Beyond Earth - An RP-1 based alternate space race - Update XVIII - Highway to the Danger Zone

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Chapter II: Approaching the Heavens

XII: This Side of Paradise, Part 1

Serious Business


The IASRDA was much more capable than the IRS, but this newfound capacity also meant that optimization of programs was the key to success. The foundations laid by the Society were to be preserved and expanded upon; this meant that Project Orbiter would continue, albeit with a different name, and that Project Thunder, while by now completed, was to receive a follow-up.

Project Orbiter had been a huge success, launching three satellites to orbit in a span of less than a year, despite being originally planned to only orbit one. To reflect the larger scope of the program, which now was aimed at exploring and understanding our planet Earth, a change of name was in order: therefore, a week or so after the IRS became IASRDA, the Ethereal Program was born, and with it, an official program patch was designed.

Ethereal Program patch.


The image at the center of it was intended to remind of an atom, with the Earth being the nucleus, and the three satellites launched up to this point in time being the electrons located around it. The Earth had the same perspective as the one in the old IRS logo.


But Ethereal was not the only new project that was undertaken by the IASRDA. The next logical step in space exploration was the Moon. The Explorer Program was therefore born, with the ultimate goal of providing a better understanding of the Earth’s satellite. It too had a program patch designed for it.

Explorer Program patch.


The Moon was in the foreground, with a golden band around it representing the probes that in the following years would explore it. The Earth, of similar design to that of Ethereal, is visible in the background.



While the Explorer Program was of the utmost importance, at the time the IASRDA didn’t possess the capabilities for a lunar mission. The lack of a probe capable of re-orienting itself in flight by means of a pre-programmed autopilot, the inadequacies of the Agencies structures, and, most importantly, the lack of a launch vehicle capable of such a feat, meant that a lunar mission was at least a year in the making.

 Fortunately, the advancements made for the Thor and Jupiter ballistic missiles had been shared with the IASRDA for the purpose of developing a booster capable of, if not launching probes the Moon, at least improve the weight of payloads.

Blueprint of Hyperion-Alcor (LV-1A).


The Hyperion-Alcor A rocket was a three-stage design that matched the requirements set by the IASRDA. The version shown above (LV-1A) is an upgrade to the experimental version (LV-1) that will be shown later in this update.

The Hyperion lower stage was designed around the workhorse Rocketdyne LR79 engine in the S3-D configuration, burning RP-1 kerosene and Liquid Oxygen, and outputting 766.34kN of thrust at a specific impulse of 288 seconds in a vacuum. The stage had a diameter of 2.5 meters, and burned for 167 seconds. Due to the LR79 not having roll control capability, a pair of Rocketdyne LR101-NA-3 verniers was present. The version shown above, which would eventually become the first production version, differs from the earlier experimental version in the removal of the fins, deemed unnecessary, and the stretching of the machinery section to solve some issues that could prove catastrophic. While not visible from the outside, the guidance program was also greatly improved.

The Alcor upper stage was derived from the very same Alcor that propelled the first satellite to space. It was much larger in size, with its diameter widened to 1.2 meters; its engine had been also upgraded to the AJ10-42 version, producing 33kN of thrust at a vacuum specific impulse of 267. While these specifics are worse than the earlier -37 variant, the extended burn time and improved reliability of the -42 version greatly outweigh the downsides. The main difference from the experimental version was a larger avionics compartment, due to issues in the older guidance computer derived from the Alcor launch vehicle in coping with the new Attitude Control System.

The third stage could either be an X-242 or a cluster of Baby Sergeants when payload mass was lower. These motors were completely identical to those used on the older Alcor LV. They lacked control systems of any sorts and were spin stabilized.


The first mission for this launch vehicle, in this case a LV-1, was the launch of the Ethereal 4 satellite.

Blueprint of Ethereal 4.


Ethereal 4 was designed to test a controllable probe core in preparation for a lunar mission. In addition, it also carried scientific instruments meant for the analysis of the atmosphere and monitoring of the weather. In a sense, Ethereal 4 was meant to be the first true weather satellite.

Around the body of the satellite were six solar cells of 0.125m2 surface area, capable of outputting a maximum 7.88 Watts of power each. The two antennae mounted on the probe were an upgrade to the ones used on the earlier satellites, each capable of 1Mbit/s transmissions while drawing about 8 Watts of power each while in use. The probe also had a smaller antenna that, while not suitable for large transmissions, was perfect for general telemetry checks.

The upper compartment housed the scientific instrumentation, most notably the dual camera system, which was of higher quality than that used on earlier satellites. The middle section contained the probe control circuitry and the batteries, acting as the brains of the satellite. The lower section contained four tanks holding a total of 9kg of High-Test Peroxide (HTP), with each tank feeding the two ACS ports near to it (for a total of eight), each outputting a thrust of 19N. These provided pitch and yaw control, but due to weight and complexity constraints, no roll control capability. Overall weight of the satellite was 132 kg, the heaviest yet to be launched by the western powers.



Before construction work on Ethereal 4 and the Hyperion-Alcor A had even started, the Soviets, on July 14 1957, had managed to orbit the Sputnik 3 satellite, weighing 1327kg and carrying a large number of scientific instruments. Among those was a Geiger counter, which managed to detect and record the presence of the Van Allen Belt, confirming the discovery made earlier by the IRS’ Ethereal 1 and 2.

Ethereal 4’s manufacturing process encountered many issues, mostly with the LV-1 guidance and avionics system, and as a result the mission was delayed significantly. In the end, the launch was scheduled for January 13 1958, almost three months later than planned.


The launch was attended by a slightly larger crowd than usual, owing to it being the first launch by the newly born IASRDA. It also was the first launch to also receive a chase plane to photograph the launch from above.

Image 19580113A: The Hyperion-Alcor A stack on the launchpad. Photo courtesy of the NBC.

