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Beyond Earth - An RP-1 based alternate space race - Update XXXIII - The Seat with the Clearest View

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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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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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@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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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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XIX: This Side of Paradise, Part 3

From Above the Clouds


The advancements in both liquid and solid rocketry of the last months meant that a complete renewal of the IASRDA fleet of launch vehicles was possible. Most rockets now were not only more capable than ever before, but also cheaper, which was always a good thing, especially since the funding came from politicians.

Several missions that were impossible to complete before (or were doable, but at unreasonable costs) now were totally feasible by means of the newly developed launch vehicles. The first two missions that would launch were of the Ethereal program, since there was some more breathing room in the space race, as both the IASRDA and the Soviets were aiming for Venus and Mars next, but these missions would need to wait until the next year, 1960, when a launch window would be available.


Blueprint of the Hyperion ELT-Arcturus A launch vehicle.

The Hyperion ELT (Extended Long Body) was the newest iteration of the already venerable Hyperion stage. The main engine had been uprated to the LR79-NA-11 specification, capable of 850kN of thrust at 286.2s specific impulse in a perfect vacuum; this was a considerable increase in performance over the LR79-NA-9, capable of a “mere” 783kN at 284s Isp. The new engine required a greater amount of propellant to burn for the rated 165 seconds, to account for that the propellant tanks were extended (hence the ELT designation), which now held 48.191kg of RP-1 kerosene and Liquid Oxygen. The two vernier engines remained the same as before, as did the guidance ring mounted at the top of the stage.

The Arcturus A was the latest upper stage developed by the IASRDA (while plans for such a stage existed already in 1958, they never went beyond the drawing board). The stage was 1.7m in diameter, which allowed it to carry wider payloads compared to the 1.2m Alcor stage, but not as wide as the 2.5m Vega. It was powered by a Bell XLR81-BA-5 (the same engine used on the USAF’s own Agena stage), burning a hypergolic mixture of Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and IRFNA-III; it was capable of producing 67kN of thrust at 276s specific impulse in a vacuum; the whole stage burned for a total of 120 seconds. The greatest advantage this stage had over the Alcor was its avionics system, derived from the Vega’s: it had true three-axis stabilization, was capable of operating as a secondary or even primary satellite bus, and was also capable of somewhat complex maneuvers by using the on-board attitude thrusters. The Attitude Control System had also been uprated to use Hydrazine, which provided a significant performance advantage over High-Test Peroxide.

The nature of the upper stage meant it was perfect for a high-resolution photography mission, with the Arcturus operating as the main satellite bus, with a re-entry canister that would allow for recovery of the images.


Schematic of Ethereal 6.

Ethereal 6 was a test satellite that would verify the feasibility of observing the Earth from space. The cameras mounted on it were cheaper and faster to manufacture, due to the experimental nature of the flight. More capable cameras would be employed on later vehicles. The payload itself weighed 225kg, complete with a camera assembly and a bio-sample included in the return canister, containing several fruit flies, some mice and a number of plants.

Once in orbit, the Arcturus stage would ditch one of the fairings to expose the film camera, which would then start taking photographs of several important sites on Earth, such as the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, or parts of the Great Wall in China. After completion of the mission (in this case, two days later) the film would be transferred to the recovery canister, which would then be separated from the Arcturus stage, and proceeded to deorbit itself. It would then land by parachute and recovered by ground crews.


The launch would take place on July 6 1959 at the newly constructed LC-2 launch pad.

Image 19590706A. The assembled stack at LC-2, just hours before launch.

The heavy weight of the satellite was above the rated payload capabilities of the Hyperion ELT-Arcturus A for a polar 185km orbit, but it was calculated that an orbit at 77° at 160km would be well within the capabilities of the launch vehicle, and the lower altitude would also help get better photographs. Launch occurred at 10:18 in the morning.

Image 19590706B. Lift-off of the first Hyperion-Arcturus launch vehicle ever!

In the first seconds of flight the guidance system proceeded to roll the stack in the correct direction, a capability that was critical in reducing launch pad complexity, since it wouldn’t require to rotate the launch vehicle to the correct heading before launch. Moreover, this allowed for changes in course to be performed mid-flight.

SIMULATION. The guidance has rolled the rocket to the correct heading, and the rocket is functioning nominally.

The high inclination launch brought the rocket’s path above inhabited parts of Florida, and almost over Miami itself, although a failure would only result in the debris landing over populated areas in a very small portion of the flight. Nevertheless, nowadays launches that require such inclinations are performed from other launch sites such as Vandenberg AFB.

