Geeky History

1961

Mercury 4: a sinking feeling

Gus GrissomThe second American in space is Virgil “Gus” Grissom, pilot of the Mercury 4 capsule Liberty Bell 7. Like Alan Shepard’s flight, Grissom’s launch reaches an altitute of 118 miles and splashes down 15 minutes later, but mechanical problems with the explosive bolts to release the capsule’s hatch allow water into the vehicle. Grissom has to bail out at sea, wearing a spacesuit that’s rapidly taking on water, while Liberty Bell 7 sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic. Grissom weathers repeated accusations that he manually blew the hatch and caused his vehicle to sink, a claim which is later disproven.

Vostok 2

Vostok 2The Soviet Union launches its second manned spacecraft, Vostok 2, with cosmonaut Gherman Titov aboard. This mission sets a new space endurance record, with Titov spending just over one day in orbit, circling Earth 17 times in the process. Later accounts show that it’s not a pleasant day in orbit: Titov is reportedly the first sufferer of space sickness, vomiting in the cabin of his Vostok capsule.

Ranger 1

RangerNASA launches the Ranger 1 lunar probe, designed to test a new vehicle configuration to reach the moon, transmitting pictures back to Earth as it falls toward impact on the lunar surface. The Agena second stage rocket designed to push Ranger 1 into a much higher orbit to escape Earth’s gravity fails, and Ranger 1 falls back into Earth’s atmosphere, disintegrating eight days after launch. This is the first of a series of setbacks for the troubled Ranger program.

Saturn I

Saturn IAn unmanned Saturn I rocket is launched, the first practical demonstration of the multiple-engine design which has already been earmarked for future Apollo missions to the moon. Designed by expatriate German rocket engineer Werhner von Braun, the Saturn I is the first iteration of a family of heavy-lift rockets that will include the Saturn IB and the Saturn V; in this configuration, the Saturn I is the first stage of a Saturn V with no second stage.

Ranger 2

RangerNASA launches the Ranger 2 lunar probe, intended to travel the distance from Earth to the moon and collide with the lunar surface, taking pictures and transmitting them back to Earth up to the moment of impact. Much like its predecessor in the Ranger series earlier in the year, Ranger 2’s Agena second stage booster fails, leaving it stranded in a low Earth orbit. Ranger 2 disintegrates upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere two days later, another blow for a NASA program that can’t seem to score a success.

Mercury 5: first American monkey in orbit

Enos!Prior to putting an astronaut in orbit, NASA launches a chimpanzee named Enos on a two-orbit Mercury flight to validate the survivability of the spacecraft for an extended flight. Enos is recalled to Earth when both his spacesuit and his Mercury capsule begins heating up unexpectedly, and attitude control is lost; after three hours and two orbits, Mercury 5 returns to Earth. While hauling the capsule from the ocean, recovery crews accidentally crack the window. Despite all this, Enos is safely returned home; he dies a year later from an illness not related to his orbital flight.

1962

Apollo unveiled

ApolloWeeks before an American astronaut first makes it to orbit, NASA unveils the design of the two Apollo spacecraft: a command/service module (large compared to the Mercury capsules Americans have already seen) and a completely un-aerodynamic lunar module whose unique shape, designed solely for landing on the moon, will never need to operate inside an atmosphere. Though further refinements in both designs are still to come, NASA has already decided on the basic shape of its crash lunar exploration program whose goal is to land a man on the moon before 1970.

Ranger 3

RangerNASA launches the Ranger 3 lunar probe, built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory and intended to go directly to the moon, transmitting pictures of the surface back to Earth until it impacts the lunar surface. This modified Ranger spacecraft design also includes a balsa wood sphere, containing seismic detection experiments, which is intended to be blasted free of the main spacecraft and impact the moon separately. A problem with the Agena second stage booster puts Ranger 3 on the wrong heading with too much acceleration, missing the moon by 22,000 miles. With three straight failures to send a costly probe to the moon, NASA’s future and the future of its lunar exploration program is now under government review.

TIROS-4

TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the fourth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-4. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, and after TIROS-3’s discovery of a hurricane in the Atlantic well before it his the US, new enhancements are introduced specifically for early hurricane detection. TIROS-4 remains in orbit for less than six months.

