SP-4401 - NASA SOUNDING ROCKETS, 1958-1968: A Historical Summary





[29] The International Geophysical Year (IGY) began on July 1, 1957, and lasted 18 months. This period saw the greatest concerted, systematic application of sounding rockets to upper atmosphere and space research yet attempted. The United States alone fired over 200. Other countries employed hundreds more. The first Russian and United States satellites were also orbited during the IGY, and the first Pioneer space probes were launched in the direction of the Moon. The Van Allen belts, the magnetosphere, and the solar plasma were all discovered by satellites and space probes. However, the technology they employed was primarily developed on sounding rockets. In fact, the early name for the U.S. IGY satellite was the LPR (Long Playing Rocket). And, of course, the scientific firsts of the satellites and probes had to dovetail with the immense quantity of data collected by sounding rockets from the upper atmosphere and the fringes of outer space. Satellites helped complete a picture that sounding rockets had begun to draw in 1945.

Preparations for the IGY officially began during October 1951, when the International Council of Scientific Unions, following a suggestion of Lloyd Berkner, decided to hold a Third International Polar Year.44 This international effort was to be a larger version of the two previous Polar Years in 1882 and 1932, which had been primarily concerned with accurately locating meridians. In October 1952, the official name was changed to the better known IGY.

Within the United States, the IGY effort was led by the U.S. National Committee for the IGY (USNC-IGY) established by the National Academy of Sciences in February 1953. Funds were supplied by the National Science Foundation. Under the USNC-IGY a Technical Panel on Rocketry (TPR) was organized with F. L. Whipple of the Smithsonian Astrophysical [30] Observatory as Chairman. Homer E. Newell, Jr., from NRL was Vice Chairman (later Chairman). The TPR needed a group of scientists and engineers familiar with sounding rockets to handle the actual schedules and launchings. This group, known as the Special Committee for the International Geophysical Year (Working Group on Rocket Operations) (SCIGY), evolved from the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel (UARRP) mentioned in Chapter IV. SCIGY membership 45 was as follows:


Homer E. Newell, Jr., NRL (Chairman)
John W. Townsend, NRL (Executive Secretary)
Warren W. Berning, Ballistics Research Laboratory
Leslie M. Jones, University of Michigan
Frank B. McDonald, State University of Iowa
William G. Stroud, Signal Corps Engineering Laboratory
P. R. Wyckoff, AFCRL
Robert W. Slavin, AFCRL (replaced Wyckoff)
Kinsey A. Anderson, State University of Iowa (replaced McDonald)
Nelson W. Spencer, University of Michigan (added 1956)
John Hanessian, Jr., USNC-IGY (Recording Secretary)
Pembroke J. Hart, USNC-IGY (Recording Secretary)


SCIGY began work as a UARRP committee in 1953. In February 1955, SCIGY was formally adopted by the TPR and thence became the key technical advisory group on IGY sounding rocket programs.

An interesting and pertinent feature of the TPR and SCIGY is the strong representation of NRL scientists and engineers. These NRL personnel, who figured so strongly in the IGY rocket program, eventually transferred almost to a man to NASA when it was created in 1958. Newell, Townsend, McDonald, Stroud, and Spencer went to Goddard Space Flight Center to build the space science and sounding rocket programs there.

The IGY sounding rocket program was so extensive that it is best summarized by a table (Table 146). Nearly half of the IGY rockets were launched from Fort Churchill, in the Canadian province of Manitoba. On the Arctic barrens, the Fort Churchill site was built by the United States for the IGY at the invitation of the Canadian Government. The facility was built in five months by 550 men of the 87th Task Force, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using a design and special equipment provided by Aerojet. The Aerojet Aerobees, being liquid-propellant rockets, could not be fired at that....


[31] TABLE 1. U.S. lGY Sounding Rocket Firings.

Launch site

Rockets used



Fort Churchill (Manitoba, Canada)

Aerobees, Loki-Darts, Nike-Cajuns





San Nicolas Island (off California)

Asps, Nike-Deacons, Rockoons





White Sands

Aerobees, Nike-Cajuns



Aerobees, Nike-Cajuns


Danger Island (Pacific)








....time without special ground facilities. Thus, Fort Churchill and White Sands saw most of the IGY Aerobee firings, while solid-propellant rockets were launched from shipboard, rockoons, and many remote sites.

