August 8, 1957 – A Success for the Missile Re-Entry Test Program

Re-Entry Test Vehicle Nose Cone Assembly


On August 8, 1957, the Re-Entry Test Vehicle Project of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency achieved a successful atmospheric re-entry of its Orbiter stack.  The International Geophysical Year, declared on July 1, 1957, included a competition for the first successful satellite launch in its Race to Space agenda.  American scientists hoped to work collaboratively with the U.S. military to develop new technology for rockets with space exploration and research benefits, as well as military and strategic roles.  The challenge facing rocket development programs included not only how to design engines capable of freeing a large, heavy object from the clutches of earth’s gravity, but also how to enable a portion of that heavy object to return to earth without burning up as it passed back through our atmosphere.

The Army’s Re-Entry Test Vehicle Project, started in 1955, progressed in stages.  The Army Ballistic Missile program’s overall goal: develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of accurately delivering a nuclear warhead, with all necessary tracking and control systems technology.  From the start, researchers knew that nuclear warheads would need to be protected from the intense heat generated while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.  Theoretical studies and laboratory tests pointed to the use of glass-fiber-based materials for use in warhead shields.  The glass-fiber shields – also referred to as “ablative technology” –  would protect the payloads by gradually burning away during re-entry.  The re-entry project designed rocket telemetry (tracking) systems, a nose cone assembly to hold the glass shields which would float on water, enabling recovery and analysis, and the ablative technology.  The Orbiter stack, or rocket, had already been developed as part of the Redstone and Sergeant missile programs and consisted of four stages of rocket motors and boosters.

The first test flight , held September 20, 1956, demonstrated that the vehicle design and tracking systems were fully functional.  The second flight, May 15, 1957, was the first to include the ablative technology.  The tracking information indicated to the researchers that the heat shields had worked, but because of a guidance system failure, they were unable to recover the nose cone post-splashdown for confirmation.  They needed to know how much of the glass material had eroded, in order to make an efficient warhead design.

President Eisenhower with recovered nose cone assembly, press conference November 7, 1957


The final test, on August 8, 1957, was the success they were hoping for.  The rescue and salvage ship USS Escape recovered the nose cone and analysis of the heat shield showed that only a small amount of material had burned away, confirming an effective design.  The United States was one step closer to an arsenal of nuclear ICBMs to train on the USSR.

Image Credits: U.S. Army; NASA

June 11, 1957 – First Test of the Convair X-11

Convair X-11

Convair X-11 launch

On June 11, 1957, Convair conducted its first test of the Convair X-11.  A division of General Dynamics since 1953, Convair was famous for its B-36 strategic bomber, the largest land-based, piston-engined bomber in the world.  Convair also pioneered the delta-winged aircraft design used for the F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart interceptors, and the B-58 Hustler supersonic intercontinental nuclear bomber.

Convair’s first X-11 test was a static test.  The rocket was mounted on a stand and the engines fired in place – the first X-11 never left the ground.  Later X-11s in the series were launched successfully.

The X-11 went through several transformations before becoming the basis for the Atlas expendable launch system, which was incorporated as part of the Mariner space probes and the Mercury and Saturn program rockets.  Atlas descendants are currently in use as satellite launch vehicles for commercial and military applications  and for other space vehicles.

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

November 3, 1957 – Sputnik 2 Sends First Living Animal into Orbit

Monument to Laika, Moscow

Monument to Laika, Moscow

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched their second Sputnik earth satellite from an ICBM R-7 platform.  The 13 foot high, 2 foot diameter capsule contained compartments for radio transmitters, a telemetry system, a programming unit, regeneration and temperature control systems, scientific instruments (including photometers to measure ultraviolet and x-ray solar radiation), and in her own separate padded and pressurized cabin, a part-terrier, part-Samoyed female dog named Laika.  Other than hitchhiker microbes, no living animal had ever blasted off into space before little 13-pound Laika (which meant “Barker” in Russian) went up, fitted with a harness, electrodes to monitor her condition, and supplies of oxygen, food, and water.

With Sputnik 1 still orbiting Earth, transmitting radio signals and ICBM nightmares across the globe, Sputnik 2’s successful launch introduced an even greater level of perceived alarm and threat by Cold War antagonists to the USSR’s new space supremacy.  Sputnik 2 did not carry out its mission entirely as planned, however.  While the satellite-bearing rocket achieved earth orbit, where it successfully jettisoned its nose cone, a portion of the rocket called “Blok A” did not separate, inhibiting the thermal control system.  Vital thermal insulation was torn loose during the nose cone separation as well, and Sputnik’s internal temperatures soon reached 104°F.

Sputnik 2’s fate to burn up in earth atmosphere reentry occurred on April 14, 1958, after 162 days of circling the globe.  The original plan for Laika – painful for all animal-lovers everywhere to contemplate – was for her to provide information for a limited period of time on the effects of space flight on living beings, through monitoring her vital signs.  After ten days, she was to be euthanized by lethal medication-supplemented food.  Once sent into orbit, she could never return.  But after the early loss of her capsule’s thermal insulation, Laika was only able to survive for a few hours before succumbing to the heat and stress.  Her death was a small, but significant tragedy on the road to man’s Race to Space.

Sputnik 2 Module

Sputnik 2 Module. Photo: