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





[35] The IGY had proven the efficacy of the sounding rocket as a research vehicle; it had also been the stimulus for the development of better rockets, better auxiliary equipment and procedures, as well as smaller and more rugged instrumentation. Something else born out of the IGY was the scientific satellite.

On one hand, the scientific satellite seemed to be a direct competitor of the sounding rocket. A satellite could stay in orbit for months, even years, continually sending back data about its environment. In comparison, sounding rockets were quick-look vehicles that now seemed rather obsolete, like propeller aircraft did after the jets came along. On the other hand, the Sputniks and Explorers brought the beginning of the so-called Space Age; and more money became available for space research than IGY scientists had ever dared hope for. Further, the satellites brought about the formation of NASA and the centralization of space research, formerly dispersed throughout the country, including sounding rocket research. These events, at least, were beneficial to sounding rocket technology.

Although the satellite was a more romantic and exciting vehicle to use for experimentation, it soon became apparent that there would not be enough satellites to go around for at least several years after Sputnik. On top of that, there were obviously some things that satellites could not do that sounding rockets could; for example, gather data below 160 km (100 mi) altitude and make direct measurements within the atmosphere along a vertical flight profile. Sounding rockets were not dead, but they certainly did not have the glamour of the satellites and deep space probes.

NASA, created on October 1, 1958, was the logical organization to organize the nation's sounding rocket research program, but it had no staff experienced in this field. Where were cadres of experienced sounding rocket [36] people to be found? Within the Government, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) were the best bets. It was a foregone conclusion that NRL's Vanguard group-150 strong- were to become part of NASA, as they did on November 16, 1958. As it turned out, NRL also provided the great bulk of NASA's sounding rocket knowhow when, on December 28, 1958, John W. Townsend, Jr., was transferred to NASA along with 46 NRL scientists and engineers in his Rocket-Sonde Branch. 52

Together, the NRL Vanguard and sounding rocket personnel formed the nucleus of professionals for NASA's new Beltsville Space Center just north of Washington. Another NRL scientist who had been most active in sounding rocket research, Homer E. Newell, Jr., transferred to NASA Headquarters.

In the new Beltsville organization, NRL's sounding rocket group was first assigned to Townsend's new Space Sciences Division. Heading up the group was Karl R. Medrow, who had moved with Townsend from NRL. On May 1, 1959, T. Keith Glennan, NASA Administrator, announced that the new Beltsville Space Center would be renamed the Goddard Space Flight Center.53 In the same announcement, John W. Townsend, Jr., was named....


Evolution of the NRL Rocket-Sonde Branch.

Evolution of the NRL Rocket-Sonde Branch.


[37] ....Assistant Director for Space Science and Satellite Applications. Within Townsend's organization the position of Chief of the Space Sciences Division was assigned to Leslie H. Meredith, also a transferee from NRL. Karl Medrow remained as Chief of the Sounding Rocket Branch. The Townsend-Meredith-Medrow line of authority remained intact until 1962. (See Chapter VII.)

The structure of Goddard's Sounding Rocket Branch has not changed significantly since the group transferred from NRL. When Karl Medrow took charge of NASA's sounding rocket effort right after Christmas 1958, he set as a primary goal the establishment of competence in four areas: vehicles, mechanical engineering, instruments, and performance. Essentially, this was....


Evolution of top management structure at Goddard. (Only that portion pertinent to sounding rockets is shown.)

Evolution of top management structure at Goddard. (Only that portion pertinent to sounding rockets is shown.)


Evolution of top management structure at Goddard. November 1962.

Evolution of top management structure at Goddard. November 1962.


Evolution of top management structure at Goddard. October 1967.

Evolution of top management structure at Goddard. October 1967.


[40] ....the same approach he employed at NRL.54 In fact, the individuals heading up the four sections corresponding to Medrow's areas of competence transferred from NRL with Medrow; and, with a single exception, still head their respective sections: Eleanor C. Pressly, Vehicles; Francis J. Hartz, Engineering; Edward E. Bissell, Jr., Instruments; and Ernest F. Sorgnit, Performance. The single exception was Francis (Dutch) J. Hartz, who left NASA in 1959 55 and was replaced by George E. MacVeigh.


