Wires Get Crossed: Mercury-Scout I

Despite the flurry of activity at Hampton, Virginia, Houston, and elsewhere, generated by the impending move, STG did not pause in its scheduled Mercury flight test program. Plans had been in progress for several months and by the summer of 1961 were well developed for Mercury-Scout, whose flight was to provide a dynamic checkout of the Mercury tracking network.

Early in May, Purser and Williams of STG, Charles J. Donlan, who had returned to the Langley Research Center rolls in April, and Warren J. North of NASA Headquarters had met to discuss how the Mercury tracking network, completed at the end of March, could be exercised and evaluated. They agreed that the four-stage, solid-propellant Scout, originally designed at Langley and popularly called the "poor man's rocket," could perform this task economically. North briefed Abe Silverstein, NASA Director of Space Flight Programs, when he returned to Washington from Langley. In the meantime, William E. Stoney of STG had inquired of the Air Force, which also used the Scout, about the [393] availability of a Scout launch vehicle. The planners proposed to use the Air Force and its contractors for payload design and construction and for vehicle assembly and launch. On May 11, Air Force officials replied that a Scout was available, but concurrently North reported that Silverstein was not interested in a Scout shot. Purser, relaying this information on to Gilruth, remarked that "you or Williams will have to talk to him [Silverstein] about it." Mercury-Scout mission planning, meanwhile, was already in progress, and Marion R. Franklin of STG was temporarily appointed as project engineer. This responsibility took on the aspects of a revolving door, with the assignment being shuffled among several Task Group engineers. James T. Rose was named to head the project a few days later; then Rose and Lewis R. Fisher had co-responsibility, until Rose was relieved to continue his work with James A. Chamberlin on what became the Gemini two-man spacecraft project proposals.25

Although Silverstein at Headquarters opposed such a test, those on the operations end of Mercury felt that a flight to train the operators and check the tracking stations was a necessity. On May 15, 1961, personnel of NASA Headquarters and several of its cognizant centers, including Harry J. Goett of Goddard, Williams and Purser of Space Task Group, Low from NASA Headquarters, and Thomas A. Harris, G. Barry Graves, and Paul Vavra from Langley, met to review the proposed Scout launch in view of Silverstein's reluctance. They still concluded that the Scout was the best booster for network checkout purposes. The problem was how to sell the idea to Silverstein.

Low and Graves saw Silverstein the next day. They told him that only a one-orbit flight, possibly carrying a chimpanzee, was scheduled for the next six months; moreover, the Air Force had a spare research and development Blue Scout booster. This readiness gave promise of a reasonably early launch date, which was necessary if the communications exercise were to be worthwhile. Silverstein tentatively acquiesced, but he demanded assurance that all the design problems, including payload and antennas, would be resolved before he gave final Headquarters approval. After that approval, he added, all effort should be made to meet an August 15, 1961, firing date.26 This stipulation apparently was made so that the flight would precede the scheduled August 22 launch date of the MA-4 one-orbit flight.

With Silverstein's reluctant blessing, the planners wasted no time in getting the Scout enterprise rolling. At a meeting at Langley on May 17, attended by Williams, Purser, Merritt Preston, Franklin, and Chamberlin of STG; North of NASA Headquarters; and Graves, Virgil F. Gardner, and Elmer J. Wolff of Langley, responsibilities were assigned and some general requirements were outlined. As noted, Rose and Fisher were named project engineers. Rose was in Los Angeles discussing boosters for the two-man project at the time. He received a call from Chamberlin requesting him to go to Aeronutronic in Newport Beach, California, to talk about instrumentation for the payload. He was joined there by Earl Patton, communications expert from McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. [394] Graves asked the Goddard Space Flight Center to supply minitrack equipment and Goddard tentatively agreed to do so. The purpose of the minitrack equipment (used in the instrumented satellite programs) was to furnish data for comparison with that which would be transmitted by Mercury instrumentation. Mercury instrumentation was to include C- and S-band beacons, telemetry carriers, and either a command channel on the minitrack or a receiver operated by a command transmitter. Graves also planned to arrange with Goddard for minitrack drawings, and Chamberlin volunteered to contact McDonnell for the Mercury instrumentation drawings and hardware components. Some thought was briefly given to the possibility of using the Langley Research Center to instrument the payload; otherwise the Ford Motor Company's Aeronutronic Division, Air Force contractor for the Scout, probably would provide the instrumentation.27

On May 23, North in Washington telephoned Purser at Langley and reported that Silverstein "had bought the Scout." There was a qualification, however: planning could proceed, but money was not to be committed until Robert C. Seamans, Jr., NASA's "general manager," approved. Silverstein immediately sought Seamans' concurrence, offering the inducement that only the payload would require NASA funding ($130,000); the Air Force, using the operation to provide experience for its launch crews, would bear the cost of the launch vehicle and launch. Silverstein argued to Seamans that delays in the Mercury-Atlas program, with a reduction of the flights to be conducted before a manned orbital mission, made using the Scout to check out the network seem sensible. The proposed payload, he said, would be prepared by Ford Aeronutronic, using components from Mercury capsule No. 14, which had already flown in the Little Joe 5-B test of April 28, 1961. The STG planners estimated that the earliest possible launch date was sometime in July, but Silverstein told Seamans that an August date seemed more realistic. Seamans agreed and returned the formal STG request on May 26, stamped "approved."28

Now that the blessing was official, the Space Task Group made a sustained effort to launch in July. In June STG engineers considered the components that were to make up the 150-pound payload. Since Associate Administrator Seamans at NASA Headquarters had suggested in his approval document that a backup launch vehicle be obtained, STG secured the Air Force SSD's commitment to supply a second four-stage Scout. Seamans' suggestion proved to be prophetic; although no second Mercury-Scout mission was ever launched, the backup fourth stage had to be used in the first attempt.29

By early July, the trajectory data and mission directive for Mercury-Scout were completed. MS-1 would be launched at the Cape from complex No. 18-B, formerly the Project Vanguard launching site, on a true azimuth heading of 72.2 degrees east of north, aiming at an apogee of about 400 miles and a perigee of about 232 miles. Orbital insertion of the payload was to occur some 1,100 miles from the Cape, at a speed of 25,458 feet per second and an altitude of 232 miles. [395] A small rectangular box held the payload, which consisted of a C- and S-band beacon, two minitrack beacons, two command receivers, and two telemetry transmitters, all with antennas; a 1500 watt-hour battery; and the fourth-stage instrumentation package. The payload equipment was to function for 18 1/2 hours in orbit. To conserve electrical power while in flight, the equipment would be turned off by a ground command after the first three orbits. During shutdown, the results would be analyzed, and the equipment would then be activated to make another three-orbit data collection. The planners felt that by repeating the shutdown and reactivation operation they could obtain data equivalent to three full missions, gather a wealth of information for comparison, and give the DOD and NASA trackers a good workout.30

The launch vehicle for the mission was a 70-foot, solid-propellant Scout rocket weighing 36,863 pounds at liftoff. The booster had four stages. Starting from the bottom, these included an Aerojet Algol engine with a steel case and steel nozzle, burning polyurethane fuel and guided by hydraulic exhaust vanes; a Thiokol Castor motor, also with steel case and nozzle, burning a polybutadiene-acrylic acid propellant, with a precision autopilot employing hydrogen peroxide reaction motors; an Allegheny Ballistic Laboratories Antares motor encased in filament-wound fiber impregnated with epoxy resin, propelled by nitrocellulose nitroglycerin, and guided by an autopilot identical to that in the Castor; and an Allegheny Altair engine of the same construction as stage 3, using the same propellant, but with a spin-stabilizing control mechanism.31

The Scout was erected on the pad on July 25 to await mating with the payload. Ford Aeronutronic had completed what turned out to be the initial packaging and had shipped the payload to the Capeon July 3. There the equipment underwent spin-ballast and operational checks and was mated with the booster. But trouble with faulty solid-state telemetry transmitters, developing during the pad checkout, caused such a delay that a July launching became impossible. At about that same time NASA Headquarters decided that the payload had not had sufficient vibration testing, so it was shipped to Aeronutronic at Newport Beach, California, for testing and repackaging. After it returned to the Cape, malfunctions appeared in the Scout's fourth stage, and the Cape engineers had to lift the fourth stage from the backup vehicle. The question in August was which would be ready first, the launch vehicle or the payload. Then on September 13, MAŚ4, carrying its mechanical astronaut, essentially preempted the Mercury-Scout by its orbital trek around Earth. The Scout payload reached the Cape on September 20, but all four Scout stages did not return to the pad until October 22. The anticlimactic Scout launch was supposed to take place on the 31st.32

On Halloween, 1961, a launch crew under the technical supervision of the Air Force launch director (who, in turn, was responsible to the NASA operations director) attempted the Mercury-Scout launch. The countdown proceeded well down to the moment of ignition - when nothing whatever happened. [397] The ignition circuits were rechecked and repaired and the next day, November 1, 1961, Mercury-Scout took off. Immediately after liftoff, the vehicle developed erratic motions, and after 28 seconds the booster began tearing apart. The range safety officer gave the destruct signal 43 seconds after launch. The failure, it was later determined, resulted simply from a personal error by a technician who had transposed the connectors between the pitch and yaw rate gyros, so that yaw rate error signals were transmitted to pitch control, and vice versa.33 Six months of plans and labors had disintegrated in less than a minute.

