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Earth, 1951. The Vandenberg Program - A Realistic Career [Realism Overhaul/RP-1 NQB]

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The Vandenberg Program, Table of Contents.


What is this?

The Vandenberg Program, founded in 1951 California, a consortium of steely pilots and starry-eyed dreamers who believe space is for humans, and rocketry the key. The Program stands apart from the submarine designers and warhead builders of the early Cold War. When the sabre rattlers on both sides of the Iron Curtain decided that nuclear artillery, delivered from turreted submarine and overgrown tank, was the key to winning the inevitable tactical battles that were expected to shortly follow, government spending turned away from aeronautics. Vandenberg Air Force Base is the home of the last stand of rocketry & aeronautics engineers, the only testing ground for those who seek to push the limits of speed and altitude.

The goal? To increase the number of moons of the Earth by at least one, and to someday orbit a human as a living artificial satellite of our planet. But first they need to secure next year's funding, and to do that they are bound to the whims of their oversight committee. The road will be long, but their patience longer.


The sun sets on January 1st over California. This is the Vandenberg Program, and these are their flight records.

What is this?

It's a super-realistic Realism Overhaul career using Realistic Progression One (RP-1), Principia, Kerbalism, RealAntennas, and NQB, a quarterly budgets/historical contract accuracy mod that I've been developing for RP-1 (learn more). It's me trying to get past the sounding rocket era of RP-1 again, finally. It's me trying to preach the good word of the KSP realism modding community and showcase their hard work. It's my first mission report.


I open the Tracking Center for the first time. It's the Vandenberg Program, and I hope you enjoy.

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The Vandenberg Program, Chapter 1.


It is January 1st, our office doors are open, and the Vandenberg Project has received its first funding check. These 5,000 funds (roughly $4,300,000 in 1951 cash), the 2,000 advance for our two first contracts (first flight and first launch), plus the 20,000 funds scraped & begged from the founders’ institutions, family, and friends, fill the Project’s coffers to a paltry 27,000 funds total. It is promptly spent on upgrading the VAB & SPH. We’ll need to be continuously pouring money into production improvements to produce more complex vehicles ever faster. What remains is spent building a small prop aircraft and the Program’s first sounding rocket. 3,290 funds remain.


Figure 1.1: Budget report, first quarter 1951.

The Whippersnapper I is based on a proven design. The WAC Corporal was a sounding rocket firing during the War by a group of Caltech enthusiasts that would, in another timeline, have become an institution known as JPL. It is a liquid fueled design powered by a hypergolic JATO motor the Navy was developing to help their overloaded aircraft take off. This motor, known as the 38ALDW-1500, burns inhibited red fuming nitric acid and an aniline-furfutyl alcohol. This combination is the best liquid propellant mixture known to the US right now. It doesn’t freeze in most operating conditions, but it’s still unstable, might turn its containing vessel into green sludge, and is horribly toxic to boot. But besides monstrous ethanol-powered motors derived from captured German designs, it’s all we’ve got right now.

To keep the rocket pointing up, there are small fins on the base of the fuselage. However, these fins will not be enough to keep the flamey end down at low speeds. The Whippersnapper is unguided. Without an attitude control system, even small deviations from the vertical will result in excessive pitchover and likely destruction upon either premature impact with the ground or aerodynamic stresses borne by the steel frame. A Tiny Tim solid rocket motor derived from an air-to-ground rocket now out of manufacture will accelerate the liquid fueled stage to about two thirds the speed of sound in the span of 0.6 seconds. This rapid acceleration will get the rocket to the velocity required for fin-stabilization to be effective. These motors have been sitting in a warehouse for many years since they were first procured and subsequently abandoned by the Caltech group. The solid propellant jammed inside the thin casing will have degraded with time. Hopefully, the motors remain stable.

The sounding rocket will stand about 8 meters high and mass slightly over half a metric ton. In its polished nosecone it will carry a few simple atmospheric experiments and the hopes of the program.


Figure 1.2: Whippersnapper I design plan. Production specifications for the conical fuel tank, telemetry system (contained in the nosecone), liquid fueled sustainer, and solid rocket booster are detailed.

Nearly two months later, the airplane finishes construction. That morning, it rolls out to the runway and the two test pilots with whom Vandenberg Program has agreed to put on payroll in exchange for risk of life & limb climb into the cockpit. The pair are Samuel Greene, a decorated RAF pilot who married a SoCal nurse and followed her back to the States, and Christine Freeman, a volunteer WASP who towed live-fire targets for anti-aircraft crew training. If she lives to 2009, she’ll be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. But today, their mission is entirely routine. The plane, while over-powered for its role (it’s a high-wing powered by the same engine as the Spitfire Mk. VIII), was built to collect meteorological data prior to our launches. Today we will give it a shakedown flight, both to prove the ability of our aeronautical engineers and to make sure the thing doesn’t blow up. The plane gently lifts into the air and several minutes later just as gently touches down and rolls to a stop. What happened in between, our funders need not know.


Figure 1.3: Rather than adhere to any reasonable sort of flight pattern, test pilots Greene and Freeman conspire to eschew common sense and Immelman roll their way to 5 km in altitude.

The plane proven sound and first scientific data collected, the project is given the go-ahead to begin research into new liquid rocket engines and advanced materials for high-speed flight. Estimates predict first prototype will be ready for experimental use within the year. The plane rolls back into the hanger. The next day, her tail is lopped off as installation of a body-mounted camera begins. Somebody has the notion that imaging the nearby terrain & ocean from the air is worth doing, and our small but eager team of welders are more than happy to comply.


Figure 1.4: The pilots photographed after what is sure to be the first of many perfectly happy landings at the VSC. This design would later be stolen by Cessna and marketed as the popular 152.

