54.

MEDARIS GOES FOR THE ICBM

On April 19, 1957, approximately two months and three weeks later, the launch pad had been repaired, several captive flight-readiness firings for the new missile had been completed, and the countdown was under way in the blockhouse for Thor 102. The atmosphere was particularly tense, not only because of the failure of Thor 101, but also because this was the second and possibly the third attempt (Mettler and Thiel could not remember precisely when they were interviewed many years later) to launch Thor 102. A twenty-four-hour limit had been established for launch attempts. It was feared that if countdowns had to be aborted and resumed over and over until the launch began to run more than twenty-four hours, the blockhouse crew would become so fatigued that someone would read an instrument incorrectly with disastrous results. Therefore, once twenty-four hours had been expended, the launch had to be canceled. This was precisely what had happened on the first, and the second, attempt to launch Thor 102. The countdowns had been repeatedly stymied by the discovery of mechanical problems. The countdown had to be stopped and restarted several times again on April 19, but matters went better on this day and Mettler at last pressed the button to start the electrical ignition sequence.

Thor 102 responded with fire and the percussive waves of its thunderous voice. When the hold-down latches on the launch pad were thrown open, the rocket rose, slowly at first, and then with quickening acceleration, beginning to fly up and out toward the sea. There was immense relief and exhilaration in the blockhouse until, just thirty-two seconds into the flight, the missile exploded. The range safety officer, housed separately in a central control bunker, announced that he had blown it up. Every missile launched at Cape Canaveral carried a packet of explosives hooked up to a radio-activated detonator. If a missile went awry and turned inland, the range safety officer pushed his destruct button to protect the lives and property of Florida’s civilians. Thiel was astonished. The instruments in the blockhouse had indicated that Thor 102 was doing fine, heading right out for the Caribbean. Some of his German friends and former colleagues from the Redstone Arsenal, who were at Canaveral for Jupiter launchings, had watched the launch from a building not far away. They told Thiel the missile had been flying perfectly and should not have been demolished. He and Mettler hurried to the control blockhouse. Unhinged by rage, Dolf Thiel dashed inside and confronted the range safety officer, an Air Force major. “You son of a bitch, why did you destroy the missile?” he shouted at the man. “You’re nuts,” he yelled, grabbing the major and cocking back his fist to punch the officer in the face. Mettler caught hold of Thiel’s arm just in time. “Take it easy, take it easy,” he said, calming his deputy.

It turned out that the mishap was the result of incompetence by a Ramo-Wooldridge technician and panic by the range safety officer. The range safety officer had three instruments with which to monitor the flight of a missile. One was an optical device with powerful magnification and a reticle with two parallel lines that enabled him to determine whether the missile was flying straight up, as it was supposed to do, or veering off to one side. The second was a standard radar tracking scope, referred to as a “skin radar” because the impulses of its transmitter were reflected back from the outer surface of whatever object it was tracking. The third was a different radar that had just been added to these first two monitoring instruments in the control center blockhouse at the instigation of someone on Mettler’s staff. It was a Doppler Velocity and Position radar, otherwise known by its acronym, DOVAP. The Doppler radar tracked the Thor through a beacon installed in the missile and provided a more precise reading of the speed and position of the missile than the skin radar.

There was nothing wrong with this particular Doppler radar apparatus, but when the Ramo-Wooldridge technician installed it, he hooked it up backward. Instead of showing Thor 102 heading out to sea, the DOVAP showed it flying inland toward the city of Orlando. To make matters worse, someone from Ramo-Wooldridge had also advised the range safety officer to rely on the DOVAP as his principal monitoring instrument. The major had been understandably alarmed to see this IRBM streaking for inland Florida on the DOVAP scope. He should, however, have kept his head and followed commonsense procedure by looking at his two other instruments to be certain he was getting a correct reading. No electronic device is entirely dependable. A range safety officer is supposed to act with dispatch, but not to destroy lightly an expensive missile. Seconds counted, but he had seconds to spare. Instead, he had panicked and mashed the destruct button. He was transferred not long afterward to Alaska.

At least they knew now they had a missile that could fly, and on May 20, 1957, the countdown began in the blockhouse for Thor 103. It turned into a day of ill omens. Time after time they ran into problems that required them to stop the countdown and took long to remedy and they had to start the countdown over again. On through the night and into the next day the relentless process continued. By the morning of May 21 they had reached the twenty-four-hour limit, when the rules said they had to cancel the launch to avoid the chance of a grievous error from crew fatigue. But Thiel’s blood was up and he did not want to quit on this third attempt to demonstrate that Thor could take to the air with the best of missiles. He was convinced that with just a bit more time they would achieve liftoff. The blockhouse had a direct Teletype line to the headquarters in California. Thiel persuaded Mettler to send an urgent message to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Jacobson, Schriever’s overall chief of test facilities and operations, and ask for an exemption to continue. Jacobson’s response was swift: “Negative. Approval is not granted. Terminate the test in accordance with standard operating procedures.” Schriever and Ramo were late flying to Patrick and had just arrived at the motel at Cocoa Beach. Mettler and Thiel decided to go over Jacobson’s head. Mettler telephoned Schriever at the motel and said the missile was nearly ready to go and asked permission to exceed the twenty-four-hour limit and launch it. Bennie’s instinct was that Mettler and Thiel and the entire launch crew must be so exhausted by now from the interminable countdowns and from the stress they were all feeling that the wise thing to do was to stop and get a night’s sleep. “Look, let’s call this off and we’ll start again tomorrow,” he said to Mettler. But Mettler was insistent. They really wanted to go now, he said. “Well, I won’t second-guess your judgment,” Schriever said, relenting. “If you want to go, go ahead.” He and Ramo walked out of their rooms to watch the launch. All of a sudden, the horizon over at the Cape was illuminated by a huge flash. “It lit up the sky,” Schriever remembered.

The LOX tank of Thor 103 had ruptured, incinerating the missile on the pad, the intensely hot fire causing enough damage so that Mathison and the contractors again had to refurbish the pad. And crew fatigue and the loss of focus that accompanies it had been the cause. One of the earlier countdowns had reached the point where they had fueled the missile. Over the subsequent hours, as the countdown was repeatedly aborted and then resumed, enough of the volatile LOX vaporized so that the supply in the missile’s oxidizer tank had to be topped off with more. A technician was assigned to make certain they did not overpressurize the tank in the process. The faces of the instruments of the time were the old-fashioned variety known as analog, not the brightly lit and colored numbers of the digital gauges that lay in the future. There were two pressure gauges for the oxidizer tank. One was a dial with a needle. The second was a drum on which was placed a round paper graph printed with lines to delineate levels of pressure. As the drum slowly rotated, an inking arm traced the amount of pressure in the tank. An investigation disclosed that while the technician might have kept looking at the gauge, he had lost so much alertness from exhaustion that he was no longer seeing it. Otherwise, he would have noticed that the needle had swung over into the red. The inked line on the paper delineated enough overpressure to burst the seal on the oxidizer tank and send Thor 103 to its fiery oblivion. Mettler was so embarrassed by what happened that he avoided seeing Schriever or talking to him on the phone for several days. He was not fired. Instead, Schriever removed Hall.

Bennie was in serious trouble. While he had nothing to show for Thor but three fiascoes, the Jupiter of his Army rival, Major General John Medaris, and of Medaris’s prized team of Wernher von Braun and his German rocketeers, had been flying well. The first Jupiter, launched on March 1, 1957, approximately five weeks after Thor 101 exploded eighteen inches above the pad, had flown for seventy-two seconds before breaking up. The second, sent aloft on April 12, flew for ninety-two seconds before disintegrating. Telemetry disclosed that when the missile turned, fuel sloshed back and forth in the tanks with enough momentum to overcome the Jupiter’s steering controls. A solution was rapidly worked out and adjustments made to the missile. On May 31, 1957, just ten days after the overpressurized LOX tank burst and Thor 103 perished in pyrotechnic wonder, a third Jupiter lifted off from Cape Canaveral. It sailed 1,610 miles down the Caribbean range, approaching the entire distance of 1,725 miles required for a full-fledged IRBM. Superior knowledge and skill acquired over years of hands-on experience were telling in the contest. For all their brainpower and engineering diplomas, with the exception of Thiel, Bennie’s team was a pack of amateurs up against professionals. The difference was evident in a matter as simple as countdown times. Von Braun and his Germans did not engage in any attention-draining, twenty-four-hour countdown sessions. The countdown time for the first Jupiter ran an hour and fifty-five minutes, for the second two hours and fourteen minutes. The von Braun équipe got the third Jupiter, the one that flew nearly as far as needed, into the air in eight minutes. Von Braun had been able to find out quickly what had gone wrong on his first two launches because he instrumented Jupiter extensively. His missile carried sensors to transmit 150 points of telemetry. Thor was instrumented for less than a third of these. He also flight-tested components for Jupiter by launching them in Redstone missiles. In all, he was to stage twenty-nine Redstone firings at Canaveral for this purpose. It was no wonder that while Schriever was months behind schedule in Thor firings, Medaris was a bit ahead of schedule with Jupiter.

