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Anniversaries

1958, the year the Moon race began

If 1957 was the year of Sputnik, then the following year was the year the Moon race began. It started as the year the Americans caught up.

The United States were greatly shocked by the success of the Soviet Union in putting Sputnik into orbit and then, a month later, the first space dog, Laika on Sputnik 2. Many Americans went out into their backyards to watch the two Sputniks tracking across the early winter skies of the United States, an ever-present visual reminder of Soviet superiority in space travel. Not until a month after Sputnik 2 were the United States ready for their first launch attempt. This was the Vanguard rocket, the launcher that had unexpectedly won the competition to build the first American satellite launcher. Unexpected, because the Vanguard bid won out over the US Army Huntsville Alabama-based team led by America's most experienced rocketeer, the German Wernher von Braun.

Things could not have gone worse. Broadcast on nationwide radio and television, Vanguard barely rose, thrust failed and it fell back on its back, blowing up in a giant fireball of flame and black smoke. Amazingly, the tiny satellite was thrown free, ending up on a nearby beach, still beeping. But that was not where it was supposed to be beeping and the press had a field day, calling it Flopnik, Kaputnik and even Stayputnik.

Von Braun was called in to save the day, which he did with typical energy and efficiency. He had the previous year built the Jupiter C rocket which he knew was well capable of orbiting a satellite and he had pleaded with the authorities, in vain, for permission to launch such a satellite. He was allowed to keep the rocket only for a 'long-term storage test', but he had secretly hoped to have the opportunity to take it out of storage. Now von Braun dusted it off, assembled a 14 kg satellite within weeks and persuaded the Head of the Physics Department at the University of Iowa, James Van Allen, to supply a radiation counter for the satellite, which would be called Explorer.

■ Left: William H. Pickering (left), James A. van Allen and Wernher von Braun hold up a full-scale model of America's first satellite, Explorer 1. Image courtesy NASA.

The Jupiter C took off on a pillar of flame from Cape Canaveral late on 31st January 1958. Von Braun calculated that if successful the first signals would be picked up in California 106 minutes later. With the press waiting, they wore smart suits in case of success, but had sunglasses in their pockets so they could make an unobtrusive getaway if it failed. And fail it did, or so they thought. Holding on a phone line to California, there were no signals. Suddenly, at the 114 minute point, when they had nearly given up, four tracking stations suddenly reported good strong signals. There was an hysterical 2 am press conference, von Braun and his colleagues holding a model of the satellite aloft and in Huntsville there was dancing outside the courthouse. Telegrams poured in, von Braun was declared a national hero and children sent in their savings for the next satellite.

As for Explorer 1, its radiation counter found that the Earth was surrounded by radiation belts, duly named after the physics professor from Iowa. By way of a footnote, James Van Allen died on 9th August 2006. Although best known for the radiation belts, he had a long and distinguished career in space science through the 1960s and 1970s.

For the Americans, Explorer meant that some honour was restored. The first Vanguard made it into orbit six weeks later on 17th March 1958

(it's still there). Now the score was Soviet Union, 2; United States, 2. Some of the shine was lost a couple of months later: whereas Vanguard weighed 1.48 kg, thenextSovietsatellite, Sputnik 3, that May, weighed in at over 1.3 tonnes.

But now it was time for the next stage. The Soviet Union already had its sights on the Moon. Even as the Jupiter countdown was under way at Cape Canaveral, on 28th January 1958 in Moscow, chief designer Sergei Korolev and his leading engineer Mikhail Tikhonravov sent a memorandum to the government called On the launches of rockets to the Moon, asking for approval for spaceships to hit the Moon and photograph its far side. The government gave them a secret 'yes' on the 20th March. By coincidence, President Eisenhower announced publicly later that week that the United States would send a probe to the Moon that summer.

Using the Air Force's Thor Able rocket, America's first Moon probes were ambitious, aiming to put a 38 kg space probe, Pioneer, with a primitive camera into orbit around the Moon. The first of three was duly ready that summer.

Learning that the Thor Able was set for takeoff on 17thAugust 1958, Korolev rushed his Moon rocket out to the pad the same day, fitted with a much larger probe, weighing around 350kg, to hit the lunar surface. The lunar trajectory mapped

IA simulation of the van Allen belts of charged particles that are trapped by the Earth's magnetic field, here generated by plasma thruster at NASA's Glenn Research Center.

Image courtesy NASA.

IA simulation of the van Allen belts of charged particles that are trapped by the Earth's magnetic field, here generated by plasma thruster at NASA's Glenn Research Center.