Six days after that inaugural flight, the first Whippersnapper is erected above a clap constructed atop a mound of dirt, waiting to be fueled. It is a few hours past noon before the tanks are full and the ignition control primed. We wait. The propellant guys and the airframe engineers argue about the minimum distance acceptable from the pad. It’s go time.


Figure 1.5: Whippersnapper I, officially VRP Sounding Rocket 1, awaits liftoff from the Vandenberg Space Center.

The director nods, Freeman leans closer, and a lucky technician presses the big red button. The noise of an explosion rushes to echo off the distant mountains and an instant later, an insistent roar rises above the column of smoke. It worked. About six minutes later, the rocket hurtles back to earth. A fiery streak to the west terminates in a modest splash and the rocket is no more. A small group heads out on a pair of boats to see what can be recovered. A proper end to our first launch.


Figure 1.6: VRP-SR 1 from a ground tracking station, shortly after breaking the sound barrier.


Figure 1.7: VRP-SR 1 ascends towards the edge of space. Note the under-expansion of the exhaust; atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude but exit pressure does not.


Figure 1.8: VRP-SR 1 approaches apogee of 160 km (estimated, UVF telemetry insufficient to determine precise altitude).


Figure 1.9: VRP-SR 1 burns from atmospheric heating during re-entry. Recovered debris (or lack thereof) indicate the tailfins were either shorn off by aerodynamic load or had combusted entirely during the descent.

The rocket builders are already at work on Sounding Rocket 2. Later that week, the science plane completes a couple more flights around the VSC and captures high resolution photos of the surrounding ocean, shores, and grasslands on film. After the last of several uneventful flights, it returns to the hanger, where something much, much faster is under construction…


Figure 1.11: Final checks are completed before the first Vandenberg X-plane rolls out of what would become known as the “Spaceplane Hanger”.


[Authors Note: There you go, my first stab at this wonderful invention you guys call a mission report. To my readers now and in the future, thanks. To all you other guys just glancing through for the screenshots, well, you won't see this anyways.]



Edited by nepphhh
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2 hours ago, nepphhh said:

It doesn’t freeze in most operating conditions, but it’s still unstable, might turn its containing vessel into green sludge, and is horribly toxic to boot.

Well, still better than that time someone decided either Dimethylmercury or Hydrofluoric acid would make perfect rocket propellants, for some twisted reason.


2 hours ago, nepphhh said:

Figure 1.3: Rather than adhere to any reasonable sort of flight pattern, test pilots Greene and Freeman conspire to eschew common sense and Immelman roll their way to 5 km in altitude.

Sounds like something I'd do if I had a Cessna powered by a 1,700hp engine. You know what they say; If it works...

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16 hours ago, Kerballing (Got Dunked On) said:

vile NH4 compound

Uh, are you referring to the Tonkas? Otherwise I've probably never heard of the stuff (or have forgotten about it).

Still, there's that lovely Pentaborane/N2O4 combo the Soviets were planning on using with the RD-270M. Or that Liquid Fluorine/Hydrazine mix that the US wanted to use for the Agena replacement...

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The Vandenberg Project, Chapter 2.


Q2, 1951. The beancounters are excited: funding is up over 30% and the lobbyists (we don’t actually have any yet) assure us it’ll keep going up, provided, of course, that we don’t screw up too bad. So far so good, then.


Figure 2.1: Contracts offered by our funders & investors. Unfortunately, the Program is only capable of managing two at a time before the need to negotiate further bureaucratic hires arises.

After our first flight, Vandenberg seeks to break the sound barrier. The Panther 104, so named for its athletic profile and audacious battery of four downscaled Rolls Royce Nene jet engines stuffed in its rear, is the Program’s first attempt at supersonic flight. It is an ambitious first design, but it is anticipated that it a rugged airframe will be required for rocket plane development in the near future. The design itself was conceived of error and patience. Countless hours in wind tunnels over the previous months have informed every aspect of the design, but none more so than the waisted fuselage. Wave drag, encountered in the transonic regime, has been previous found to be a function of the derivative of area.

In layman’s terms, where there exist significant changes in total cross-sectional area, there will be abnormally high drag as the plane approaches the speed of sound. By decreasing the area of the fuselage where the area of the wings is maximal, wave drag is minimized. The 104 is a unique challenge, as it is required to take off and return to the runway independently. The Program is currently investing into developing airlaunch capability for rocket planes, but it will not be available when the first Panther completes construction & testing, nor would it be capable of lifting such a large and heavy vehicle.


Figure 2.2: Design schematics for the Panther 104.


Figure 2.3: The propulsion solution adopted for the Panther 104 excites the designer and terrifies the engineer.


Figure 2.4: The waisted construction of the Panther 104 is clearly visible from the front.

May 16th, the second launch of the Program. At high noon, another Whippersnapper I is launched. Sounding Rocket 2 fails to repeat the success of its predecessor. There is a brief delay in the ignition circuit of the liquid stage. This missed moment--the delay was no longer than a second--is critical. The solid kick stage burns for only 0.6 seconds, but it accelerates the rocket to nearly the speed of sound. At these high speeds near sea level, the air is thick and the window for sucessful ignition is brief. In this all-important moment, where thrust was momentarily suspended between solid burnout and liquid ignition, atmospheric drag immediately took grip of the rocket. The negative acceleration caused the liquid propellant to settle at the top of the slowing tank, so when ignition was finally attempted, the motor ingested only fumes and failed to ignite. The fully fueled rocket crashed back down to the launch pad and exploded in a ball of toxic flame. The failure delays plans. A third Whippersnapper must be built.


