vehicle, which we did in three or four months." The spaceflight revolution demanded nothing less.31

In fact, circumstances also demanded that the test be labeled a success even when everyone knew better. The many subsequent chronicles of the Scout program all classified ST-1 as a success. "The fourth stage never had a chance to perform," but "radiation measurements were successfully made to an altitude of 875 miles."32


"3-2-1 Splash"


On 4 October 1960, ST-2 proved to be the first real success of the project. Also launched as a probe with a radiation payload on board, the rocket reached a maximum altitude of 3500 miles and achieved a total range of 5800 miles. The newspaper headlines underscored the elation surrounding this successful launch. In the Newport News Times Herald, a large typeface banner headline celebrated the feat. The headline on page 12 of section A of the Washington Post read: " 'Poor Man's Rocket' Fired Successfully." The Washington Star followed with a feature article, "Versatile Scout to Get Space Chores." During this period, Scout also received additional positive publicity for the air force's successful launch of two of its "Blue Scouts."33 The Scout Project was, indeed, looking up.

With this one successful but nonorbital mission behind them, the Scout leaders believed that testing was complete and that the missile was ready to start operations as one of NASA's launch vehicles. As such, it would be used [210] for three types of missions: placing small satellites in orbit, making high-velocity reentry studies and testing heat-resistant materials, and launching high-altitude and space probes. The Scout rockets were scheduled to take off not only from Wallops but also, beginning in early 1962, from a Scout launch site being prepared at the Western Test Range located on Vandenberg AFB in California. NASA headquarters was so optimistic about Scout that it arranged for a full-scale 72-foot model of the rocket to be displayed at the 15th annual meeting and "astronautical exposition" of the American Rocket Society in mid-December 1960. More than 5500 attendees viewed the model outside the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., and were impressed that it stood almost as high as the nine story building.

Such a celebration of Scout proved premature. The first orbital flight from Wallops on 4 December 1960 failed. Now the headlines read, "NASA Fizzles Orbit Attempt" (Virginian-Pilot, 5 Dec. 1960), "Scout Sinks After Fizzle" (Norfolk-Portsmouth Ledger-Star, 5 Dec. 1960), "Feeling of Unsuccess Persists at Rocket Site" (Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, 5 Dec. 1960), and "Rocket, Satellite Lie Under Deep Waters" (Richmond News Leader, 5 Dec. 1960). Three of the first six flights were in fact failures. Not long thereafter, Lt. Col. George Rupp, formerly project officer on the Bullpup missile weapons system, came to NASA from the U.S. Marine Corps to replace a disheartened Bill Stoney as director of Langley's Scout Project Office.*** This change solved nothing because Stoney's management had not been the problem. In the first four months following Stoney's replacement, three out of four launches failed. A NASA investigation found faults with the electrical systems, the heat shield, the ignition systems, and much more. As a later Scout program brochure recalls, "This was a time of exhilarating successes and heart breaking failures. The space age was in its infancy and the participants were learning about the operation of complex systems in the unforgiving environment of a high speed flight through the atmosphere to the border of space."34 Personal accounts come closer to the truth. Roland "Bud" English, one of the original nine members of the Scout Project Group and the fourth head of the Scout Project Office, remembers: "The Scout program was done in a rush. Unquestionably, everything was behind schedule, and there was pressure on NASA to perform. The Space Act had been passed, and NASA was supposed to be going up to do a job, and Scout was part of that. So there was very definitely a pressure to do it in a hurry, too much of a hurry, and not enough emphasis on proper quality and really getting ready for an operational flight."35

Even with the many failures, the launch dates just kept coming. "None of us liked to slip a commitment," James Hall admits, "and slippages were relatively modest considering the complexity of the program. As things got down to deadline, completion of ground system checkout, completion of....



Eugene D. Schult, 1963.

Succeeding Rupp in June 1965 was Langley engineer Eugene D. Schult, who had been with the Scout Project Office from the start.


...launch tower checkout, and then the actual practice countdown and final launch countdown-those critical milestones-didn't slip that much, but people had to work 24 hours a day to hold them."36

Not until 20 July 1963 and the launch of Scout flight number 22 did the problem come to a head. (Preceding this flight, ironically, three consecutive missions had been successful, and two of three had been orbital.) Two and one-half seconds after liftoff at Wallops, a flame appeared above the first-stage fins. Two seconds later, the Algol stage became engulfed by fire. "It was obvious something terrible had happened," Bud English recalls, frowning. "You could tell from the communications coming from the range safety net[work]. There had been a burnthrough of the first stage nozzle a few seconds after takeoff. The vehicle went through some wild gyrations. It got about 300 feet high and broke into three parts: the first stage went in one direction; the second stage went in another; and the third and fourth stages fell more or less back on the launch pad and burned. It was a disaster."37

Langley's Scout engineer Tom Perry was part of the recovery team that slogged through the salt marshes a mile off the coastal island to pick up bits and pieces of the rocket to help NASA determine what went wrong. He found one large chunk of the fiery debris in an unexpected place. "Someone had parked a small car inside one of the assembly buildings and it just so happened that a flaming piece of the rocket had come right down through the roof and into the front seat, burning that car to a crisp."38



Scout launch, 30 June 1961.