SIMULATION. The launch vehicle passes over parts of Florida during ascent.

Luckily every concern was unfounded as the first stage performed superbly. MECO occurred at T+165, and the Arcturus stage separated at T+166 seconds.

SIMULATION. Separation of the Arcturus stage. Its main engine had already started the ignition sequence before the separation occurred.

On this flight the fairing would not be discarded during ascent, instead being carried all the way to orbit, as discussed before.

SIMULATION. The XLR-81-BA-5 is working hard to push the spacecraft into orbit.

The Arcturus stage also performed perfectly, despite some concern after the USAF warned about unreliability of the XLR81 engine. SECO occurred at T+286, and the orbit was fine tuned by means of the ACS. Final orbit was 159x160km at exactly 77°, with an orbital period of 1h 27m 32s.

SIMULATION. With its propellant exhausted and the stage in orbit, the XLR81-BA-5 finally shuts down.

Once in orbit, the avionics system started checking that everything was nominal, and then proceeded to disable all non-essential systems to save power. The satellite then started a stabilization program that kept it always parallel to the ground (by means of star navigation), discarded one of the fairings, and started taking a series of photographs to calibrate the camera. Ethereal 6 was ready for operation around 24 minutes after entering orbit.

SIMULATION. The fairing has been discarded, and the satellite is now in operation. It will remain in orbit for two days.

The satellite remained in operation around the Earth for just more than two days, at which point it had taken numerous reference images that would be used to calibrate subsequent satellite cameras. The return capsule was released over the North Pole, a few seconds after release it performed the de-orbit burn via its retro-motors. The canister experienced maximum g-forces of 8.5g during re-entry, but it survived relatively unscathed. As it reached 5000m in altitude the pilot chute was deployed, with the main chute inflating at 1000m. The probe landed in Southern California after 25 minutes from the retro-burn; it was recovered by the US National Guard and immediately returned to the IASRDA.

The photographs obtained from the missions may not have been of the best quality, but two very important objectives had been met. First, it was indeed possible for a spacecraft to survive re-entry and land safely on Earth. Second, it was proved that animals and plant could survive a trip to orbit and back with not many issues.


A second mission was soon scheduled, this time with a larger, better camera, to allow for better resolution images to be returned to Earth.

Print of Ethereal 7.

The much more advanced camera necessitated for considerably larger fairings than those of the previous launch. Despite the payload itself being slightly lighter than the older one, the delta V margin on this launch was almost non-existent due to the much heavier fairing, indeed, the assembled satellite weighed much more than Ethereal 6. No changes were made to either the return capsule or the Arcturus stage.


Launch was scheduled for August 26 1959 at the LC-1 launch pad.

Image 19590826A. Aerial photograph of the Hyperion ELT-Arcturus A stack before launch.

Take off occurred at 11:21 AM. A morning launch was selected again to allow for the eventual recovery to happen during daylight hours.

Image 19590826B. Lift-off successful!

The launch went nominally, with MECO occurring at T+165 and separation of the Arcturus around one second later. The Arcturus A was around 0.5m/s from being able to circularize at 160km, but the resulting 155x160km orbit at 76.999° was deemed acceptable. The satellite would complete one revolution around the Earth in 1h 27m 30s.

SIMULATION. The Hyperion stage ascends through the atmosphere of the Earth.

SIMULATION. The Arcturus' XLR81-BA-5 at work. Notice the considerably longer fairing compared to Ethereal 6.

SIMULATION. The Arcturus stage and its payload are in orbit.

The satellite set itself up in the next minutes, started taking the usual calibration pictures, and was ready to take the high-res photographs from the second orbit onwards.

SIMULATION. Once the fairing has been decoupled, the satellite is ready for operation.

The satellite was deorbited on August 29, after having spent three days in orbit. The deorbit burn occurred earlier than on Ethereal 6, this way the canister landed in Missouri instead, where it was recovered by the US Army and returned to the IASRDA.

SIMULATION. The return capsule faces the extreme stresses of re-entry from orbital speeds.


The Ethereal 6 and 7 missions were extremely important, not only for the IASRDA, but for the entire scientific community. The animals and plants that had flown on the former satellite were the first to return alive from Earth orbit (not space, some animals and plants had flown on suborbital rockets such as the A4 BSR), and would further the understanding of biological functions in space; this was extremely significant, since sending a man into orbit was a short-time goal of the IASRDA. Moreover, the photographs that had been recovered would prove essential to archaeologists and geologists worldwide – the image of the Great Pyramids of Giza taken by Ethereal 7 was on every newspaper of the Earth. Lastly, the two flights had proved that it was possible to recover spacecraft from LEO, a critical step in the long process that eventually would lead to humans flying to Earth orbit.

