Chapter 1 - Seeking Remote Globes
Chapter 1 - Seeking Remote Globes
“It is a plain road from the Earth to the stars, though mortal feet cannot tread it.”
September 6, 1958 - South Atlantic Ocean
The USS Norton Sound, having left the Californian port of Hueneme last month, now remains stationary amidst the frigid waves, accompanied by 4 other ships. In the past week, two nuclear warheads were fired over 150 km into the sky as a part of Operation Argus. Each detonation was a brilliant spectacle of colours flowing across the sky,
World War II had come to an end, as Japan signs the final peace treaty. Two months earlier, the United States had detonated the first ever nuclear bomb. Three weeks later, two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 130,000 in total. With the end of the war, the remaining allied powers undertook secret programs to capture German rocket scientists who had worked on the V-2, and take them for their own rocket programs.
The United Kingdom planned Operation Backfire, reconstructing and launching three V-2 rockets, producing blueprints for the rocket, and planning further rocketry endeavours. On December 23, 1946, the British Interplanetary Society would suggest a larger rocket being built, derived from the V-2, that would carry a man on a suborbital trajectory. This rocket was called Megaroc, and it would ultimately go no further than a conceptual design. Britain kept its blueprints, and should the time ever come, they could produce their own long range missiles.
The Soviet Union had Operation Osoaviakhim, secretly removing over 2,500 scientists, and another 4000 family members, and taking them to the USSR. 3 years later in October 1948, a fully soviet replica of the V-2 was constructed, the R-1. As the years passed, larger and larger missiles were designed. In 1952, the R-2 came online, possessing a range of 575 km. 4 years later, the R-5 rocket emerged, able to fly over twice as far, and potentially carry warheads up to 1Mt, over 60 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The soviet rockets would continue to progress, culminating in the R-7 Semyorka, the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM.
The United States had Operation Paperclip, capturing not just engineers, but rocket parts as well. Taken to various sites in New Mexico, the engineers were forced to work on designing and constructing new rockets. Launching numerous rockets from White Sands, these frequently broke the yet-to-be-defined Karman Line, sending experiments and taking measurements to further the rocket program. On October 24, 1946, one such flight took the first photo of Earth from space. February 1947, the first animals entered space, fruit flies. Then in November, the first Aerobee rocket launched, followed the next year by the RTB-G-4 Bumper, the American rocket program seemed to be travelling at light speed. Much later in 1955, under president Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Hagerty, his press secretary, announced that the United States planned to launch small orbiting satellites, this would be Project Vanguard. This was followed just 4 days later with the Soviet Union announcing their own intentions, the very first embers of the space race, in an ocean of gasoline.
December 8, 1956
The US was testing its Vanguard rocket, now almost fully completed, from the recently upgraded Cape Canaveral launch site. Its first stage lit up with a thunderous roar that would soon be no more uncommon than the sunrise. Just a mere test of the rocketry system needed for next year’s orbital launch, it worked better than anyone could have hoped, reaching a height of 203 km before falling back down, breaking up over the Atlantic. This was followed 5 months later with Vanguard TV-1, another perfect suborbital test run.
March 15, 1957
Across the world in the Kazakh SSR, an R-7 Semyorka ICBM, the first of its kind, stood tall at the Scientific Test Range Number 5. In parallel with the USA’s testing campaign, this first flight would intentionally fall short of orbit, carrying only a dummy warhead, transmitting the flight data back to control. Its core stage and boosters ignited, shaking violently. It continued upwards, powering through the pogo oscillations, until just under 100 seconds after launch, a fire broke out in one of the boosters. This fire quickly expanded to shut down the engines, breaking the booster away and causing the entire craft to tumble with asymmetric thrust. Quickly, it was broken apart by aerodynamic forces, crashing 400 km away. This would not deter the program, but it would delay the first orbital satellite attempt. This attempt would be announced on July 9, with the USSR publicly announcing the preparation of a satellite, and the radio frequencies to be used. A month later on August 5, an American U-2 spy plane conducted another overflight of the USSR, but this time, over the Scientific Test Range. The US was finally able to gauge their progress, and it wasn’t looking good. 16 days later, another test launch of the R-7, Korolev was finally proving that this rocket could work, as it successfully launched another dummy warhead to the Kamchatka Peninsula, completing its mission. With this, the orbital launch was officially ready to go, Nikita Khrushchev officially approving a launch for as soon as possible.