In Table 2, the breakdown of the IGY rocket program47 shows the Fort Churchill site receiving the great bulk of the funds allocated by the National Science Foundation, with most of this fraction going to the Aerobee program. Project 10.1, the Rockoon and DAN program, included the ship firings in the Arctic and Antarctic noted in Table 1. Also under this program,...


TABLE 2. Breakdown of IGY Sounding Rocket Projects





10.1 Rockoon/DAN program


$ 338 300

10.2 Aerobee program, White Sands


90 000

10.3 DAN program, Southern California


154 000

10.4 Aerobee program, Holloman



10.5 Aerobee program, Fort Churchill


1 020 064

10.6 Aerobee program, Fort Churchill


248 936

10.7 Aerobee program, Fort Churchill


213 889

10.14 Nike-Cajun program, Fort Churchill


90 000

10.16 Meteorological support, Fort Churchill


12 000

10.17 Antarctic rocket data reduction



10.18 Rocket measurements at Guam


244 500

10.19 Contract support


90 800

10.20 Alphatron-sphere experiment


75 500

10.21 Pacific solar eclipse expedition


50 000




$2 627 989

aSUI = State University of lowa; NRL = Naval Research Laboratory; GRD = USAF Geophysics Research Directorate; SRDL = U.S. Army Signal Research & Development Laboratory; BRL = Ballistics Research Laboratory, Mich. = University of Michigan.



[32] ....Van Allen and his group from the State University of Iowa extended the polar rockoon experiments that they had pursued since 1952.

Another interesting program was 10.21, conducted by NRL during the total solar eclipse of October 12, 1958. Eight Nike-Asps were fired from Puka Puka Island in the South Pacific before and during totality. Solar X-rays and the Lyman-alpha line of hydrogen were measured by photometers in the payloads. This was the first of many rocket-equipped eclipse expeditions that were sent to various climes between 1957 and 1969.

The mainstays of the U.S. IGY rocket stable were the Aerobee-Hi, which was modified and improved to create what is now termed the Aerobee 150; 48 the Nike-Cajuns; the Nike-Deacons; and two new missile-derived rockets, the Loki-Dart and the Nike-Asp. The Loki was a JPL/Army Ordnance development, while the Asp was a Navy rocket built for high atmosphere work, mainly in connection with nuclear weapons tests. Both the Lokis and Asps were manufactured by the Cooper Development Corp., Monrovia, Calif. 49

Two brand new Aerobees were added to the series during the IGY: the Aerobee 100 and the Aerobee 300. The Aerobee 100 (also called the Aerobee Junior) was shorter (7.8 m; 25.7 ft) and lighter (655.6 kg; 1445 lb) than the standard Aerobee 150. From a performance standpoint, the Aerobee 100 could reach 160 km (100 mi) with about 18 kg (40 lb) of payload. The most interesting feature of the Aerobee 100 program was that it was not Government sponsored. The development of the new design and the manufacture of 20 rockets were carried out with Aerojet capital. In the manufacturer's words, it was a "do it yourself" rocket. NRL, the Air Force, and NASA (after it was formed) eventually purchased all 20 vehicles. The first was fired by NRL at White Sands on February 18, 1958. Only the final vehicle in the series, launched on September 21, 1961, failed.

The Aerobee 300 is in reality an Aerobee 150 with a motor from the Sparrow missile for an upper stage. For this reason, it is often called a "Spaerobee." Standing about 10 m (33 ft) high, and weighing roughly 940 kg (2075 lb), an Aerobee 300 can reach 480 km (300 mi) with a 23-kg (50-lb) payload. It was developed with Navy funds under the technical direction of NRL. The first of the new 300s was fired from Fort Churchill on October 25, 1958; it was an Air Force rocket instrumented by AFCRL. It reached an altitude of 418.4 km (260 ml).