The rocket took off very early in the morning, at around 7:37 local time. This was due to weather considerations.

Image 19580113B: Aerial photograph of Ethereal 4 taken just after take-off by SpFC Danny Higgins, aboard a Thunder piloted by Capt. Joe Mitchell.

The Hyperion stage was much more powerful than anything ever flown before by the IRS/IASRDA, and for that matter, special care was taken to ensure the most data could be retrieved from it.

SIMULATION. The Hyperion-Alcor A stack breaks through the morning clouds at around 5km altitude.

Unfortunately, the LR79 machinery was found to be overheating due to the unusual arrangement designed to save weight and space; this issue would be addressed in the revised version of the stage.

SIMULATION. The LR79's plume expands considerably as air pressure decreases.

Staging occurred at 118km, after a small 5 second coast. At the same time, fairing separation took place. This was an unusual instance, but it was not accidental.

SIMULATION. The unusual staging event of Ethereal 4. Notice the separation motors firing on the Hyperion stage.

The enlarged Alcor stage had some serious issues in the guidance section, which started overheating almost immediately. The primary autopilot shutdown completely 15 seconds before the burn was complete, but a failure was narrowly averted after the engineers on the ground managed to activate the secondary system remotely.

SIMULATION. The enlarged Alcor, nice picture for making out the small details present on this experimental version.

As usual, spin stabilization was used for the final kick stage due to the lack of control system. For this launch, three Baby Sergeants were used.

SIMULATION. The much improved ACS imprints a spin to the stage.

The kick stage worked marvelously, putting the satellite into an interim orbit at 430x335km orbit.

SIMULATION. The three Baby Sergeants burn to get the payload into orbit.


Unfortunately, a failure in the decoupler mechanism meant that Ethereal 4 failed to separate from the Baby Sergeants. Luckily, after some adjustments made via radio control, the satellite was able to maneuver itself into a suitable orbit, albeit not the desired one. Final orbit was 351x415km, at 28.614° inclination, with a period of 1 hour, 32 minutes and 5 seconds.

Despite the large number of failures, the mission was still considered a partial success and Ethereal 4 was able to obtain a multitude of pictures of clouds over the Earth in the little time it was in orbit, helping meteorologists predict the weather. The first image was a test, and was taken around three hours after the satellite had entered orbit.

Image 19580113C: Clouds over the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Taken by Ethereal 4 from around 390km.

It would take another day for the satellite to enter full operational regime.

Ethereal 4 was originally supposed to work for many years, but the unfortunate failure to decouple from the kick stage shortened its lifetime considerably, and it fell out of orbit after 4 years of operation.


But the success of the IASRDA was to be short lived, for only a month later the Soviet Space Program stunned the world once again, by sending a probe, Luna 1, on a fly-by of the Moon. The Space Race was heating up, and in just a few years’ time, it would become hotter than anyone could have thought just a decade earlier.

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XIII: In the Pale Moonlight, Part 1

Fly me to the Moon


Luna 1’s launch on February 25 (and its subsequent fly-by of the Moon two days later) came as a complete shock to the western world. For the first time, the Soviets were ahead in the space race, while also appearing to possess a greater launch capability than the IASRDA ever did. The feat was extraordinary, of course, but only years later it would be disclosed that Luna 1’s actual mission was a lunar impact, a target only narrowly missed. Nevertheless, the IASRDA had a very serious competitor, and from now on no more misjudgments on their capabilities were to be made.

Problem was, the IASRDA did not possess the capability to reliably send a probe to the Moon yet. Therefore, a series of measures were taken. The most important one was the design and development of a more powerful upper stage, based on the X-405 engine developed for the shelved Navy Vanguard rocket. Time limitations meant that a more specialized variant of the motor, optimized for vacuum use, wouldn’t be ready until some time later. However, the engineers would have to make do. Thus was born the Vega stage, continuing the tradition of naming upper stages after stars.

Blueprint of Vega A1 upper stage.


The Vega A1 stage was a considerably more capable upper stage than the Alcor A. It had a diameter of 2.5 meters, on par with the Hyperion, requiring a new interstage fairing. The engine, as stated before, was a General Electric X-405, burning RP-1 kerosene and Liquid Oxygen, producing a thrust of 135.5kN at 278 seconds specific impulse in a vacuum. The stage burned for 142 seconds.

The avionics section of the stage was also a great improvement over that of the Alcor. It had three-axis stabilization, and was capable of keeping control for a total of 47 hours, whilst also being capable of executing much more precise commands. The Attitude Control System of the stage consisted of four pairs of three 48N thrusters. No prograde ACS ports were present. A total of 14.31kg of HTP were available for the thrusters.

The stage was capable of fitting a variety of satellites and upper stages, most notably the X-242 and clusters of Baby Sergeants.


The first IASRDA mission to the Moon would consist of two identical probes, named Explorer 1 and 2.

Image of Explorer 1 and 2 intended for public release.


Explorer 1/2 were two 31kg spherical probes derived from Ethereal 2. Power was provided by the probe’s internal batteries and four solar cells of identical manufacture to those of Ethereal 2. Despite their weight, the two probes carried a considerable number of scientific instruments, most notably a micrometeorite detector, a thermometer assembly, and a low-resolution TV camera that would take pictures of the Moon from up close. For communication purposes, the probes were outfitted with two extendable antennae derived from those used on Ethereal 4. Explorer 1 and 2 carried around 1.4kg of HTP for use by four 8N course adjustment thrusters.


The launch vehicle selected for the missions was the Hyperion-Vega A1 (LV-2). To allow for the necessary delta V to reach the Moon, some measures were taken for the Hyperion stage. A series of custom fitted structural reinforcements allowed for two Castor 1 solid rocket motors to be attached to the side of the first stage, at the expense of both weight and reliability. The only other difference with the LV-1A Hyperion was the larger interstage fairing meant to fit with the Vega upper stage.