The Goddard Sounding Rocket Branch in 1968.

The Goddard Sounding Rocket Branch in 1968. The basic structure of the organization has remained unchanged since the move from NRL. The major personnel change between 1958 and 1968 was the replacement of Hartz by Mac Veigh.


The original group of NRL transferees was augmented in the beginning by other engineers lured to Goddard from other Government agencies. In the case of sounding rockets, the Naval Ordnance Laboratory was the second source after NRL. Starting with the 47 NRL people, the Goddard Sounding Rocket Branch roughly doubled in the first decade of NASA's existence.

It is important to point out here that the Sounding Rocket Branch at Goddard provided vehicles and launch services and did no experimentation itself. Rather it served various "customers" in the universities, within NASA itself, in industry, and in other Government agencies. Only about one-third of the Branch's launches were specifically for NASA experimenters. This is in contrast to the group's role at NRL where almost all the "science" was in-house.56 The "standard procedure" was for prospective experimenters to approach the Office of Space Science and Applications at NASA Headquarters with a proposal to fly an experiment on a sounding rocket. On occasion, these proposals were solicited by NASA for specific series of flights; for [41] example, a series of rockets to be flown during an eclipse. If the proposal was sound and had good scientific promise, NASA Headquarters funded the experimenter and, in addition, transferred the necessary funds to Goddard for the vehicle and launch services.57

An essential adjunct to the Goddard role was the availability of Wallops Station, which in 1958 became part of NASA along with Langley, Ames, and Lewis Research Centers and the other NACA facilities. Wallops served as a major launch and test site for the sounding rockets procured and instrumented under Goddard's management. For years, many rockets from other Government agencies were launched from Wallops, such as the Army Air Force MX-570 missile as far back as July 4, 1945.

The "tools" that the Goddard Sounding Rocket Branch had available to carry out its task were the rockets described in the preceding chapter: the Aerobees 100, 150, and 300; the Nike-Cajun; the Arcas; and various combinations of the Nike, Asp, and other solid-propellant military rockets. Of course, balloons and aircraft could be used to improve rocket performance as they did in the rockoon and rockaire concepts. But sounding rocket performance had improved so much- in payload and altitude- that rockoons and rockaires were used hardly at all after 1959. There was still a need, however, for better rocket performance and, in particular, lower cost, better reliability, and improved logistics- that is, ease of transport and launching simplicity. Experimenters needed better pointing control for their instruments and bigger capacity telemetry systems. And because NASA was specifically charged in the Space Act of 1958 with fostering international cooperative programs where possible, it would be helpful to have vehicles that could be exported without concern for military antecedents.

During the first year of the existence of Goddard's Sounding Rocket Branch, several sounding rockets, whose development predated NASA, came into the "stable" of vehicles readily available to NASA. Chief among these were the Javelin and Journeyman, both in the so-called Argo series. The Argo series was developed by the Aerolab Development Co. under the sponsorship of NACA/NASA, with support from the Air Force Special Weapons Center, the Naval Bureau of Ordnance, and the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory.

The Argo vehicles were derived from a family of NACA/NASA hypersonic test vehicles, after the fashion of the Nike-Deacon and Nike-Cajun. Aerolab has designed a long series of Argo rockets, including the Argo E-20, designed to lift 4.5 kg (10 lb) to 24 384 m (80 000 ft); but only the Jason (Argo E-5), the Javelin (Argo D-4), and the Journeyman (Argo [42] D-8) have seen significant use. NASA never employed the Jason, but it is the rocket that the Air Force employed to measure high-altitude nuclear radiation during the Argus experiments in the late summer of 1958, when nuclear weapons were exploded at high altitudes. NASA has used the Javelin to some extent, as indicated by the flight history in Appendix C. The Journeyman helped NASA gather radiation data prior to the Mercury flights and has also seen some Air Force use. In general, the Argos are rather large by sounding rocket standards. They were all put together from off-the-shelf military hardware, often following vehicle adaptations by Langley Research Center. (See Appendix A for rocket details.) NASA use of the Argo series has been minimal.

