Shopping for the Boosters

Booster procurement was perhaps the most critical, if not the highest priority task to be initiated. Once the Hobson's choice had been made to gear a manned satellite project to the unproven design capabilities of the Atlas ICBM, the corollary decision to use the most reliable of the older generation of ballistic missiles for testing purposes followed ineluctably. While the intercontinental-range Atlas was still being flight-tested, the medium-range Redstone was the only trustworthy booster rocket in the American arsenal. For suborbital tests, the intermediate-range Jupiter and Thor boosters were possible launch vehicles, but as yet they were neither capable of achieving orbital velocities nor operationally reliable.34

Even while the Joint Manned Satellite Panel was briefing the administrators of ARPA and NASA during the first week in October, Purser, Faget, North, and Samuel Batdorf flew to Huntsville for a business conference with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency regarding procurement of launch vehicles. Wernher von Braun's people assured their NASA visitors that Redstone missiles could be made available [123] on 12 to 14 months' notice and that the Army's Jupiters were far superior to the Thors of the Air Force. Although the Space Task Group had already consulted the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, at Inglewood, California, and was considering the Thor for intermediate launchings, a careful reconsideration of the adaptability of each weapon system as a launch vehicle for a manned capsule was now evidently required. The so-called "old reliable" Redstones might have been ordered right away. But the question of the need for intermediate qualification and training flights along ballistic trajectories was not yet settled.35 So more visitations to the Air Force and Army missile centers were arranged.

STG's wager on the Atlas was formalized by an order to the Air Force, placed on December 8, 1958, for first one, then nine of these Convair-made liquid-fueled rockets. The Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, heretofore the only customer for the Atlas, agreed to supply one Atlas, a C-model, within six months and the rest, all standard D-models, as needed over a period of several years. Faget was pleasantly surprised to know an Atlas-C could be furnished so soon. Having placed its first and primary order with the Air Force, the Space Task Group went on to decide a month later to buy eight Redstones and two Jupiter boosters from the Army Ordnance Missile Command. The decision to procure both medium- and intermediate-range boosters from the same source hinged largely on the fact that the Jupiter was basically an advanced Redstone. Both were Army-managed and developed and Chrysler-built. To adopt the Thor would have required another orientation and familiarization program for NASA engineers.36

Informed that the Atlas prime movers would cost approximately $2.5 million each and that even the Redstone would cost about $1million per launching, the managers of the manned satellite project recognized from the start that the numerous early test flights would have to be accomplished by a far less expensive booster system. In fact, as early as January 1958 Faget and Purser had worked out in considerable detail on paper how to cluster four of the solid-fuel Sergeant rockets, in standard use by PARD at Wallops Island, to boost a manned nose cone above the stratosphere. Faget's short-lived "High Ride" proposal had suffered from comparisons with "Project Adam" at that time, but in August 1958 William Bland and Ronald Kolenkiewicz had returned to their preliminary designs for a cheap cluster of solid rockets to boost full-scale and full-weight model capsules above the atmosphere. As drop tests of boilerplate capsules provided new aerodynamic data on the dynamic stability of the configuration in free-fall, the need for comparable data quickly on the powered phase became apparent. So in October a team of Bland, Kolenkiewicz, Caldwell Johnson, Clarence T. Brown, and F. E. Mershon prepared new engineering layouts and estimates for the mechanical design of the booster structure and a suitable launcher.37

As the blueprints for this cluster of four rockets began to emerge from their drawing boards, the designers' nickname for their project gradually was adopted. [124] Since their first cross-section drawings showed four holes up, they called the project "Little Joe," from the crap-game throw of a double deuce on the dice. Although four smaller circles were added later to represent the addition of Recruit rocket motors, the original name stuck. The appearance on engineering drawings of the four large stabilizing fins protruding from its airframe also helped to perpetuate the name Little Joe had acquired.

