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NOAA N-Prime
NOAA N-Prime, as the spacecraft was known at the time, suffered extensive damage in 2003 when it fell to the ground because it was not bolted to its turnover cart. (credit: NASA)

The weird ones

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The space launch business is a hard edged, unforgiving one. It’s the province of experienced engineers, highly trained technicians, and even a few genuine scientists. Careful plans, detailed procedures, intensive reviews, and extensive investigations of even seemingly minor anomalies are the rule; the immense challenges inherent in the nature of the task demand no less

But even so, sometimes things happen that are just… rather weird.

The case of the misguided missileer

In early 1961, the producers of the popular TV series “Perry Mason” asked for some help from the Air Force. They had produced the script for an episode titled “The Case of the Misguided Missile.” The plot involved a mysterious death among workers at a Vandenberg AFB launch site in the midst of some Atlas missile failures; Perry Mason came to defend on old friend accused of murder. The Air Force agreed to help the TV people.

When he lowered the erector, he ripped the missile in half. At least the Air Force had some really good footage of it occurring.

The TV crew wanted to get some footage of an Atlas being erected on the pad and the Air Force assigned a training site to support their request. The film crew got set up and indicated they were ready. The missile was raised into position by use of the usual transporter-erector, and the film crew wanted the erector to be lowered right away, leaving just the missile in its vertical position. But the proper procedures had not been followed and the erector would not lower again. With the film crew yelling to hurry up as they were wasting film, the guy operating the hydraulic panel thought he knew how to make things work. He flipped what he thought were the appropriate switches and punched the button again to bring down the erector.

But this was a trainer, not a real missile site. Among its features was the ability to shut off various systems in order to simulate faults for troubleshooting instruction purposes. All he had done was to shut off some safeties. The pins that secured the missile to the erector were still in place.

When he lowered the erector, he ripped the missile in half. Okay, so now they had a real investigation to do. And at least the Air Force had some really good footage of it occurring.

Some pointed out this was a far more interesting failure than the one planned for the show, but as it turned out they just followed the original script. And this mishap apparently proved to be ultimately fatal to the Perry Mason series: it only lasted another five seasons.

Sore Thor

One evening in the late 1960s, an airman assigned to the 10th Aerospace Defense Squadron at Vandenberg AFB, California, decided to impress his girlfriend. The 10th was preparing an LV-2F Thor booster to launch a Defense Meteorological Satellite Program weather satellite from SLC-10W.

No one else was at the launch pad the night when the two lovebirds arrived, and the airman decided that while the booster looked nice inside its shelter, it would be far more impressive when revealed out in the open, under the glow of the pad lights. The shelter split apart and the sections moved back on rails in opposite directions to enable the booster to be erected, and that was a simple process. The airman knew how to accomplish the procedure, all by himself, so he pressed the button to roll back the shelter.

In order to support spacecraft and fairing mating operations, a traveling hoist had been added to the inside of the pad shelter. The hoist ran on a rail down the center of the shelter ceiling, with a spilt in the rail to match the split in the shelter. When the shelter opened the hoist moved as well, its dangling hook catching on the front of the booster, the payload not having been mated yet. At that point the hoist started traveling down the rail pulled by the shelter opening; when it reached the end of the rail, at the split point, it fell off.

And when the hoist fell on the booster it knocked a hole right through the side of the Thor fuel tank.

Further official embarrassment occurred when it was discovered that the airman’s girlfriend was not an even an American citizen. She was from Cuba.

Intruder alert, really, no, I mean really!

Up until the mid-70s, Space Launch Complex SLC-3 at Vandenberg AFB had a unique configuration. The east pad, SLC-3E, launched Atlas boosters while the west pad, SLC-3W, launched SLV-2H Thor boosters with Agena upper stages. There were a couple of very unusual incidents at SLC-3W.

The spacecraft crew purchased most if not all of the aluminum foil available in the nearby town of Lompoc and wrapped it around the building. That did the trick.

Following one SLC-3 Thor launch in the late 1960s, an examination of the launch pad revealed numerous particles distributed over the pad deck. The particles turned out to be birdshot, the kind that comes from a shotgun. And sure enough, outside the fence they found a pile of expended shotgun cartridges.

It appeared that while the launch crew was sealed up tightly in the blockhouse after rolling the mobile service tower back, someone had strolled around the backside of the pad and blazed away at the vehicle with a shotgun. Whether this was a disgruntled former employee, a member of the war protest movement, or a henchman sent by Dr. No apparently was never determined. But the Thor is a tough bird and never seemed to notice the attack.

Somebody must have had it in for the Thors at SLC-3. A few years later, in 1972, an intruder was spotted one night on TV surveillance. He was not found, but muddy footprints leading from the fence to the pad proved that the TV view was not imaginary. Further investigation showed that while the fence itself was impassible, two utility poles had been located on either side of the fence, enabling someone to climb one and the step to the other.

Thorough examination of the Thor revealed no anomalies, and engineers racked their brains to figure out what a saboteur could have done to the booster. They finally concluded there were too many unknowns to prove the bird was still good to fly; even a simple over-torque of various components conceivably could shoot it down. The booster was removed from the pad and never flew. The engine was removed and flew on a DMSP Block 5D-1 mission years later, and even that use produced more than a little angst.

Got your tinfoil hat, too?

Another incident at SLC-3 in the early 1970s was far less exciting but no less serious. An experimental spacecraft arrived at the launch complex for final assembly prior to mating. A building at the complex was to be used for spacecraft processing, but they soon found that the spacecraft was highly sensitive to radio frequency (RF) energy. In addition to numerous types of radio transmitters, Vandenberg AFB has a number of very powerful radars, and one in particular is not far from SLC-3. Once on the booster and encapsulated in the payload fairing, with the normal tight launch RF emission controls in effect, the problem would not be nearly as severe, but trying to assemble and check out the spacecraft with it lighting up from not only multi-megawatt radars but also due to every passing walkie-talkie was going to be a real problem.

They needed an RF-shielded processing facility, so they made one. The spacecraft crew purchased most if not all of the aluminum foil available in the nearby town of Lompoc and wrapped it around the building. That did the trick and they were able to launch the very sensitive bird. After that innovative effort, it was really too bad that the booster failed and the payload never made it to orbit.

Every five minutes

Another SLC-3 launch in the late 1960s, for an Atlas Agena, nearly began and ended in catastrophe right on the pad. Following a normal countdown, the vehicle failed to lift off, the booster shutting down just at engine start. However, no one mentioned the change of plans to the payload, which started its own timer as if liftoff had occurred as planned. This constituted a real emergency. When the T plus count got past the nominal Atlas sustainer engine cutoff time, the Agena would fire its engine and separate from the Atlas. Of course, this would destroy the Agena, the payload, the Atlas, and very probably the launch pad as well.

Fortunately the Agena was not merely going to be the upper stage for the mission but served as the spacecraft as well. That meant it was designed to be commanded by the Air Force Satellite Control Network. So the AFSCN’s network Vandenberg Tracking Station sent a command to the Agena to reset its T plus count timer, over and over again, every five minutes or so, for hours, until finally the Agena batteries ran down and the vehicle could be safed.

Go catch a what?

The first eleven Global Positioning System spacecraft launched went from SLC-3 on Atlas E/F boosters before launches of the much larger operational versions transitioned to Delta boosters at Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft was mated to the booster without the fairing in place and, after final assembly and checkout, had the fairing placed over it. Usually the spacecraft was exposed on top of the booster for only a short time but on some occasions there were delays due to problems that occurred with the spacecraft on the pad or even with ones already on orbit.

The fate of the raccoon remains unknown, but we do know that the south end of Vandenberg AFB did not blow sky high.

It was during one such pause in the pace of launches that an unusual problem arose. The Mobile Service Tower at SLC-3 originally was designed to process ballistic missiles for test launches; there was little need for it to be airtight, or for that matter, bird-tight. Birds were nesting in the top of the tower and depositing, shall we say, “substances” on the spacecraft. They had to get rid of the birds. No one wanted any gunplay in the top of the tower, and the mysterious guy with the shotgun of years before was not available, anyway. How could they ensure the birds left?

