Project NOTSNIK is one of the obscure footnotes of space history.

The October, 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 was a public-relations disaster for the United States. As a result, three teams sought to quickly replicate the feat. The best prepared team, based at the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal, was headed by Dr. Wernher Von Braun. Von Braun had built the V-2 rockets which bombarded London, however, so he was not the ideal candidate from a public-relations viewpoint. The White House did not want the first US satellite to be launched by one of von Braun’s missiles, so it tasked the Naval Research Laboratory with developing a civilian rocket called Vanguard.  (The irony of tasking the US Navy to develop a “civilian” rocket is seldom noted by historians.)

The third team was a small group of engineers at the Naval Ordnance Test Station China Lake. NOTS China Lake did not have the big rocket stages that were available to the other groups, nor did they have the funding. They believed they could build a much smaller satellite launcher, however, assembled from the air-launched weapons components they had available and using a Douglas F4D Skyray as the launch platform.

The classified effort was officially known as Project Pilot but more commonly referred to as NOTSNIK, because it was developed at NOTS China Lake and it was not Sputnik. Ground-launched tests were conducted from NOTS China Lake but air launches flew out of Naval Air Station Point Magu. The first air launch was attempted on July 25, 1958. There were five more air launch attempts between August 12 and August 26, 1958.

None of the NOTSNIK launch attempts were considered to be successful. It is interesting to note, however, that the rockets launched on August 12 and August 22 experienced communication failures, for unknown reasons. It is possible that one or both of those rockets made it into orbit, but NOTS lacked the necessary tracking facilities to verify that speculation.

It is interesting to note that the NOTSNIK payload was only 2.3 pounds, not much larger than one of today’s CubeSats. This was significantly smaller than Sputnik 1, which weighed 184 pounds, and the first successful US satellite,  Explorer 1, which was 30.8 pounds.

This air-launch approach is still being pursued today. In Oregon, Premier Space Systems is working on a concept called NanoLaunch which aims at launching satellites from a MiG-21. Premier Space Systems plans to start by launching suborbital sounding rockets and eventually put small satellites into Low Earth Orbit. On the opposite coast, Starfighters and 4Frontiers Corporation are developing the Star Lab launch vehicle, designed to launch 4-13 payloads on a suborbital trajectory to 80-120 km from an F-104 Starfighter. In a similar, but slightly more ambitious concept, XCOR Aerospace plans to launch small satellites  from its suborbital Lynx.

Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Space History Tags:

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