The second stage was the Vega A1 (described above). The third stage for these missions was to be a X-242 solid rocket motor, which by now had become a real workhorse of the IASRDA.


The manufacture of both the probes and the launch vehicle went remarkably smoothly, and Explorer 1 was set for launch on May 22 1958.

Image 19580521A: the Hyperion-Vega A1 stack that carries Explorer 1 is lifted upwards at LC-1.

A huge crowd of journalists and civilians gathered in the Cape Canaveral, as this was seen as a direct attempt at showing the Soviets the West was still up and fighting.

The launch happened at around 15 in the afternoon, so the launchpad was very well lit by the Sun.

Image 19580522A: the Hyperion-Vega A1 takes off, the exhaust of the two Castors clearly visible.

The most tedious part for the ground crews and engineers was the separation of the two Castors, as it was an untested technology. Luckily, it all went smoothly.

Image 19580522B: Separation of the Castors. Image taken by RAF chase plane.

The rocket kept on climbing at a steady rate until it was time to ditch the first stage and light the Vega second stage.

SIMULATION. As the rocket climbs through the atmosphere, pressure decreases and the plume expands considerably.

SIMULATION. The X-405 on the Vega stage is ignited. Originally it wasn't intended for air ignition, but it had been modified accordingly by the IASRDA.

Ignition of the Vega stage went well, and so did most of the burn. Unfortunately, however, the engine abruptly stopped firing in the last five seconds of flight; this was traced back to the RP-1 turbopump failing.

SIMULATION. The fairings are ditched at 117km.

The X-242 worked, as usual, perfectly.

SIMULATION. The X-242 does its best to send the probe on the correct course, but it isn't enough.

Despite the perfect performance by the kick stage, due to the Vega failure the payload was still several m/s behind what planned, and would not intercept the Moon. The small adjustments motor on the probe itself wouldn’t be enough to rectify the issue, and the probe was left on a very elliptical orbit with an apogee of 254000km.

2018 image of the Explorer 1 orbital path, based on the telemetry data from 1958.

Three days after launch Explorer 1 reached its apogee, at which point it was remotely instructed to take a photograph of the Moon, as it was coincidentally at closest approach to it.

Image 19580525A: The Moon, on the centre-right as seen from almost 200,000km away. The dot on the left is probably Mars.

The probe was destroyed during re-entry in the atmosphere two days later.



Explorer 1 had ended up being a terrible failure, which brought much negative publicity to the IASRDA. The only way for the Agency to prove its worth was with Explorer 2, a launch which could spell the end of the international project. Making matters even worse, the Soviets managed to impact the Moon on July 7 with Luna 2. At this point the IASRDA was dead set on ensuring the next mission would be a complete success

The mission would finally launch on August 15 1958, almost three months after the first one. Extra precautions were taken to ensure everything would go well this time, as no plan B was available in case of failure.

The Hyperion-Vega A1 took off at around the same time as the previous launch, at 15:37 in the afternoon.

Image 19580815A: Explorer 2 takes off. Notice the heavy, opaque smoke of the solid rocket motors.

The whole launch went above expectations, with each stage performing as planned.

SIMULATION. The X-242 kick motor propels Explorer 2 on a fly-by of the Moon.

Just ten minutes after launch Explorer 2 was on its way to the Moon.

SIMULATION. Explorer 2 is readying for the 3-days long trip. Antennae are extended during these preparations.

Apart from a failure in one of the solar cells, the five days long voyage went smoothly, and the probe started transmitting the photographs of the Moon it was taking as it came closer and closer to it; these were the first images taken by a spacecraft of another celestial body.

Image 19580819A: 12 hours before entering the Moon's SOI.

Image 19580820A: Explorer 2 has just entered the Moon's SOI.

Image 19580820B: The Moon gets closer and closer.

Image 19580820C: The probe is now just 30 minutes from perilune.

Image 19580820D: Explorer 2 takes a photograph of the Moon at closest approach, from 2953km away.

In the end, on August 20 Explorer 2 would come as close as 2953km to the Moon before being ejected out of the Earth’s own sphere of influence and entering a heliocentric orbit, at which point communications with the probe were lost. Nevertheless, Explorer 2 is still in orbit around the Sun to this day.


Despite Explorer 1 miserable failure, the IASRDA was able to get back on its knees with the more successful Explorer 2, which was not only a major opinion booster, but also collected a large number of photographs of the Moon, without forgetting about the invaluable data collected in the vicinity of the Earth’s satellite. Image 19580820D would be on the front page of most newspaper the day after it was released to the public. The IASRDA had, once again, saved the day.

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XIV: This Side of Paradise, Part 2

Amundsen's Legacy


Explorer 2’s successful mission had bought time for the IASRDA to develop essential technology which would allow reaching the Moon and beyond without resorting to the complicated adaptations that had been necessary on the previous two missions.

The first launch that was planned in order to develop such technology was something that had been actually considered a long time before, but had been significantly delayed to allow for the launch of Explorer 1 and 2: a satellite, Ethereal 5, sent into a polar orbit of the Earth.

The mission called for a low orbit with perigee above 185km and apogee below 400km, with an extreme inclination between 85 and 95 degrees, eventually settling for an orbit at exactly 87 degrees.

Ethereal 5.

The satellite was designed around the same body as Ethereal 4, but was outfitted with state-of-the-art scientific equipment, namely a thermometer assembly, a Geiger-Muller tube, a micrometeorite detector, a Bennet radio frequency mass spectrometer, and an early instance of a magnetometer, mounted at the end of the long extendable boom.

Compared to Ethereal 4, the HTP tanks and control ports had been removed as the satellite was not meant for any sort of orbital adjustment capability, and fully relied on the launch vehicle to insert it into the correct orbit. The selected launch platform was the revised Hyperion-Alcor A rocket, with a single Baby Sergeant as kick stage.

