Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a story from our magazine archives. This week, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX celebrated the landing of the Dragon capsule, the world’s first commercial spacecraft, marking a new era in space exploration in which private companies will step in to help NASA push the final frontier. This week’s classic turns to 1959, ten years before the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. Companies were starting to build the crafts that would enable U.S. astronauts to fly. Then as now, scientists and government officials debated the costs and benefits of space travel and the possibility of discovering life.
“…Suppose when we get to the moon we find sitting in the middle of a crater a strange little marker bearing a carefully chiseled but totally incomprehensible inscription,” one scientist told Fortune writer Bello; “Then space would really get exciting.”
By Francis Bello
Anyone who has wondered what it was like to live in the era that followed Columbus’ voyage to America now has his chance to find out. Then, as now, thoughtful men disputed the merits of pressing into the unknown, argued that the possible fruits could not justify the cost, warned that the hazards to life and limb were immense. And then as now, the young, the venturesome, and the insatiably curious plunged ahead. “What we are witnessing,” says one prominent member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, “is another irresistible urge of the human race. The justifications given for going into space have no more relevance than the desire for spices had for the discovery of America.”
Privately, and sometimes openly, many scientists deplore the fact that enormous funds are going into space when there are so many unfinished problems, both scientific and human, lying much closer at hand. One persuasive answer to this viewpoint is offered by Herbert F. York, the young physicist who is Director of Defense Research and Engineering. “Everyone would agree,” he says, “that we should be trying to raise the standard of living in India, and building dams in the Middle East. But no one is asking us to choose between dams and space–we could easily afford both. The space effort isn’t a plot; it’s something that appeals to a great many people for a great many reasons.”
No one has responded to space more spontaneously and enthusiastically than U.S. industry. And the vigor of the response is out of all proportion to the money to be made in the space business, at least. in the foreseeable future. Companies have been setting up “space” and “astro” divisions (see box, page 88) with much the same exuberance with which they created atomic and nuclear divisions five or six years ago. (This article is not concerned with military missiles except as they can be used as power stages for space propulsion.) Space, however, is much less hedged about with secrecy than the atom was in 1953 and 1954, and it offers a far wider range of technical challenges. Moreover, the investment needed to make a useful contribution to space technology, especially its electronic aspects, is far smaller than that needed to contribute to nuclear technology. For example, the instruments that James Van Allen used to detect the great belts of radiation that now bear his name were built in a basement of the physics department at the State University of Iowa.
The Space Age has already created sharp geographical rivalries. Southern California, particularly Los Angeles, sees an opportunity to be to space what Pittsburgh is to steel and Detroit to the automobile. California’s claim to be the heartland of the space industry is only slightly diluted by the presence of Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral in Florida, of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and of Martin’s Titan ICBM plant near Denver. Canaveral can be explained away as an accident of geography that provided a matchless pattern of islands for down-range tracking stations. (And, of course, California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Pacific Missile Range will eventually rival Canaveral in size and importance.) The selection of Redstone Arsenal as the home of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency can be explained largely by its proximity to Canaveral and to the Pentagon. And as for Martin in Denver–at least this old Baltimore outfit had to come two-thirds of the way to the Coast.
The cosmic testing range
Progress in space technology will dramatize a nation’s total technological capabilities in a way that nothing else ever could. In the momentous years ahead, the world may compare U.S. and Soviet industrial and scientific resources less and less in terms of steel, oil, and electric-power production, and more and more in terms of the number, weight, and complexity of vehicles the two countries have been able to thrust into outer space.
Success in space will require the creation of machinery and devices stronger, lighter, more powerful, more accurate, and more reliable than anything men have ever built before. The Space Age will test the ability of two very different societies to mobilize their industrial skills, to draw up long-range plans, to make complex decisions, to educate for the tremendous scientific challenges ahead, and to create congenial environments for some of their most creative minds. Premier Khrushchev once proposed that the U.S. and Russia compete in a friendly “shooting match” to test the accuracy of the ICBM’s of the two nations. The space contest actually in progress is more pervasive and far more fateful for world history than the match Khrushchev proposed.