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XX: In the Pale Moonlight, Part 3

Chaos Remembered in Tranquility


The Explorer program had been, as of mid-1959, a resounding success, with only one failure in four flights (for the time, this was quite the achievement). Despite that, the Moon still had many secrets that were yet to be uncovered.

The advances in rocketry of the last year meant that now the extremely expensive, and definitely overkill, Prometheus A-Alcor A1 was not necessary anymore to launch the heavy impactors towards the Moon; the Hyperion ELT-Alcor A2 was now more than sufficient.


Blueprint of the Hyperion ELT-Alcor A2 launch vehicle.

The Hyperion ELT-Alcor A2 was the next evolutionary step of a launch vehicle which had been a mainstay of the IASRDA fleet almost since the start of the Space Race.

The Alcor A2 was more capable than the earlier iterations of the stage. The engine had been upgraded to the AJ10-142, which burned UDMH and IWFNA to produce a thrust of 34.25kN at 270s Isp in the void of space. The stage tanks contained 540.2 liters of UDMH and 790,4 liters of IWFNA, which allowed the engine to run for a full 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The ACS had been upgraded to run on Hydrazine fuel, which allowed for the thrusters to function at a higher specific impulse; the four-way thrusters also improved the overall maneuverability. The avionics did not receive significant overhauls, and as a result the stage was still less capable than a Vega or an Antares, although the electronics section was significantly lighter on the Alcor. The standard solid kick motor for this stage was the X-248 Altair, a much more powerful engine than the earlier X-242.

In the standard Hyperion ELT-Alcor A2 configuration with a X-248 kick stage and no first stage solid boosters the launch vehicle was capable of putting 60kg on a course to the Moon.


Schematic of Explorer 5.

Explorer 5 was almost identical to Explorer 4, being based on the same probe body. The main addition over its older sibling was a low-resolution TV camera, of the same design as of those used on previous missions. The other instruments aboard were the usual thermometer, ion mass spectrometer, micrometeorite detector, and Geiger counter; it had two 400Mm antennae to communicate with the Earth and seven solar panels producing 7.88W each were used to power the spacecraft for the duration of the flight. Fully assembled, Explorer 5 weighed 45kg.

The launch of Explorer 5 was scheduled for the early morning on September 29 1959, at LC-1.

Image 19590928A. Image of the assembled stack taken the evening before launch.

The launch occurred at 5:00AM precisely; when the conditions for the launch were met. The weather was perfect, with essentially zero overcast and very little wind.

Image 19590929A. While Explorer 5's lifts off the pad, the sky turns reddish as daybreak approaches.

The first stage worked perfectly, and separation and ignition of the new Alcor went smoothly as well.

SIMULATION. The sun rises as the Hyperion ascends through the atmosphere.

The upper stage had no issues following the desired trajectory, and the uprated ACS allowed even finer tuning of the flight path.

SIMULATION. Alcor A2 in flight. Notice the city lights of Florida.

By the time the Alcor had finished its burn, the stage and payload had nearly reached orbital velocity.

SIMULATION. Another image of the Alcor A2, after fairing separation

SIMULATION. The Alcor has concluded its burn phase.

The X-248 was spun up by the attitude jets, and was separated with no issue; ignition occurred the moment the motor separated from the Alcor stage.

SIMULATION. The X-248 ignites.

Nearly 50 seconds later, Explorer 5 was on an impact course to the Moon, and it separated from the X-248.

SIMULATION. Separation of Explorer 5 from the X-248 successful.


The TV cameras started recording as soon as the probe entered the Moon’s sphere of influence, on October 1. The images were of acceptable quality, on par with earlier photographs.

Image 19591001A. Picture of the Moon taken after Explorer 5 entered its SOI.

After two hours of operation, the camera feed suddenly stopped. The engineers on the ground tried to get an alternate feed from the second camera, but nothing could be received from that one as well. Unfortunately, a critical electrical failure had occurred; the cameras were not connected to the batteries anymore. This was the only, if major, failure in an otherwise very successful flight.

Explorer 5 finally impacted the Moon on October 2 between Mare Tranquillitatis and Sinus Amoris. The data from the remaining experiments was successfully received.


Explorer 5 had been a partial success. The main goal of the probe was to record images of up to a few seconds before impact, a task at which had failed. Nonetheless, this would be remembered as an historic mission, since Explorer 5 was the last of the first generation of space probes and satellites, which spanned 12 launches over two programs in a time frame of nearly three years. The second generation of unmanned spacecraft would bring several advantages and improvements, mainly full stabilization and control of the probes, a feature present only on Ethereal 4, 6 and 7, with the latter two requiring support from the Arcturus stage for full stabilization.

