While this U.S. Moon mission did not achieve its goals, it did successfully mark the first time a rocket engine was fired in space.
First rocket engine fired in space.
This probe, Able VA, had a slightly different instrument complement compared to its predecessor Able IVB (launched in November 1959), but had similar mission goals.
Able VA was to enter lunar orbit about 62.5 hours after launch with parameters of 2,500 x 1,400 miles (4,000 × 2,250 kilometers) and a period of 10 hours. After launch, while the first stage performed without problems, the Able second stage ignited abnormally and shut down early because of an oxidizer system failure. Ground controllers were still able to fire the third stage engine, making this small STL-built engine the first rocket engine to successfully ignite and operate in space.
Because of the second stage failure, the spacecraft failed to reach sufficient velocity and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere 17 minutes after launch. Later, on Nov. 15, 1960, NASA announced that two objects from the Able VA payload had been found in Transvaal, South Africa.
Siddiqi, Asif A. Beyond Earth: A Chronicle of Deep Space Exploration, 1958-2016. NASA History Program Office, 2018.