An ornithologist from the university in Santa Barbara was called in; he stated that the birds were of a variety that especially feared snakes. So the order went out to catch a snake, which then was placed in a clear plastic box in the top of the tower, successfully driving the birds away. Think about that the next time you use your GPS receiver: the technologies required to develop that system truly were vast in scope.

We think it’s a bomb!

With all the weird stuff that has gone on at Vandenberg AFB, the Security Police there have reason to be suspicious of anything and everything. In the mid-1980s, a guard at SLC-4 spotted what he thought was a serious threat, a mysterious object that had been attached to the side of the Missile Service Tower at an elevated level. He called an alert and the pad was evacuated. And since the pad was evacuated, none of the launch crew could go see the mysterious object that had so excited the guard. Eventually, they figured out that the MST recently had been painted and that had changed the appearance of a structural component. The mysterious object was nothing more than one of the support beams on the MST.

Now, it really is a bomb!

A couple of decades later the security police at Vandenberg had a real bomb to deal with. A raccoon was observed entering a large storage building on the south end of the base. The security police were called and they knew just how to respond to flush out the potentially rabid animal in a manner that avoided anyone getting bitten. So they tossed a smoke grenade into the building and sat back to wait for the raccoon to emerge.

The raccoon may not have shown up right away but lots of highly excited people did. The storage building contained hundreds of thousands of pounds of loaded Titan IVB solid rocket motor segments. And smoke grenades get very hot. As the saying goes, do the math. Aside from that, the smoke from the grenade would ensure that a real fire went undetected.

The fate of the raccoon remains unknown, but we do know that the south end of Vandenberg AFB did not blow sky high.

Playing cops, robbers, and spaceships

Cape Canaveral is not immune to the weird stuff, either. In addition to the active launch complexes the base has quite a number of closed, abandoned launch pads. The special operations community occasionally makes use of the unused facilities for training purposes. They typically like to mount an assault on or else fortify and defend an old launch complex as part of late night exercises. Among other things, on Cape Canaveral they can make a lot of noise, run around waving guns, and not bother anyone.

Some years ago such a unit secured permission to use a complex on the Cape for a typical exercise. But then, once underway, they decided to expand their exercise outside of the complex. And then they encountered a real, non-simulated, non-exercise spacecraft enroute to its launch pad and decided it would be fun to further expand their exercise and capture it. Needless to say, the non-simulated spacecraft transportation crew was not amused.

Don’t forget the bolts

In the mid-1990s, a GPS spacecraft already was mounted on its Delta II booster at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-17 when a booster problem required that it be demated. Unfortunately, not all of the bolts that held the payload to the third stage were removed, and when the payload was lifted part of the booster mounting flange was ripped off.

The damaged flange was repaired and the spacecraft successfully launched later, but apparently the word went out in the industry: “Don’t forget to take the bolts out!”

The challenge of putting payloads into orbit is even greater than it appears at first glance, and occasionally a lot weirder, too.

In 2003 a NOAA TIROS spacecraft, which would come to be known as NOAA 19, was being processed at the Lockheed Martin factory in Sunnyvale. As with many spacecraft, a turnover cart was being used to enable it to be rotated both horizontally and vertically. But there was only one turnover cart available; in fact it had been a practice for some time to even ship the cart to the launch base for final pre-launch processing there.

The team working on the NOAA bird finished for the day and another shift of workers came on duty to work on another spacecraft. They needed the turnover cart, unbolted the TIROS from it and set the spacecraft aside, and used the turnover cart to do their own work.

Then they set the TIROS back on the turnover cart and left.

The next morning the TIROS crew came in and decided to rotate the spacecraft to the horizontal position. The other team that used the turnover cart had not forgotten to remove the bolts when they took the spacecraft off. But they had not bothered to put the bolts back in when they put the spacecraft back on the cart, either.

The spacecraft fell off the turnover cart, was badly damaged, and at one point was thought to be a total loss. Eventually it cost the company about $135 million to repair but in the end was launched successfully.

These incidents are interesting primarily because they are very unusual exceptions to the rule. But they prove that even highly intelligent professionals can make astonishing mistakes and that despite careful preparations the real world can intrude in unexpected ways. The challenge of putting payloads into orbit is even greater than it appears at first glance, and occasionally a lot weirder, too.