65 years ago: Pioneer 4 reaches the Moon | Trending Viral hub

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On March 3, 1959, the United States launched Pioneer 4 with the goal of photographing the Moon during a close flyby. As part of the International Geophysical Year that ran from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, the United States planned to send five probes to study the Moon. The first three planned to orbit the Moon, while the last two simpler probes planned to photograph it during flybys. After NASA opened its doors in October 1958, the new space agency inherited the Pioneer program from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense established in early 1958 as part of the American initiative to respond to the first Soviet space achievements. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, part of the US Army until it was transferred to NASA in December 1958, built the two Pioneer lunar flyby spacecraft. While the first four missions failed to reach their goal, Pioneer 4 became the first American spacecraft to fly by the Moon and enter solar orbit.

A replica of the Pioneer 1 spacecraft Takeoff of Pioneer 1, the first satellite launched by NASA
Left: a replica of the Pioneer 1 spacecraft. Image credit: Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum. Right: Liftoff of Pioneer 1, the first satellite launched by NASA.

He Pioneer’s first launch attempt on August 17, 1958, ended in failure 77 seconds after takeoff when the Thor-Able booster exploded. Engineers identified and corrected the problem with the rocket, and on October 11, Pioneer 1, weighing 84 pounds, lifted off from Launch Complex 17A at Cape Canaveral. The launch took place just 10 days later NASA officially opened its doors. The liftoff appeared to go well, but tracking soon showed that the spacecraft was traveling slower than expected and was also off course. Relatively minor errors in the performance of the first stage were compounded by other problems with the second stage, making it clear that Pioneer 1 would not achieve its primary goal of entering orbit around the Moon. The spacecraft reached a record altitude of 70,770 miles about 21 hours after launch before beginning its fall back to Earth. It burned up upon re-entering the Pacific Ocean 43 hours after takeoff. The probe’s instruments confirmed the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts discovered by Explorer 1 at the beginning of the year. The third and final attempt to orbit the moon, Pioneer 2, on November 8, was less successful. The rocket’s first and second stages performed well, but the third stage failed to ignite. Pioneer 2 failed to reach orbital speed and only reached a maximum altitude of 960 miles before falling back to Earth after a brief 42-minute flight.

Juno rocket developer Wernher von Braun, left, Pioneer project engineer John R. Casani and project scientist James A. Van Allen inspect instruments on the Pioneer 4 spacecraft. Kurt H. Debus, left, and von Braun in the pillbox for the launch of Pioneer 4 Launch of Pioneer 4, the first American spacecraft to fly over the Moon and enter solar orbit
Left: Wernher von Braun, developer of the Juno rocket; Left, Pioneer project engineer John R. Casani and project scientist James A. Van Allen inspect instruments on the Pioneer 4 spacecraft. Image credit: Courtesy of LIFE magazine. Center: Kurt H. Debus, left, and von Braun in the pillbox for the launch of Pioneer 4. Right: Launch of Pioneer 4, the first American spacecraft to fly by the Moon and enter solar orbit.

Next came the two lunar flyby missions, each with a radiation counter and photographic equipment. The 13-pounder Pioneer 3 took off on December 6. The Juno-II rocket’s first stage engine shut down prematurely and the probe was unable to reach its destination, falling back to Earth 38 hours after launch. Despite this problem, Pioneer 3 provided important radiation data and discovered a second outer Van Allen belt surrounding the Earth. The second attempt, on March 3, 1959, was more successful when Pioneer 4 became the first American spacecraft to reach Earth escape velocity. Juno-II’s second stage burned for a few more seconds, bringing Pioneer 4 to within 36,650 miles of the Moon’s surface 41 hours after launch. At that distance, instead of the planned 5,000 miles, the spacecraft was unable to achieve its goal of photographing the Moon. Pioneer 4 then became the first American spacecraft to enter solar orbit, a feat the Soviet Luna 1 accomplished two months earlier. Pioneer 4 returned radiation data for 82 hours, at 409,000 miles, almost twice the Earth-Moon distance, until its batteries died.

Pioneer 4's trajectory to the Moon and beyond Deep Space Station-11, also known as Pioneer Station, in 1958
Left: Pioneer 4’s trajectory to the Moon and beyond. Right: Deep Space Station-11, also known as Pioneer Station, in 1958.

Although these early Pioneer lunar probes had limited mission success, the program marked the first use of the 26-meter antenna and tracking station in Goldstone, California. This antenna, completed in 1958 and known as Deep Space Station 11 (DSS-11), was the first component of what eventually became NASA’s Deep Space Network. Although called Pioneer Station, DSS-11 not only followed these early spacecraft, beginning with Pioneer 3, but later monitored the robotic precursor missions Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter and tracked the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle to the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969, and also the other Apollo lunar missions. He also tracked the Mariner, Viking and Voyager missions to the planets before their decommissioning in 1978.

Watch a video about Pioneer 4: https://youtu.be/mM4U78sFYpQ

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