Figure 2.5: Sounding Rocket 2 fails to ignite. Shortly thereafter, it prematurely and spectacularly returns to Earth.

Shortly after the start of the third quarter of the year, we get that second chance. June 10th marks a return to the dirt pad.


Figure 2.6: Sounding Rocket 3 is readied prior to launch.


Figure 2.7: VRP-SR 3 shortly after takeoff.

This second successful launch significantly boosts the reputation of Vandenberg in the eyes of our funders. Small hypergolic sounding rockets will not be put aside forever, but it is time to move onto to bigger things. The A-4 missile, better known as the V-2, was captured in droves by the US and USSR at the end of World War 2. Unfortunately, all those captured missiles have been either chopped up, blown up, or launched and destroyed. To continue rocketry development where the Army left off, the Program needs to build its own equivalent. The costs associated with the development of a large rocket are substantial, especially for the fledgling aerospace program. Construction of the prototype Red Knight is anticipated to take slightly less than half a year. As the Red Knight and Panther 104 are slowly built, routine science collection continues, and we prepare upgrades to the dirt pad to support the 13 ton rocket.


Figure 2.8: The Red Knight, a near-clone of the German V-2, in a vertical position mockup. The Red Knight burns concentrated ethanol and liquid oxygen. The combustion reactants are fed into the combustion chamber at high pressure by a turbopump, itself powered by superheated steam and oxygen gas produced by the catalytic decomposition of very high-concentration hydrogen peroxide (HTP). Use of ethanol fuel necessitates special safeguards be taken to prevent flight operations from consuming the propellant.

The Panther is completed, but it sits in storage for three months. Vandenberg has committed to delivering a heavy sounding rocket launch before accepting any other demonstration contracts. Thus, we await the completion of Red Knight. In the meantime, initial research into liquid rocketry and supersonic development is completed. Our material and propulsion scientists’ interests are redirected; the labs shall not stay still. The fourth quarter arrives. The Program’s funding disbursement continues to rise despite a quarter of inactivity, buoyed by the promise of our future capabilities and justified by the accomplishments of earlier in the year.Sounding Rocket 4, the Red Knight, is completed on December 15th 1951. Erection and checkout are completed December 21st. It is a cloudless afternoon.


Figure 2.9: The science plane in high-altitude flight.


Figure 2.10: VRF-SR 4 awaits takeoff.

The A-4 motor, an exact copy of that used on the V-2, begins to belch gentle smoke, a cough, and then suddenly powerful flame. The rocket lurches against its clamps. They release, and the steel bullet slips into the air. Five seconds later, it begins its pitchover program, a pre-programmed set of instructions that tilt it off the vertical in a controlled manner so it flies downrange. To the onlookers’ horror, the routine pitches the rocket due south. The pitchover routine is of primitive design, unaware of cardinal heading, and the rocket must have been placed at 90 degrees to what the program anticipated was west. But the rocket performs perfectly, heated to a red hot as it exceed Mach 5 and stabilizes at a maximum ballistic pitch of 45 degrees. Later analysis of telemetry delivered to Mission Control will indicate that the engine fails seventy-five seconds into the flight, merely moments before it would have cut off otherwise. To suffer a failure when it matters least means it is nothing but a blessing to the program, as analysis of the failure mechanism will aid diagnosis and prevention of future engine shutdowns.

The vehicle soars over Santa Rosa and the Channel Islands, reaching an apogee of 104 km just southwest of Los Angeles. As it descends, its steel skin again begins to glow red before collapsing under the pressure, a stunning sight for the viewer keen-eyed and lucky enough to catch it—the vehicle is destroyed before the crack of its reentry sonic boom reaches the suburbs of LA.


Figure 2.11: VRF-SR 4 breaks the sound barrier.


Figure 2.12: VRF-SR 4's skin rises visibly in temperature due to atmospheric heating as it approaches the hypersonic regime.


Figure 2.13: VRF-SR 4 coasts downrange over Los Angeles after sustainer cutoff.

It has exceeded requirements, delivering 800 kg of test equipment almost 400 km downrange, nearly twice as far as required by the contract under which Red Knight was developed. Even as we celebrate, an investigation is mounting. Launching a V-2 in all but name over LA is completely unacceptable. An error such as this cannot reoccur.

But the year is not yet over. The Panther flies a few short hours later that day. Our daring test pilots have hopped back in the cockpit. The four clustered Derwent Vs roar to life, and the plane begins a slow trundle down the long tarmac. 120 m/s and almost the whole runway later, Greene eases back on the yoke and the plane leaps off the ground. They are airborne.


Figure 2.14: The Panther 104 accelerates down the VAFB/VSC runway.


Figure 2.15: Over the Pacific Ocean, the Panther 104 executes low-altitude, high-speed maneuvers in the transonic regime.


Figure 2.16: Test pilots Samuel Greene and Christine Freeman break the sound barrier in a climb on Friday, 21 December 1951.

The Panther breaks sound's speed limit, setting an institutional crewed speed record of almost Mach 1.2. After the strenuous inaugural flight, it is studied and rebuilt from a hard splashdown. It will not fly again until February 23rd, 1952. The year concludes. The Program has finalized plans for a bigger sounding rocket. Sounding Rocket 5, the first Whippersnapper Mk. II, will be the first thing to fly in 1952. It is time to return from space.


Figure 2.17: Whippersnapper Mk. II (right) compared to scale with its predecessor. The Mk. II model uses the same solid kick motor, but it has an uprated Aerobee engine, the XASR, which runs on a slightly different propellant mixture. The nosecone can be jettisoned and recovered by parachute.

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  • 2 weeks later...

