SP-480 Far Travelers: The Exploring Machines


For Want of a Hyphen


[1] Our friend died violently at 4:26 A M. on a hot July night. Her finish was spectacular; she was trapped amid the flaming wreckage of an explosion that lit the night sky. Four of us watched helplessly, standing together at a site that gave us a perfect view. We had come there with a common interest in her adventuresome goal, though we came from different backgrounds, and each of us brought a different perspective and commitment to her tragic performance.

We were soon to learn that she had been blown up intentionally by a man with no firsthand knowledge of her ability and promise. My emotion changed from disappointment to bitterness when I learned that she was destroyed barely seconds before flying beyond his reach. We had witnessed the first launch from Cape Canaveral of a spacecraft that was directed toward another planet. The target was Venus, and the spacecraft blown up by a range safety officer was Mariner 1, fated to ride aboard an Atlas/Agena that wobbled astray, potentially endangering shipping lanes and human lives.

Before launch the space vehicle was a breathtaking sight, poised and erect in the night sky, a great gleaming white projectile lit by searchlights so intense that their beams seemed like blue-white guywires. Driving to the launch pad, it was difficult to determine the scale of this bright image in the dark sky. Was it a marvelous Hollywood model, or could it be full sized and real? As we drew closer, it became real, and immense.

I was accompanied that fateful night by Bob Johnson, a NASA protocol officer, who was helping me shepherd Congressmen James Fulton and Joseph Karth to the launch site, slipping us through a roadblock before the area was officially sealed. For a firsthand view of the launch and the disaster that followed, no one had a better position than we four. We stood in the open atop the blockhouse of Mercury Pad 14, less than a mile away from the launch on Pad 12. It was easy to follow the Atlas rocket engines by their firey [2] flame and roar for the 269 seconds-better than 4 minutes-they seemed to operate normally, and even easier to see the tremendous explosion brought about by the destruct command.

Shortly after we had climbed the stairs leading to the top of the blockhouse, guards from the roadblock arrived and asked us to leave. Congressman Fulton was determined to stay. The frustrated guards departed to consult higher authority. I learned later that the Air Force Base Commander was roused from bed to consider the problem. Had time allowed, he would probably have ordered the launch delayed until we were removed, but he was informed too late to intervene.

According to range safety edicts, we shouldn't have been on the roof of the blockhouse. We were there only because of the strong desire and authoritative style of Congressman Jim Fulton, who had already become known as a staunch supporter of the space program. I wasn't particularly worried about our exposure, knowing that range safety requirements were extremely conservative. I would not have chosen that roof as a place to be, with no instruments or communications to give information about the events, but I thought of congressmen as representing the people for whom we all worked and having leadership roles for all that we did. This naive view meant, of course, that we were obligated to do their bidding.

Fulton, a Republican from Pennsylvania and not without an element of theater in his manner, had been in the House of Representatives for a number of years. He was known by the protocol staff at the Cape to have great interest in space, attending almost every launch in the early years. Fulton had the unique habit of collecting souvenir scraps of materials around the pad after a launch; he took the scraps back to Washington and presented them to visitors from his home district.

At that time we did not know our other dignitary, Congressman Joseph Karth of Minnesota, as well. He had only recently been elected to the House of Representatives. As a lawyer and union arbitrator, he had not at first welcomed his assignment to the Space Science Committee, for it had little relevance to his constituents. However, the assignment was a wise one, for Karth later became shrewd and influential in space-related matters in Congress. I attended the launch as Director of Lunar and Planetary Programs for NASA; as senior official present, I had drawn the duty of "babysitting" the congressmen.

We could have watched the launch from many other places at Cape Canaveral. There was the blockhouse, crammed with about 60 engineers and [3] technicians responsible for checking instrumentation showing voltages, temperatures, pressures, and other vital signs from the launch vehicle. Another group of spacecraft engineers in Hangar AE concentrated on detailed instrument readings from the spacecraft itself, the costly and delicate principal actor in the enterprise. The range instrumentation group was in a third building several miles away; they may have had the best "view" of the exact whereabouts and trajectory of the rocket from their elaborate tracking radar displays, but they could not glory in the smoke and flame of a launch, breathtakingly close to where we stood. All these groups were linked by telecommunications, and the spacecraft group was also linked to counterparts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 3000 miles away, working in a makeshift space flight operations facility in Pasadena, California. Tracking stations around the world were in radio contact, receiving basic reports about the countdown and eagerly awaiting the arrival of the spacecraft in their area of the sky. NASA managers and contractors and VIPs were on hand to monitor the launch at the Florida and California installations, as well as at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Despite our superb view, we were in the worst position to understand or affect what was happening; we had no communications or messenger, no knowledge of anything except the great fireball high in the sky. Congressman Karth, who had never before attended a launch, asked, "What happened?" Not really knowing, I replied that evidently the vehicle, and probably the spacecraft, had been destroyed, although there was a faint possibility that a clean staging had been achieved before the fireball appeared.