As this sequence of photos demonstrates, the launch of ST-5 on SO June 1961 went well; however, a failure of the rocket's third stage doomed the payload, a scientific satellite known as S-55 designed for micrometeorite studies in orbit. L-61-5743


NASA headquarters launched a formal investigation. A seven-man review board found flaws in a rocket nozzle that had gone undetected during production and testing. Following the board's recommendation, the space agency imposed a three-month moratorium on the launch schedule; no more Scouts would fly until a comprehensive study of all the data from the previous 21 Scouts had been completed.39

Significantly, the in-depth investigations of the rocket's subsystems made during this review revealed that each Scout failure had been caused by a different problem. That in itself was the essential problem. "We never had the same failure twice," James Hall underscores, "but it was clear from the early record of Scout that there was enough miscellaneous failure that we had to sit down and rethink the whole thing very seriously."40

Certain institutional and bureaucratic factors also had contributed to Scout's failures. As much as the Langley engineers had wanted to make Scout contractors and air force partners members of one integrated team, in many key essentials they simply were not. Former PARD engineer and....



Scout launch, 1 March 1962.



Launchpad damaged by Scout, 20 July 1963.



What kept the Scout engineers going through the tough times was the occasional spectacular success. In this photo from 1 March 1962 (left), ST-8 streaks into the night sky above Wallops, carrying a reentry heating experiment. The burnthrough of ST-110's first-stage nozzle just seconds after firing on 20 July 1963 resulted in significant damage to the launch tower (right). Remnants of the third and fourth stages of the erratic Scout can be seen on the launchpad.


...member of Langley's original Scout Project Office Eugene Schult remembers, "We did things differently at Wallops than at the Western Test Range. The air force had its own way of doing things; the contractor had his ways; and we had our ways. It was a problem trying to coordinate them.''41 Essentially, each organization employed its own safety procedures: an assembly checkout line at the LTV plant in Dallas, other checkout lines on the ground at Wallops and Vandenberg, and yet two more lines in the towers at the launchers, both in California and Virginia. Each line used different equipment and procedures.

However, the principal cause of Scout's mishaps was simply the need to make everything happen so fast. The LTV mission integrator, Ken Jacobs, recalls how engineers scrambled to assemble the rocket: "Back in those days, if you needed a part, you did what we called a 'midnight requisition.' We'd go get the part from the space vehicle in inventory." This was obviously one of the shortcomings of the system. "People were robbing Peter to pay Paul, and the result was we had an unsuccessful vehicle." Over and above this "cannibalizing" of the hardware, Bud English feels that "there simply were...



Vought Astronautics technicians assemble Scout.

In this photo from December 1960, employees of Vought Astronautics, Scout's prime contractor, work with NASA technicians to prepare ST-3 for launch Unfortunately, this rocket would fail because of a second-stage misfire. L-60-7980


...not good standardized vehicle safeguards and checkout procedures, which were needed to have a successful vehicle."42

"Our record was not good," Jacobs has to admit. "Our reliability was 3-2-1 splash, 3-2-1 splash." The time had come to "blow the whistle and take a look at this program and see what our problem was." The Scout Project Office, LTV, the supporting engineers at Langley, the related air force personnel, and everyone involved had to sit down and do some "deep thinking" about what had to be done to fix not only the rocket but also the entire program.43




The Scout team decided that a 14-month reliability improvement pro gram to recertify the rocket was needed. The effort was spearheaded by a NASA/LTV/air force "tiger team," whose mission was "to revise completely how [the project office] handled the vehicle and to standardize the [215] process to the ultimate degree."44 The tiger team concept, which in essence was a technological commando squad, had already proved effective in industrial settings. NASA was beginning to use it more frequently in the 1960s to attack particularly troublesome problems. The tiger team's activities started at Langley when James Hall, operations manager for Scout, wrote an inch-thick specification that laid out a single set of test equipment, a single checkout procedure, and the rigorous standards for using both.

