Author Topic: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch  (Read 12023 times)

Offline Art LeBrun

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May 8, 2012: 50 years ago today the first flight of the revolutionary liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engined Centaur stage took place at Cape Canaveral. While a failure the effort had been made and after 5 years 3 months the first operational flight was made with Surveyor 1. Many more flights would take place before the initial configuration was retired leaving behind a fascinating history.
« Last Edit: 05/11/2012 03:04 AM by Art LeBrun »
1958 launch vehicle highlights: Vanguard TV-4 and Atlas 12B

Offline simonbp

It was a rather embarrassing failure, IIRC, with the Centaur blowing up due to hydrogen overpressure after the insulation fell off. The project was moved from MSFC to Lewis, despite calls from von Braun to cancel it entirely...

Online douglas100

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Kind of ironic, isn't it? Just as well von Braun didn't get his way. Centaur is still with us, but the Saturns are long gone...
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Offline spaceStalker

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Why von Braun want it canceled ?

Offline Rocket Science

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Happy anniversary to a marriage made in heaven… for the heavens… ;D
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Offline Blackstar

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Why von Braun want it canceled ?

From vague memory, wasn't it simply because it was a troubled development and he thought it interfered with the other projects they were working on?

Offline Proponent

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Why von Braun want it canceled ?

MSFC was focused on Saturn -- Centaur was a distraction.  IIRC, MSFC proposed Saturn-Agena in place of Centaur.

Offline Art LeBrun

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I believe it was the Centaur structure that was disliked. The engines were already to be used in the S-4 stage.
1958 launch vehicle highlights: Vanguard TV-4 and Atlas 12B

Offline brihath

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Why von Braun want it canceled ?

MSFC was focused on Saturn -- Centaur was a distraction.  IIRC, MSFC proposed Saturn-Agena in place of Centaur.

I wonder how that scenario fit with the fact that the original Saturn 1 second stage was configured with 6 RL-10 engines and flew successfully on several missions.  Was the Agena to be a 3rd stage?

Offline simonbp

Yes, and you have to remember that at the time Centaur was a vehicle looking for a mission. Surveyor was the only scheduled mission for it, and that could be done with a combination of existing stages (despite how goofy Saturn-Agena would have looked). With so much on its plate, an unnecessary, expensive, and failing project like Centaur was not what NASA needed at all. So despite how we all like Centaur in retrospect, from the perspective of 1962, von Braun's suggestion was probably the better management decision.

Offline Blackstar

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #10 on: 05/09/2012 02:34 PM »
Yes, and you have to remember that at the time Centaur was a vehicle looking for a mission. Surveyor was the only scheduled mission for it, and that could be done with a combination of existing stages (despite how goofy Saturn-Agena would have looked).

I wonder how long that situation lasted. In other words, how long was it before other potential payloads requiring Centaur came along. Didn't NASA very quickly get to the point where they needed that performance for planetary missions?

Certainly there's a chicken-egg situation, but I assume that the demand for a more powerful upper stage was rising fast.

Offline Art LeBrun

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #11 on: 05/09/2012 02:43 PM »
Centaur initiated earth orbit missions in 1968 and planetary flights in 1969 so there had to be reasons on the horizon (plus an early Mariner-Venus mission was planned in 1962).
« Last Edit: 05/09/2012 03:04 PM by Art LeBrun »
1958 launch vehicle highlights: Vanguard TV-4 and Atlas 12B

Offline simonbp

Titan II had about the same performance to LEO as the initial Atlas-Centaur, and was already in NASA's sights for Gemini. IMHO, it could easily have filled the role of Centaur for OAO, and with a small third stage could have launched the Mariners. Plus, since it shared so much with USAF/NRO vehicles it would have been much cheaper.

A further question is what would have happened to Atlas without Centaur. After the NRO and Gemini docking target flights finish, it may simply have died out...