Ambitions for a second Mercury-Scout, such as had been advocated earlier by Seamans, collided with the reality that another Scout rocket would not be ready before a Mercury-Atlas launch afforded a satisfactory and complete ground-tracking network checkout. The first stage of the backup Scout rocket failed its inspection tests, while the fourth stage had been used on the ill-fated Mercury-Scout 1 mission. Besides, Mercury-Atlas 5 was scheduled to go in mid-November, and the first manned orbital mission was set for December 19. Consequently, Low recommended the cancellation of the Mercury-Scout program to D. Brainerd Holmes, who had taken on manned space flight duties in NASA Headquarters.34 So the Scout had a short but chaotic life as a member of the Mercury family of launch vehicles.


25 Purser, log for Gilruth, May 15, 1961; Grimwood, Mercury Chronology, 129.

26 Memo, G. Barry Graves to those concerned, "May 16, 1961, Discussion of Proposed Scout Orbital Launch from Cape Canaveral," May 17, 1961. James T. Rose, interview, St. Louis, April 13, 1966.

27 Memo, Purser to Gilruth, "Meeting on Proposed Scout Range Test," May 18, 1961. Those attending the meeting, held May 17, decided the flight should be scheduled for August.

28 Purser, log for Gilruth, June 1, 1961; memo, Abe Silverstein to Robert C. Seamans, Jr., "Use of Blue Scout for Checkout of Mercury Network," May 24, 1961. Because of technical difficulties, the Mercury-Scout cost was about three times the $130,000 estimated by Silverstein. William M. Bland, Jr., interview, Houston, Sept. 3, 1964.

29 Memo, Purser to Warren J. North, "Details of the Mercury-Scout Instrumentation and Communication System," June 13,1961; memo, Low to Gilruth and Williams, "Mercury Scout Test," June 22, 1961; memo, North to Deputy Dir., Space Flight Programs, NASA, "Mercury Status Items for Project Review Meeting - June 27, 1961," June 27, 1961.

30 "Project Mercury, Summary of Calculated Preflight Trajectory Data for the Mercury Network Test Vehicle, MNTV-1," NASA Project Mercury working paper No. 200, July 12, 1961; "Project Mercury Mission Directive for Mercury-Scout Mission No. 1 (MS-1)," NASA Project Mercury working paper No. 201, July 21, 1961. The formal objectives of the Mercury-Scout mission were: (1) test real-time orbital computing capability at Goddard; (2) check out radar digital system and flow of digital data to the computer; (3) tailor the computation to the quality of data received by radar; (4) determine any interference that might exist between communications and data traffic; (5) determine the extent of system errors at radar sites, e.g., antenna misalignment, possible errors of surveyed position; (6) evaluate the updated radar procedures and revise as necessary; and (7) evaluate telemetry signal reception and operation of acquisition aids. "Status Report No. 11," 20.

31 "Preflight Trajectory Data for the Mercury Test Vehicle, MNTV-l "; "Mission Directive for Mercury-Scout Mission No. 1."

32 "Status Report No. 12," 21-22; "Status Report No. 11," 21; memo, Williams to Low, "Qualification Tests on Mercury-Scout Payload," July 24, 1961; memo, Low to D. Brainerd Holmes, "Dynamic Checkout of the Mercury Ground Network with Mercury-Scout," Nov. 8, 1961.

33 "Project Mercury Status Report No. 13 for Period Ending Jan. 31, 1962," NASA/STG. According to the agreement with the Air Force, a launch team from that service was to be used. Letter, Williams to Air Force Systems Command, "Mercury Network Test Vehicle," July 7, 1961; Williams interview.

34 Low memo. Some nine days after the failure of the Mercury-Scout-1, a one-and-a-half-pound squirrel monkey named Goliath was lost in an Air Force Atlas launching mishap. Thirty-five seconds after the rocket roared skyward, an explosion destroyed the tiny occupant of a small aluminum cylinder in the nose cone. Some newsmen, questioning the wisdom of the upcoming Mercury-Atlas chimpanzee launch, felt that this was a bad augury. But the Air Force Atlas had been an advanced E model, with modifications whose reliability was unproved, while the D model used in Project Mercury had been through its reliability program. So, Goliath notwithstanding, there was no change of plans. Baytown (Texas) Sun, Nov. 10, 1961; Houston Chronicle, Nov. 17, 1961.


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