The development of the Iris sounding rocket had begun at NRL prior to the transfer of its Rocket-Sonde group to NASA. Iris was built by the Atlantic Research Corp. for the Naval Bureau of Ordnance, with NRL monitoring the design, the production, and the payload.58 The development of the rocket was completed by NASA, with the first NASA firing taking place at Wallops Island on July 22, 1960. In contrast to the monsters in the Argo series, Iris is a small, two-stage, solid-propellant rocket capable of lifting 45 kg (100 lb) to about 320 km (200 mi). NASA has not used the Iris rocket since 1962.

During 1959, its first year of operation, Goddard's Sounding Rocket Branch (with the help of other agencies) fired only 16 rockets, 12 from Wallops Island and 4 from Fort Churchill. Six of these firings were tests of the Arcon rocket at Wallops Island; all of these were classified as failures. (NASA never used the Arcon again.) There also were five Nike-Asp (or Aspan) launches during 1959, all from Wallops Island. Four of the five were successfully launched and two released payloads of sodium at high altitudes for studies of the upper atmosphere. Four Aerobee 150s were fired from Fort Churchill in a series of ionosphere experiments in collaboration with Canada's Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment; three of these were successful.59

An interesting scientific use of rockets appeared in 1959, when, on October 28, 1959, NASA launched a 30-m (100-ft) inflatable sphere into a suborbital trajectory from Wallops Island as part of Project Shotput. Project Shotput used a Sergeant-Delta launch vehicle to test payloads for the Echo passive communications satellite project.60 A second suborbital shot was [43] made on January 16, 1960. It is a matter of semantics whether the Shotput launches should be considered sounding rockets; certainly useful scientific data were obtained from the suborbital vehicles. Further, other suborbital tests of a similar nature followed-the Shotput tests of the Italian San Marco satellite from Wallops Island in 1962, for example. The Shotput tests must really be considered as extensions of the NASA philosophy of testing scientific instruments on sounding rockets before committing them to satellites.

To summarize, the year 1959 was a year of transition and preparation for future programs at Goddard. The Sounding Rocket Branch was developing programs that would launch a total of 60 sounding rockets in 1960 (about four times the 1959 total). The shift from serving in-house experimenters (the NRL approach) to that of providing rockets for scientists the world over was a major perturbation. In fact, 1959 was only the beginning of perturbation. The year 1959 was only the beginning of a service to science here and abroad that has remained fairly constant despite the recent ups and downs of the overall NASA budget.


52. Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966), p. 47.

53. Alfred Rosenthal, Venture into Space, NASA SP-4301 (Washington, 1968), p. 29. Goddard Space Flight Center is located at Greenbelt, Md., although the present Sounding Rocket Branch remains at Beltsville, Md., a few miles west.

54. Personal interview with Karl R. Medrow, Dec. 11,1968.

55. Hartz eventually returned to Goddard.

56. Personal interview with Eleanor C. Pressly, Dec. 3, 1968.

57. See William R. Corliss, Scientific Satellites, NASA SP-133 (Washington, 1968), pp. 408-410, for a review of NASA's experiment selection procedures.

58. J. W. Townsend, Jr., and F. J. Hartz, Arcon and Iris Rocket Report No. I, NRL-5073 (1958).

59. Full data on these flights as well as all other NASA sounding rocket flights may be found in J. A. Sterhardt and W. E. Weaver, NASA Sounding Rocket Program, Summary of Sounding Rocket Flights, X-721-66-515 (Greenbelt, 1966) and X-721-68-283 (Greenbelt, 1968).

60. The first successful Echo satellite was launched August 12, 1960, from Wallops Island.