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I'm happy to see more great updates. A couple questions on the alt-history elements of the story:

1.) Currently, U.S. ICBM/spy satellite development seems convergent. For instance, it seems like they're still using Atlas-Agena based on your updates. Since, unlike in OTL, launch vehicles won't be expected to serve both scientific exploration and military usage, will we start seeing more divergence in the background military launchers as well?


2.) Are Soviet launches using R-7 style launchers, or are there any differences?

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@Geschosskopf I... *ahem*... accidentally time-warped to periapsis. Which happened to be below the surface of the Moon. But don't worry, gratuitous explosions from stuff thrown at other celestial bodies will return soon (enough)!

@Machinique the US Air Force has developed launch vehicles of their own, based on ICBMs (i.e. Thor-Agena, Atlas-Agena and the sorts), and so had the US Navy and Army before their efforts were joined into the IRS' Project Orbiter. The IASRDA will continue to develop both the Alcor and the Arcturus (the Vega will be dropped since the Air Force basically allowed the Agency to develop an Agena of their own for purely scientific use, and it will be more cost effective to use that motor since the USAF will have already well tested it; I'd like that this wouldn't be the case, but I'm constrained by the limits of RP-1 and the lack of more X-405H configs), as well as two completely new cryogenic stages.

Regarding launch vehicles, the heavier ones being developed at IASRDA (of Titan-class and Saturn I/Ib/V-class) are completely new designs based around Kerolox and Hydrolox mixtures, since there is no real need for storables (apart in upper stages, of course) for what are essentially civilian launchers. The US will definitely create NASA at some point, but I'm unsure wheter or not they will actually develop a Centaur stage of sorts (likely yes, but that will be dictated by the USAF requirements primarily). The IASRDA will still have access to most US engines, as they have an active partnership with practically every rocket manufacturing company, but their upper stages will be accustomed to scientific, rather than miltary and scientific, needs.

The Soviets are using R-7 derivatives, and will keep using them for a long time (until present day, basically), albeit developing at least the Proton in the UR family. In the BE timeline, they also manage to get their act sorted out to create a (mostly) Korolev-designed moon rocket with Glushko engines (don't ask me how), so the race to the Moon won't be so "one-sided" as it was in OTL :wink:. This is a choice I've made so that I can continue the series beyond the scope of a manned lunar landing, otherwise there would be very little reason to keep going forward after that point. In the 1980s, the USSR will definitely develop the Vulkan rocket, but that is all I've planned for that time period, if we ever get to it, at the moment.


I've been posting more in the last days since I will be taking a short vacation, since I am really exhausted from RL stuff. Tomorrow I will post Update XXI, and then you probably won't see any new updates for a week or so, as I won't have my PC with me. I will, however, have access to the forums, so any questions I will gladly answer. See y'all soon, take care! :)

Edited by Fenisse
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XXI: Connecting the World, Part 1

Testing Concepts


The subject of communicating via satellites had been thoroughly discussed in most nations that had shown at least some interest in the space race. Communications on Earth in places such as oceans, mountain ranges, and remote locations in general, are often extremely difficult or outright impossible due to the curvature of the Earth, or due to land objects interfering with the signal.

A satellite acting as a relay, instead, does not have this fundamental problem. Since it would be orbiting around the Earth, it would not be limited by terrain features, and would render out-of-sight communications substantially easier. Of course, a satellite has another issue by itself: orbiting around the Earth, parts of the globe would be obscured for long periods of time, but this problem would be handled at a later point in time. The Connection program was therefore born to address these issues and make satellite communications a reality, and no longer a dream.

Logo of the Connection Program.


Image of the Connection Block I satellite.

The new satellite Block designation introduced by the IASRDA was meant to simplify spacecraft production by incorporating a base probe bus onto which would be mounted all the system required for the mission needs.

The Connection Block I was a 200kg satellite based on the prototype core flown on Ethereal 4, which at the time had been regarded as too heavy for it to be useful in any realistic way. The spacecraft carried 61kg of electronics in the top compartment, which enabled it to function as a communication relay. The bottom section housed the Hydrazine tanks, holding a total of 9 liters of the chemical; mounted to it were the four four-way 24N RCS thrusters which controlled the attitude and orbit of the craft. The probe was powered by eight 0.125m2 solar cells, with a maximum output of 7.88W; communications were handled through four 400Mm, 512kbit/s antennae consuming on average 1.5W of power.