@nepphhh, I believe I got your edit issue repaired. (You should check, though, not 100% I got it the way you had it)

I suggest in the future, that for long posts, you write it up in a text editor on your computer first, save that, and then copy and paste it into the forum editor.  As you can see, it's very easy for things to go awry.


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Just now, Geonovast said:

@nepphhh, I believe I got your edit issue repaired. (You should check, though, not 100% I got it the way you had it)

I suggest in the future, that for long posts, you write it up in a text editor on your computer first, save that, and then copy and paste it into the forum editor.  As you can see, it's very easy for things to go awry.


Thank you! I have been, but I foolishly assumed there was no need to save the local version after I'd uploaded it. To my chagrin after I realized I needed to load the backup, the last time I had saved it was when there was just two sentences. Whoops.

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The Vandenberg Program, Chapter 3.


(In case you missed it, Chapter 2 was restored from deletion. Scroll up to find it. Read that first!)

Over three years have elapsed since the Vandenberg Program opened its doors. After that first successful launch, sixteen rockets have since followed. The scientific data and engineering demonstrations provided by these vehicles continue to buoy the reputation of the program—we now enjoy over three times the funding per quarter we did at 1951’s end. But these successes have not been unaccompanied by failure.


Figure 3.1: The revised design of the Whippersnapper Mk II as diagrammed in promotional material prior to its inaugural launch.

Sounding Rocket 5, as designed in late 1951, was scrapped after tests indicated the bulbous single-engine “ice cream cone” design would be insufficient for reaching the 140 km target required by the scientists by whom we had been contracted. A period of redesign delayed the launch from Q1 to A2 1952, but on April 12th the new rocket was unveiled. A much more robust design yet in many ways more ambitious, the Whippersnapper Mk. II (retroactively renamed W-II) consists of two stacked rockets, both powered by the newly-developed XASR. However, it uses slimmer and more conservative cylindrical propellant tanks. The dedicated science payload section, contained between the upper stage’s tank & nosecone, retains the 38 cm diameter of the previous design but is more stable during re-entry because of the conical shape of the control system and science adaptor. As launched, the rocket contained a meteorological payload & scientific equipment for probing the thermosphere and nearly a dozen fruit flies, to be exposed to the vacuum of 140 km.


Figure 3.2: The science module of Sounding Rocket 5 shortly before full parachute deployment. It splashed down west of Vandenberg several minutes after launch.

The launch proved that suborbital re-entry was possible, potentially even could be made routine, and fulfilled the needs of the biologists and meteorologists relying on our launch services. The successful launch was joined at the end of that quarter quarter by a second launch of the Red Knight (retroactively renamed R-I), this time avoiding LA in launch 425 km downrange into the Pacific Ocean.


Figure 3.3: Sounding Rocket 6 rises through the clouds. June 16, 1952.


Figure 3.4: Sounding Rocket 8 sported an enlarged shock cone. This experiment allowed it to carry more scientific equipment and tested the drag savings of very long shock cones on larger diameter rockets, preceding the development of the 38 cm bodied W-III (Whippersnapper Mk. III).


Figure 3.5. Sounding Rocket 10 awaits an early-morning launch. Modifications to the airframe lent its silhouette a unique elegance among the W-II class of sounding rockets.

Both these designs would fly each twice again in the next year as sounding rockets 7 through 10. In these rockets, the engineers embarked on a campaign of modifications to enable further and more ambitious missions on tested designs while new iterations on these early designs languished in development. Sounding Rocket 10, flown late April 1953, was a Whippersnapper Mk. II modified to fly without the reentry module. The mass savings and less draggy profile were intended to permit the rocket to set an altitude record of 300 km and carry with it a small meteorological payload. These modifications were significant enough that the model was renamed officially as the one-off Mk. IIa. Despite the extensive preparation, the mission was met with failure when the second stage failed to ignite at altitude. The rocket and payload were destroyed shortly thereafter, concluding the Mk. II program and failing the contract. The 300 km altitude record would remain out of Vandenberg’s grasp until early 1954.

The fourth and final planned launch of the R-I heavy sounding rocket was as Sounding Rocket 9 on the first of March, 1953. SR-9 carried no sounding rocket payload in an emptied nosecone, but did carry a film camera nestled into a stringer interstage placed between the control unit and fuel tank. The film camera decoupled along with the nosecone and, through the magic of body lift (Author’s note: I can’t imagine playing without FAR.) deaccelerated from high speed and came to a gentle touchdown. It was launched due west and returned high-resolution images of the Mojave Desert.


Figure 3.6: Sounding Rocket 9 pitches to approximately 45ׄ° shortly before burnout.

One further R-I rocket had been built, but it was shelved as breakthroughs in propulsion research at the end of 1952 propelled rapid development of new designs poised to exploit more powerful engines than had ever been available to Vandenberg. The R-I had been sufficient to complete the Class I series of downrange contracts offered by interested rocketry development groups. Now a certified Class I rocket, it was known that the R-I was capable of delivering 800 kg of payload to up to 300 km away, but the Class II certification required much greater abilities—a full metric ton delivered to 700 km. Emerging out of a feverish night of design and refined over many more long nights was the R-II design, known during development as Red Bishop. As betrayed by its name, the Bishop first stage closely followed the design of the R-I Red Knight, but after that the designs diverged. The Bishop design team contracted with North American to develop the “Mark III” of American A-4 engine variants. The A-4 used on the Knight was a clone even to the name of the rocket that launched the V-2 missile at London, albeit built with American tools on American soil. After several iterations, the XLR43-NA-I was put into limited production. While still powered by a HTP turbopump, the entire motor had been redesigned, and the result was a third more powerful yet half the mass of the original A-4.