And, on the record to date, Russia is ahead. Most U.S. rocket experts expect to see before the year is out another major Russian achievement at least as exciting as the Mechta shot past the moon in January. It may be placing a man in orbit, or landing an instrument package on the moon.
On the other hand, Russia may decide to try for an immediate military-political payoff by putting a communication satellite into a twenty-four-hour orbit, 22,000 miles above the equator. At this altitude a satellite will revolve once around the earth in exactly twenty-four hours and thus, if rotating eastward, will appear to stand motionless in space. If a suitably equipped satellite were spotted precisely over the equator, slightly west of the tip of India, Russia could use it to beam radio and television messages to virtually any point on the entire Afro-Eurasian land mass. Three such satellites of reasonable size spaced equidistantly around the equator could provide the Russians with over a hundred voice channels and several thousand teletype channels to virtually any point on earth.
If the Soviets really fear that the U.S. might start a “preemptive” missile war, they may choose, instead, to give first priority to satellites that could keep the U.S. under continuous surveillance, and provide early warning of a ballistic-missile attack. Suitable devices in such satellites could provide photographic reconnaissance of the U.S. as well as instantaneous detection of the great heat blasts produced by the firing of a rocket engine.
Opening the skies by satellite patrols
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Obviously, the U.S. is energetically rushing satellites for the same sorts of missions. These efforts are not seriously handicapped by the official U.S. position, expressed in the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, “that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” Important military uses of space were visualized by a few scientists at the close of World War II. More than a year before the flight of Sputnik I, Lockheed was awarded the Sentry Project, aimed at building reconnaissance satellites. The first fruits of this program were the two Discoverer satellites launched from the new Vandenberg Base last February and April, which placed record U.S. payloads in the difficult polar orbit.
In addition to Sentry and Discoverer, which are now separate but related projects, Lockheed is also in charge of Midas–a satellite system to provide ballistic-missile early warning. The sensing devices in Midas will presumably be infrared, or heat, detectors. Half a dozen or so polar-orbit satellites, spaced one behind the other, could maintain a constant patrol over Russian missile-launching sites. Assuming that Russia sets up a similar patrol over the U.S., it would be just a step to a mutual “open skies” inspection system far more audacious than that originally proposed by President Eisenhower in January, 1955.
The military half of the U.S. space program, currently absorbing about half a billion dollars a year, is under the control of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was set up by Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy in February, 1958. ARPA’s director, Roy W. Johnson, formerly executive vice president of General Electric, defines the services’ function in space in these words: “Our military task is to master the region under the radiation belts, that is, the region out to about 600 miles. We are going to have to learn to maneuver out there and to carry out military missions, and I am sure we will need men to do it.”
ARPA has ordered a monster 1,500,000-pound-thrust rocket booster, consisting of a cluster of eight engines of the size used in the IRBM’s and ICBM’s. The cluster, known as Saturn, is being built by the same Army rocket team, under Wernher von Braun, that produced the Redstone and Jupiter missiles at Redstone Arsenal. Saturn is scheduled for static test this year and for its first flight test in late 1960. Saturn’s ultimate objective: to place three communication satellites into twenty-four-hour orbits, which, as noted above, the Russians might also be planning to do.
The nonmilitary half of the U.S. space effort, absorbing another half billion dollars, is the responsibility of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, which Congress created last year out of the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA: As the head of NASA, T. Keith Glennan, president-on-leave of the Case Institute of Technology, and a member of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1950 to 1952, has the job of guiding a complete scientific exploration of the space frontier for nonmilitary purposes. Like others with responsibility for the nation’s space effort, Dr. Glennan would like to feel sure that the big expenditures really have the backing of the general public. “I try to be’ frank with Congressmen,” he says. “I tell them I don’t know that the space program is the most important thing the country can be doing with its resources. How do you evaluate winning a first in space as against all of the other demands for manpower and money? But I am sure that the stakes are such that we will not take a second position if we can help it.”
NASA has ordered from the Rocketdyne Division of North American Aviation a rocket engine with as much thrust in its single chamber as all eight Rocketdyne engines going into Saturn. Glennan has estimated that the gargantuan engine will have cost over $200 million before it is ready for its first flight in 1963. A second effort, almost as costly as this engine, is the highly publicized Project Mercury, aimed at sending a man in a capsule on a few trips around the earth. This is a first that NASA does not have much hope of winning. NASA cannot have its astronauts trained and its recovery techniques perfected much before 1961, and a Russian will doubtless be out there before that.