Image courtesy NASA.

out by Korolev and Tikhonravov was shorter than Pioneer. Korolev waited to see if Pioneer was successfully launched. If it was, then Korolev would launch and could still beat the Americans to the Moon. Fortunately for Korolev, though not for the Americans, Pioneer exploded at77 seconds and a relieved Korolev was able to bring his rocket back to the shed for more careful testing.

A month later, all was eventually ready. The first Soviet Moon probe lifted off from Baikonour on 23rd September 1958. It did little better than the first American Moon probe, exploding after 93 seconds. The Kremlin was not pleased, but Korolev rounded on his political masters, yelling, "Do you think only American rockets explode?"

The frantic rivalry recurred the following month. At Cape Canaveral, the Americans counted down for a new probe, also given the name Pioneer, with launch set for 11th October, the events there broadcast minute-by-minute worldwide on radio. By contrast, not a word of what was going on in Baikonour reached the outside world. Again, Korolev planned to launch his spaceship on a faster, quicker trajectory after Pioneer. Taking advantage of the open press coverage at 'the Cape', news of the Pioneer launching was relayed immediately to Baikonour, Korolev passing it on in turn over the loudspeaker.

Not long afterwards, the news came through that the Pioneer's third stage had burned out too soon. But Pioneer was a true pioneer, for it reached the then-amazing altitude of 113,800 km, further than any human object had ever travelled, before crashing back, its signals ever clear and strong until it plunged into the Pacific. Korolev and his engineers now had the opportunity to eclipse the Americans. On 12th October, his second launching took place. Vibration tore the rocket apart at 104 seconds. Although Pioneer 1 was launched 13 hours before the Soviet Moon probe was due to go, the Russian ship had a shorter flight time and would have overtaken Pioneer and reached the Moon a mere six hours ahead of Pioneer. They were that close.

The Americans tried again on 6th November, Pioneer 2 reaching an altitude of 1,549 km. Now Korolev and his team tried again on 4th December, but the main stage cut out at 245 seconds and the rocket crashed, his third failure in a row. Next it was the Americans' turn again, except that von Braun's Army team had once again been called in to save America's pride. He developed what was called the Juno rocket, aiming to shoot a small 6 kg probe past the Moon. It was so small that it was brought to the Cape by the programme manager on rn Above: Technicians wearing 'cleanroom' attire inspect the Pioneer 3 probe before shipping it to Cape Canaveral. It was launched on 6 December 1958 by a Juno II rocket to measure the radiation intensity of the Van Allen belts, but the rocket malfunctioned and the probe fell back into the atmosphere the next day. Image courtesy NASA.

I Left: Preparing a Thor-Able launch vehicle with the Pioneer 1 spacecraft for launch at the Eastern Test Range at Cape Canaveral. When launched on 11 October 1958, it became the first spacecraft to be launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Image courtesy NASA.

I Above: Scientists following an early Soviet space mission. Image from Author's collection.

a passenger plane as his hand luggage! But the Juno's speed fell short by only 615km/hr and Pioneer 3 fell back to Earth.

So 1958 ended in disappointment for both countries. Their luck began to change early in the new year. Two days into 1959, the Soviet Union at last managed to send a probe to the Moon. Called 'The First Cosmic Ship', it narrowly missed the Moon by 5,965 km but it entered solar orbit and its instruments made the historic discovery of the solar wind. The American launch record improved too and in March the Americans also flew past the Moon, when von Braun's Pioneer 4 flew past at 60,000 km, ten times further out.

So 1958 set many important markers. The two countries began to draw even. The closeness of the events that year set a pattern that was to thread in and out of the Moon programmes of the two space superpowers for the next eleven years. The two countries raced one another to the first soft landing on the Moon, the first probe to orbit the Moon, the first to fly around the Moon and return and then the first landing. Just as in 1958, they were close right to the end. When Apollo

I Above: Scientists following an early Soviet space mission. Image from Author's collection.

11 finally won the race for the Americans in July 1969, the Soviet Union made a desperate attempt to get Moon rock samples back to Earth first. The Russians almost pulled it off, and had they succeeded, Luna 15 would have returned to Earth only hours apart from the Americans.

1958 also set the pattern of secrecy and openness that characterized the Moon race. Although the Soviet Union had been quite open about its intentions before Sputnik, party chiefs decided in 1958 that only successful launches would be announced, information flow would be carefully controlled and the personalities of the space programme would be shielded from public view. By contrast, President Eisenhower took the opposite approach. The American launches in 1958 took place in the full glare of public view as thousands of journalists and reporters descended on Cape Canaveral. New words entered the vocabulary, like 'countdown', 'booster' and 'space shot'. Although Pioneer 1 fell back, the rest of the world regarded it as no failure and Eisenhower was flooded with gushing congratulatory telegrams from world leaders. Ordinary people were far from disheartened, the excitement instead building a groundswell of excited support for the space programme.