The launch would happen on October 24 1958, in slightly cloudy weather but with low winds overall.

Image 19581024A. The Explorer 5 stack hours before lift-off.

The rocket took off at 13:41 in the afternoon, with the sun low on the horizon due to the autumn launch.

Image 19581024B. Lift-off of the Hyperion-Alcor A carrying Ethereal 5.

The updated version of the Hyperion was heavier than the experimental one, but the extra weight was easily offset by the much-improved reliability and guidance, indeed no failures were recorded on the flight.

SIMULATION. The stack climbs through the lower atmosphere. The Cape is visible below the rocket.

The polar orbit required the rocket to fly a very dangerous ascent path that flew right over populated centers in Florida; of course, such an ascent path nowadays would be very, very unlikely to be selected.

SIMULATION. The Hyperion-Alcor passes over Florida during the ascent phase.

The first two stages separated and the Alcor, also upgraded, ignited to propel the rocket to a semi-final sub-orbital trajectory.

SIMULATION. The Alcor A stage ignites.

At 2 minutes from apogee, the Baby Sergeant was ignited, six seconds later Ethereal 5 was in orbit.

SIMULATION. The Baby Sergeant rocket motor brings the satellite into orbit.

The satellite was inserted into a 237x350km, 87.021° inclination orbit with a period of 1h 30m 15s.

SIMULATION. Ethereal 5 in orbit, instrumentation fully deployed.


Ethereal 5 would operate for the following two and a half years, before it was destroyed during re-entry after orbital decay had taken its toll on the satellite’s already low orbit. In this small timeframe, however, Ethereal 5 made several scientific discoveries, among those was the discovery of the lower strength of the Van Allen belt near and at the Earth’s poles.

The Soviets would send another probe to the Moon four days later, Luna 3, which sent the first full photographs of the Moon’s far side, although it could be argued that part of the far side was visible on some of the photographs from Explorer 2. Despite that, the IASRDA had bought enough time with the latest successes for a long-forgotten project to come back in great style; a project which would be the basis for many of the IASRDA launch vehicles over the years.

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XV: Grant Fire to Humanity

The Prometheus Launch Vehicle



During World War II, America’s fear of British collapse, and subsequent complete loss of Europe to the Axis, meant that a plan in such an extreme case was to be prepared. Due to the impossibility of launching a full-blown seaborne invasion from across the Atlantic without having shattered the morale of Germany and its allies first, a long-range strike capability had to be developed, starting in 1942.

The first option taken into consideration was to use available long-range heavy bombers, such as the Boeing B-17 or the Consolidated B-24, to completely wreck the Axis’s industrial production, and then utilize the Boeing B-29 when it would become available, along with the secret super-weapon being developed as part of Manhattan, to finally totally annihilate Germany and allies, with enemy losses expected in the millions; all this, due to the relatively short range of the aircraft considered, had to be done from Soviet airbases, a much undesired requirement. Furthermore, this would give the USSR a much greater bargaining power in the peace talks after the war, which would likely end in the complete annexation of continental Europe.

The second option was to develop a very long range super-heavy bomber, capable of carrying the Manhattan payload, a bomb weighing from 4 to 5 tons, all the way from the US to Europe, which would mean a combat range, at full payload, of between 6000 to 8000 kilometers; the fact that such an option was considered was very optimistic about current and near-future developments in aviation, indeed, an aircraft which would fulfill these requirement, the B-36, would only be available years after the plans were laid out, and by that time, the war would have likely already been over (with the Soviets taking the full share of the victory in Europe).

The third, most ambitious, option, was to develop a long-range rocket, a true intercontinental ballistic missile, to deliver the Manhattan payload with no fear of retaliation. American studies had already made a considerable advance in the matter before the war for completely unrelated purposes, and the project was expected to be ready in around three years’ time at the most, with the resources that would be assigned to a program that was of lesser importance only to Manhattan itself. Since the first rockets were expected to be delivered and launched by mid-1944, an invasion of Europe by the end of the year could be feasible. This option was selected, the best of three bad options. The assigned codename for the project was “Prometheus”.


The Prometheus was expected to be a two-stage missile, with both stages burning Ethanol and Liquid Oxygen at first, and then switch to a more performing mixture of Kerosene and Liquid Oxygen once it had been well understood. The people working at the Manhattan Project assured that they would be able to develop a lighter version of their super-weapon, which allowed for the required throw-weight of the rocket to be downscaled to around 3 tons.

The following data is for the kerolox version of Prometheus.

The first stage was designed to be 10ft (3.048m) in diameter, with two LR18 motors, providing a total of 1449,2kN of thrust at 276 seconds impulse in a vacuum. To reduce weight, balloon tanks (later used in the SM-65 Atlas ICBM) were to be used in the first stage. Burn time was expected to be 165 seconds.

The second stage was also 10ft in diameter, and utilized a derivative of the LR18, the LR23, as its main motor, with two small verniers providing roll control. This engine had a thrust of 365.3kN at 306 seconds Isp in a vacuum. Balloon tanks were used for this stage as well. Expected burn time was 150 seconds.


A mock-up of the missile was built in 1943, and the engines were tested that same year, with a test of the complete stack to be conducted early the following year. Unfortunately, the war had gone well, and with an invasion of Europe to be conducted in June 1944, Prometheus was deemed to no longer be required, and the project was shutdown. The mock-up and engines were all scrapped, and very little documentation remained of the missile itself.

Part of the IRS Rocket Division, and later the IASRDA Astronautics Department (working in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), had been working on recovering all the data available on the Prometheus ICBM to develop a more advanced version usable as a launch vehicle. After four years of hard work, finally in late-1958 a descendant of the original Prometheus was ready to fly.


Blueprint of the Prometheus A launch vehicle.