A still more difficult man-in-space effort, though not billed as that, is the Air Force’s Dyna-Soar Project. Its goal is a rocket-boosted, maneuverable, winged vehicle that will carry its pilot to an altitude of seventy-five miles (vs. 100 miles for Project Mercury) and to speeds just fractionally short of the 18,000 mph needed to go into orbit. The vehicle, after boosting, will be capable of soaring completely around the earth and of landing like an airplane at a designated point. The Air Force can claim that it is not trying to put a man into space, but the man in the Dyna-Soar cockpit will scarcely know the difference. Two large industrial teams have been competing for the Dyna-Soar contract, one headed by Boeing Airplane, the other by the Space Flight Division of Martin. Before this article appears, one or the other may have been selected for the job, but the first Dyna-Soar flight can scarcely come much before 1964.
Using experience provided by Mercury and Dyna-Soar, ARPA believes it can build a manned space ship, which it calls MRS-V, for “maneuverable, recoverable space vehicle.” One job for MRS-V (solemnly referred to in ARPA as “Missus Vee”) would be to carry space repairmen to fix communication and other satellites too costly to be abandoned if they should stop functioning. Something like MRS-V should also be useful for making a close-up inspection of large satellites launched by other countries.
The prodigal’s routes to space
So far as anyone in the West knows, the Soviets have moved into space with one vast coordinated effort, embracing military rockets on the one hand and scientific exploration on the other. With its customary prodigality, the U.S. supported, often haltingly, three separate ballistic-rocket programs in the interval between 1945 and 1958–and in 1958 all three paid off with successful space flights. The three separate routes to space were:
• The Redstone-Jupiter missile effort of the German-born experts under Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. With upper stages and payloads produced by Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Army missiles put three Explorers into orbit in 1958, and on March 3 of this year sent the 13.4-pound Pioneer IV chasing after 3,245-pound Mechta, on its endless journey around the sun.
• The Viking-Vanguard program conducted by Martin for the Naval Research Laboratory. Vanguard produced the two highest-flying and longest-lived earth satellites. Vanguard I may still be aloft in 2959 A.D.
• The Thor-Atlas-Titan program of the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, with Douglas, Convair, and Martin as principal airframe contractors. The entire program is under the technical direction of Space Technology Laboratories, a subsidiary of Thompson Ramo Wooldridge. Last December, AFBMD orbited the entire empty shell of an Atlas-the “talking” Atlas that broadcast a Christmas message from President Eisenhower. Thors have boosted the heaviest U.S. payloads to date, and Thors and Atlases–and probably Titans–will have growing roles in the space program.
There has been intense and understandable rivalry among the three groups, but in countless formal and informal ways the experience and knowledge gained by one have generally been passed on to the others. How this transfer and diffusion of information takes place is one of the marvels of the American industrial system.
Space operations require the creation of larger industrial complexes than ever before worked together in peacetime. The outstanding example of this is the great group of companies brought together by the AFBMD to create Thor, Atlas, and Titan. This program, with its nearly quarter of a million contractors, vendors, and suppliers located in virtually every state in the Union, has cost over $6 billion to date, or three times as much as the World War II atomic bomb program.
The Dyna-Soar Project, requiring another great technological leap, is equally far beyond the capacity of any single company. If Boeing should win the contract it will work closely with Convair, which will provide a modified Atlas as the vehicle booster, and with Chance Vought Aircraft, Thompson Ramo Wooldridge, Pratt & Whitney, Hercules Powder, G.E., R.C.A., Goodyear Aircraft, and North American Aviation. The east-coast team competing for the contract consists of Martin (co-systems manager and Titan booster), Bell Aircraft (co-systems manager and airframe) , Minneapolis-Honeywell (navigation and guidance), Bendix (communications), American Machine & Foundry (ground support), Goodyear (escape capsule and radar), and Aerojet-General (rocket engines). It is doubtful that the job can be done for much less than $1 billion. What Dyna-Soar is being asked to do,” says George Trimble, head of Martin’s Space Flight Division, which is coordinating the eastern group’s effort, “is to explore, in one jump, the remaining 90 per cent of the flight spectrum from the 2,000 mph of present aircraft to the 18,000 mph of satellites.”