Highlights of 2006 January: Stardust returns

Utah, 15th January2006. The recovery ofStardust was one of the most remarkable achievements in space exploration in 2006. Stardust was a small spacecraft, its capsule only 1 m across and weighing only 45kg, launched on a curving 3.5 billion km journey in 1999 in the course of which it intercepted Comet Wild 2. It was a relatively low-cost mission, coming in at €180m. Stardust's main instrument was a paddle, which it extended to collect interplanetary dust on one side and cometry débris on the other.

Stardust's return to Earth was made at enormous speed. Its tiny engine fired to adjust its course 60 days out from Earth, then ten days out and finally 29 hours away. The capsule was released four hours before entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Stardust came in at 35,000km/hr, with temperatures reaching over 3,000oC., and enduring forty times the force of gravity (40G). Next came the big test: would the parachute open? The last recovery from deep space, Genesis, had gone wrong, the parachute failing to open and

the spacecraft being badly damaged when it hit the ground.

But all went perfectly in the pre-dawn darkness. A drogue parachute came out high in the atmosphere 30 km up, followed by a 10 m diameter main parachute at 3,000 m. Drifting in the wind, it was quickly located by radar and then helicopters. The capsule bounced a couple of times on the desert floor and finished upside down - but intact. At daylight, the cabin, with its precious microscopic samples on board, was flown off to the American space agency, NASA and the 150 investigators involved in the mission. Stardust was a daring mission, with a rich scientific haul, accomplished with precision.

April: Yuval Neeman: the passing of a great designer

Israel, 26th April 2006. All the world's space programmes have been associated with a 'great designer' - an inspiring figure who conceived the idea of a national space programme and drove its early development, people like Wernher von Braun (Germany), Hideo Itokawa (Japan), Vikram Sarabhai (India), Tsien Hsue Shen (China) and Sergei Korolev (Russia). Israel's great designer was Yuval Neeman, born in Tel Aviv in 1925. He spent his youth in Egypt, joined the Israeli Defence Forces when the state was founded and went to London in the 1950s for postgraduate studies where he became one of the discoverers of the quark and eventually authored more than 350 papers on physics. From 1983 he was chairman of the Israeli Space Agency which only five years led to Israel putting its first satellite into orbit. A leader of Israel's atomic industry, he was also a politician, defence and intelligence expert.

rn Top: NASA's Stardust sample return capsule containing cometary and interstellar samples successfully landed at the US Air Force Utah Test and Training Range on 15 January 2006 (left). Following the landing the recovery crew carefully retrieved the return capsule (inset). Images courtesy NASA.

I Above: Portrait of Israel's great designer Yuval Neeman (1925-2006). Image courtesy Israel Hanukoglu, Israel Science and Technology.

July: Return to flight

Cape Canaveral, Florida, 4th July 2006. The American space agency, NASA, celebrated independence day in style with the return to flight of the space shuttle on mission STS-115. Following the Columbia disaster in 2003, the shuttle had originally returned to flight in July 2005, but post-flight analysis indicated that there was still a problem of débris falling off the external tank and putting the shuttle at risk. Making the necessary improvements took almost a year and even then, there were weather delays which aborted countdowns on 1st and 2nd July. The national holiday enabled millions of Americans to watch the shuttle return to flight, both at Cape Canaveral and on television. Mission commander Steven Lindsay and pilot Mark Kelly brought the shuttle up to the International Space Station two days later, where they steered it through what are called pitch-over manoeuvres to enable the station crew to make an exhaustive photographic examination of the shuttle's underside for damage. Then they flew it in to dock with the station, coming together over Pitcairn Island in the Pacific Ocean. There were some minor débris issues, but no further serious incidents and by the year's end, with three successful shuttle missions in 2006, NASA had put the débris problem behind.

July: 'This is mission control Las Vegas'

Dombarovska, Russia, 12th July 2006. The launching of Genesis 1 was remarkable for two reasons. First, it was the first launch into orbit from the Russian missile base of Dombarovska (see launch sites, on pages 12-13). Second, the

I Right: An external view of the Genesis spacecraft, an inflatable structure developed by Bigelow Aerospace in the USA, and the forerunner of large, inflatable structures to house people in orbit. Image courtesy Bigelow Aerospace.

Dnepr launcher put into space an inflatable structure that would pave the way for large, manned space stations. The idea of large, inflatable structures to house people in orbit dates back to the 1960s (an inflatable wheel-shaped space station featured in the Drift Marlo cartoon strip). Genesis was an inflatable developed by the American Bigelow corporation and once Genesis was in orbit, the command was issued to inflate it. All went smoothly and pictures of the inside and out were soon beamed back to Bigelow's mission control centre in Las Vegas, Nevada. The pressure held and the concept was vindicated.