The Prometheus A launch vehicle was the most powerful rocket ever designed by the IASRDA to that point. It dropped the problematic balloon tanks of the original Prometheus, since the weight increase was considered acceptable in front of higher reliability and lower costs. To save money and time, the engines were derived from the Hyperion and SM-65 Atlas, but were readapted to the different flight conditions of the Prometheus.

The first stage was exactly 3 meters in diameter, since the IASRDA used the metric system. The stage had two Rocketdyne LR79-NA-9, as used on a then-in-development upgrade to the Hyperion, producing a total of 1566kN thrust at 284s Isp in a perfect vacuum. The engines were powered by separate machinery, and were not considered a single unit as was the LR87 of the SM-68A Titan ICBM. The stage had a rated burn time of 154 seconds.

The second stage was also three meters in diameter, and was powered by the LR105-NA-3 that was used as a sustainer on Atlas. The engine produced a thrust of 352.2kN at a vacuum specific impulse of 309 seconds. To provide roll control capability to the stage a pair of LR101-NA-3 verniers, used on a large variety of both missiles and launch vehicles, was mounted. The total thrust therefore was 362.428kN. The stage had no Attitude Control System of any sorts.

The assembled stack had a fueled mass of 120,023 kilograms, and could carry a maximum payload of 1922kg to a 185x185km orbit at 28.6° from Cape Canaveral.


The first test of the assembled stack took place on December 13 1958. As this was merely a test, no bystanders were present at the launch site. The Prometheus was loaded with 1890kg of ballast to simulate a payload.

Image 19581213A. The Prometheus A stack at the LC-1 pad.

The rocket took off at 11:26 in the morning. The initial part of the launch was slow, owing to the low 1.14 TWR of the rocket, but it quickly accelerated after the initial moments.

Image 19581213B. Lift-off of the Prometheus A test vehicle.

The launch vehicle was visible from the ground even when very high up, owing for the most part to the large plume of the engines.

Image 19581213C. The Prometheus in flight as seen from the ground.

The LR105 ignited a second before MECO, and three seconds later it reached full thrust and the second stage was separated.

SIMULATION. A second after MECO the second stage separates, the LR105 having already been ignited.

The fairings were then ditched at 114km altitude and the second stage kept burning until it reached orbit, at which point SECO occurred.

SIMULATION. The fairings are ditched as they are now unnecessary.

SIMULATION. The LR105 keeps burning to bring the payload into orbit.

Once in orbit, the stage conducted some avionics checks to verify if anything had gone unnoticed by the ground crews.

SIMULATION. The upper stage and test payload are in orbit at 185km.

After 90 seconds of testing, the avionics ignited the retro-motors mounted on the payload, and the stage re-entered the atmosphere over Central Africa, where it was completely destroyed with any surviving fragments splashing down near Madagascar.

SIMULATION. The retro-rockets fire.

Data of the Prometheus A test flight up until SECO. Dynamic pressure in cyan.


The first test of a Prometheus had gone incredibly well. The rocket was a major step-up in launch capabilities, and, although it would never launch any operational payload due to the development of a better variant early in 1959, was a very important demonstration of what the IASRDA was really capable of. Many of the launch vehicles developed in the following years would be based upon this successful design.

The IASRDA thought everything would be silent at the Cape until the launch of Explorer 3 early into 1959, but the administration board would be very surprised when they discovered the Aeronautics Department had other ideas for the holidays.

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Posted (edited)

XVI: Rising Thunderstorm, Part 1

Faster than the Sun



Seldom was the Aeronautics Department up to anything big, but when they were, they made sure everyone in a range of 30 kilometers knew about it. They had worked closely with Pratt&Whitney in the past five years to develop a turbojet engine capable of flying above Mach 2 without suffering catastrophic failure; at the same time, they had been working with the RAF on the Fairey Delta aircraft, a collaboration which resulted in the development of a new cockpit design.

The Thunder aircraft had been a great success early in the 50s, but by now the design had become outdated, and the flight airspeed record was now held by the Canadian test pilot Janusz Żurakowski, flying a CF-105 Avro Arrow. A newer, faster and more capable version of the Thunder was deemed necessary to further research high-speed flight.

The Thunder was by itself a very good design, more than excellent for its time. The fundamental issues that limited its capabilities were the cockpit and air intakes design, the airflow near the main landing gears, and, most importantly, the engine. The J57 was a true workhorse, but it wasn’t up to late ‘50s standards. The IASRDA worked hard with P&W to develop a successor to this remarkable engine, and by late 1958 their work had paid off.

The J75 was essentially a larger J57, with updated construction techniques. It produced a static thrust of 76.50kN dry and 109kN at full afterburner, with a compression ratio of 12.2:1. The engine had a mass of 2.7 tons, a diameter of 1.25 meters and a length of nearly three meters. The version developed for IASRDA was a variant of the J75-P-17, which had an engine pre-cooler (as did the IRS J57-P-21) to allow for even higher speeds to be reached.

The cockpit had also been greatly improved, and now it encompassed the two air intakes in its structure, saving weight and greatly improving the aerodynamics of the aircraft. The interior had also been thoroughly overhauled, and it now had much more advanced instrumentations. Apart from the noticeably different forward assembly, the new vehicle was mostly identical to its predecessor, save for the modifications made to allow for the fitting of the J75, and a slightly larger wingspan to cope with the increased weight of the aircraft, which now rose up to 15696kg fully loaded and 10213kg empty, an increase over the Thunder of about a ton.

This new aircraft, designed to shatter every airspeed record up to that day, was named Thunderstorm, official designation IASRDA-XA-4.

Blueprint of the Thunderstorm research aircraft.

The first test of the complete aircraft, with the full-power J75 as its powerplant, was unleashed upon Florida on January 20 1959 at 06:25 in the morning, with Senior Captain Joe Mitchell and Senior Specialist Danny Higgins at the controls.