The competition for contracts like Dyna-Soar reaches a keenness rarely matched in civilian industry. The Martin and Boeing teams each put in over fifteen months of study and spent hundreds of thousands of man-hours drawing up their proposals. Last April an inspection team of nearly a hundred Air Force and other government representatives descended on both Martin and Boeing, and spent five days in each shop, examining their proposals in meticulous detail. As this article went to press, the Air Force had still not announced the winner of the competition.
Neither firm, naturally, knows what the other is proposing. Each knows that a single inspired idea might tip the scales in its favor, but it knows, too, that an idea that appeared too radical might be rejected even though sound.
There’s prestige out there
There have been notable surprises in recent space awards. In January, McDonnell Aircraft, St. Louis, was selected over eleven other competing firms–including just about every top name in the aircraft industry–to build the man-carrying capsule for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Project Mercury. Competition was far sharper than the total value of the contract (about $20 million) would ordinarily warrant, because of the immense prestige attached to the man-in-space project. McDonnell evidently made the strongest proposal because it had been intensively studying the capsule problem for a year or more before the competition.
There was another surprise last fall when the Advanced Research Projects Agency selected the Pratt & Whitney Division of United Aircraft to build the nation’s first–and perhaps the world’s first—liquid-hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine. It was chosen, however, for the hydrogen engine because it had developed, under an Air Force contract, special techniques for handling and pumping liquid hydrogen, which boils at a scant 20 degrees Centigrade above absolute zero.
The use that the hydrogen engine will be put to illustrates the complex ways in which the Santa Marías, the Half Moons, and the Victorias of the Space Age are being built. With its thrust of about 30,000 pounds, the hydrogen engine will power the so-called Centaur rocket that will serve as a second stage atop a modified Atlas. The third stage has not been selected, but may be a 6,000-pound-thrust, storable-liquid-propellant rocket currently being designed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Since J.P.L. was transferred from the Army to NASA last December, this rocket becomes one of NASA’s “in-house” developments. Over-all responsibility for assembling Atlas-Centaur has been assigned to General Dynamics’ Convair Division, designer and builder of the Atlas itself. Atlas-Centaur should be ready for testing before the end of 1961.
A somewhat simpler and less powerful vehicle known as Atlas-Vega should be ready about a year earlier. This will consist of an Atlas carrying a second stage powered by the same basic G.E. kerosene-and-liquid-oxygen engine that boosted the Vanguard. It will provide 34,000 pounds of thrust. The third stage will be J.P.L.’s storable-propellant rocket.
What thrust to top Sputnik?
The various ways of piling stages atop Atlas, and the various payloads that can be achieved thereby, should help to clarify a point that has been puzzling many people since the launching of Sputnik I–namely, what thrusts are needed to achieve what payloads.
The first three Sputniks reportedly carried scientific payloads of 184, 1,120, and of 2,925 pounds, and Western experts have no reason to believe that these figures are inflated. Each Sputnik, moreover, carried into orbit the empty shell of its last-stage rocket. A reasonable guess is that roughly the same total mass was placed in orbit on each firing; a mass of perhaps 7,000 pounds.
This mass, in turn, implies a launching vehicle with a take-off thrust somewhere between 350,000 and 700,000 pounds. The spread in this estimate reflects our uncertainty of what fuels and how many rocket stages were used. If the Russians used ordinary fuels (kerosene and liquid oxygen) and no more than two stages, the higher thrust would be needed. Better fuels or more stages would cut the thrust requirement.
By comparison, the Atlas has a rated take-off thrust of 360,000 pounds, supplied by two booster engines of 150,000 pounds each and a sustainer engine of 60,000 pounds.
Last December, under the code name of Project Score, an entire Atlas–minus its booster, of course–was raised to orbiting speed of over 18,000 mph by reducing the payload to a bare 150 pounds or so. As the satellite performance table on page 86 shows, Score–the “talking” Atlas–went into a high-swinging orbit with a perigee of 110 miles and an apogee of 920 miles.