Such an approach proved to be exactly what was needed. Under the direction of the tiger team, all 27 of the Scout rockets already manufactured for the program were returned to LTV in Dallas to be taken apart and inspected. Weld seams were X-rayed, and solder joints were inspected under microscopes. Everything that could be standardized was standardized. Even the lengths of the cable in Vought's laboratories now had to match those at the two launch sites. The launch countdown now included more than 800 items. Additional tiger teams were put together at Wallops and at Vandenberg to assure compliance with the new standards. No Scout was to leave Dallas until an inspection team had done a complete worthiness review of the whole vehicle and given it a clean bill of health.45

At the end of the long recertification process, nearly all members of the Scout team were confident that they now understood why things had gone wrong: from the time that NASA had adopted the concept for the little solid-fuel rocket and made it an agenda item for the spaceflight revolution, the Scout Project Group simply had had neither the time, nor the inclination, to look before they leaped. "We all underestimated the magnitude of the job at that time," Milt Green admits. "The biggest problem we had was denying the existence of problems that we did not understand."46 The problem was, of course, all too human.

The process of honestly facing up to fundamental mistakes and moving beyond them was probably what made the Scout Project Group the remarkably successful organization it eventually became. Certainly the experience turned the project's leaders into some of the most reflective of NASA's engineer/philosophers. Eugene Schult, who was responsible for Scout's guidance and control, ponders the project, "We wouldn't learn anything if we didn't have problems; that's basic in engineering training.... Success doesn't tell us anything. It doesn't tell us where the limits are, or what the limiting aspects of the envelope are. But when you hit a mistake, you dig into it and you find out there's a weakness. And by curing weaknesses you get success." 47

Schult and his Scout group did indeed recover from failure. The first three launches after the recertification-in December 1963 (from Vandenberg), March 1964 (from Wallops), and June 1964 (from Vandenberg)-were all resounding orbital successes. Between July 1964 and January 1967, Scout established a record of 22 consecutive launches. Only one of the 16 recertified rockets experienced a failure. The pressure to succeed was now off. Scout workers no longer had to perform failure reviews every other month, and [216] they no longer had to work the endless overtime and spend weekends away from their families. In such a positive environment, success bred success.

"Now we really had the kind of vehicle we'd set out to develop," boasts Bud English. "Reliable. It was still simple and inexpensive, but we could launch [it] quickly."48 In fact, the Scout group needed only six weeks to process one of the rockets for a successful launch. Even with this short turnaround time, NASA would launch this little rocket for 10 years without a problem. English and his colleagues had indeed done the job they set out to do.


An Unsung Hero


Scout made a total of 113 flights under NASA Langley's direction; the last one before the official transfer of the program to NASA Goddard and LTV took place on 9 May 1990 from Vandenberg AFB. As a result of these flights, NASA engineers and their contractors authored more than 1300 technical and scientific reports on various aspects of the rocket's design, performance, and mission findings.49

The pride that the Scout Project Group felt for the rocket's performance sprang not only from its phenomenal post-recertification accomplishment rate of 22 and 37 successful launches but also from the critical roles played by Scout payloads in the advancement of atmospheric and space science. Early Scout missions helped researchers study the density of the atmosphere at various altitudes, the properties of the Van Allen radiation belts, and the possible dangers of the micrometeoroid environment on spacecraft. Scouts in the 1970s tested Einstein's theory of relativity by carrying an extremely accurate atomic clock into space, and they also helped to confirm the theory of the "black hole."

In support of NASA's early space program, Scout was critical to the important research into reentry aerodynamics for the manned space missions. With the resulting data, NASA researchers determined what materials best withstood the heat of reentry. This information as well as other data acquired by Scout missions contributed directly to test programs such as Projects Fire and RAM and to the successes of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. In one notable mission in November 1970, the rocket carried two male bullfrogs into orbit. This turned out to be the only time a Scout satellite was to carry a living payload. The unusual mission enabled NASA to study the effects of space on the inner ear and thereby better understand the causes of the space sickness experienced by astronauts.

Scout also delivered into space several reconnaissance and communications satellites. For the DOD, the rocket launched classified payloads; for the navy, it put into orbit the satellites needed for its Transit system, which by the late 1960s provided instantaneous global navigation data not only for the operational fleet but also for commercial shipping worldwide.

[217] Much of Scout's contribution was international: the rocket launched 23 satellites for foreign countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom, and the European Space Agency. Based on a 1961 agreement between the United States and Italy, NASA Langley supplied Scouts for an innovative Italian launch operation known as San Marco, which was established on two huge mobile platforms in the Indian Ocean, 3 miles off the coast of Kenya. From this unusual location in Ngwana Bay, the Centro Italiano Ricerche Aerospaziali (the Center for Italian Aerospace Research), starting in April 1967, used NASA Scouts to boost an international series of eight spacecraft into orbit. The flights of these spacecraft, many of which were placed into equatorial orbits, gathered valuable data about the ionosphere and the magnetosphere, about the galactic sources of radiation and X-rays, and especially about the nature of the earth's atmosphere in the region of the equator. Participation in the San Marco project incidentally gave some Langley engineers their first opportunity for foreign travel and international cooperation. In 1966 it even afforded some of them the rare opportunity of an audience with Pope Paul Vl, who blessed the rocket. Fortunately, the launch of the anointed Scout went well.50

