NASA launched 63 years ago

Oct. 8, 2021
by Mark Ollig

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officially opened its doors Oct. 1, 1958.

NASA became a combination of its predecessor US civilian space program, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), and other government programs.

Oct. 2, 1958, Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper quoted NASA’s first Administrator, Thomas Keith Glennan, who said, “We have to get up there to learn things we can’t learn from where we are now sitting.”

While the US christened NASA, the country was still talking about Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial space satellite named Sputnik.

Around the world, people became fixated on listening through their radios and televisions to the steady radio signal pattern of the “beep-beep-beep-beep ” radio signal transmitted from the Earth-orbiting Sputnik antennas at the 20.005 and 40.002 MHz frequency bands.

Aug. 17, 1958, would be NASA’s first attempt to visit our closest celestial neighbor, the moon, with a spacecraft named Able 1.

This spacecraft was destroyed when the first stage of the Thor rocket it sat atop exploded 77 seconds after launch when it reached 10 miles in altitude.

Less than two months later, Oct. 11, 1958, NASA launched Able 2, later called Pioneer 1.

This spacecraft, not designed to land on the moon, would instead go into lunar orbit, take photographic images of its surface, and transmit them back to Earth.

A laminated plastic shell casing surrounds the 84-pound Pioneer 1, and a thin cylindrical midsection with a short cone is on each side of the spacecraft. The cylinder is 2.4 feet in diameter, and the height from the top of one cone to the top of the opposite cone is 2.5 feet.

Eight low-thrust solid propellant velocity adjustment rockets connect on the end of the upper cone of Pioneer 1 in what is called a ring assembly.

Instruments aboard the Pioneer 1 spacecraft include an ion chamber, magnetometer, temperature sensors, and a micrometeoroid detector. In addition, an attached TV camera system would perform infrared image scans of the moon’s surface.

Nickel-cadmium batteries, augmented with silver-zinc cell batteries, supplied power for Pioneer 1 and the television camera system.

NASA communicated with Pioneer 1 using radio frequencies 108.06 and 115 MHz.

The spacecraft sat atop a 91-foot-tall two-stage Thor-Able I-130 rocket.

Liftoff of Pioneer 1 occurred Sunday, Oct. 11, 1958, at 9:42 a.m. Central Standard Time from launch pad 17A at Cape Canaveral, FL.

Unfortunately, the Thor second stage prematurely shut down 10 seconds early because of an instrumentation error from an accelerometer measuring the rocket’s velocity due to an incorrectly set valve.

The early shutdown caused the rocket to become unable to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull needed to head to the moon; instead, Pioneer 1 traveled only 71,300 miles from our planet, putting it roughly 169,000 miles from the moon.

Although Pioneer 1 failed to reach the moon, it did verify the existence of the Van Allen Belts, obtain data on the region of space surrounding the Earth known as the magnetosphere, and take the first measurements of the thickness of micrometeorites.

After 43 hours, the spacecraft’s mission ended when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere Oct. 13, 1958, over the South Pacific Ocean.

July 31, 1964, the NASA Ranger 7 spacecraft traveled 243,665 miles and took the first high-quality moon photographs approximately 17 minutes before impacting the lunar surface.

“Moon Photos Are Modern Lewis, Clark” is the title of an Aug. 2, 1964, Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper column.

“In a sense, Ranger 7’s six television cameras performed the same service for this country on the moon’s Sea of Clouds in 16 minutes and 40 seconds Friday morning that Lewis and Clark performed in the Pacific Northwest from 1803 to 1806,” the column stated.

Another sentence in the column accurately said, “Ranger 7’s flight is but the beginning of a lunar exploration program that can only grow increasingly more intense.”

The name “Pioneer 1” was coined by Stephen A. Saliga, an official in charge of Air Force exhibits at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, who designed a display to coincide with the launch.

Be sure to visit my Bits and Bytes weblog at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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