In Project Mercury an Atlas with slightly improved engine performance will be expected to put a manned capsule weighing 2,000 pounds or more into a somewhat “easier” orbit–i.e., one below 125 miles lying almost due east and west around the earth.
Atlas-Vega, with its two powered upper stages, should be able to loft net payloads of about 5,000 pounds into a 300-mile orbit. And Atlas-Centaur, with its high-energy second stage, should be able to put 8,000 pounds into the same sort of orbit. Centaur’s ratio of roughly fifty pounds of take-off thrust for every pound of payload in orbit is about the best that can be achieved with chemical propellants in a rocket the size of Atlas.
The large payload potentials of Vega and Centaur will drastically reduce the cost per orbiting pound of satellite experiments. NASA estimates that the payload cost using the Army’s Jupiter IRBM (in its so-called Juno II configuration shown on page 89) would come to about $15,000 a pound. Vega payloads will cost only about $600 a pound, and Centaur’s somewhat less. For a deep space probe, like Pioneer IV’s, the payload cost for a Juno II is about $100,000 a pound, compared to about $3,000 for Vega, and again less for Centaur.
Two who saw the future
Except for one or two remaining Vanguard shots, all of the space activities of NASA and ARPA for the next several years will rest on rockets originally designed for missiles. For these great missiles there were three main advocates: the Army rocketeers under von Braun, and two industrial firms, Convair and North American Aviation. Von Braun’s advocacy is well known; that of the two aircraft firms less so.
Early in 1946 Convair, with Air Force funds, designed a 5,000-mile ballistic rocket and two years later it flew three research prototypes called MX-774. These test rockets achieved a substantial saving in weight through use of a radical idea conceived by Karel Bossart, Convair-Astronautics’ brilliant technical director. Bossart had proposed that the body of the rocket consist of nothing but a thin-walled fuel tank, unsupported by internal stiffeners of any kind. Some of the country’s top engineers scoffed at such a fantastic idea, but it ultimately proved its merit. The skin of Atlas is made of stainless steel as thin as a dime, at its maximum. Consequently Atlas must be pressurized to keep it from collapsing when it does not contain its full load of fuel.
Birth of the space engines
In 1948, while Convair was exhausting the initial Air Force support for an ICBM, North American was gaining support for Navaho, a non-ballistic intercontinental missile that needed large booster rockets to raise its speed to the point where ramjet cruising engines could take over. The original concept of Navaho was borrowed from von Braun and his rocketeers working at Peenemünde in wartime Germany.
With the help of Walter Riedl, who had been chief of design at Peenemünde, North American set out to improve on the V-2 engine of 56,000 pounds’ thrust. By 1953 North American’s Rocketdyne Division had tested an engine 30 per cent lighter and 34 per cent more powerful. This engine was selected by the Army to boost the Redstone missile, which von Braun and about a hundred of his former Peenemünde associates were then building at Redstone Arsenal.
Concurrently, Rocketdyne was well along on a still larger engine of 120,000 to 150,000 pounds’ thrust, which was designed to work in a cluster of three to boost a new and enlarged version of Navaho. Finally, in 1957, Navaho was canceled after a total expenditure of more than $700 million, but it left behind a rich legacy of rocket and missile knowledge. Without the large new Rocketdyne engine the U.S. could never have moved so swiftly in 1954 when a special committee headed by the late mathematical genius, John von Neumann, advised the government that the prospect of compact thermonuclear warheads made IRBM’s and ICBM’s technically feasible. The 150,000-pound-thrust Rocketdyne engine was the only engine available for the Army’s Jupiter IRBM (the second major effort of von Braun and company), for the Air Force’s Thor IRBM, and for Atlas. Meanwhile, Aerojet-General was independently developing the large engines that were selected for Titan.
To produce the new missiles in record time, under the threat of an expected early Russian success in the field, the Air Force set up under Major General Bernard Schriever a special organization called the Western Development Division, now known as the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division. Systems engineering and technical direction for AFBMD have been supplied by Space Technology Laboratories, a subsidiary of Thompson Ramo Wooldridge.