The high mass of the satellite and the orbit requirements called for the most powerful Hyperion variant available to the IASRDA to be needed for the flight.

Schematic of the Hyperion ELT-Vega A2 launch vehicle.

The Vega A2 upper stage would be the final variant of the 2.5m Vega stage. With a fully loaded mass of 14642kg, it was also the heaviest upper stage ever developed for use by the IASRDA. The engine had been uprated to the more advanced X-405H, which had been developed from the Vanguard and Vega A1 X-405, although it now bore little resemblance to its earlier sibling. The engine produced a thrust of 156.3kN at 311.9s specific impulse, burning RP-1 Kerosene and Liquid Oxygen for 4 minutes and 5 seconds. The most important feature of the X-405H was its ability to restart up to 3 times, which allowed for the concept of a parking orbit to be explored.

In the case of the Connection Block I satellites, a X-248 was used as kick stage.


The first Connection Block I launched would be Connection 1, on November 14 1959. The payload would be placed in an elliptic, somewhat high orbit at 35° inclination.

Image 19591114A. The Hyperion ELT-Vega A2 pictured some time before launch.

The launch took place very early in the morning, at 7:20AM. The weather was relatively clear, with little overcast and wind, although it was a bit chilly outside.

Image 19591114B. The launch vehicle takes off in the morning breeze.

While the Hyperion ELT lower stage had been well tested by now, the Vega A2 upper stage was an almost new piece of hardware, and there was much anxiety about it, especially considered the spotty testing results of the X-405H engine.

SIMULATION. The stack passing through 10km. Notice the high AoA.

Indeed, something went wrong during stage separation. The Hyperion separated successfully from the Vega, but the X-405 failed to ignite. This was later traced back to a valve in the RP-1 feedline not opening correctly.

SIMULATION. The Vega engine failed, and the stage drifts slightly forward from the Hyperion due to the ACS having fired to ullage the propellant.

The launch vehicle and payload re-entered some time later in the atmosphere of the Earth, and were destroyed upon impact with the Atlantic Ocean. The mission had resulted in a failure.


A second satellite was in construction then, but it was not expected to be able to fly until March 1960 due to a series of launches that were to occur in early 1960.

Nonetheless, some serious delays in the construction of the other probes meant that there would be extra space for a launch in early January 1960; the space was allotted to the Connection program.


The launch of Connection 2 would take place on January 10 1960. The orbital parameters would be the same as those of Connection 1.

Image 19600110A. Aerial photograph of the Connection 2 and its LV on pad. This was the first orbital launch of 1960.

Take-off occurred at 7:28AM. The low 1.10 TWR of the launch vehicle meant that the rocket accelerated rather slowly.

SIMULATION. The Hyperion ELT-Vega A2 ascends through the lower atmosphere. Air pressure has already significantly decreased.

At T+162 the two stages separated, and the X-405H on the Vega ignited successfully.

SIMULATION. The Vega stage ignites. The extreme AoA at that altitude is needed since the payload needs to be inserted in a high orbit.

After its burn was completed, the Vega kept coasting until apogee.

SIMULATION. The Vega coasting to apogee.

The guidance spin-stabilized the X-248, which was ignited and separated 23 seconds before apogee.

SIMULATION. Ignition of the X-248, and separation from the Vega.

The X-248 successfully inserted the Connection 2 satellite in a 1985x628km orbit at 34.941°.

SIMULATION. Connection 2 separates from the X-248 kick motor.

After insertion, and after having stabilized itself, the probe conducted a series of maneuvers, which corrected its orbit to a 1985x743km one at 34.943°, with an orbital period of 1h 52m 49.77s. gB2Mwkf.png
SIMULATION. Connection 2 in orbit above the Earth.


Despite the failure of the first launch, Connection 2 had been successfully inserted into orbit. The satellite would provide the first below-the-horizon communications just nine hours after insertion into orbit, and would keep operating for the following 5 years. Connection 2 remains in orbit to this day, and re-entry is expected around 2100.

While Connection 2 had been successful, it still was only a test satellite. Relaying signals from a place to another were definitely a concrete possibility, but a probe orbiting in a low earth orbit had too limited capabilities to be of any real use. The next step in the Connection program would be a geosynchronous orbit satellite, but with the launch schedule as crowded as it already was, the mission would have to wait some time, with the worst-case scenario being a launch in early 1961; it doesn’t need saying, but the IASRDA would try everything to complete the mission before that date – even before the end of 1960 if possible.

Edited by Fenisse
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