Image 19590120A. Mitchell and Higgins are making the final checks before taking off in the pink morning sky.

The aircraft was ready for take off at 06:30, after last minute checks had found that everything was fine.

Image 19590120B. "You are go for take off, Thunderstorm 1" -Cape Canaveral AFB Control Tower, 1959

Mitchell spooled up the engine, then engaged the afterburner. Reportedly the noise was so high and so unexpected some of the workers at the then-in-construction LC-3 thought something was exploding in their vicinity.

Image 19590120C. "[REDACTED], does this [REDACTED] thing go fast!" -Joseph Frank "Joe" Mitchell, 1959

The aircraft kept climbing at a steady rate of 100m/s, the extreme power of the J75 engine allowed for the Thunderstorm to repeatedly break the sound barrier as it did so. The chase planes assigned to the mission had a very difficult time keeping up with their target.

Image 19590120D. The Thunderstorm is now at 5000m, still climbing at above Mach 1.

As the aircraft approached 11000m, Mitchell stabilized it while keeping the speed down to allow for a quick photoshoot.

Image 19590120E. The chase aircrafts come in close for some photographs.

After the photos were taken, Mitchell unleashed the J75, as he did so, he started a climb to reach 12900 meters, the optimal altitude to get the most out of the aircraft.

Image 19590120F. "Ground speed is 2000km/h and rising!" -Joe Mitchell, 1959

After a couple of minutes of steady acceleration at 12.9km altitude, the aircraft exceeded Mach 2, getting as fast as Mach 2.10. As they approached that velocity, both mission control and Higgins on the back seat of the aircraft advised against exceeding it, as some overheating was being recorded in the engine and they wouldn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.

Image 19590120G."Control, I'm recording severe overheating of the J75 engine; speed 2235km/h; altitude 12.9km" -Daniel "Danny" Higgins, 1959

Despite Mitchell’s disappointment, he nonetheless complied with the sound advice he received. He started decelerating by using the airbrakes located on top of the airframe, and entered a slow turn to initiate the return to base.

Image 19590120H. "Alright, fine, we're turning around" -Joe Mitchell, 1959

As the aircraft returned to base, Mitchell set the throttle so that they would fly at a steady Mach 1.2 at 12000m altitude. The chase planes were able to catch up to the Thunderstorm, and take a few other good pictures.

Image 19590120I. The chase aircraft are back in view of the Thunderstorm.

Mitchell initiated final descent when they were about 50km away from the Cape. The aircraft required very precise maneuvering as it was extremely easy to accelerate it to speeds unsuited for landing (i.e. 800km/h) even at very low throttle settings. Mitchell made a few go arounds to slow the aircraft enough to allow for a soft landing. 47 minutes after take off the Thunderstorm had landed safely, despite the drogue parachute failing to deploy.

Image 19590120J. "You're coming in quite fast, Thunderstorm 1. Go around and lose some more speed" -Cape Canaveral AFB Control Tower, 1959

Image 19590120K. The Thunderstorm is safely back on the ground.


While the full power of the Thunderstorm had not been unleashed (yet), the aircraft still managed to break a number of records, although the current Flight Airspeed Record yet remained unbeaten. Still, the decision to limit the aircraft’s airspeed had been the right one, as post-flight analysis showed that had the aircraft flown any faster, the engine would have catastrophically failed, a scenario which would have likely ended in loss of both airframe and crew, especially at those speeds. A series of adjustments were made to the J75 to allow for higher velocities to be reached, unfortunately this had the side effect of delaying further testing until the necessary upgrades had been installed. Nevertheless, despite its limitations at this stage, it was already clear the Thunderstorm would very likely become the world’s fastest aircraft, faster than the Sun itself.

Edited by Fenisse

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XVII: In the Pale Moonlight, Part 2

Chasing the Moonlight


The IASRDA wished to capitalize on the successes of the Explorer Program thus far by sending a further two probes to the Moon: one would fly-by it, Explorer 3, and one would impact it, Explorer 4.

Blueprint of Explorer 3.

Explorer 3 was a 33kg probe, based on the successful design of Explorer 2, albeit with several overhauls. The solar cells had been upgraded to be larger and more powerful, also there were now seven of them, and the velocity adjustment thrusters and propellant had been removed in favor of more scientific instruments. This meant that the spacecraft had no means to correct the flight path if the launch vehicle failed to follow the correct course even for a second, but the margin of error was quite large anyways. The probe was equipped with a low-resolution TV camera (the same as the Explorer 2 one), a temperature measurement unit, an ion mass spectrometer, and a micrometeorite detector.

The advancements in rocketry meant that the heavy and expensive Hyperion-Vega was no longer necessary to send a probe to the Moon; a simple Hyperion LT-Alcor A1 with an X-242 kick stage would suffice.

The launch was scheduled for February 20 1959 at around 19:34 in the evening, when conditions for the launch were met.

Image 19590220A. The Hyperion stack on the launch pad a few hours before flight.

The rocket took off at the nominal time. As you can see, it is night; this would be a first for the IASRDA. Direct ascents to the Moon with no parking orbit often result in such night launches, with the Moon below the eastern horizon.

Image 19590220B. Lift-off at 9PM! The exhaust is clearly visible in the near-darkness of a moonless night, the only source of light being the rocket plume itself.

The Hyperion ignited with a loud roar, and started following its predetermined ascent path, illuminating the night sky over Florida in the process.

SIMULATION. The Hyperion stage flying through the atmosphere. Notice the towns and cities around the Cape Canaveral AFB.

The Alcor second stage ignited after a small coast of two seconds. It was very faintly visible from the ground, but probably just a few people managed to follow it through its burn.

SIMULATION. Although difficult to see in this shot, the Alcor stage keeps propelling the payload one step closer to the Moon.