Mercury 6: first American in orbit

John GlennThe third manned Mercury flight, Friendship 7, puts John Glenn in orbit for nearly five hours, the first American astronaut to circle the Earth. The retro-rocket package on Glenn’s vehicle, Friendship 7, becomes an issue when a sensor indicates that the heat shield protecting the capsule’s interior from the intense heat of reentry has slipped. Intended to be cast off before reentry, the retro package is left on at the insistence of ground controllers, resulting in an unusually rough ride home after only three orbits.

Ranger 4

RangerNASA launches the Ranger 4 lunar probe, built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory and intended to go directly to the moon, transmitting pictures of the surface back to Earth until it impacts the lunar surface. Another attempt to successfully launch the modified design including a seismology probe, this is the first Ranger launch in which the Agena second stage works perfectly. Unfortunately, a failure in Ranger 4’s onboard computer sends it tumbling, unable to acquire communications with Earth. Tracking the transmitter of the seismology probe, NASA determines that Ranger 4 indeed slams into the lunar far side, but without taking or transmitting a single picture, still resulting in a mission failure.

Spacewar!

SpacewarAt the 1962 Open House held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a student programming project is unveiled on the school’s new DEC PCP-1 computer. In an attempt to demonstrate the machine’s real-time processing power in a context that can be understood by the general public, Steve Russell and his cohorts allow visitors to play the first computer game, Spacewar. The product of months of design and hundreds of man-hours of coding, Spacewar allows two players to navigate their way around the gravity of a sun while trying to blow each other to bits (as displayed on a round oscilloscope). Never patented or copyrighted, Spacewar goes on to “inspire” countless copies, including one of the earliest coin-operated arcade video games, Computer Space.

Mercury 7

Mercury 7The second American orbital flight is launched, with Scott Carpenter lifting off aboard Mercury 7 (nicknamed Aurora 7). Carpenter’s five-hour, three-orbit mission is almost a carbon copy of John Glenn’s orbital flight, the primary goal being to duplicate the flight and compare the two astronauts’ reports and reactions.

TIROS-5

TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the fifth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-5. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, including new systems designed to keep the satellite in orbit – and in service – for a much longer period of time. A problem with the Delta rocket used to launch TIROS-5 puts the satellite in an elliptical orbit which is maintained for less than six months.

Armchair Theatre: Dumb Martian

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs an episode of the play anthology series Armchair Theatre, Dumb Martian, adapted by Clive Exton from a story by John Wyndham. Originally intended to be the pilot of an all-science-fiction anthology called Out Of This World, this episode is aired as an episode of Armchair Theatre by a decision from producer (and future Doctor Who creator) Sydney Newman, whose protege, Irene Shubik, will be the new anthology’s story editor. Out Of The World begins its short run on ABC a week later. This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Out Of This World: The Yellow Pill

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the first episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Leon Griffiths from a story by Rog Phillips, the story stars Nigel Stock and is introduced by Boris Karloff (in much the same way that Rod Serling introduced episodes of The Twilight Zone). This script will be reused in 1969 during the third season of the BBC’s anthology series Out Of The Unknown, whose original producer, Irene Shubik, is script editor of Out Of This World. This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Telstar

TelstarThe first Telstar communications satellite is launched, the first attempt to forge a permanent trans-Atlantic telecommunications link with an satellite that both receives and actively retransmits signals. A multinational venture between communications companies and government agencies in America, England and France, Telstar relays the first live trans-Atlantic television broadcast, bringing together the three major American networks of the time and the BBC for a one-of-a-kind joint news broadcast. Live intercontinental telephone calls and other TV broadcasts are also handled by Telstar. Though it’s an experimental satellite, Tesltar is expected to remain in service for some time, but its operational life is reduced to less than a year by, among other things, the effects of high-altitude nuclear weapons tests. Telstar shuts down in February 1963, but remains in orbit to this day.

Out Of This World: The Cold Equations

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the third episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Clive Exton from a story by Tom Godwin, the story stars Peter Wyngarde and Jane Asher, and is introduced by Boris Karloff (in much the same way that Rod Serling introduced episodes of The Twilight Zone).

