National Geographic : 1959 Feb
Reaching for the Moon structure. Their immobility puzzles me. But now, with the clanking noise of a medieval drawbridge, part of the framework enclosing one side of the rocket pulls up and away. Slowly, carefully, the entire gantry backs off on its railed tracks. Now Pioneer stands alone, as if it has stepped from behind a lattice. The sight forces from me an awed exclama tion. Dazzling white, an incredible 88 feet tall, the rocket rests on its tail atop a concrete pedestal and points toward heaven like the shaft of some utterly strange and alien monu ment. Batteries of searchlights lance their beams at that gleaming shaft and bore bril liant tunnels into the night sky. I find myself stirred by this sight as by none other of my life. Before me I see the essence of grandeur and dreams, a portent of great adventure and great achievements for my countrymen. In long perspective, it mat ters not if Pioneer fails. Other, more power ful rockets surely will follow. Thor Missile Serves as Booster For about two-thirds its length the moon rocket is a broad and gently tapered cylinder - the Thor first stage. Atop Thor, like an elongated, blunt-nosed bullet, ride the second and third stages and the payload, all fitted to gether so snugly that they seem a single entity. Rising, the rocket will drop its used stages, as a sprinter might shed encumbering garments. Beside Pioneer stands a slender crane, and cables stretch from the crane's top to the rocket's side. Umbilical cords, missilemen call them; they feed electric power until seconds before firing, when they drop and the rocket's batteries take over. From vents in Thor a chill, foggy exhalation gushes out. Thor, at rest, expels this gaseous breath to relieve the pressure of evaporation from tons of liquid oxygen, the oxidizer for its fuel, a derivative of kerosene. Frost encrusts the rocket's sides and occasionally flakes off in tiny snow showers (page 163). Suddenly, in response to some entreaty from its entrails, Thor belches billowing clouds of vapor. They spread, obscure the pad, reach out a hundred wispy tendrils toward me, and hide all but the towering rocket. For a mo ment this scene evokes a curious sense of unreality, as if I stand in the swirling, heavy atmosphere of another planet in another age. Luis Marden and a second man near me, I find, share this same strange sensation. "All nonoperating personnel clear the area!" The brassy loud-speaker voice repeats the words slowly but insistently. T-time draws near. The magic moment ends, and we leave. Tension Grips Men in Blockhouse Now, at the roadblock, it is T-minus-five five minutes before firing. On either side of me, stretched out like a line of skirmishers in the scrubby brush, I see the shadowy figures of cameramen representing the armed services and missile contractors. Their powerful lenses will track Pioneer; so this site has a cable tie-in to the blockhouse. Someone has plugged in a receiver, and we hear the countdown. "T minus four minutes." I can visualize the scene in the concrete blockhouse, so near the site where an inferno soon will erupt. Men bend tensely over wall to-wall panels of dials, checking fuel pres sures . . .oxygen pressures . . .temperatures ... the harmonic voices of Pioneer's radio transmitters. ... A few seconds before T-time, the engine monitor will plunge his hand on a button, and an electronic sequencer will control the rocket's functions and com plete the countdown with an accuracy meas ured in microseconds. The sequencer, not man, fires the rocket. "T minus two minutes." I glance up nervously at the sky. There's the Little Dipper, with Draco curled around it. Never before have the stars seemed so attainable. Eyes back to the pad. Even at this distance, 3,000 feet, Pioneer seems enor mous, its plume of oxygen clearly visible. Now the count plummets to seconds... "five ... four... three . . two... one .... " No one hears the zero count. Brilliant, blasting flame stabs from the rocket's tail Moon Rocket Stands Cradled in Skeletal Steel Against Sunset's Fading Glow The floodlit 113-foot gantry carries cranes for erection and assembly of the 52-ton projectile. Ten stories give technicians platforms for mating of the monster's three stages and payload, checking of instrumentation, and fueling. Nylon tents shroud the top stages to keep out wind and dust. To protect the launching pad from white-hot exhaust, water flows down a plate beneath the rocket's tail and into a catchment basin. Here, on the evening of October 10, the pool mirrors rocket and tower. KODACHROMEBY LUIS MARDEN, NATIONALGEOGRAPHICSTAFF © NG S.