But more than the changes to the first stage was the development of a brand new second stage. The stringer interstage, located in the same central position along the rocket as the R-IA photography Knight, was enlarged to fit a fully controlled hypergolic stage based on the Whippersnapper engines. Despite the consternation of the engineers—the propellants used in these motors freeze at a balmy -40°C—the clustered Aerobee solution on the R-II second stage never failed.  However, attitude authority proved an issue at the high speeds and low atmospheric densities of stage separation. Ultimately, the dual systems of bizarre, blocky outboard fins used for stability and a 3-axis HTP reaction control system to provide control without using gimbal on the engine mounts was decided upon. The first R-II to launch did so flawlessly in the third quarter of 1953, delivering a ton of payload to 620 km in the Pacific Ocean.


Figure 3.7: The first R-II to launch, Sounding Rocket 12, tears through the low atmosphere.


Figure 3.8: Stage separation on SR-12 was a very tense time for the rocket designers and propellant men alike. The AJ10-27 was relatively untested engine at this launch, and fears of freezing were high. Ultimately, an improvised electric heating system kept icy feed lines from accumulating frozen propellant and the hypergolic engines ignited correctly.


Figure 3.9: Detail of the R-II upper stage.


Figure 3.10: SR-12 meets a fiery demise, its mission successful and the demonstration complete.


Figure 3.11: SR-14 was the final and second successful launch of the R-II “Red Bishop”.

But not all flights of the R-II would be so successful. The second launch was destroyed by Range Control as the rocket started to slow its climb only a few seconds into its initial ascent. Post-mortem analysis of the scattered debris lead the engineers to the conclusion that a faulty valve caused a loss of thrust. Its third launch, as Sounding Rocket 14, was a success, but it was being pushed to the full extent of its abilities. A replacement was needed. This successor (argued, successfully, to the naming committee to be an evolution) of the R-II was the R-IIB. With the mentality that no stage is better than a good stage, designers stripped out the worrisome second stage entirely. However, an upgraded configuration for the Phase III motor more than made up for it. The XLR-43 NA-3 doubles the thrust of the -1 motor and has a few more precious seconds of rated burn time. It was necessary to stretch the conical first stage tank of the R-II, accomplished by inserting a cylindrical section at its base, right above the engine boattail and assembly. While the first R-IIB was being constructed, that 300 km record was finally snagged by the final R-I Red Knight modified to remove all excess weight and to fly directly up. Carrying a pair of hapless mice, a slew of meteorological equipment, and the pride of the Vandenberg Project, the awkward rocket (it had an extended Whippersnapper nosecone & control assembly mounted to the nose) reached an apogee of 313 km before returning a Mk. II reentry module to the sea, the mice only a bit worse for wear.


Figure 3.12: SR-14, a modified R-I, is ignited on its launch table.

Shortly thereafter, the R-IIB completed rollout & erection. It launched on an overcast Saturday evening in the middle of the June of 1954. After the thunder of the XLR-43 NA-3’s 600 tons of thrust quieted, we craned our necks to watch it curve to the west in a pillar of red-hot air being torn asunder by a silver and red bullet climbing ever faster. Sounding Rocket 16 not only delivered a ton of payload to nearly 700 km but also carried a camera & stabilization equipment the whole way. The camera had a rocky re-entry. Separation of the required ancillary equipment (for mass reduction during the unshielded reentry) was delayed until deep in the atmosphere, and a few moments later the fragile payload was nearly impacted by the discarded & crumpled propellant tank. But re-enter safely it did, and it was in a single piece that it was recovered by a shipboard team. Images of the flight are recorded below. A second flight occurred the next quarter, concluding the Class II certification.







Figures 3.13-18: Photographs & artist’s renditions of the flight of Sounding Rocket 16.

On the less massive side of the Vandenberg sounding rocket program, W-III, the successor to the Whippersnapper Mk. II, was tested in 1953. Need for further use of this rocket has not yet arisen but it is anticipated.


Figure 3.19: Sounding Rocket 11 rises on a pillar of fire produced by the improved AJ2.5k solid kick stage.

It is in mid-1954 that the directors of the Vandenberg Project emerge from the board room, sobriety and excitement written alternately on their faces. The vote has been cast—narrowly. We will accept the contract to orbit an artificial satellite of the Earth. Within three years, we must either make the next greatest step in the technological history of mankind, or our contract is forfeit and we will be shuttered. Exciting times indeed.

[Authors note: The next update will contain details of the X-plane program being persued in parallel with the sounding rocket program. After that, the backlog is cleared and we return to the present tense!]


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56 minutes ago, Galland1998 said:

Keep up the good work.  However, what is the NQB mod that you listed and is that publicly available someplace?

Thank you. That'd be my mod. I'll copy part of the readme here (read the full thing for installation instructions).

What is NQB? NQB (Neph's Quarterly Budgets) does three things:

  1. Replaces funding contract rewards with reputation rewards. More reputation means you earn more money in your budget, which is paid out four times a year.
  2. Restructures the contract progression to be more historical. This means contract objectives are based off of real rocket contracts and also relative rewards are changed to encourage the player to try more than just the traditionally optimal RP-1 path.
  3. Relies on Kerbalism to make more interesting long-duration science and communications contracts.


It is and will continue to be under development. If you join the RO/RP-0 discord (https://discordapp.com/invite/3xMtyBg) and keep an eye on the #quarterly-budgets channel, you'll stay in the loop about when you should install from NQB branch and when you should snag a release. Also, we've got a bit of a Race to Space going on, and we could open up a slot.


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  • 1 month later...

@moguy16 Right now!


The Vandenberg Program, Chapter 4.