The Alcor started its spin program to stabilize the X-242 just as the Sun started to come back from below the horizon.

SIMULATION. The Alcor spins to stabilize the unguided third stage and payload.

The X-242 finally fired to send Explorer 3 to the Moon.

SIMULATION. The X-242 gives the last push to a trans-lunar injection.


Due to a very slight error in the Alcor phase of the flight, which made it finish its burn half a second later, the probe was projected to come very close to the Moon, probably it might had even ended up impacting it. Projected perilune was in the range of 0-300km.

SIMULATION. Explorer 3 on its way to the Moon.

Explorer 3 arrived at the Moon on February 24, after 3.5 days of flight. It took a series of photographs, of which one will be shown below:

Image 19590224A. The Moon as seen during the approach of Explorer 3.

While the probe did not impact the Moon in the end, it passed at a really low altitude of 143km from the surface. It then proceeded to escape into interplanetary space as it was slingshot by the Moon’s gravity, and communications were therefore lost.


The next mission, Explorer 4, would, as stated before, be the first lunar impactor of the IASRDA.

Blueprint of Explorer 4.

The probe weighed 44kg and was very similar in design to Explorer 3. The increased weight was a result of a requirement set by both the R&D Department, and the top brass of the IASRDA. To fulfill this request, a large number of instruments was mounted on the spacecraft, namely a thermometer unit, an ion mass spectrometer, a micrometeorite detector and a Geiger-Muller counter.

The weight of the probe was prohibitive for almost all IASRDA launch vehicles however. Even the Hyperion-Vega could only carry at most 41kg to a trans-lunar injection. Only one rocket could haul the desired payload at this stage in time: a Prometheus A with an Alcor A1 upper stage.

A Prometheus that was almost finished and due for testing was hastily repurposed to carry the Alcor upper stage. Such configuration would weigh around 122 tons, and could carry 130kg to the Moon without even requiring a kick stage. The Prometheus was so powerful that it couldn’t orbit the whole Alcor upper stage all by itself just because it lacked 160m/s of delta V. While the rocket was definitely a bit overkill for the job, it was nonetheless the only one that could do it at the time.


The launch was scheduled for March 18 1959, a month after Explorer 3’s. It would be another early evening launch.

Image 19590318A. The Prometheus stack photographed just before sunset at the Cape.

The rocket took off at 18:10 in the evening, just after sunset. The Prometheus launch vehicle lit up the area around Launch Complex 1.

Image 19590318B. Lift-off of the Prometheus A - Alcor A1 rocket carrying the Explorer 4 lunar impactor.

The stack was the brightest light in the night sky above Florida.

Image 19590318C. The exhaust plume is the only visible part of the rocket from the ground.

Unfortunately, one of the two LR79 on the first stage suffered a performance failure in the last two seconds of burn, but the rocket had enough margin (and the failure occurring late enough in the flight) for it not to matter much.

SIMULATION. The sun has risen once again as the stack passes 12km altitude.

The second stage burn was nominal instead. Only 360 m/s (due to the first stage failure) separated the rocket from orbit.

SIMULATION. Notice plume expansion of the LR105 in the vacuum of space.

The Alcor stage worked perfectly and 3 minutes later Explorer 4 was on an impact course with the Moon. The probe was left in a slight spin to stabilize it

SIMULATION. The Alcor stage finishes the burn and sends Explorer 4 to an impact with the Moon.

SIMULATION. Explorer 4 is on a direct course to the Moon.


The probe impacted the Moon on the northern side of Oceanus Procellarum on March 25, after a week of travel. A lot of data was recorded from the minutes before impact and the impact itself. Unfortunately, the low transmission capability of the probe precluded the possibility of any images to be returned, and therefore no camera had been mounted on the spacecraft.

In the days following the successful launch, the R&D department announced substantial progress in rocket engine designs, and assured that important upgrades to existing rockets, as well as completely new launch vehicles, would be available shortly for use by the IASRDA.


Edited by Fenisse
Fixed some typos

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I'm really impressed by the schematics and the novel designs. I'm really interested to see where this series goes. Keep up the good work!

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@Machinique thank you very much! The designs are not completely novel (I had created the Prometheus some while back in a 1.0.5 install of RP-0, for example) and they can definitely be improved upon (and they will). They aren't as efficient as they could be, but I decided that it would give a sense of "we're at the early stages of space exploration, we don't really know what we're doing".

Hopefully the series will go very far; for now the main goal is getting a man on the Moon (I'm 2-3 chapters ahead of the thread, they will be released shortly), but of course I'd love to continue up to the present day, or even near future.

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Thanks for the reply. I like how in this timeline that while rockets borrow pieces and designs from ICBMs, there isn't a direct conversion. It gives the IASRDA a real feeling of a non-military organization.

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@Fenisse, this thread is a work of art in every respect:  the creation of the setting, the writing, the engineering, and the illustrations.  Bravo!

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Dang, this is some top-notch mission reporting! Kudos to you, @Fenisse! One question, how do you get those grainy, olde-style photos from your screenshots? I might try something similar myself...

The dedication, skills and general all-round awesomeness of the dudes in this forum never ceases to amaze!

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@Machinique Yes! The IASRDA is not a military organization, nor a governmental space agency. Of course, it has military roots: the IRS was founded and directed by military officials, all of the crewmembers at this point in time are military aviators (more on them soon), and of course technology derived from military applications. Despite that, the Agency is a (purely) scientific institution; it definitely will become more so in the future.

@Geschosskopf Thank you! You guys are making me blush :)

@Spacenerd Kerman Thanks! The grainy pictures are a result of my messing around with the Camera Raw filters and the Noise filters; lately I've also been adding some very slight blurring (in the order of 0.3-0.6px generally). Just mess around with the filters until you get what you seek, with time you'll get experience and it will become much easier.