The primary purpose of this relatively small and simple booster system was to save money - by allowing numerous test flights to qualify various solutions to the myriad problems associated with the development of manned space flight, especially the problem of escaping from an explosion midway through takeoff. Capsule aerodynamics under actual reentry conditions was another primary concern. To gain this kind of experience as soon as possible, its designers had to keep the clustered booster simple in concept; it should use solid fuel and existing proven equipment whenever possible, and should be free of any electronic guidance and control systems.38

The designers made the Little Joe booster assembly to approximate the same performance that the Army's Redstone booster would have with the capsule payload. But in addition to being flexible enough to perform a variety of missions, Little Joe could be made for about one-fifth the basic cost of the Redstone, would have much lower operating costs, and could be developed and delivered with much less time and effort. And, unlike the larger launch vehicles, Little Joe could be shot from the existing facilities at Wallops Island. It still might even be used to carry a man some day.

Twelve companies responded during November to the invitations for bids to construct the airframe of Little Joe. The technical evaluation of these proposals was carried on in much the same manner as for the spacecraft, except that Langley Research Center itself carried the bulk of the administrative load. H. H. Maxwell chaired the evaluation board, assisted by Roland D. English, Johnson, Mershon, and Bland of the Space Task Group. English later became Langley's Little Joe Project Engineer, Bland the STG Project Engineer, and Mershon the NASA representative at the airframe factory. The Missile Division of North American Aviation won the contract on December 29, 1958, and began work immediately at Downey, California, on its order for seven booster airframes and one mobile launcher.39

The primary mission objectives for Little Joe as seen in late 1958 (in addition to studying the capsule dynamics at progressively higher altitudes) were to test the capsule escape system at maximum dynamic pressure, to qualify the parachute system, and to verify search and retrieval methods. But since each group of specialists at work on the project sought to acquire firm empirical data as soon as possible, more exact priorities had to be established. The first flights were to secure measurements of inflight and impact forces on the capsule; later flights were to measure critical parameters at the progressively higher altitudes [125] of 20,000, 250,000, and 500,000 feet. The minimum aims of each Little Joe shot could be supplemented from time to time with studies of noise levels, heat and pressure loads, heatshield separation, and the behavior of animal riders, so long as the measurements could be accomplished with minimum telemetry. Since all the capsules boosted by the Little Joe rockets were expected to be recovered, onboard recording techniques would also contribute to the simplicity of the system.40

Unique as the only booster system designed specifically and solely for manned capsule qualifications, Little Joe was also one of the pioneer operational launch vehicles using the rocket cluster principle. Since the four modified Sergeants (called either Castor or Pollux rockets, depending upon modification) and four supplemental Recruit rockets were arranged to fire in various sequences, the takeoff thrust varied greatly, but maximum design thrust was almost 230,000 pounds. Theoretically enough to lift a spacecraft of about 4,000 pounds on a ballistic path over 100 miles high, the push of these clustered main engines should simulate the takeoff profile in the environment that the manned Atlas would experience. Furthermore, the additional powerful explosive pull of the tractor-rocket escape system could be demonstrated under the most severe takeoff conditions imaginable. The engineers who mothered Little Joe to maturity knew it was not much to look at, but they fondly hoped that their ungainly bastard would prove the legitimacy of most of the ballistic capsule design concepts, thereby earning its own honor.

Although Little Joe was designed to match the altitude-reaching capability of the Redstone booster system, and thus to validate the concepts for suborbital ballistic flights, it could not begin to match the burnout speed at orbiting altitude given by the Atlas system. Valuable preliminary data on the especially critical accelerations from aborts at intermediate speeds could be duplicated, but Little Joe could lift the capsule only to 100 miles, not put it at that altitude with a velocity approaching 18,000 miles per hour. For this task, a great deal more, some sort of Big Joe was needed. A Jupiter booster might simulate fairly closely the worst reentry heating conditions but ultimately only the Atlas itself could suffice.