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Out Of This World: Impostor

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the fourth episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Terry Nation (who will create the Daleks, Doctor Who’s most enduring foes, a year later) from a story by Philip K. Dick, the story stars Patrick Allen, and is introduced by Boris Karloff (in much the same way that Rod Serling introduced episodes of The Twilight Zone). This episode no longer exists in the archives, though a fan-made audio recording survives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Mariner 1 launched and lost

Mariner 1NASA launches the JPL-built unmanned space probe Mariner 1, the first of two identical spacecraft intended to study the planet Venus. Mariner 1’s mission, however, is cut short before it even leaves Earth’s atmosphere: a communication loss between its Atlas-Agena booster rocket and ground-based control systems sends the rocket off course. Fearing that it might tumble into the Atlantic Ocean’s heavily traveled shipping lanes, NASA orders the vehicle to self-destruct in mid-air. Many later accounts lay the blame at an error in the code loaded into the rocket’s on-board guidance computer. Mariner 1’s mission objectives are transferred to its identical twin, Mariner 2, due to be launched in just over a month.

Out Of This World: Botany Bay

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the fifth episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Written by Terry Nation (who will create the Daleks, Doctor Who’s most enduring foes, a year later), the story stars William Gaunt and Julian Glover, and is one of only two scripts in the series’ run that isn’t based on a prior literary work. This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Out Of This World: Medicine Show

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the sixth episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Julian Bond from a story by Robert Moore Williams, the story stars Raymond Adamson and Jacqueline Hill (Doctor Who), and is introduced by Boris Karloff (in much the same way that Rod Serling introduced episodes of The Twilight Zone). This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Vostok 3

Andrian NikolayevAndrian Nikolayev becomes the third Soviet cosmonaut to reach orbit. Aboard Vostok 3, Nikolayev remains in orbit for almost four days, long enough to become the first space traveler from Earth to have company while in orbit.

Out Of This World: Pictures Don’t Lie

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the seventh episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Bruce Stewart from a story by Katherine Maclean, the story stars Roger Avon, and is introduced by Boris Karloff (in much the same way that Rod Serling introduced episodes of The Twilight Zone). This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Vostok 4

Vostok 4The Soviet Union launches Vostok 4 with Pavel Popovich aboard, while Andrian Nikolayev orbits overhead in Vostok 3. The two vehicles pass within four miles of one another, but with no precision maneuvering, rendezvous or docking equipment, there’s little practical engineering value in the tandem space flight, other than to prove that ground controllers can handle two simultaneous flights. Popovich returns to Earth after nearly three days.

Out Of This World: Vanishing Act

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the eighth episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Written by Richard Waring, this is one of only two of the series’ scripts not based upon a prior literary work, and is introduced by Boris Karloff (in much the same way that Rod Serling introduced episodes of The Twilight Zone). This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Out Of This World: Divided We Fall

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the ninth episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Leon Griffiths from a story by Raymond F. Jones, the story stars Bernard Horsfall, and is introduced by Boris Karloff. This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Mariner 2 launched

Mariner 2NASA launches its first interplanetary spacecraft, the unmanned space probe Mariner 2, en route to Venus. During its three-month trip from Earth to Venus, Mariner 2 takes measurements of solar wind, charged particles, and an experiment is included to measure the amount of dust and micrometeoroids between the two planets. The probe briefly loses attitude control several times in flight, but regains proper orientation in each instance.

Out Of This World: The Dark Star

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the tenth episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Denis Butler from Frank Crisp’s novel Ape Of London, the story is introduced by Boris Karloff. This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Out Of This World: Immigrant

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the 11th episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Terry Nation from a story by Clifford D. Simak, the story stars Gary Raymond, and is introduced by Boris Karloff. This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Out Of This World: Target Generation

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the 12th episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Clive Exton from a story by Clifford D. Simak, the story stars Philip Madoc, and is introduced by Boris Karloff. This episode no longer exists in the archives.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

TIROS-6

TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the sixth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-6. Launched specifically to allow for better detection of storms during the 1962 Atlantic hurricane season, TIROS-6 has a full workload within days of launch as Hurricane Daisy forms in the Caribbean Sea and makes its way to New England. TIROS-6 finally provides a successful test for NASA’s attempts to keep a weather satellite in service for long-duration missions, lasting over a year in orbit.

