Monthly Archives: February 2014

Soviet Space History

12 April 1961 is another of those important dates humans shouldn’t forget.  It was the day a human first entered space, if only for 108 minutes.  That human was a Soviet Cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin.  The Daily Kos posted this article yesterday, giving some information on the Space Race between the US and USSR, and some tidbits on Gagarin’s flight into outer space and back.

There are some interesting details about the Soviet space program in the article that come out, so it might be worth your time to give it a read.

From German Tunnels to Space, Part 2–Peenemuende

Not quite "Frau im Mond" but close enough.

Not quite “Frau im Mond” but close enough.

In the first post to this series, I established my impressions of the German countryside and the Germans themselves:  pretty, green country full of great, hospitable people (some are still friends).  My family lived at the edge of the Ardennes in an area of hills and forests full of bunkers, pillboxes, etc.  All of these structures were evidence of German engineering with the West Wall and subterranean tunnel facilities like tank and rocket factories.  But for space operations in Germany, the modern rocket age began out in the open, along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea:  Peenemuende.

3 October 1942 is the day humanity first reached up into outer space.  It should have been a day of pride for all humanity.  Unfortunately, a NAZI rocket program achieved that historic honor.  The rocket, the fourth one of a series of rockets launched in 1942 from Peenemuende Army Research Center, was the first the program’s scientists considered to be successful overall.  The V2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2 or Vengeanceweapon 2), as the NAZI’s named it, had flown as high as 85-90 km (53-56 miles), which is considered high enough to be in outer space.

The German scientists and engineers responsible for the V2’s success should sound familiar to anyone with some knowledge of rocketry history:  Wernher von Braun as the facility technical director; Walter Thiel was the facility deputy director; Walter Riedel as design office head; Hermann Steuding for aeroballistics and math; Rudolph Hermann as wind tunnel designer; Ernst Steinhoff for guidance and telemetry equipment; Arthur Rudolph as development and fabrication engineer; Klaus Riedel as test laboratory head; Ludwig Roth in charge of future projects; and Walter Dornberger as military director for operations at Peenemuende.

April 1943, Arthur Rudolph endorsed and requested the use of slave laborers from concentration camps to build the rockets at the Peenemuende V2 Production Plant.  Two months after his request, some 1,400 prisoners started building V2s at Peenemuende under the eyes of the scientists and Heinrich Himmler’s SS.  Oddly enough, the German penchant for organization didn’t extend to the prisoners.  There are few names available of the prisoners who worked and died at Peenemuende.   Those lists seem to be lost.  By the middle of July 1943, V2 rockets were starting to roll off the line.  Wernher von Braun was the one who ran the tests for every single V2 rocket engine produced at Peenemuende to make sure they operated acceptably and without problems for the NAZIs.

17 August 1943.  The British Royal Air Force bombs Peenemuende with three waves of bombers in Operation Hydra.  The prisoners, mostly Polish, paid the heaviest price of the bombing—a little over 500 were killed by Allied bombs.  Ironically, the British aircrews also paid a hefty price:  215 died in Operation Hydra.  A nearby village was also a casualty of not-so-precision-bombing, with nearly 200 of its residents killed.  One of the main targets of the operation, the scientists, came through nearly unscathed—only two were killed:  Walter Thiel and another engineer identified only as Walther.  The V2 production program was delayed for nearly 7 weeks as a result of Operation Hydra.  Peenemuende itself eventually continued conducting V2 test launches until February 1945.

Operation Hydra didn’t finish off the NAZI rocket program and activities, but was aptly named, whether the British knew it or not.  Like the mythical hydra, if you cut off one head, two grow in its place.  The British bombing of Peenemuende encouraged the Germans to find a few hardened, safer locations.  The Germans moved V2 production and testing to two other areas:  Thuringia, Germany, and Blizna, Poland.  Blizna served as a V2 test launch site, where the NAZIs test-launched V2s over populated areas, occasionally destroying buildings unintentionally.  Wernher von Braun reportedly visited the impact areas of these test missile impact areas, looking for possible V2 problems.