Therefore, paralleling the planning of the Little Joe project at Langley, a counterpart test program was inaugurated by the Space Task Group with special assistance from the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. Whereas Little Joe was a test booster conceived for many different demonstration flight tests, "Big Joe" was the name for a single test flight with a single overriding objective - to learn at the earliest practicable date what would happen when the "steel-balloon" rocket called Atlas powered a ballistic capsule on exit from Earth's atmosphere. Specifically, an experiment matching the velocity, angle of entry, time, and attitude at altitude for reentry from Earth orbit needed to be performed as soon and as exactly as possible by a powered ballistic test flight so that designs for thermal protection might be verified or modified. The Space Task Group [126] was most anxious about this; the whole manned satellite program was balanced tenuously on the stable thrust of the Atlas and the certain protection of the heatshield.

Public concern over whether the Nation possessed an intercontinental missile was alleviated on November 28, 1958, when an Atlas first flew its designed range - more than 6,300 miles - down the Atlantic Missile Range toward Ascension Island. Three weeks later, on December 18, the Atlas scored again with a secretly prepared first launch into orbit of the entire Atlas vehicle (No. 10-B) as a communications relay satellite called "Project Score." Roy Johnson of ARPA claimed he was "sleeping more comfortably each night" after that.4l In the midst of these demonstrations of the power of the prototype Atlas, NASA Headquarters and the Space Task Group planned to launch the first Atlas test for the space flight program in June or July 1959.

Gilruth appointed Aleck Bond, the former head of the Structural Dynamics Section at Langley, to take the reins as project engineer for Big Joe. Bond began to coordinate, with a real sense of urgency, the work of Langley and Lewis on the prototype capsule and of the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division and Convair/Astronautics on the Atlas propulsion system. Two Big Joe shots were arranged initially, but the second was to be merely insurance against the failure of the first. Although the Lewis laboratory traditionally had been most closely associated with propulsion problems and therefore was the logical center for NASA's first experience with large launch vehicles, neither Lewis direction nor Lewis propulsion experts were directly involved. NASA simply did not have time to learn the intricacies of launching the Atlas itself. Rather, Lewis contributed the expertise to design the electronic instrumentation and the automatic stabilization and control system for the boilerplate capsules being built jointly by the Lewis and Langley shops.

Bond recalled the initial rationale for Big Joe, alias the Atlas ablation test:

At the time that the Big Joe flight test program was conceived, only limited experimental flight test data existed on the behavior of materials and the dynamics of bodies reentering the earth's atmosphere at high speeds. These data, which evolved from the ballistic missile program, were useful; however, they were not directly applicable to the manned satellite reentry case because of the vast differences in the reentry environment encountered and in the length of time the vehicles were subjected to the environment. There was considerable concern regarding the nature of the motions of a blunt body as it gradually penetrated the earth's atmosphere and began to decelerate. Of similar concern was the lack of after-body heating measurements and knowledge of integrity of ablation materials when exposed to the relatively low level, long duration heat pulse which is characteristic of the reentry of bodies with low ballistic parameters . . . entering the earth's atmosphere at shallow entry angles.42 Although for Big Joe the Task Group could center its attention on the capsule, whereas for Little Joe it had to develop the booster as well, the design and [127] development problems for Big Joe still were sufficient to cause slippage in the scheduled launch date from early to late summer in 1959. To launch and recover the capsule safely would require very extensive familiarization with new procedures. Central among the primary objectives for Big Joe were the twin needs to determine the performance of the thermal protection materials and to learn the flight dynamics of the spacecraft during reentry. Many critical decisions for the project depended upon early, reliable data on the heatshield, the afterbody radiative shingling, and the dynamic stability of the "raindrop" configuration during the craft's trajectory back through the atmosphere.43

Also necessary were evaluations of the aerodynamic and thermodynamic loads on the capsule all along its flight path and of the operation of its automatic attitude control system. But certainly nothing was more important in the fall of 1958 than the need to settle the technical controversy over the heat sink versus ablation principles for the heatshield. Whether to use absorbing or vaporizing materials to shield the astronaut from reentry heating was one of the few major problems remaining to be solved when the manned satellite project was established.

