Pioneer 0

This mission was the first of two U.S. Air Force (USAF) launches to the moon and the first attempted deep space launch by any country. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Pioneer 0, also known as Able 1, was the first-ever launch to the Moonand humanity’s first attempt to send a spacecraft anywhere beyond Earth orbit. The plan was to orbit the Moon, but a malfunction doomed the spacecraft. The mission predated NASA by a few months and was launched by the U.S. Air Force.

  • The mission launched about six and half months after Explorer 1, America’s first satellite.

  • The booster rocket exploded 73.6 seconds after launch.

  • The later became known as “Pioneer 0,” the start of the historic series of Pioneer missions that included Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11.

Launch Date August 17, 1958 | 12:18 UT
Launch Site Cape Canaveral, Fla., USA | Launch Complex 17A
Launch Vehicle Thor Able 1 (Thor no. 127)
Destination Earth's Moon
Type Orbiter
Status Unsuccessful
Nation United States
Alternate Names Able 1, Thor-Able 1, Pioneer Zero

Firsts

  • First attempt to launch a probe into deep space.

  • First lunar probe attempt.

Key Dates

Launch: Aug. 17, 1958 | 12:18 UT

End of Mission: Aug. 17, 1958 | 12:20 UT

In Depth

Objective(s): lunar orbit

Spacecraft Mass: 85 pounds (38.5 kilograms)

Mission Design and Management: ARPA / AFBMD

Scientific Instruments:

  1. Magnetometer

  2. micrometeoroid detector

  3. Two temperature sensors

  4. TV camera

On March 27, 1958, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the launch of four to five lunar probes later in the year, all under the supervision of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) as part of scientific investigations during the International Geophysical Year.

Of these, one or two (later confirmed as two) would be carried out by the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency and the other three by the Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Division. This launch was the first of three Air Force attempts, and the first attempted deep space launch by any country.

The Able 1 spacecraft, a squat conical fiberglass structure built by Space Technology Laboratories (STL), carried a crude infrared TV scanner. The simple thermal radiation device carried a small parabolic mirror for focusing reflected light from the lunar surface onto a cell that would transmit voltage proportional to the light it received. Engineers painted a pattern of dark and light stripes on the spacecraft’s outer surface to regulate internal temperature. The spacecraft was also disinfected with ultraviolet light prior to launch.

The launch vehicle was a three-stage variant of the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) with elements appropriated from the Vanguard rocket used on its second and third stages.

The entire project involved 3,000 people from 52 scientific and industrial firms, all but six of which were located in Southern California.

According to the ideal mission profile, Able 1 was designed to reach the Moon’s vicinity 2.6 days after launch following which the TX-8-6 solid propellant motor would fire to insert the payload into orbit around the Moon. Orbital altitude would have been 29,000 kilometers with an optimal lifetime of about two weeks.

The actual mission, however, lasted only 73.6 seconds, the Thor first stage having exploded at an altitude of 15.2 kilometers altitude. Telemetry was received from the payload for at least 123 seconds after the explosion, probably until impact in the Atlantic. Investigators concluded that the accident had been caused by a turbopump gearbox failure.

The mission was not named at the time but has been retroactively known as “Pioneer 0.

Additional Resources

  • NASA Memorandum: 1958 NASA/USAF Space Probes (Able-1) Final Report

Source

Siddiqi, Asif A. Beyond Earth: A Chronicle of Deep Space Exploration, 1958-2016. NASA History Program Office, 2018.

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