Last weekend, I saw Cape Canaveral Monsters. The 1960 sci-fi release epitomizes B movie with awful effects, emotionless acting, and a paper-thin plot that attempts to explain the high fail rate of America’s launch vehicle by the presence of aliens (and, oddly, not monsters). So this post isn’t really a “fun fact.” It’s more just fun, with a little bit of fact to back it up. (Left, the movie poster for Cape Canaveral Monsters. The tagline reads “You humans with your puny minds! You must not learn the secrets of space!”)
In the movie, a couple is killed in an auto accident and their bodies are immediately inhabited by extraterrestrial beings; without bodies they look like to humans like balls of light. Taking refuge in an underground cave, the aliens attempt to sabotage the U.S. space program using giant ray guns. For some reason, delaying humans’ mastery of spaceflight is paramount.
There’s a minute fraction of truth in the movie. Though unrelated to alien intervention, the Atlas launch vehicles did have a really nasty habit of blowing up. I’m sure someone out there will disagree with me — if you’ve got a conspiracy theory that supports alien involvement I’d love to hear it. (Right, the aliens in their borrowed human bodies.)
The Atlas program began in 1951 as a US Air Force program to study ballistic missiles. Announced in 1954, Atlas was given top priority in 1955 when information of Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) reached the US.
The Atlas began testing, in pieces, in 1957. After the first and second tests flights ended with booster failures, the third test was the first success in December of that year. The rocket flew 600 miles. In July 1958, the first test of the full rocket was labeled “marginally successful;” aside from a failure of control in flight, everything worked. Propulsion failures dogged the next few tests, and it was right around this time that the two week old NASA began discussing applications of the Atlas rocket to the Mercury program. (Left, the reconstructed Mercury capsule after the first Mercury-Atlas launch failed and exploded.)
There were a number of successful flight in 1959, but the year was marked with propellant feed failures, propulsions failures, electrical failures, hydraulic systems failures and overall launch systems failures. The mix of successes and failures continued in 1960 and 1961 with a success rate a little over 50 percent.
The Atlas Ds faired slightly better. The first rocket succumbed to structural failures. The rocket’s skin was so thin it would collapse under its own weight; even unfueled it had to be pressurized with nitrogen gas. It had to be strengthened further since the manned Mercury capsule was much heavier than warheads they were designed to carry. The second (with the chimpanzee Ham on board) and third made successful suborbital flights, the fourth and fifth achieved orbit (the latter with chimpanzee Enos on board). The sixth carried John Glenn into orbit.
The Atlas program is still alive, and quite successful. Currently, the Atlas V is NASA’s most powerful launch vehicle. It launched the Mars Science Laboratory to the red planet last November. (Right: MA-9, the rocket that carried Gordon Cooper into orbit, before launch. This shot also shows the naked rocket is silver and not white, a correction I’ve made to my previous post on painting rockets.)
Problematic as the Atlas’ early development was, it didn’t progress like the movie portrays. NASA didn’t have a store of Atlases large enough to launch one a day without troubleshooting after each failure. The agency had just nine Atlas rockets to work with. That said, if you’ve got 70 minutes to kill, Cape Canaveral Monsters is worth watching for all the bad effects, wrong science, and footage of Atlas and V-2 launches spliced together as though they are the same rocket. And if you figure out what happens at the end, let me know.