33 Memo for files, Charles J. Donlan, "Procedures for Technical Assessment of Manufacturers' Proposal . . . on Specification S-6," Dec. 10, 1958; memo, Silverstein to NASA Administrator, "Schedule for Evaluation and Contractual Negotiations for Manned Satellite Capsule," Dec. 24, 1958. See p. 137. MacDougall, interview; memo, Low to NASA Administrator, "Status of Manned Satellite Project," Nov. 25, 1958. See also letter, Clarence A. Syvertson, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, to Dir., Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, re conference at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Jan. 29-31, 1958, on research problems associated with orbiting a manned satellite, Feb. 18, 1958.

34 See John W. Bullard, History of the Redstone Missile System, U.S. Army Missile Command, Historical Monograph AMC 23-M, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, Oct. 15, 1965; anonymous booklet, This Is Redstone, Chrysler Corporation Missile Division [Detroit, ca. Oct. 1958].

35 Memos, Purser to Gilruth, "Procurement of Ballistic Missiles for Use as NASA Satellite Boosters," Sept. 25, 1958; "Procurement of Ballistic Missiles for Use as Boosters in NASA Research Leading to Manned Space Flight," Oct. 8, 1958. See also memo, Purser and Faget to Silverstein, "Assignment of Responsibility for ABMA Participation in NASA Manned Satellite Project," Nov. 12, 1958; A. Richard Felix, "Static Stability and Drag Investigation of Jupiter C Boosted NASA Manned Space Capsule," ABMA Technical Note No. 76-58, Dec. 5, 1958.

36 Messages, Ralph E. Cushman to Commanding General, Army Ordnance Missile Command, Jan. 8 and 16, 1959; memo, North to Asst. Dir. for Advanced Technology, "Visit to ABMA Regarding Boosters," Dec. 4, 1958. See also "Development and Funding Plans for AOMC Support of NASA Manned Satellite Project," AOMC, Dec. 12, 1958; and Faget, interview, Houston, Aug. 23, 1965.

37 Memo, North to NASA Administrator, "Background of Project Mercury Schedules," Aug. 14, 1960; Ms., William M. Bland, Jr., for Project Mercury Technical History Program, "The Birth of Little Joe Booster," undated; Bland, interview, Houston, April 14, 1965. Unknown to STG, a JATO-powered ship-to-air missile named "Little Joe" had been authorized at the end of World War II to combat the Japanese suicide rocket or Baka bomb. See Eugene M. Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration of Space, 1915-1960 (Washington, 1961), 50.

38 See the description by Bland, "Project Mercury," in Eugene M. Emme, ed., The History of Rocket Technology: Essays on Research, Development and Utility (Detroit, 1964), 224-226.

39 Memo, Carl A. Sandahl to Assoc. Dir., Langley Research Center, "Langley Participation in Little Joe Project," Dec. 9, 1958.

40 Letter, Donlan to J. A. O. Stankevics, Avco-Everett Research Laboratory, May 5, 1960.

41 See John L. Chapman, Atlas: The Story of a Missile (New York, 1960), Chap. I and 154-165, for a description of Project Score. Low, "Status Report No. 1 - Manned Satellite Project," Dec. 9, 1958. Johnson's concurrence on the manned satellite booster was reported in "Atlas Seen as Vehicle to Put Man Into Space," Washington Post, Dec. 22, 1958. See also, Frank J. Dore, comments, Aug. 16, 1965.

42 Ms., Aleck C. Bond for Project Mercury Technical History Program, "Big Joe," June 27, 1963, 5. A large part of the President's first annual report, required by the Space Act of 1958, was devoted to the problems of reentry, including aerodynamic heating. See House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 86 Cong., 1 sess. (1959), U.S. Aeronautics and Space Activities, Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1958: Message from the President of the United States, 2, 12, 20, 23.

43 Initial efforts to develop a reliable landing and recovery system for the Big Joe payloads were begun by STG in conjunction with Norfolk Navy Yard personnel in December 1958.

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