Ramo Wooldridge was formed in late 1953 by two brilliant scientist-engineers, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, who had pulled out of Hughes Aircraft. They had already brought into their new company some of the country’s leading rocket and electronics experts when the Air Force picked them for the unprecedented ballistic-missile job.
From nose cones to satellites
To keep the IRBM and ICBM program on its incredibly tight schedule, a high-level government decision was made in 1955 not to allot any of the military missiles to the I.G.Y. program for space exploration. Instead, the nonmilitary Martin Vanguard, based on the Viking–a high-altitude or “sounding” rocket–was designated to loft the nation’s first satellite. The Naval Research Laboratory was given a parsimonious $20 million for the project, which has now absorbed over $120 million.
Chafing under this decision, Major General John B. Medaris, then commander of ABMA, encouraged von Braun to get on with a modification of Redstone called Jupiter-C, which carried enlarged fuel tanks and three upper stages of solid-fuel rockets provided by J.P.L. The function of Jupiter-C was to hurl experimental nose cones 1,500 to 3,000 miles down the Atlantic Missile Range to see if they could survive their fiery re-entry into the atmosphere. However, von Braun and William Pickering, director of J.P.L., carefully calculated weights and thrusts so that if the Jupiter-C’s fourth stage were loaded and fired, the nose cone would overshoot the testing range and fly into orbit. In September, 1956, with its fourth stage unfueled, Jupiter-C made a record flight of 3,700 miles.
Thus, more than a year before Sputnik I, the U.S. could almost certainly have placed the world’s first satellite in orbit. But a Jupiter-C was not fired with all stages properly fueled until January 31, 1958, and by then it was too late to win anything but second place. During 1958, Jupiter-C’s launched three of the five successful U.S. satellites: Explorers I, III, and IV, which carried scientific payloads of eighteen to twenty-six pounds. The two other successful shots were the 3.3-pound Vanguard I (which also put a fifty-pound rocket case into orbit), and the 8,750-pound “talking” Atlas, with its 150-pound payload. Thus ended the first full year of the Space Age.
“This is not science fiction”
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In the twenty-one months of the new age, the White House, Congress, and the U.S. public have had quite an education. When President Eisenhower, in March, 1958, issued the report entitled “Introduction to Outer Space,” prepared by his Science Advisory Committee–and urged Americans to read it–he observed, “This is not science fiction. This is a sober, realistic presentation prepared by leading scientists.”
This past April a special Senate subcommittee, under Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, spent four days listening to Dr. Glennan and over forty of his top aides justify their appropriation request for the coming year. It is obvious from the record of the hearings, released early in June, that the Senators still wondered sometimes if they were not hearing science fiction rather than fact. Since the testimony, running to more than 600 pages, is the most complete account yet given of NASA’s program, some of its highlights are worth recording here.
Mapping and cloud hunting
During the rest of 1959 and 1960, NASA expects to fire a total of nearly 150 sounding rockets to gather detailed information on the earth’s atmosphere between the altitudes of 50 and 100 miles. In the same period it will try to place fourteen earth satellites into various kinds of orbits, reaching out to distances of tens of thousands of miles. One or more satellites will carry very bright flashing lights to improve the accuracy of maps. Hundreds of years of map making have still left the distances between widely separated points on the globe uncertain by something like 1,000 feet. By photographing the flashing-light satellite against a background of stars, it should be possible to reduce the uncertainty to 200 feet or less. Other satellites carrying radio beacons will enable aircraft and ships to establish their positions with high accuracy even when the sun and stars are obscured.
This year NASA plans to launch at least two more weather satellites. (Vanguard II in February was the first.) One, which may already be aloft on July 1, will measure for the first time how much heat the earth receives from the sun and how much it pours back into space. If there are significant fluctuations in these two values, they may correlate importantly with the weather. A later satellite will carry a TV camera to photograph clouds in a sequential strip about 800 miles wide, and thus tell meteorologists for the first time what the weather looks like over the vast unmonitored expanses of the world’s oceans.
