The Mystery of Cosmos 1

Riding on the wind from the Sun has been a dream of science fiction writers for a long time. Most rocket scientists, however, thought little of the concept, causing aeronautical engineer Carl Wiley to use the pseudonym "Russell Saunders" when he published the story called Clipper Ships of Space using the concept in 1951. He felt he would be ridiculed for his ideas and, at that time, he was probably right. Many other authors saw the benefits and wrote their own stories, such as

Arthur C. Clarke (Sunjammer), Larry Niven (The Mote in God's Eye), and Pierre Boulle (La Planete Des Singes). The latter bookended his famous novel, renamed in English as Planet of the Apes, with a couple plying the solar winds in a personal solar sail yacht.

Over the years, the concept of using thin sheets of Mylar for photons to push against as a method of sustained propulsion finally started to take root. In the early 1980s, a concept took hold at NASA to construct a solar sail space probe to scout Halley's Comet in 1986. The project remained stillborn, due to NASA's budget constraints of that time, and we watched from afar as the Russians and Europeans sailed close to Halley's Comet. America did contribute to the Halley armada, but only with a used spacecraft diverted from another job.

Much of the credit for the NASA sail concept was rightly given to Carl Sagan. He understood how this grandiose endeavor would have captured the imaginations of the world. The banner for a test spacecraft was later taken up by his widow, Ann Druyan, and the organization he left behind, the Planetary Society. Two missions were funded, one for a suborbital test flight and a second for a month-long orbital tryout. With launch prices too far into the stratosphere in the Western world, the Russians volunteered to use a former Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) for the job at a price of just $4 million for the orbital flight.

Unfortunately, as the cliche goes, you often get what you pay for. Both the suborbital and orbital flights never had the chance to perform because of malfunctions in the Russian booster rockets.

Hopes had been riding high for Cosmos 1 as the launch date of June 21st drew near. The craft had been integrated with a Volna rocket and loaded aboard the submarine Borisoglebsk, which was on station 30 feet below the cold surface of the Barents Sea. At the Planetary Society headquarters in Pasadena, mission control consisted of several computer stations in the loft of an old barn in back of the main house. A telephone hookup connected Pasadena with Moscow where Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the society waited for word from the submarine.

Inside the living room of the main house, reporters crowded together, stifling in the heat of pressed bodies and still air, watching the small computer speakers for word from Friedman. The looked for responses from Ann Druyan, her children Sam and Sasha, Bill Nye--the Science Guy, and even celebrity Kirsten Dunst (a good friend of Sasha's and fellow supporter of space exploration).

It was 11:46 pm in the far north of the Barents Sea. Even this late at night, the sky was light from the polar summer. Large, puffy clouds were overhead, but the submarine crew saw none of this below the black waves. In Pasadena, it was 12:46 pm, just past noon, one year to the day after Burt Rutan and his team from Scaled Composites proved private spaceflight was feasible. Now, another private project was waiting to literally unfurl.

The Volna burst from its underwater silo, riding a giant air bubble to the surface. Popping into the air, the engine ignited and the missile that had once been loaded with a nuclear warhead aimed at the heart of the United States, leapt toward space carrying a test flight that could usher in a new age of exploration. Cheers erupted in Moscow and Pasadena as the word came in, then no more words for a long, long time. Small, portable tracking stations did not pick up signals as hoped, but the station on the Kamchatka Peninsula did pick up the Doppler shift of the rocket just as it should have before losing data.

We had been told not to expect much from these portable stations. Just because a signal from Cosmos 1 was not received at that time was nothing to be concerned about--yet. Nothing from the Marshall Islands; a half an orbit later, nothing from the Czech Republic or Moscow stations that should have had better, stronger communications. Concern was definitely growing.

In the end, the Russians finally announced that the booster had failed at 83 seconds into the launch. Cosmos 1 and the entire rocket had plunged back into the Barents Sea, lost for eternity.

Several years earlier, the same type of booster had doomed the first suborbital solar sail test when the spacecraft had not separated from the main rocket. Even more bizarre, another rocket launched the same day as Cosmos 1 from the Russian northern test range at Plesetsk, carrying a payload called Kosmos (with a K, not a C), also failed during first stage flight.

The dream of sailing on particles from the Sun did not die with the rocket booster failure. The Planetary Society insists they will try again. Ann Druyan provided the primary support for the project to date and has taken the largest financial hit, but she hopes to come back for more if the Russians can assure everyone that they will not lose a third spacecraft due to rocket malfunction.

The Russians have not yet been forthcoming with data from the launch to support their assertion of booster failure at 83 seconds into flight. The reason this is important is that the loss of Cosmos 1 remains a mystery. This is because of things like the Doppler data received by the station in Kamchatka. That data lasted for nearly six minutes and matched exactly with the expected speed and trajectory of the missile launch.

Data went weird at the moment the upper stage kick motor was supposed to fire. Later analysis of signals received in Kamchatka, the Marshall Islands, and even Moscow, showed what were most likely transmissions from Cosmos 1. These signals could not have been sent if the spacecraft was still attached to the booster, and certainly could not be possible if Cosmos 1 was laying at the bottom of the Barents Sea, as the Russians claimed. The low level of the signals received would support that Cosmos 1 was not where it was supposed to be, in a high Earth orbit, but that the booster probably placed the spacecraft in a low, decaying orbit from which it could not recover.

Why then would the Russians claim the failure occurred during first stage flight? The following is my personal analysis of the facts.

The launch occurred on time and without apparent mishap. The first stages of flight seemed to go flawlessly, as evidenced by the Doppler data from Kamchatka. At the moment of fourth-stage firing, something went wrong. Perhaps the guidance system pointed the rocket the wrong direction, plunging it back toward Earth, or to a much lower orbital insertion point. The spacecraft had to be intact for the timers for stage separation to work, thus releasing Cosmos 1 for flight alone. Due to a malfunction in that final stage, Cosmos 1 could not sustain orbit for long and most likely burned up in the atmosphere over a remote region before even completing one full orbit.

This is supported by those signals received on the ground. They were weak, but they were on the right frequency at the right time. How could another spacecraft have provided that data? A close look at the data even suggests that Cosmos 1 acknowledged a signal from the ground. None of this would be possible if what the Russians said about the Volna was true.

So why would the Russians lie about the failure? A malfunction is a malfunction. What's the difference? Cosmos 1 died no matter what happened. In this case, I believe that the answer is simple public relations and the bottom line for a cash-strapped Russian Space Agency. My conclusion is pure speculation, so please keep that in mind, but I believe it fits the facts better than any other explanation thus far presented.

The Russians were using an old Cold War era SLBM for the first stages of this flight. However, the upper stage was new and untried. This is a stage that they would love to sell to other customers for other flights of satellites or space probes. If they admit that it failed on this flight, customers will never materialize. If the malfunction is blamed on a 40-year-old, first-stage the problem goes away. As Dennis Miller liked to say, "This is just my opinion, I could be wrong."

If further data comes to light, or the Russians provide proof of their claims, then we'll move forward from there. I only hope that, with two failures on their part, The Planetary Society decides to move forward in some way with a Cosmos 2 mission. The concept of flying on the wind from the Sun is too important for our future in space to leave it to waste away. It may literally be the only propulsion method that can take humanity to the stars.

Larry Evans is Chairman of the Orange County Space Society California.

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