One other important sounding rocket to make its debut during the IGY was the Arcas (stands for All-Purpose Rocket for Collecting Atmospheric [33] Soundings).50 The Arcas was a small meteorological rocket capable of reaching 64 km (40 mi) with 5.4 kg (12 lb). Developed jointly by the Army and Navy, Arcas was built by the Atlantic Research Corp. and needed only a simple launch tube. It was cheap- only $2000 apiece- and 2000 or so are currently fired each year. The first flight of Arcas was at Wallops Island in July 1959. The Arcas was not used in any of the IGY programs, but NASA has since fired several dozen, particularly in its international programs.

The results of the IGY sounding rocket program came not only from American rockets but from other types developed and flown by foreign countries, often in worldwide synchronized experiments. Knowledge was extended in almost every area of geophysics, although as mentioned previously, real scientific breakthroughs had to wait for the first scientific satellites in late 1957 and early 1958. Some of the more significant results from rocket research during the IGY are summarized in the remainder of this chapter.51 Examination of the results will show that the new data extended rather than revolutionized geophysical thinking.

Meteorology. High-altitude wind patterns were measured. Very high speed westerly winds were measured over Fort Churchill.

Atmospheric physics. Pressure, density, and other parameters measured by sounding rockets were used in preparing the 1962 U.S. standard atmosphere. Vertical distribution of ozone measured up to 70 km (44 mi). Mass spectrometer measurements above Fort Churchill detected N, O, H2O, NO, 02, and CO2 between 85 and 241 km (53 and 150 mi). The night airglow at 6300 A was shown to originate above 140 km (87 mi). Hydroxyl radiation was observed between 50 and 80 km (31 and 50 mi). The 5577-Å oxygen green line was found to be strongest between 90 and 100 km (56 and 62 mi). Sodium vapor released just below the E region of the ionosphere was seen to fluoresce brightly in sunlight. In the auroral zone, soft radiation many times more intense than the primary cosmic radiation was discovered above 40 km (25 mi).

Ionospheric physics. Electron densities were measured directly up to 389 km (242 mi); and the E and F2 regions were mapped in greater detail than possible before. Rockets discovered that atmospheric ionization remains dense during the daytime from the E region to as high as measurements were made.

Fields and particles. The Earth's magnetic field decreases according to the inverse cube, as expected. (Note that IGY rockets did not reach the magnetosphere. ) Measurements of the primary cosmic radiation were [34] extended geographically and to higher altitudes, laying the groundwork for the discovery of the Van Allen belts by Explorer 1.

Solar physics. The known ultraviolet spectrum of the Sun was extended from 2900 Å to 977 Å. Solar hydrogen Lyman-alpha and beta lines were measured. The X-ray spectrum and its variability were examined, showing a maximum near 40 Å, where kinetic temperatures appear to be about 700 000 K (1 260 000° F).

Astronomy. Some limited micrometeoroid influx data were obtained. Discrete Lyman-alpha radiation sources were found in the sky.


44. Eugene M. Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1915-1960 (Washington, 1961), p. 68.

45. Jack R. Siewert, The United States ICY Upper Atmosphere Rocket Operations Final Report of The Special Committee for the IGY (Working Group on Rocket Operations), Mar. 1959, p.

46. Frederick I. Ordway, III, and Ronald C. Wakeford, International Missile and Spacecraft Guide, p. 204.

47. Siewert, The United States lGY Upper Atmosphere Rocket Operations, p. 5.

48. Whenever a "standard Aerobee" is mentioned, an Aerobee-Hi or its derivative, an Aerobee 150, is usually meant.

49. C. M. Zimney, "The Asp, a Single-Stage Solid-Propellant Sounding Rocket," Jet Propulsion XXVII (Mar. 1957), 274.

50. W. C. Roberts, R. C. Webster, and W. D. Charles, Arcas and Metroc Sounding Rockets-A Status Report, ARS paper 234-62 (1962).

51. Homer E. Newell, Jr., "The Use of Rockets for Geophysical and Solar Research," in Newell, ed., Sounding Rockets' pp. 37-43.