Thuringia is where the Mittelwerk came into existence…

What the USAF Watch-dog Satellites May Mean to the Space Community

We’re from the Government.  We’re here to help…

The announcement of two geosynchronous space situational awareness satellites from the United States Air Force last Friday was very interesting.  It also raises some issues, which are addressed in my latest article.

I’ll probably talk a bit more about the other issues later, too.

Why Space Matters: GEO Satellite operations, Part 7–Curves and Angles

Geosynchronous (GEO) satellites are wonderful.  They can see a lot of the Earth from 22,236 miles in space.  It’s why they make great observation and communications satellites.  Previous chapters explained some of the problems facing GEO satellites, too, such as solar influence and eclipses.  But now’s the time for a few lesser known problems GEO satellites deal with have to do with:  angles and curves.

When talking about points on the Earth’s surface, I’ll be referencing latitude (the points north or south of the Equator), and longitude (the points east or west of the Prime Meridian).  If you aren’t acquainted with those topics, please go ahead and read my Zulu lesson series, here.

Not quite accurate, but you get the idea, right?  The 70 latitudes are represented by the red lines.

Not quite accurate, but you get the idea, right? The 70 degree latitudes are represented by the red lines.

Pole Position

If you live anywhere above the Antarctic or below the Arctic circles, specifically past 70 degrees South or North latitude, you’ve probably not had to deal with one particular angular issue.  Theoretically, a GEO satellite can see most anything on the Earth’s surface—to a point.  That point is the 70 degree latitude mark.  Remember how the Earth is shaped like a squashed pumpkin and therefore curved?  The Earth curves away from the satellite the further north or south from the equator you get.  Same deal with longitude.  The further away east or west from the area of longitude the satellite is stationed over the more the Earth curves.

This is a two-way problem, since a GEO satellite not seeing a spot on the Earth means that particular spot probably can’t get line-of-sight of the GEO satellite.  Once past 70 degrees latitude, you can’t see the satellite anymore from the Earth.  If you attempted to do so, the Earth would be getting in the way (your antenna would be aimed at the ground).  If you can’t see a satellite, you can’t communicate with it (unless you’re relaying communications–another story).  There is currently no “radiowave-passing-through-the-ground-through-the-atmosphere-into-space” communications technology, yet.  So anyone wanting a DISHTV or DirecTV receiver in those latitudes is out of luck.  If you don’t believe me, you can just use this convenient Geostationary Satellite Azimuth and Elevation Calculator to see what numbers you get past 70 degrees.

Polar Gap

High latitudes are a problem for the NOAA/NASA GEO imaging satellites, too.  It’s just one of the reasons why those organizations use Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites for their imagery to augment their capability to get imagery of the poles.  There is another particular orbit, which will be discussed later, that also helps cover the polar region of the Earth.

For East and West longitudes, the answer is simpler—just place another satellite in GEO further east or west and continue in that manner until you get global coverage.  It only takes about three GEO satellites to get rudimentary global coverage.  The reason why the poles can’t be covered in the same way is because satellites are moving, orbiting the Earth–it’s just that in GEO the satellites are moving with the Earth’s spin.  There are orbits that do help compensate, but those aren’t GEO.  Again, that’s a topic to be discussed later.

But why do we care about communications at the poles?  Why do we want pictures of the poles?  Well, believe it or not, aircraft do tend to fly over, or pretty close to, the North Pole.  It can be the shortest way to get from one side of the planet to the other.  Wouldn’t it be good if a passenger aircraft had good communications with a satellite?  Coast Guard cutters breaking up the ice probably wouldn’t mind consistent satellite communications, either (although they might be using the Iridium satellites to help compensate for that).  And climatewise, there’s always something interesting happening at the poles.

Snell!! Snell!!

It’s a simple problem, then.  The Earth gets in the way of GEO satellites and the Polar Regions are difficult, if not impossible, to see from GEO.  But, the curving Earth is causing another, more complicated issue for the GEO satellites, too.  Remember that air that you breathe?  Yup, that is part of the Earth’s atmosphere, which, thankfully, hugs the Earth and creates that nice environment conducive to life.  The Earth’s atmosphere, while wonderful, is denser than the vacuum of space.