Offline Proponent

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #13 on: 05/10/2012 02:02 AM »
I wonder how that scenario fit with the fact that the original Saturn 1 second stage was configured with 6 RL-10 engines and flew successfully on several missions.  Was the Agena to be a 3rd stage?

I've never seen a proposed Saturn configuration with an Agena third stage.  To my knowledge, in fact, every early Saturn configuration from the time of the Silverstein Report in December 1959 (see the attachment to this message) featured a Centaur as a final stage.  Ironic, isn't it?
« Last Edit: 05/10/2012 04:12 AM by Proponent »

Offline simonbp

I've never seen a proposed Saturn configuration with an Agena third stage.  To my knowledge, in fact, every early Saturn configuration from the time of the Silverstein Report in December 1959 (see the attachment to this message) featured a Centaur as a final stage.  Ironic, isn't it?

The Saturn/Agena for Surveyor would have been the Saturn I first stage (Block II probably) and an Agena second stage. The S-IV was not necessary for such a small payload.

And it's not ironic that many potential Saturn configurations used Centaur (S-V) as an upper stage; it was an MSFC-managed project. The fact that it was the least successful of all the stages that MSFC was developing (none of the others ever failed on their first flight) was a large factor in why a frustrated von Braun suggested it just be canceled.

EDIT: I take that back, you couldn't just use Agena as a second stage, as it would send just 11 kg to TLI! On the other hand, the standard two-stage Saturn (S-I + S-IV) would send 1.5 tonnes to TLI, and adding an Agena third stage would bump that up to 3 tonnes. Surveyor only weighed 1 tonne at launch, so I'm not sure what the plan was, or why the suggestion wasn't just for a standard Saturn I...
« Last Edit: 05/10/2012 03:20 PM by simonbp »

Offline Prober

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #15 on: 05/10/2012 03:32 PM »
Raises a glass to toast Centaur......

?  Is Centaur considered "man rated"

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Offline Jim

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #16 on: 05/10/2012 03:36 PM »
Titan II had about the same performance to LEO as the initial Atlas-Centaur, and was already in NASA's sights for Gemini. IMHO, it could easily have filled the role of Centaur for OAO,..

Not true.  Titan II could only do low LEO.  its performance drops off steeply with altitude.  It could not reach OAO orbit with OAO mass.  Centaur had it place in the US stable of launch vehicles.

Also, Atlas Agena lasted until 1978.
« Last Edit: 05/10/2012 05:21 PM by Jim »

Offline edkyle99

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #17 on: 05/10/2012 04:10 PM »
Why von Braun want it canceled ?

MSFC was likely involved because Saturn's S-V stage had originally been, essentially, a Centaur.  But S-V was dropped, well before the first Atlas Centaur launch, and so Centaur became a low priority for Marshall.

In addition, Centaur had gained weight and lost capability, making it, in von Braun's eyes, not worth pursuing because it could no longer perform some of its planned missions.

By the way, von Braun's team nearly beat Centaur.  The SA-5 launch, which used the first liquid hydrogen fueled S-IV stage, took place on January 29, 1964.

AC-2, the first successful liquid hydrogen fueled stage flight (only an ascent burn with no RL10 restart), occurred on November 27, 1963.  For awhile, it looked like SA-5 might beat AC-2 off the pad, but delays in S-IV testing, coupled with a pad fire during a November cryogenic tanking test and the discovery of cracked sleeves on pneumatic hydraulic line joints in the first stage delayed the SA-5 launch by several weeks.

 - Ed Kyle
« Last Edit: 05/10/2012 04:11 PM by edkyle99 »

Offline Proponent

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #18 on: 05/11/2012 03:36 AM »
And it's not ironic that many potential Saturn configurations used Centaur (S-V) as an upper stage....

I just meant it's ironic that the Centaur appeared in every proposed Saturn configuration, even those in which all other stages were RP-1-fueled, yet it never actually flew.