The previous year, Medaris had lost two important battles in the rivalry with the Air Force over ballistic missiles. On November 20, 1956, Secretary Wilson had issued a new “roles and missions” directive specifying that although the Army was building Jupiter, the Air Force would be responsible for its “operational employment.” In other words, once Medaris and von Braun finished perfecting Jupiter, they would have to turn the missile over to the Air Force to deploy against the Soviets. Wilson had also decreed that in the future Army missiles would be restricted to a 200-mile range. The decisions, certainly approved by Eisenhower if not perhaps instigated by him, probably had as much to do with saving money by avoiding more duplication as they did with ruling that the Air Force was the logical service to control long-range missiles. But losing two battles did not amount to losing the war. If Thor was sufficiently discredited, Medaris could argue that it ought to be canceled on the grounds that the Air Force was incapable of building a satisfactory intermediate-range ballistic missile, at least within an acceptable period of time.

If he accomplished this, he could move on to the argument that since the Air Force had failed at the IRBM, how could anyone logically expect it to succeed at the far more difficult task of an ICBM? This need, so vital to the nation’s security, should therefore be entrusted to his U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency and his superb German rocket builders, whose track record would assure success. Medaris had always had ambitions that went far beyond the intermediate-range Jupiter. He and von Braun had already discussed the possibility of a rocket big enough to carry men to the moon and in August 1958 would obtain approval from the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency to start designing it. Von Braun would also welcome the chance to move on from Jupiter to an ICBM because it would entail the creation of large rocket boosters, a sine qua non for space travel. Both men began denigrating Thor to anyone who would listen and also criticizing Atlas. The ingenious weight-saving concept Karel Bossart had first devised in the 1940s, a fuselage of thinly rolled steel that was inflated by the rocket’s fuel, was “a balloon” that was unlikely to withstand the traumatic stresses of launching. While this scenario of the Army taking over the ICBM program because Schriever made a hash of Thor might seem far-fetched decades later, it was not far-fetched in 1957. Medaris had a trump he could play if Bennie gave him an opening. He had von Braun and von Braun’s credibility in the making of rockets.

Schriever saw Medaris’s game right away. Suddenly the minor project he had not wanted had turned into a nightmare threatening the major project that had become his life’s ambition. He blamed Hall for what had occurred because the failures were not flaws in the missile itself. They were failures in the testing process and Bennie felt that Hall, as chief of propulsion for WDD and program director for Thor, should have been paying enough attention to avert them. The difficulty, as always, was Hall’s personality. Hall was convinced that Mettler and the entire Ramo-Wooldridge contingent were unnecessary. They were interlopers. There was already enough technical expertise within the Air Force itself, Hall believed, for the service to act as its own prime contractor and systems engineer and to guide industry in the creation of both the IRBM and the ICBM. Schriever, who had good reason to believe otherwise and who was in command, was not about to jettison the partnership with Ramo. There was thus nothing Hall could do to change the situation, but he could not bring himself to accept it. And, as was to be expected with him, he did not hesitate to voice his resentment. As a result, he did not get along with Mettler and the rest of the Ramo-Wooldridge team assigned to Thor. Thiel was an exception, perhaps because Hall respected his knowledge, but Thiel in turn had decidedly mixed feelings toward Hall because of his behavior. On one occasion, when Hall had come to Canaveral to witness the launching of a Jupiter, he began calling out “Blow! Blow! Blow!” as the rocket rose. Some of Thiel’s former German colleagues, with whom he swapped information and maintained cordial relations despite the rivalry, were sitting close by in the reviewing stands. He was embarrassed to the quick that they would see him associated with someone so lacking in politeness and protocol as to shout for their missile to blow itself up. “He was really a horrible guy … very arrogant,” Thiel said.

Hall did fulfill his role of program director by participating in all of the working sessions in California. He was not, however, perhaps because of his antagonism toward Mettler, attending the launches at Canaveral, where he would have had the authority and responsibility as the senior Air Force representative to exercise supervision and control. Instead, he was delegating the task to a subordinate on his staff but was not giving the officer a charter to wield the same supervisory power he could have brought to bear. Because Schriever’s management method consisted essentially of gathering around him men with outstanding aptitude for particular endeavors, or sharp-witted enough to grasp a new task swiftly, and then turning them loose to accomplish their roles while he surveyed all as a kind of high-tech ringmaster, Bennie had tolerated Hall. The lesson on how to get men to do what he wanted had been learned and practiced ever since, as a junior lieutenant, he had been given a Civilian Conservation Corps camp full of rambunctious boys to govern in Texas. “Talented people can be difficult,” he once remarked. “You have to let them do things their way.” But the tolerance was extended only as long as they produced for him and Hall was definitely not producing on Thor. Schriever had to find a replacement for him as soon as possible.

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