While the sounding rocket program has been maturing, the daring test pilots & bold aeronautical engineers of Vandenberg have not been at rest. Regular flights of ever more ambitious aircraft, dubbed "X-Planes" by the press in honor of the famous Bell X-1 and X-1B flights of Chuck Yaeger & Co. nearly five years prior, have been awing & deafening nearby locales since Greene & Freeman broke the sound barrier over the Pacific in the holiday season of 1951.

The hard splashdown that concluded that flight put the airframe out of commission for two months. In late February 1952, our brave pilots return to the sky.


Figure 4.1: Green & Freeman get the Panther 104 back in the sky and set sustained flight records for level supersonic flight above 12.5 km. While the first flight of many in 1952 for the duo, it is the last flight of the Panther.

Their sophomore supersonic flight pushes the limits of the sturdy but anemically under powered vehicle as far as it could go. The four Derwent Vs that drive the vehicle are down scaled versions of the British Nene engine, itself a small and aging powerplant. Initial designs for the Panther had hoped that it would be able to be developed into a rocketplane after early jet-powered flights, but exploratory flights & simulations reveal that the vehicle is simply too heavy to be useful when taking off from a runway fully loaded with rocket fuel. The alternative is to be airlaunched from a larger vehicle, a bomber or larger transport, and the Panther is too large to be carried by any of our large planes. After the pilots' safe touchdown, the Panther is permanently hangared.

Later in 1952, the Redbird debuts to much cheap champagne and expensive beer. The first true rocketplane to fly out of Vandenberg, it is powered by a pump-fed XLR-11-RM-3 and designed from the start for sustained supersonic flight. The shock cone, fully-rotating elevators, and delicate wings belie its speed-record-setting goal, but less apparent is the careful arrangement of structural elements to smoothly transition the cross-sectional area down the entire length of the vehicle--this plane is carefully area ruled.

The careful design will minimize drag lost to shockwaves that form when air, moving at supersonic speeds around the curves of the vehicle, suddenly becomes subsonic again. These effects occur when the plane is not yet supersonic but close to it--and it's a critical source of drag for a vehicle trying to break the speed of sound with the least amount of effort. (Editors note: go wikipedia "area rule" if you aren't already familiar with the concept.)

The extra-reinforced tanks required to pressure-feed the rocket engine are heavy, and the plane only creeps off of the runway. But we can airlaunch the compact Redbird. On July first, in view of a VSC packed with most of the Program associates, a select few reporters, and his wife & two small kids, Samuel Greene, around whom is strapped the tiny single-person Bell X-1-class cockpit, falls from the belly of a repurposed Flying Fortress. A few heartbeats pass as plume unravels from the rear of the plummeting plane and grows into a jet of flame. Seconds later, the sound arrives. Our first rocketplane begins its minute-and-a-half-long tear into the sky.

The crack and echo of the sonic boom released just a few kilometers overhead rattles the windows and sets the crowd on the tarmac ahollar. The rumble rebounds back and forth off the nearby mountains as Greene's kids and coworkers cheer him on.


Figure 4.2: July 1st, 1952. Samuel Greene breaks in the Redbird. Image taken from the host vehicle shortly after airdrop. Greene will gain speed and altitude before breaking the speed of sound in a climb above 11 km.


Figures 4.3, 4.4: All four chambers of the XLR-11-RM-3 roar at full tilt as Redbird accelerates through clouds during a rocket-powered climb to altitude and supersonic velocity.


Figure 4.5: Redbird maneuvers at the speed of sound back around to the runway after setting a 20 km altitude record.


Figure 4.6: Samuel Greene succumbs to the temptation that is the unpowered transonic loop-de-loop in a priceless bespoke experimental scientific vehicle.


Figure 4.7: Green glides through early-morning clouds to the north of LA on final approach to land.

At the end of the month, just days before the end of the quarter, Freeman puts the vehicle through its paces herself, setting a speed record for sustained level flight and a speed record for womankind. Her historic flight is covered extensively by the Daily News and her face, beaming as the cockpit is cracked open back on the ground, finds its way onto the cover of Life later that year.

(Editors note: if you weren't already familiar with her name, now would be a good time to learn more about Jacqueline Cochran. Cochran helped to found the WFTD and WASP programs and was the director of the WASP program through all of WWII. Alongside her second husband, Cochran sponsored of the Mercury 13 program, which put thirteen women through the same training as that of the Mercury 7 astronauts. A highly distinguished aviator in her own right, Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier in May 1953.)

Vandenberg begins to garner national name recognition. The salience of the moment is not lost on our funders, who are more than happy to give alongside Freeman and her craft the press as much publicity material as they desire. These clear successes that are the third and fourth flights of the Project's X-Planes program bolster our reputation and our funding. The budget of the Program leaps by 20% heading into Q2 1952.


Figure 4.8: July 29th, 1952. Christina Freeman becomes the first woman to break the speed of sound, shortly after MECO. After accelerating to 1.4 times the speed of sound, she holds Redbird in steady level flight over Mach 1.25 for a minute, demonstrating the stability of the vehicle at inarguably supersonic speeds.

Several more flights of Redbird, performed amid sounding rocket launches, fill the X-Plane itinerary through the end of 1953. However, the limits of the pump-fed XLR-11 were apparent to the engineers and program directors even before Redbird took wings. It was early 1953 that  discussions with Reaction Motors regarding the possibility of uprating the motor and installing a turbopump for feed began. It is in December that the experimental motor, denoted -5 of the XLR-11-RM series, is delivered and installed into the Redbird airframe, to now be known as Redbird B.


Figure 4.9: April 28th, 1953: Greene rockets to another record in Redbird's third flight.