Impelled again by the strong will of Congressman Fulton, we drove to the launch pad, where Fulton began searching for scraps of wire and bits of tape-anything that might have been a product of, or present at, the launch. He filled his pockets and asked us to do the same. With our bits of scrap and gloomy thoughts, we met with project officials at an all-night cafeteria on the base to hear engineers' reports and to compare notes on what had happened. A short time later there was a briefing for reporters; all that could be said-all that was definitely known-was that the launch vehicle had strayed from its course for an unknown reason and had been blown up by a range safety officer doing his prescribed duty.

Engineers who analyzed the telemetry records soon discovered that two separate faults had interacted fatally to do in our friend that disheartening night. The guidance antenna on the Atlas performed poorly, below specifications. When the signal received by the rocket became weak and noisy, the [4] rocket lost its lock on the ground guidance signal that supplied steering commands. The possibility had been foreseen; in the event that radio guidance was lost the internal guidance computer was supposed to reject the spurious signals from the faulty antenna and proceed on its stored program, which would probably have resulted in a successful launch. However, at this point a second fault took effect. Somehow a hyphen had been dropped from the guidance program loaded aboard the computer, allowing the flawed signals to command the rocket to veer left and nose down. The hyphen had been missing on previous successful flights of the Atlas, but that portion of the equation had not been needed since there was no radio guidance failure. Suffice it to say, the first U.S. attempt at interplanetary flight failed for want of a hyphen.

Mariner 1 was not my first exposure to failure during launch, nor was it to be my last. It was also not the first for the Launch Conductor in the blockhouse who was responsible for the Atlas countdown and launch operation. He was Orion Reed, a man whom I had learned to respect during the early 1950s, when we both worked on the Navaho program for North American Aviation Missile Development Division. This Air Force program used rocket boosters for launching ramjet-powered cruise missiles and had provided a base for many of the technologies now being applied to space projects, as well as practical experience for us both.

Returning to Cape Canaveral for a rocket launching after 5 or 6 years was nostalgic. During the Navaho flights my responsibilities had been limited to the ramjet propulsion systems on the cruise missile, and my reason for being at the flight test site was to review the instrumentation checkout for the ramjets. The rocket launchings were to start our missiles on their way with a boost to an altitude of over 60 000 feet and a speed of Mach 3-three times the speed of sound-so that they could begin cruise under their own power. My interest in the launch phase was similar to that for Mariner 1: it was necessary for the booster to succeed before the missile had a chance to complete its mission. One difference was that my overall responsibility for the Mariner program now made me answerable for launch vehicle performance as well as for spacecraft operation.

Reed had been responsible for Navaho flight test operations at the Cape throughout the program; when it ended in 1959, he decided to remain there and joined Convair, the company building and flying Atlas ballistic missiles. All our Mariner, Ranger, and Lunar Orbiter launch vehicles used Atlas boosters, so this put him right in the thick of our early lunar and planetary [5] launches I was to visit with him frequently during launch operations to come.

Although the Germans had experienced many failures in developing their V-2 rockets, those of us trained in the aircraft industry who had become involved with rocket applications did not have enough respect for rocket development problems to expect or tolerate the failure rate that was experienced. Someone aptly described rocket firings as "controlled explosions." Perhaps that truth, plus the fact that booster operations required far more automation than needed to successfully test fly a new aircraft, were powerful factors.

Critics of the Navaho program dubbed the effort "Project Nevergo"; the project was finally canceled partly because of the booster failures. Since coming to NASA I had been associated with nothing but failures-two Pioneer lunar missions and four Rangers had all failed. Now Mariner 1, after almost 3 years of failures, was a failure too. Mariner had been a special concern to me; it was the first program I was involved in that started from scratch after my arrival at NASA Headquarters early in 1960. I didn't know when or how the failures would end, or if they ever would. My flight from the Cape back to Washington has been erased from memory, but I probably spent it staring out the window with unseeing eyes.