October 4, 1957
Several tries were made to launch, but issues kept coming up, small electric glitches or fuelling issues, the daylight faded, giving way to the speckled night sky. The vast steppe is illuminated by diffuse floodlights and the reflected light of the moon. Determined to push forward, Korolev tried one final launch attempt. Trumpets sounded from in front of the pad, a musician playing the bugle to display the significance. The engines ignite, rapidly lifting the vehicle into the sky, it turned just as it was meant to, and the boosters fell away in what would later be called the Korolev Cross. The rocket disappeared over the horizon, and the long wait began to see if it made it to orbit. No tracking stations were set up around the planet, needing to wait for a full orbit to see if it had made it. And sure enough, 90 minutes later, that steady beeping was heard. Korolev stood up, walked to the front of the room and began to speak.
“The conquering of space has begun. Today we have witnessed the realisation of a dream nurtured by some of the finest minds who ever lived. Our outstanding scientist Tsiolkovsky brilliantly foretold that mankind would not forever remain on the Earth. Sputnik is the first confirmation of his prophecy. We can be proud that this was begun by our country.”
October 5, 1957 - Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake
It was late in the night, the sun had set many hours ago and the only light that remained was the soft glow of distant buildings. The moon hung silently amidst the stars of Aquarius, Saturn and Venus not far away. Leo Jagiello, an aerodynamicist for NOTS, stared off into the desert sky, his eyes fixed on a small dot. Sputnik was floating overhead, singing her constant beeps in all directions for everyone to hear. Lee walked back to the station and found the deputy technical director, Hack Wilson.
“Hey Hack, I just saw Sputnik, you know what we ought to do? We ought to go shoot the damned thing down.”
The idea was sparked. On October 14, a meeting was held where the prospect of air-launching a rocket was considered. Technical Director Bill McLean and Hack Wilson wound up going to Washington, briefing the idea of a NOTS satellite to President Eisenhower. The proposal was met well, and $200,000 was provided to demonstrate the plausibility of an air-launch quickly expanding to $860,000 for a ground launched satellite. The ground launch funding would, next year, be diverted to the air-launch proposal, to avoid the embarrassment of another potential failure like the Vanguard rocket.
November 3, 1957
Sputnik 1 was followed just a month later with Sputnik 2, carrying the first lifeform into orbit, a street dog named Laika. The rocket took off without a hitch, placing her firmly in orbit, but not all was well. The thermal regulation system wasn’t working properly, causing the capsule to quickly overheat to unbearable levels in a matter of hours, causing a premature end to the mission. Laika was never intended to return to Earth, as the capsule had no heat shield. Her mission was merely to stay in space, a first ambassador of humanity to the stars, or a sacrifice to prove the safety of those who will surely follow her.
December 6, 1957
America was now in a rush to get a satellite in orbit as fast as possible, preparing the first Vanguard satellite for launch. Multiple attempts were made, eventually delaying the launch due to a frozen valve, high winds and the preparation crew being generally tired. Two days passed and the next attempt was made, the first stage ignited with another magnificent roar, and for all of two seconds, the rocket began to rise. Then the engine lost its pressure, slowly falling back onto the launch pad, falling over, and exploding. The satellite was miraculously ok, having fallen out of the fairing and rolled off the pad to safety. Following this disastrous launch, work on a different satellite began, with the work of Wernher von Braun planning to launch a smaller satellite named Explorer 1 on a Jupiter C missile. Originally planned to launch in May of next year, early preparation had pulled the launch date to as early as January, and changed the launch vehicle to Juno I.
January 31, 1958
Numerous reporters from around the country sat just over two kilometres from the rocket, towering on the launch pad. The Juno I’s sole Rocketdyne A-7 ignites, quickly using up its fuel of hydyne and liquid oxygen, painting an elegant stroke of light across the sky. The reporters stared in amazement as the once gigantic rocket disappeared into nothing more than a speck of light in the sky. The first stage breaks away as its fuel runs out, and the second stage cluster of 11 solid rockets quickly burns through its 6 seconds of fuel, followed by a cluster of 3, and a final, lone solid rocket. The satellite breaks away, unfurling its antennae and begins to record its scientific data. Twirling around the planet 12 times a day, its geiger-muller tube recorded the prevalence of cosmic rays at different altitudes, and found a strange anomaly - for most of its orbit, the instrument was saturated, meaning the radiation in a specific zone around earth was much higher than first thought. Though mostly harmless for the spacecraft, it could be a risk to human spaceflight.
February 5, 1958
Following this launch just a week later, Vanguard 1 finally took to the stars, shooting upwards and, before anyone could parse what just happened, it disappeared over the horizon and began to hum its exoatmospheric telemetry to all Minitrack receivers who listened. Already breaking new ground for space exploration, Vanguard 1 is the first spacecraft powered by solar cells. Charging its batteries from the light of the sun, and using its perfectly symmetric shape to study the effects of the thin atmosphere on its orbit.