The atmosphere is not just uniformly dense, but changes density the closer to the Earth’s surface the atmosphere is.  This is where Snell’s Law comes in.  I won’t get into the specifics of Snell’s Law in this post—the wonderful folks at the Khan Academy have a great lesson series, with one particular lesson explaining Snell’s Law below.

The Bends

The upshot is that satellites deal with refraction, the bending of light as it passes from one medium, the vacuum of space, to another medium, the Earth’s atmosphere.  GEO satellites deal with refraction.  At the point above the Equator, the refraction isn’t obvious, because there’s barely any bending.  But the further away from that point, North, South, East, or West, the light bends more and more.

Not only is there bending, but the more the atmosphere curves away from the satellite, the more atmosphere there is for the light to have to go through when looking at it from GEO.  This can affect accuracy for determining where clouds are with weather satellites.  It might make a lake appear further north or south than it actually is.  It can wreak havoc with radio signals.  It’s one of the reasons why multiple satellites are better for looking at the Earth—two or three satellites looking at the same cloud can give a better “geo-location” coordinate for that cloud.

Now you know of some of the major problems of, as well as the great reasons for, using GEO satellites.  I did say there was another orbital solution to pick up the slack of coverage in the Polar Regions of the Earth, right?  I wonder if there’s anyone with a good inclination to read about that ;-)?

LATE ADDITION:  I found the above link on Ashbury Satcom’s site.  It leads to a picture that shows the footprint of the three GEO INMARSAT satellites.  Note how the poles are not covered? 

Take the Nuclear Weapons System Challenge


Just a few more posts to share with you about the cheating nuclear launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base.  The first post from Time Swampland is meant to give you an idea of the types of questions on weapons system test the missileer crews take every month.  The weapons system test is an unclassified open-book test.  It challenges people not necessarily through what they know (although many missileers know a lot about the weapons system), but with their “status tracking.”

Status tracking is a fancy term for keeping track of all the things being thrown at a missileer while he or she is at work.  Many of us had different ways to track status.  Some were elaborate, others were simple.  My way was to use cereal box strips as bookmarks for Technical Order (T.O.) pages in which actions that needed to be done could be easily seen.  If a bookmark remained, that meant an action or two remained on the pages to be accomplished.

The launch control center’s computer and screens were key to helping track launch facility status.  But other things, such as overhead lights shutting off, a “popping” noise (circuit breaker), or change in air pressure were also important for noting changes in status–and then knowing which section of the T.O. to reference so things could be made normal again.  Even though it’s harder to maintain status tracking during written tests because there are no computers, etc., it can still be successfully accomplished.  Status tracking is key to how a missileer stays on top to all the things being thrown at them, either at work or during tests and simulator rides.

So, try to answer a few example weapons system test questions.  It’s easy when you have a T.O. around.  I was very good at it–to the point of noticing status pop up on the computer screens before alarms went off.  It’s amazing how much of this stuff stays in memory, even when it’s been over a decade since I worked with it…. It’s a curse, I tell ya!!!

Now on to the other post.  The Scholars & Rogues post is more debatable to me.  The premise is:  missileers are sad and demoralized because they can’t launch their missiles.  I disagree with this premise.  Missileers did look forward to launching missiles–but it was launching them from Vandenberg AFB during a “Glory Trip” test shot.  This testing is a way to ensure the Minuteman missiles in inventory are still working just fine.

The reason for tracking status was to insure the missiles were ready to launch.  The reason for the all the tests missileers take is to ensure they can launch the missiles when necessary.  A corollary reason to that is to ensure the missiles never launch unintentionally.

But NO ONE I know looked forward to the circumstances in which missileers are forced to “turn keys.”  We all understood the consequences of such an action are quite terrible.  We also figured we would never be the aggressor in such a scenario and that whatever’s causing us to turn keys is already on its way to destroying our homes, cities, and country.

So, I know I looked forward to a time where there wouldn’t have to be a “nuclear gun” aimed at another country’s head.  Others might’ve seen things differently–but I don’t think anyone relished the thought of launching their weapons in the heat of battle.

And low morale, while a big problem, certainly is no excuse for cheating.  It also doesn’t address how officers might be encouraged to cheat.