Quote
EDIT: I take that back, you couldn't just use Agena as a second stage, as it would send just 11 kg to TLI! On the other hand, the standard two-stage Saturn (S-I + S-IV) would send 1.5 tonnes to TLI, and adding an Agena third stage would bump that up to 3 tonnes. Surveyor only weighed 1 tonne at launch, so I'm not sure what the plan was, or why the suggestion wasn't just for a standard Saturn I...

Indeed, it was precisely Saturn I-Agena that was considered.  My statement about there being no Agena third stage is completely incorrect.  From chapter 2 of On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978:

Looking at all possible launch vehicle combinations, JPL specialists concluded that the Saturn C-1 combined with the Agena had several obvious advantages:

(a) The C-1 development appears to be on a sound basis and reasonably predictable. [The first Saturn C-1 test flight took place on 27 October 1961 (SA-1) and the second (SA-2) on 25 April 1962.]

(b) Substantial performance margins above our minimum requirements can be confidently expected.

(c) Substantial use of all stages is already programmed for other purposes.

(d) No new stage development is required.(e) The resulting over-all funding requirements can be expected to be essentially the same as those now expected for the Centaur-based program.

JPL planners anticipated that a Saturn-Agena could boost an 810-kilogram Mariner B, a significant increase over the 225-350 kilograms proposed for Mariner C. That meant "many of the current physical and weight constraints on these spacecraft [could] be relaxed, redundancy... added in key areas, and realistic mission flexibility... incorporated'' into planetary space probes. Marshall could apparently ready the first planetary Saturn-Agena for a 1965 launch of Mariner B to Venus; a Mariner B mission to Mars on Saturn-Agena might also be feasible for 1966.
« Last Edit: 05/11/2012 12:07 PM by Proponent »

Offline dbaker

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Re: Atlas-Centaur: the 50th anniversary of the first R&D launch
« Reply #19 on: 07/02/2012 02:40 PM »
Yes, and you have to remember that at the time Centaur was a vehicle looking for a mission. Surveyor was the only scheduled mission for it, and that could be done with a combination of existing stages (despite how goofy Saturn-Agena would have looked). With so much on its plate, an unnecessary, expensive, and failing project like Centaur was not what NASA needed at all. So despite how we all like Centaur in retrospect, from the perspective of 1962, von Braun's suggestion was probably the better management decision.

Not strictly true. It was awash with missions from the outset.

Remember, ARPA started Centaur on August 28, 1958. Hydrogen as a rocket propellant had been studied in the Suntan spyplane work done by Pratt & Whitney on the Model 304 engine for the CL-400. That project was range-limited so a competing longer-range concept was chosen - the A-12, later developed into the SR-71.

In December 1958 the Centaur had been assigned the USAF Advent geosynchronous-orbit satellite constellation which no other launch vehicle/upper stage could match. That was its prime mission, the first three (low weight precursors) were to have been launched by Atlas-Agena, the rest by Atlas-Centaur from 1963.

NASA got control of Centaur on July 1, 1959, in the general shift of all propulsion development to the new space agency and Marshall got it by default. NASA/JPL picked it up and assigned it to Mariner and Surveyor in July 1960 with flights planned for 1962 and 1964 and Saturn/Centaur planetary flights from 1966.

Von Braun and the German team at Huntsville were at serious odds with General Dynamics/Convair over the enginering philosophy and they disliked hydrogen as a fuel from their experiences of tests with it in Germany during the war. The 1959 Silverstein Committee imposed it upon them and to everyone's surprise at Huntsville, von Braun caved in and agreed to take it. So he was never happy with it, only reluctantly accepting development to get the RL-10 engines on the S-IV stage. But that was a short-lived programme. Of course, eventually it went to Lewis where it had a much happier time!

There was a real scandal when von Braun lobbied Jim Webb direct to cancel Centaur, going right over the heads of his bosses and even Max Faget thought the missions it was to carry should be canceled to free funds for Apollo!

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