Bad Day for a Space Launch

The folks at NASA have a high regard for history. They even have their own museums and a History Office. So you'd think they might have known that today was not a particularly auspicious day to attempt to launch an important space mission.

This morning, the space agency decided to postpone the scheduled launch of the Atlantis orbiter due to problems with onboard engine sensors. Instead, it will attempt to launch the vehicle tomorrow afternoon. Still, some at NASA must have felt the jinx was on for the 6th of December.

On this date 50 years ago, nearly to the same hour this morning, the agency's predecessor (NACA), in conjunction with the U.S. Navy, attempted to put the first American satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral. Known as Project Vanguard, the first orbital try was a spectacular failure. With television cameras broadcasting the event live for the world to see, the Juno I rocket assembly rose four feet from its launch pad and then crumpled in on itself, exploding in a massive fireball.

The historic occasion was a complete embarrassment for the fledgling U.S. space program.

In an ironic twist of fate for the disastrous mission, the rugged satellite slated to be its nation's first in orbit, known as the TV-3, was launched from the nosecone of the Juno when the rocket collapsed beneath it. The nosecone flew away from the explosion and landed harmlessly in the sand a short distance from the pad. NACA engineers recovered the nosecone and found the little, silver TV-3 inside, dented and charred but in otherwise good working order, ready to relay its position. Fifty years later, it rests in a place of honor at the National Air and Space Museum, a brave artifact of the responsibility of failure.

These days, those early lessons of the beginnings of the U.S. effort in space provide little more than historic curiosities of a bygone era, something for the folks at NASA to display in their museums. We are all tasked, though, to remember the lessons of history, lest they should come back to haunt us.

Before picking today to launch the latest space shuttle mission, maybe managers in the human spaceflight program should have checked with their counterparts in the history office to see what ghosts may have been lingering around on the 6th of December to remind them of the past.

They certainly chose a poor occasion to test their chances. Better luck tomorrow to all.


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