Figure 4.10: While safer and more reliably available than trying to set down in the middle of California, sea-ditching Redbird would soon be abandoned as modus operani of the program, as saltwater and forces of impact invariably tended to destroy the expensive XLR-11 after each landing.

Despite being much more powerful and efficient, Redbird B sheds nearly a ton of mass compared to Redbird during the renovations during refurbishment. Replacement of the heavy steel-reinforced tank by a lighter lower-pressure version is enabled by the turbopump: the engine no longer requires very-high-pressure propellant to maintain proper feed into the combustion chambers.

Greene and Freeman have been alternating flights and speed records since the Redbird program began. It so happens that Freeman is the lucky winner of the shakedown -B flight, with Greene scheduled to take it to 20 km and sustained Mach 2 on its second flight.

In mid-December, Freeman falls from the carrier plane and blasts into the sky. In a remarkable demonstration, she rockets to 18 km, holds in Mach 1.5 level flight, and sets the Mach 2 speed record for Vandenberg. But she is not the fastest person alive--Chuck Yeager, watching as a guest from the Vandenberg runway, retains the title he won just a week earlier, in his record-setting flight to 23 km in level Mach 2.44 on the 12th. Freeman must be content to break her own record.


Figure 4.11: December 19, 1953: Christina Freeman lands the uprated Redbird B on a desert plain, concluding its inaugural flight and the seventh flight of the X-Planes program.

Redbird B performed spectacularly. The reduced mass provides it with better landing characteristics and the XLR-11-RM-5 gives it much improved thrust and performance. While still a heavy bird on release, it has the thrust to climb to altitude while gaining speed--the previous engine had insufficient power to climb any faster than subsonic.

It is up to Samuel Greene to put the redesigned plane through its real test, with the goal of repeating Yeager's accomplishment before the year is over. On the 29th, the weather clears, and his chance opens. The clamps let the plane go over the California hills. Greene yells a joke into the mic and the XLR-11 pumps scream to life. The rocketplane is away and climbing.


Figure 4.12: December 29th, 1953. The final climb of Redbird B and Samuel Greene. The vehicle will remain powered for 6 more seconds.

30 seconds into the ascent, Greene is about to break the speed of sound. As the vehicle burns its propellant mass into exhaust, it accelerates faster and faster.

HTP, >95% hydrogen peroxide, is nothing like the 5% solution sold as topical disinfectant at the drug store. It is a volatile, dangerous fluid, ready at a moment's notice to exothermically decompose into superheated steam and oxygen gas. This decomposition is of utility to the designers at Reaction Motors. Like the A-4 before them, they run HTP over a catalyst that induces the decomposition and ejects the stream of hot, dry, steam and oxygen through the blades of the turbopump turbine. This turbine drives the pumps that that force fuel out of Redbird B's tanks and into the high-pressure combustion chamber of the XLR-11-RM-5. This is standard operation, and it is how the -RM-5 achieves such remarkably improved performance over its turbopump-less little sister.

This engine's HTP tank has a silicone seal which has become contaminated by a stray hair during refurbishment of the engine. The hair lay on the far side of the seal during preflight preperations, but the vibrations of ignition and sustained combustion have worked the hair around the seal and into contact with the HTP. That hair is enough. Within the tank, HTP decomposes into H2O and O2; the heat and oxygen instantly ignite the hair, and the pressure and heat cause the rest of the tank's contents to decompose a moment later. The shockwave destroys the tank and travels up through the HTP plumbing and into the turbopump reaction chamber. The turbopump stator is shattered; moments later, shards of turbopump perforate the conrol surfaces of the empennage and fly into each of the four combustion chambers. The engine explodes.

Greene is still accelerating, but he is accelerating the way Newton demands--ballistically, on an unpowered course to the ground.

Redbird has not broken the speed of sound, and the hills below are fewer than 4 km away. Greene has insufficent energy to negotiate a landing in the almost-fully-loaded Redbird. He does not have an appropiate lift-to-drag ratio to achieve level flight before he encounters the ground. For two and a half minutes he struggles with the controls, trying to retain sufficent speed while pulling up. It is not his skill that is lacking, it is physics that is against him, and the heavy, highly-wing-loaded plane that he is trapped in. He cannot do it.

He falls.


Figure 4.13: December 29th, 1953, 1616 hours. The engine has exploded.

He dies.


Figure 4.14: December 29th, 1953, 1619 hours. Remains of Vandenberg X-Plane Program Flight 8.

And Vandenberg mourns.


Edited by nepphhh
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  • 2 weeks later...

The Vandenberg Program, Chapter 5.


Half a year passes before we fly again. The sounding rocket program (as previously detailed) continues a regular launch cadence through 1954, but the X-Planes program is on hold. First priority is given to ensuring this particular failure mode can not reoccur; of nearly equal import is mitigating the ignored dangers that have been latent in the Redbird program since its inception.

When we return to flight, it is in style. Redbird, besides a yellower pain job, has been redesigned with larger, low, dihedral wings and lower and further back stabilators, optimized for increased stability at low speeds & altitudes. The bird, everyone agrees, is better looking. It is christened Redbird D (-C was taken by a test article identical to Redbird B that was modified into -D).


Figure 5.1: Christine Freeman takes Redbird D past mach 2.5 on its first test flight. The skin of the plane is licked by flame as the atmosphere heats around it while flowing past the curved surfaces of the wings & fuselage. The flight marks Vandenberg's return to the air after the death of Samuel Greene.


Figure 5.2: Freeman takes Redbird D on its second flight, rocketing to Mach 2 on a climb up past 30 km.

Flights in March and August do what the -B could not: we accomplish level flight records above 20 km and in excess of Mach 2.5. Our flight reclaims the speed record for Vandenberg; Freeman is finally the fastest person in the world. We are acutely watching the progress of the USAF's X-2 program, and it is against them that we begin the race to Mach 3.