To provide better global communications NASA is working with the ARPA, and will undertake a number of experiments of its own. This year NASA plans to put up a “passive” communication satellite, consisting of a sphere of Mylar plastic film. 100 feet in diameter, which will be inflated after going into orbit at an altitude of 1,000 miles. The aluminized surface of the sphere will reflect high-power radio signals beamed upward from the ground. Messages bounced off the sphere will travel between J.P.L.’s big tracking antenna at Goldstone, California, and similar antennas operated on the east coast by Bell Telephone Laboratories and others.
The back of the moon
Toward the end of the year NASA will try to put a small instrument package, lofted by an Atlas-Able (smaller than Atlas-Vega), into orbit around the moon. A photoelectric scanner aboard may give us the first crude glimpse of the back of the moon before the year is out.
A somewhat more difficult trip, perhaps in 1960, will be the rough landing of a fifty-pound payload on the moon. Instruments packed in a suitably protected container should survive the impact and radio back some basic facts about the nature of the lunar surface. The great multi-engine vehicle known as Saturn will be needed to scoop up samples of lunar rock and dust and fly them back to earth.
Having missed a good opportunity this past month to fire a deep space probe to the vicinity of Venus, because its space vehicles were not ready, NASA will now have to wait until January, 1961, when earth and Venus will again be in suitable juxtaposition. Also by then, NASA should have radio transmitters and long-lasting batteries that can send signals across multimillion mile interplanetary distances. The present transmission record of 407,000 miles is held by Pioneer IV.
To Mars by electric rocket
Looking beyond the chemical rockets, climaxing in the six-million-pound-thrust Nova, NASA laboratories are exploring various non-chemical-propulsion systems. Rocket efficiency depends on the speed with which particles–the lighter the better–can be ejected rearward. In chemical rockets these jet velocities reach a limit of about 10,000 mph; in a nuclear rocket the velocity might reach 25,000 mph. The so-called nuclear turboelectric rocket may ultimately produce jets of 100,000 to 200,000 mph. These ultra-high-speed jets can be obtained by using electric or magnetic fields to accelerate ions (electrically charged particles of matter) or plasma (ultra-hot mixtures of positive and negative ions).
The limitation of the electric rocket is that it can produce only minuscule thrusts–only a few pounds, at most–and hence could never lift its own weight off the earth. An electric rocket motor would be turned on only after a space ship had first been placed in orbit by high-thrust chemical or nuclear rockets. Then the electric rocket would slowly accelerate the ship in an outward spiraling path, requiring about fifty days to reach the vicinity of the moon.
Since this slow trip would subject passengers to lethal doses of radiation, they will have to fly through one or both of the Van Allen radiation belts in small, high-speed rocket ships and rendezvous later with the large electric rocket.
Despite its slow start, an electric rocket could negotiate a round trip to Mars just about as fast as a high-thrust chemical rocket. Both would take about 1,000 days, assuming minimum fuel weights for each.
NASA has estimated the weight-saving of electric propulsion over chemical propulsion for an eight-man expedition to Mars. Both would start with a huge space ship–up to 600 feet long–assembled in orbit from pieces shot aloft from earth. Both ships would leave for Mars with a payload of 200,000 pounds. The chemical space ship would have to weigh 2,400,000 pounds in all; the electric ship would weigh only one-sixth as much. Right now NASA is building a small electric rocket engine that will produce about one-tenth of a pound of thrust. (With its nuclear generator, not presently available, the whole system might weigh about 1,000 pounds.) A thrust of a tenth of a pound is enough to change the orbit of a satellite weighing thousands of pounds. Electric rockets of this thrust may be out of the laboratory in three or four years.
In the middle of a crater
As to what it may find in its cosmic journeys, NASA has no clearer idea than anyone else. Scientists will, of course, get answers to questions of the sort that they know how to ask: What gases are in the atmospheres of other planets? What elements are in their crusts? Are radioactive elements more or less abundant than on earth, and what will they tell us about the ages of other planets? But beyond all this there will certainly be extraordinary surprises.
One Rand Corporation scientist likes to indulge in this fantasy: “Just to explore chunks of lifeless rock isn’t going to mean much to many people,” he points out, “but suppose when we get to the moon we find sitting in the middle of a crater a strange little marker bearing a carefully chiseled but totally incomprehensible inscription. Then space would really get exciting. We would know we weren’t alone in the universe, and that’s really what we’re trying to find out.”