Over the years, through the waning of the Apollo program and into the era dominated by the Space Shuttle, Scout became more of a bargain. Improvements in its stage motors enabled the rocket to carry larger payloads, but costs remained low.**** Using the consumer price index, Langley employees hoping to retain the Scout program calculated that a Scout cost less when NASA Goddard took over the program (and LTV took over the rocket) in 1991 than the original $4 million invested in it in 1958.51

In summary, Scout, although virtually unknown outside NASA circles, developed into one of the finest pieces of technology in the history of space exploration. As Tom Perry has observed about the evolution of his most cherished rocket, "The Scout became so reliable that mission planners could take it for granted. They focused on the science of the satellite payload rather than on its transportation system.... It happens to be NASA's smallest launch vehicle and it does not receive the same level of notoriety you would with a larger system. But over the years it has proven to be a very reliable, consistent, performing warhorse." As Perry and other Scout people at Langley, Houston, Wallops Island, Vandenberg AFB, and San Marco are still fond of saying, more than 30 years after its first countdown, Scout is "the unsung hero of space."52



From Italy's innovative San Marco launch operation in the Indian Ocean, NASA Langley helped to launch an international series of eight spacecraft into orbit. A huge mobile launcher lifts Scout into firing position (right); the San Marco platform floats securely in international waters in Ngwana Bay (below).


San Marco launch operation.



San Marco's floating platform.



[219] Postscript


A cynic might suggest that it was entirely in keeping with Scout's difficult and publicly unappreciated sojourn into space that the project ended as it did. In the late 1970s, NASA policymakers proposed to launch all future NASA satellites using the Space Transportation System (STS) still under development and abolish all expendable launch vehicles; the Space Shuttle, when fully operational, could do it all. Only the Challenger explosion in 1986, which underscored the need for alternative launch capabilities, reversed the shortsighted policy. In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, and in league with the Reagan administration's objectives for the commercialization of space and the privatization of many government services, NASA created the "Mixed Fleet" concept. Under this plan, NASA was to give up its other launch services to commercial firms, which from then on were to handle whatever NASA payloads the Shuttle could not carry. Essentially, this meant the end of the expendable launch vehicle business as NASA's Scout Project Group had known and developed .53

Scout engineers sorely lamented the loss of Scout. For them, the venture into space had come to mean an all-enveloping system and a rigorous discipline: a government-driven version for rockets of Henry Ford's mass production. "Other programs are full of changes and improvisations," declares James Hall; they are always "borrowing from other missiles and assembling something just to get it delivered on schedule"-which is exactly what the Scout team itself had been doing in the pre-recertification days.54 Over time, however, the "cannibalizing" became minimal in Scout. The program for rocket assembly matured beyond the practice, thus becoming standard almost to the point of stereotype. Scout engineers wanted to produce a launch vehicle that was as reliable for a trip to space as an automobile was for a trip to town. Scout, like the Ford Model T, was the "poor man's rocket."

Learning hard lessons through failure and then enjoying such incredible long-term success made losing the rocket especially difficult for the Scout Project Group. Scout had been giving the country access to space for more than 30 years. It succeeded in spite of-and ironically perhaps because of- its hurried early development. Not many programs born of the spaceflight revolution survived the spaceflight revolution; Scout was one.

* The only new technology required for Scout was its hydrogen peroxide reaction-jet control system, developed by contractor Walter Kidde and Company, which enabled controlled flight outside the atmosphere. Later versions of this technology would be used for various purposes in space programs, including the spatial orientation and stabilization of "Early Bird," ComSatCorp's first experimental satellite.

** With the establishment of the Scout Project Group in February 1960, the Scout team began to report instead to Donald R. Ostrander, director of the new Office of Launch Vehicle Programs at NASA headquarters, which was established on 29 December 1969 and had responsibility for all launch vehicles.

*** Rupp stayed in this post until his retirement from the military in June 1963, whereupon he was succeeded by Eugene D. Schult and later by Roland English.

**** For the first 10 production Phase 11 Scouts (Phase I was the developmental phase), the vehicle hardware costs amounted to $0.96 million per vehicle; for the next 14 production Scouts (Phase III), the cost per vehicle rose to $1.42 million Costs decreased for the 25 Phase IV rockets (provided by LTV) to $1.19 million per vehicle. Costs for later Scouts rose only slightly, and stayed under $1.5 million per vehicle.

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