March 3, 1958
For the past 6 months, NOTS had been scrambling to get further funding for their Pilot vehicle, enough so that they had been changing the name of the program to lead to confusion and more funding allocated to what seemed like a new project. The main name was NOTSNIK/NOTSNIC, a combination of the acronym for NOTS and both Sputnik and the last name of the program’s director, Dr. John Nicolaides. Luckily, there was a program that NOTSNIC could help with, Operation Argus. A secret Navy-led plan to detonate nuclear warheads in space above the South Atlantic Ocean. Reaching successively greater heights, Three W-25 warheads would be launched into space, then detonated to test if such an explosion could form a disk of particles that could destroy the electronics of incoming soviet missiles.
The existence of a swarm of satellites, such as what could be accomplished with NOTSNIC, would help to observe the detonations, and study the effects it causes. Thanks to this, the program would receive extra funding. Just under $1,000,000 was given, but with an incredibly close deadline. The Argus detonations began in late August, just under 6 months away. The NOTSNIC team was forced to work 15 hours a day, 6 days a week, to meet the deadline. This couldn’t be delayed at all, as the US had agreed to a voluntary ceasing of nuclear tests in October.
The vehicle created by NOTS was an incredibly simple one, yet also incredibly complex. Launched from the underbelly of a F4D-1 Skyray at 35,000 feet and Mach 0.8. Originally, studies suggested it would be worth designing the vehicle to utilise ramjets, but this was out of budget. Instead, it would ignite its first 2 HOTROC solid motors, the second 2 igniting shortly after flameout, then the ABL X241 motor almost two minutes later. The large fins were ever so slightly tilted, imparting a small spin on the vehicle building up to 5RPM. This spin causes it to constantly scan the sky, and once it detects the horizon with an infrared camera, it ignites stage 4, followed by stage 5. A small timer is set at launch, exactly 200 seconds after launch, stage 4 drops away, and 3,000 later, on the other side of the planet, it ignites the tiny stage 6 motor. This motor burns for a single second, providing a “Kick in the apogee” to place the craft in a stable orbit. With only 6 months to ready the vehicle, the perfect mix of speed and caution must be exercised to complete it in time.
May 15, 1958
The Soviet Union yet again launches a satellite, this one, originally meant to be the first satellite, was not ready in time for launch, getting delayed to the third launch. It carries a multitude of scientific instruments which, had it been the first, would’ve discovered the Van Allen belts. Weighing 1,300 kilograms, it is the heaviest satellite yet to be launched, and by a wide margin, over twice as heavy as Sputnik 2. A previous attempt to launch Sputnik 3 ended in failure when the rocket broke apart 97 seconds into flight. Strangely enough, the satellite has mostly survived impact with the ground, being taken back to Baikonur to be repaired. A small fire broke out inside the electronics, but was quickly extinguished, any damaged electronics replaced with those from the backup craft. The person-sized satellite continued to transmit its findings back to the ground until it finally ran out of power, around June 27th, when it would silently circle the earth until the atmosphere drags it back down.
July 25, 1958
Months of frantic development and component testing had come to an end, with the inaugural launch of the first NOTSNIC craft. The F4D-1 Skyray took off into the sky from China Lake, and began to rise to 35,000 feet. It hit the altitude, and the Pilot is told to enter the bomb toss, pitching up to 57 degrees and mach 0.9 as the payload automatically drops at 40,000ft. Quickly banking right so as to not be hit with supersonic solid motor exhaust, 3 seconds later, the first two HOTROCs ignite with a power never before felt by a soon-to-be orbital spacecraft. They burn through their 135 kg of solid fuel in just 5 seconds, the next 2 HOTROCs activating 12 seconds after they burn out. The rocket coasts for another two minutes before the ABL X241 begins burning as well, burning for a comparative eternal 36 seconds, before it too runs out, breaking away not long after. The unnamed NOTS 8 ignites next, burning for just 6 seconds before shutting down and falling away. All of this occurred without the knowledge of the pilot, or NOTS itself. View of the rocket was temporarily lost when the bomb toss was performed, but thankfully was regained moments later, showing it well on its way to orbit. Half an hour later, Christchurch tracking station heard NOTSNIC’s signal singing back to Earth. The rocket had worked, and if they could launch an anti-satellite weapon, so could the Soviets.
 This would later be renamed Baikonur Cosmodrome
 There is scarce information on NOTSNIK available, with only a brief mention of the name NOTSNIC in The Station Comes of Age by Cliff Lawson. For this timeline, it will be referred to exclusively as NOTSNIC