Out Of This World: The Tycoons

Out Of This WorldBritish broadcaster ABC airs the 13th and final episode of science fiction anthology series Out Of This World. Adapted by Bruce Stewart from a story by Arthur Sellings, the story stars Ronald Fraser and Jill Curzon, and is introduced by Boris Karloff. This episode no longer exists in the archives, and is the final episode of the series. Out Of This World story editor Irene Shubik, a protege of Sydney Newman, will join Newman at the BBC and become both story editor and producer of a similar science fiction anthology, Out Of The Unknown.

More about Out Of This World and Out Of The Unknown in the LogBook

Mercury 8

Mercury 8Astronaut Wally Schirra is the third American to orbit Earth, aboard the Mercury 8 capsule (nicknamed Sigma 7). He remains in orbit for just over nine hours in the cramped quarters of the Mercury spacecraft before splashing down.

The light-emitting diode

Nick HolonyakWorking at General Electric’s New York R&D lab, scientist Nick Holonyak fires up the first working visible-spectrum light-emitting diode, producing a single small red light. (Texas Instruments had already created infrared LEDs the year before.) Too expensive to mass-produce initially, LEDs will become commonplace in calculators and other electronic devices in the 1970s, though more modern variants in the 1990s will lead to a revolution in lighting and display technology, resulting in flat-screen computer monitors and televisions and spinoff technology such as tablet computers and portable telephones with LED-based touchscreens – all unimaginable in 1962.

Ranger 5

RangerNASA launches the Ranger 5 lunar probe, built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory and intended to go directly to the moon, transmitting pictures of the surface back to Earth until it impacts the lunar surface. An onboard system failure cuts off solar power, leaving Ranger 5 on its limited supply of battery power; by the time it reaches the moon, its power-starved systems have shut down and it’s wide of the mark, missing the moon by 450 miles. A sweeping internal review of the Ranger program commences at both JPL and NASA, with the review boards finding design faults and discovering that the high-heat sterilization process, intended to keep Earthly microbes from contaminating the moon, may also be causing problems. With Ranger now considered a support program for the upcoming Apollo flights to the moon, NASA is under intense scrutiny and replaces the managers of the Ranger project prior to the next launch, also instituting another redesign of the spacecraft.

Mariner 2 visits Venus

Mariner 2NASA’s unmanned Mariner 2 probe is the first unmanned spacecraft to successfully reach and take measuresments of another planet in the solar system. Passing by Venus at a distance of 25,000 miles, Mariner 2 detects a cool atmosphere with a blistering hot surface underneath it – quickly dispelling any hopes of finding life there. Mariner 2 isn’t equipped with any cameras, which is just as well: unless any cameras had ultraviolet filters, they would have seen nothing but featureless clouds at Venus. Mariner 2 continues on into a solar orbit, shutting down early in 1963.

A computer for everyone! In the future!

UNIVACIn the Hillsboro Press-Gazette, ENIAC and UNIVAC co-creator Dr. John Mauchly predicts that there will come “a time when everyone will carry his own personal computer”, even going so far as to anticipate portable “hand computers” used for such tasks as interactive shopping lists. Mauchly’s predictions aren’t 100% accurate, however: by the 21st century, groceries do not arrive via delivery chutes in every home, and he fails to anticipate the use of “hand computers” to access social networks or view amusingly captioned photos of cats.

1963

Alex Kingston, Doctor Who actress, born

Alex Kingston as River SongActress Alex Kingston, a familiar face in both British and American television, is born in England. With a variety of roles on UK TV throughout the 1980s and ’90s, she will make the leap to American television in 1997 with a regular role on the hospital drama ER through 2004. In 2008 she will make her first appearance as Professor River Song, occasional companion and gadfly to the Doctor in Doctor Who, opposite both David Tennant and Matt Smith.

Nothing at the end of the lane

Doctor WhoMeetings commence at the BBC to hash out ideas for a new children’s science fiction series to be produced in-house, possibly involving a time machine, an aloof old man, a younger “man of action” character, a female scientist, and a younger woman. As the creative lightning rod of this series development, Sydney Newman begins to weed out ideas he considers unsuitable – such as giving these characters the roles of “science troubleshooters” working for the government – and homes in on the time travel idea, as well as the old man character, who emerges as a man of mystery. These are the first creative meetings from which the BBC’s Doctor Who will emerge.

More about Doctor Who in the LogBook