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‘Herd shot around the world’ — The last East coast polar launch

While it may not seem to be a big deal that SpaceX is preparing for another rocket launch from Kennedy Space Center, this particular one is actually unusual. First, the Falcon 9 booster will perform a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) recovery, touching down at one of SpaceX’s two Landing Zone (LZ) pads located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

An RTLS recovery is pretty rare for SpaceX nowadays, but using an East Coast launch corridor for a satellite that will be put in polar orbit is a big deal. Rockets are usually launched into a space above the launch range called the launch corridor. If rocket engines fail while the rocket flies inside the corridor, the rocket falls in an uninhabited area.

Engine failure outside the launch corridor may cause the rocket to fall on people or property. This is why there are range safety procedures, from something as simple as commanding the rocket to shut down the propulsion system or by something as sophisticated as an independent Flight Termination System (FTS).

GOES G ends in a fiery explosion as the Cape Canaveral Range Safety Officer destroys Delta Launch Ve...

GOES G ends in a fiery explosion as the Cape Canaveral Range Safety Officer destroys Delta Launch Vehicle 178 after 91 seconds on May 3, 1986. (Image ID:spac0243, NOAA In Space Collection).
NOAA Photo Library

The FTS has redundant transceivers in the launch vehicle that can receive a command to self-destruct – then set off charges in the launch vehicle to combust the rocket propellants at altitude. This is all necessary to protect people and animals that may be downrange from a launch, and is under the authority of a Range Safety Officer.

Bottom line? This is also why SpaceX uses Vandenberg AF Base for its polar orbit launches. Polar orbits are just what they say – The satellite is in orbit, circling the North and South Poles. So, you might wonder why the East Coast launch corridor hasn’t been used since 1960. That is a story worth retelling.

The herd shot around the world
We have to go back to 1960 and the Cold War. At that time, the U.S. and Russia shared a common fear of a nuclear attack and felt it was imperative that each country knows as much as possible about their adversary. The U.S. relied on a lot of technology, starting with spy planes

A U-2 aircraft similar to the one shot down piloted by Francis Gary Powers.

A U-2 aircraft similar to the one shot down piloted by Francis Gary Powers.
Greg Goebel

However, by the latter half of 1960, the U.S. was ready to launch its own covert observation satellite, the GRAB 1 (Galactic Radiation and Background) satellite – under the guise of being a means to study solar radiation. The first try was on June 22, 1960.

After blasting off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral and traveling southward over Cuba while riding piggyback on the Navy’s third Transit satellite, inside the nosecone of an Air Force rocket, everything looked good. The rocket’s first and second stages separated and the piggybacked satellites separated to go into their own orbits.

GRAB I’s polar orbit carried it about 480 miles above the Soviet Union, passing it through the invisible beams of hundreds of active radar systems set up to track aircraft and missiles. Well, you can imagine the excitement. Everyone was looking forward to the GRAB II launch, set for November 1960 – one that would be even more impressive.

Thor Able Star with Transit 3A satellite during launch  Nov 30 1960.

Thor Able Star with Transit 3A satellite during launch, Nov 30 1960.
NASA/USAF via Jonathan’s Space Home Page

Rufina, the most expensive cow in history
The weather on Florida’s East Coast was picture-postcard perfect on Wednesday morning, November 30, 1960. GRAB II—a 40-pound, 20-inch diameter aluminum sphere with six circular solar panels and protruding antennas and sensors, sat atop the larger silver-and-white-striped Transit IIIA on the tip of the Thor Ablestar booster.

After a number of delays due to minor glitches -the final countdown began. White-hot flames burst in a shrieking roar from the bottom of the 80-foot rocket, while tons of cooling water spraying into the flame deflector at the base of the concrete launch pad turned to clouds of steam.

This was soon followed by an Earth-shaking rumble as the 50-ton booster’s 150,000 pounds of thrust overcame the pull of gravity – sending the rocket and its payload into the clear sky above. The Thor Ablestar soared gracefully toward its azimuth of 146 degrees that would carry it out over the Atlantic along the Florida coast, past Miami Beach, and over eastern Cuba.

Cuba's Fidel Castro and Argentina's Ernesto Che Guevara  seen here in the 1960s  were brot...

Cuba's Fidel Castro and Argentina's Ernesto Che Guevara, seen here in the 1960s, were brothers in arms who wanted to spread the revolution across Latin America

The Thor engine was programmed to burn for about 163 seconds before cutting off, which would have put the rocket nearly 60 miles from Cape Canaveral at an altitude of more than 40 miles. However, the engine cut off prematurely and this action affected both speed and trajectory.

Explosive bolts automatically separated the first and second stages, with the Thor booster arcing downward to the sea. The ablestar containing the satellites ignited. Back at Cape Canaveral, realizing what had happened, the Range Safety Officer flipped two toggle switches—arm and destruct—on his console to destroy the rocket stages.

Cuba’s Oriente Province, northwest of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay got the brunt of the debris from the destroyed rocket. The Cuban Army post at Holguin reported fragments falling along a 200-square-mile-long swath.

According to the post’s report, “two complete spheres, two apparatuses in the form of cones and various cylinders” with English inscriptions were picked up. One item was described as a “sealed sphere of some 40 pounds.”

The GRAB I satellite at an Exhibit in the National Cryptologic Museum  Fort Meade  Maryland  USA.

The GRAB I satellite at an Exhibit in the National Cryptologic Museum, Fort Meade, Maryland, USA.
Daderot (CC0 1.0)

This episode nearly created an international incident. Cuban leader Fidel Castro subsequently sold off the Thor’s engine to the Soviets and the Chinese received its thrust vectors, which ended up proving valuable to the latter’s development of a ballistic missile capability.

There was also one casualty from the aborted satellite launch – a solitary cow grazing in a meadow in the south of Cuba. A piece of the Thor’s fuselage hits the Cuban cow head-on. Rufina, for that was the cow’s name, dies.

Fidel Castro called the accident a “cruel attack and violation of Cuba’s air space” and exhorted the people, with their cows, to demonstrate in front of the United States embassy in Havana. “The Yankees are killing us without mercy”, “Eisenhower, you murdered one of my sisters”, cried one of the banners draped over a protesting cow.

The American government awarded the Cubans $2 million compensation, and Rufina, the most expensive cow in history, was seen off with full State honors.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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