September: Seeds nursery in orbit

Sichuan, China, 24th September. China recovered, in mountainous Sichuan, its Shi Jian 8 space cabin. Launched on a Long March 2C rocket from Jiuquan cosmodrome, Shi Jian circled the Earth for 15 days with a cargo of 2,000 seeds, fungi, vegetables, fruit, grains and cotton. Cameras sent back to Xian mission control pictures of how they fared in weightlessness. After landing, the seeds were distributed to scientists, biologists and agriculturalists to see how they reacted to radiation and weightlessness.

October: Arrival at Victoria

Meridiani, Mars. The Mars rover Opportunity reached crater Victoria on Mars, one of the most important targets of its mission. Opportunity was one of two rovers landed on Mars by the United States in January 2004, Opportunity coming down in the Meridiani plain and Spirit in the crater Gusev. Designed to operate for only a year, the two rovers were still driving across Mars three years later and became the most long-lasting rovers ever built, surviving the extremes of the Martian climate, dust storms and enforced seasonal shut downs when the Sun was too distant to supply sufficient power. Opportunity reached Victoria after a 9 km drive from its landing site and was expected to spend a year there. Victoria is a 800 m wide, 70 m deep crater formed by a meteorite slamming into Mars a billion years ago. Most important, it has several layers of exposed bedrock which are expected to reveal much of the geological history of Mars. Meantime, its companion rover Spirit was hibernating south of the Martian equator, having descended from Husband Hill, whence it was able to image the wide flat crater floor where it landed.

Victoria was photographed from orbit by Mars Global Surveyor, which arrived in Mars orbit in 1997. Sadly, 2006 was the year to say goodbye to

Mars Global Surveyor. Early the following month, November, contact was lost with the spacecraft after nine years, another record.

November: Introducing the fourth spacefaring nation, India

Bangalore, India, 8th November 2006. Eighty leading Indian space scientists gathered in Bangalore, India to discuss plans for India to become the fourth country in the world able to

I Top: A vista of Victoria crater taken by Opportunity from the viewpoint of Cape Verde, one of the promontories on the scalloped rim of the crater. The far rim is about 800m away. The panorama combines hundreds of exposures, the first taken on 16 October 2006 and the last on 7 November. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.

I Top: A vista of Victoria crater taken by Opportunity from the viewpoint of Cape Verde, one of the promontories on the scalloped rim of the crater. The far rim is about 800m away. The panorama combines hundreds of exposures, the first taken on 16 October 2006 and the last on 7 November. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell.

I Above: A model of India's Geo-Synchronous Launch Vehicle GSLV Mk-III with its designer S. Ramakrishnan. Image courtesy Brian Harvey.

launch its own astronauts into orbit after Russia (1961), the United States (1962) and China (2003). The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) presented studies carried out over the past four years showing how this could be achieved. India's intention is to launch a two-person spaceship on an initial one-day mission in 2014, followed by a week-long mission, with splashdown in the Bay of Bengal. India already has a rocket powerful enough to launch a manned spaceship, the Geo Synchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV). Two famous Indians have already flown in space -Rakesh Sharma on the Soviet Salyut 7 orbital station (1984) and Kalpana Chawla on the American space shuttle and, sadly, one of those lost on the Columbia in 2003. And one of India's most famous rocket scientists, Abdul Kalam, is now the President of India.

December: Finding planets

Baikonour, 27th December 2006. In a nighttime launch, the Russian Soyuz 2.1.b rocket put into orbit the French-developed 605 kg COROT satellite. COROT is a planet-hunter, equipped with a 30 cm telescope. It is so sensitive that whenever a planet crosses the face of a distant star, it affects the amount of light coming from that star, albeit by a small amount. That difference can be detected by COROT, whose initials stand for COnvection, ROtation and planetary Transits. Locating planets around other stars is a field of astronomy that has developed only since 1995 - over 200 such planets have now been detected - and COROT will search 120,000 stars for planetary objects. Many are expected to be big gassy planets like Jupiter, but it is hoped that at least some will be rocky planets, like Earth.

I An artist's depiction ■ of the COROT satellite, the exoplanet hunter mission led by CNES with ESA participation, that incorporates a 30-cm telescope to monitor closely the changes in a star's brightness if an extrasolar planet passes in front of it. Image courtesy■ CNES/D. Ducros.

■ Above: An artist's depiction of a Jupiter-sized planet passing in front of its parent star, causing a small decrease in their combined brightness as depicted by the light curve below. Image courtesy CNES.

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