As 1954 concludes, our funders agree that despite the tragic loss of '53, the X-Planes program is back on its feet. But we are struggling to break the Mach 3 record. A series of test flights proves that it is a record we will not be capable of breaking in this airframe. We retire the D temporarily to the hanger, where the mad engineers have their way with it...


Figure 5.3: Freeman and Redbird D.

But 1954 is not all planes. We continue to throw rockets into the Pacific, with launches in late August and mid-November. The August 22 launch is the second of the R-IIB (Editors note: remember that from a few updates ago?)




Figure 5.4-6. Sounding Rocket 17 is the second flight of an R-IIB, demonstrating our ability to launch a metric ton 700 km downrange, thus concluding the certification process for the R-IIB as a Class II sounding rocket.

We also dig out the last of the R-Is and strap a W-III atop of. We shoot it off to 1025 km in a landmark launch higher than has ever been done before to collect a profile of atmospheric temperature and pressure into low space. Riding along is a pair of small stowaways. A pair of mice, Jack and Caroline Evelyn Moore, ride along on the high-G ride to a million meters and back. They are safely recovered to much hullabaloo by the more sensitive side of the press and shortly our gift shop sells out of stuffed animals dolls named after the two. A unique launch of a unique rocket.



Figure 5.7-8. Sounding Rocket 18. A leftover R-I stage boosts a new W-III sounding rocket as its second stage, "bumper"-style.

It is now 1955. For about six months, we have been prototyping newer, lighter tanks as an alternative to the heavy components that have holding back the capabilities of our engine research. Tsiolkovsky might be twenty years dead, but his rocket equation is no less tyrannical. We take the same engine that powered the R-IIB and put it in this new, lighter, tank frame. Rather than call it the R-IIC, it's the R-III, and with its inaugural launch we begin the Class III certification process.




Figures 5.9-11: Sounding Rocket 20.

The February 28 launch of SR-20 is a smashing success for the new rocket, delivering a test payload to a 200 km apogee and 550 km downrange. But it's not the only new rocket to be launched that week!

Monday's R-III launch is followed that Friday by SR-21, the debut of W-IIIC. W-IIIC is not much different from W-III, first launched in '53, but it is specialized for an 8-launch campaign to explore the spectroscopic environment of the upper atmosphere. The success of this flight-tested hardware lends our funders confidence in our capability to complete this campaign.



Figures 5.12-13: Sounding Rocket 11.

It is March 29, 1955. Christine Freeman has just strapped herself into Redbird E, an incredibly dangerous modification of Redbird D. We have procured two more of the experimental XLR-11 RM-5 motors and bolted them onto the sides of the vehicle. After months of re-plumbing and test burns, the resulting rocketplane is possibly more plane than rocket, entirely un-flight-tested, and has spent the morning being bolted to the airlaunching mother plane.

Ten minutes after takeoff, it is at altitude and speed. It drops from the plane and Freeman flips the ignition toggle.


Figure 5.14: Redbird E, as seen from the mother plane moments after airdrop and ignition.

They light.



Figures 5.15-16. Redbird E in a climb.

They light, and they stay lit. She climbs to 25 km, gaining speed the whole way. As the plane approaches 1.5 kilometers per second in the low atmosphere, Freeman sets Mach 3 and 4 records, cementing her place among the record books.



Figures 5.17-18. Redbird E, 10 seconds and 1 second before disintegration.

The plane trembles and groans as it rips the air apart. The engines continue to burn, but as the vehicle continues its inexorable acceleration under the thrust of a combined twelve combustion chambers, a shroud of opaque plasma descends over the cockpit. Freeman is flying blind, under nearly 10 Gs of acceleration at speeds this airframe was never intended to fly.

As it passes 1.6 km/s, the plane begins to bank. This is not because of Freeman's inability to hold the plane straight. Despite her lack of visual to the horizon, she is capable of negotiating the vehicle's stability through instrumented feedback alone. This is a coupling of pitch, yaw, and roll. Such linked instabilities emerge in the hypersonic regime, as shock effects begin to completely dominate flight dynamics and the atmosphere begins to disassociate during its interactions with the vehicle. Inertial effects and asymmetries in the pressure exerted by all and any surfaces become all-important.

The dihedral construction of the wings, and their low-riding position, wreaks havoc on the control dynamics at these velocities. The single vertical stabilizer means that roll and yaw will be tied together more strongly than can be compensated for.

The plane pitches up slightly, then it starts to roll. This roll continues, and as it does so it yaws dramatically. The yaw causes a further increase in pitch, and now Christine is tearing through the air at over a mile a second, at an angle of attack of nearly 20°. The frame of airplane crumples like a beer can under the force of the angry atmosphere.

The plane ceases to be a plane and starts to be a field of debris.


Figure 5.19: The cockpit of Redbird E survives the disintegration of the airframe.

Freeman is knocked out from the rapid deceleration, but she is not yet dead. Unconscious, she falls 20 kilometers over the course of two minutes.

Finally, she wakes up. The cockpit has no parachute, but Freeman has her wits about her and is practiced in the abort procedure for just this possibility.






Figures 5.20-25. Freeman extracts herself from the cockpit and pulls her own chute.

Her landing is rough, but survivable. Freeman lives to fly another day.



Figures 5.26-27. Christine Freeman realizes all of her arms are broken.

Editors note: this is shockingly similar to the final flight of Milburn Apt and the Bell X-2, the first flight to break Mach 3. Although his cockpit also survived the breakup of his plane after it suffered roll coupling at high velocity, he did not wake up in time to deploy his own personal parachute.


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