Once again, thank you guys a lot! :)

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XVIII: Rising Thunderstorm, Part 2

Highway to the Danger Zone


Just over two months of work were necessary to upgrade the IASRDA Thunderstorm fleet. The J75 had its turbines overhauled with more heat-resistant alloys, and the pre-cooler was also significantly improved; while the engine was expected to resist to speeds of up to Mach 2.4 at first, now it was projected to be able to survive even at Mach 2.6 with no issue, but any speeds above that would definitely put a serious strain on both airframe and engine. These improvements were carefully designed to not increase the weight of the aircraft in any way.

The first test mission of the revamped Thunderstorm was expected for April 6 1959. There was much interest in the design, and the flight would be attended by many experts and top brass from the many countries of NATO, who hoped the design would become the basis for a standardized interceptor/air-superiority fighter. The interest was so high that the US dispatched the newly commissioned USS Ranger super-carrier to the waters east of Cape Canaveral, with the flight path adjusted to fly over the ship.

Preparations for the mission started at 6:20 in the morning, with the sun already quite high in the sky. Commander Isaac Perry and Master Engineer Douglas Cherry were on the runway by 6:38, and boarded the aircraft at 6:41.

Image 19590406A. 6:42AM. Perry and Cherry have just boarded their aircraft, and are preparing for take-off.

The final checks were swiftly conducted and at 6:45 the aircraft was allowed to take-off, at which point Perry spooled up the engine. He commented via radio about the acceleration he was being subjected to.

Image 19590406B. Visual from Perry's helmet. The Thunderstorm has just begun accelerating, yet it already reached 192km/h.

The aircraft took up to the sky a few moments later. Instead of the steady climb that Mitchell used on the last flight, allowing him to repeatedly break the sound barrier, Perry was directed to do a zoom climb, in which he used the thrust of the engine to very quickly rise in altitude despite the low lift provided by the wings. This would mean that the aircraft would very quickly rise through the air, at the cost of a lower overall airspeed at altitude.

Image 19590406C. "40 degress AoA and velocity is still rising" -Isaac Perry, 1959

By doing so, Perry reached 1000m in 17 seconds, 3000m in 53 seconds, and 10000m in 178 seconds, with an average climb rate around 60 m/s, even at high altitudes. After the zoom climb, Perry stabilized the aircraft at the usual 12900m, and allowed the F-104 chase planes to catch up to him.

Image 19590406D. The F-104s have just catched up with Perry and Cherry.

Image 19590406E. "Damn, isn't she beautiful!" -USAF Chase Pilot, 1959

After the photoshoot, the crew was instructed to reach the maximum speed possible. Perry engaged the afterburner, which made the Thunderstorm accelerate very rapidly, eventually leaving the chase planes behind at Mach 2.

Image 19590406F. "Throttling to maximum power... we're full afterburner now" -Isaac Perry, 1959

Image 19590406G. "We'll see you again when we come around mates!" -Douglas Cherry, 1959

The Thunderstorm reached the incredible speed of 2790km/h, equaling Mach 2.621 at the altitude of 12.9km, completely shattering the previous record of 2333km/h held by Janusz Żurakowski since September of the previous year.

Image 19590406H. "Ground speed reading is 2790km/h, [REDACTED]" -Isaac Perry, 1959

After the record speed was maintained for three minutes, at which point Cherry recorded very dangerous temperatures inside the J75, Perry started to slow the aircraft down to descend to an altitude suitable for the pass over the USS Ranger. At this point, the F-104s were able to follow the Thunderstorm with little problem.

Image 19590406I. "Welcome back, Thunderstorm 2. Hope you two had a nice time" -USAF Chase Pilot, 1959

The Ranger was around 450km downrange from Cape Canaveral, and since the Thunderstorm had reached up to 620km, the carrier would be flown over on the way back. Perry and Cherry decided this would not be the fly-by the top brass was expecting. As they were nearing the carrier, Perry went on full afterburner, and the Thunderstorm passed right over the Ranger flying at over Mach 1 at 200m from the sea, and even less from the carrier’s deck. This procedure was forbidden in theory, but almost everyone aboard the Ranger seemed to enjoy the show.

Image 19590406J. The Thunderstorm passes at Mach 1.3 at just 100 meters from the Ranger's deck.

The remainder of the flight was very demanding on Perry and Cherry’s side. The aircraft was very low on fuel, and maneuvers were to be executed with extreme care to avoid any waste of kerosene. Any mistake and the two would not be able to make it back home, and would likely have to ditch in the Atlantic Ocean; not the best publicity for the “most advanced aircraft in the world”. Luckily the crew was the best the IASRDA had to offer, and through careful management of thrust and altitude they safely landed after one hour and seventeen minutes in the air with only 93 liters of kerosene left in the tanks!

Image 19590406K. "Note to self: don't fly at Mach 1.3 with limited fuel, no matter how glorious it is" -Isaac Perry, 1959


While the majority of the world would not know about the near failure of the test flight for many years, Isaac Perry and Douglas Cherry were unofficially commended for their skillful flying, despite their ‘questionable’ decision to waste fuel by going full afterburner above the USS Ranger. Both Joe Mitchell and Danny Higgins had come to the landing strip at Cape Canaveral, and even volunteered to help in any way possible, as soon as they came to know the Perry and Cherry were in dire straits aboard the Thunderstorm, a proof of the extreme camaraderie between the IASRDA flying crews. Mitchell later recalled that he was sure his two colleagues were going to be alright because Perry was at the controls.

The spectators of the test flight were extremely satisfied by the results the IASRDA had achieved. Although they knew the Agency would never sell the design for military purposes, they nonetheless obtained much data that would be used to perfect the design of several interceptors such as the F-106.

The IASRDA, however, still had another test in mind for the Thunderstorm, but that would have to wait, as doing it in the very near future would likely result fatal to the occupants of the aircraft.

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