Photography changes the technology and collection of astronomical data

David H. DeVorkin

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David H. DeVorkin [ BIO ]


David H. DeVorkin

David H. DeVorkin, curator of the history of astronomy at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, is an expert in the history of 20th century astronomy and astrophysics, and the origin and development of the space sciences. He is author of Henry Norris Russell: Dean of American Astronomers Princeton University Press, 2000), coauthor of The Hubble Space Telescope: Imaging Space and Time (National Geographic Society, 2008), and editor of Beyond Earth: Mapping the Universe (National Geographic Society, 2002).

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David H. DeVorkin, Smithsonian curator of the history of astronomy, revisits Dr. Richard Tousey’s historic 1946 attempt to retrieve scientific data from space.

In the early months of 1946, Dr. Richard Tousey and his team of scientists and engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory feverishly designed, built, and tested a photographic instrument to examine the light of the Sun from a momentary vantage point beyond the Earth's atmosphere. This device, called an ultraviolet spectrograph, was carried in the nose of a captured German V-2 missile that was fired from the Army's White Sands Proving Ground on 28 June 1946. Everyone hoped the missile would rise to over a hundred miles altitude above the deserts of New Mexico, allowing it to perform a battery of scientific observations and tests, many of which were of equal interest to the people who were trying to learn how to build an American missile that could match and surpass the German V-2.

For Tousey’s group, the countdown started in February 1946 when they received word that the Army would let the Navy put instruments into the captured V2s that were being test fired in the desert. The Navy technical team—formed during the war in the Optics Division at NRL, and still working in a wartime mode—jumped right in. They designed a rugged and efficient photographic instrument that would record how much high-energy radiation the Sun was bombarding the Earth's upper atmosphere with—thought by scientists to be the means by which the Earth's ionosphere was both maintained, and periodically disturbed by flares and bursts of solar energy. These disturbances played havoc with the Navy's radio communication systems, and Tousey’s team was searching for a way to create a predictive model, as well as to collect much-needed data on the high-energy solar spectrum.

Tousey created a spectrograph—an imaging device that obtains, records and sifts light rays—unlike any ever seen. Shaped like a cone to fit into the tip of the missile, two tiny spherical beads of special glass pierced the missile’s skin to let sunlight into a chamber, where it was directed by mirrors toward an optical grating. That grating, acting like a prism, broke the light into its rainbow spectrum, and focused it onto a strip of photographic film. The film itself was in a roll (not unlike an old 35-mm film strip) that fed into a cassette after exposure. The cassette was made of half-inch thick armor piercing steel, because Tousey knew that V-2 rockets did not land gently.

In early April, two members of Tousey's group joined an advance contingent of rocketry specialists, optics and electronics technicians, cosmic ray and ionospheric scientists, and a shop crew to set up their facility at White Sands. Over the next two months, two railroad flatcars from Washington D.C., loaded with Navy equipment for the launch, arrived as well as the special warhead which needed to be tested. The missile, fitted with its instrumented warhead, remained inside an assembly building until June 21st when it was pressurized, buttoned up, and painted, converting its appearance from a grey-green speckled camouflaged missile into a gleaning white and black-striped scientific launch vehicle.

After a few more days devoted to testing and checking, the missile was moved to its launch position on the pad. On June 27th, liquid oxygen and Kerosene pumping began, but a fill line leak stopped everything. It was soon fixed, and the filling started again on the morning of the launch, followed by filling of the smaller hydrogen peroxide and permanganate tanks for the turbopumps.

Bill Baum, one of Tousey's electronics recruits still commissioned in the Navy, recalls that once the throbbing of the rising missile died away (he could not tell if it was acoustic pressure from the missile, his heart, or both) he and his cohorts jumped into a jeep and took off in the direction they believed the missile had traveled in its 354 seconds of flight, having achieved an altitude of some 60 miles. Guided by a reconnaissance plane to the crash site, the ground crew was dumbfounded at the debris field and the huge crater created by the missile’s impact. If the cassette housing the spectrograph survived in the nose cone, it was under tons of rock and rubble.

Baum gave up on the spot, but then the Army and Navy started digging. Telemetry had reported that the spectrograph worked flawlessly, and that all the film had been wound into the cassette. It had to be down there somewhere. Excavations continued throughout the summer, and at one point the crane crew collected what they thought might be the remnants of Tousey's spectrograph.

The result of that effort is illustrated here, centering on the image of a contemplative but definitely not discouraged Richard Tousey, holding a shovel. The cassette from that particular test was never recovered. But this image symbolizes the challenge of returning useful scientific data, in material form, from space. Tousey spent the rest of his scientific life finding ways to conquer this challenge, and continued to utilize photographic data recording well into the 1970s, most spectacularly from the manned Skylab missions that studied the Sun.

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V-2 prep (color image, vertical of V-2 missile)
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  • V-2 prep (color image, vertical of V-2 missile), 1946
V-2 scene from the June 1946 launch by William Baum
"The first V-2 spectrograph is down there somewhere - maybe at the 'center of the earth.'" by Naval Research Laboratory, U.S. Navy
  • "The first V-2 spectrograph is down there somewhere - maybe at the 'center of the earth.'", 1946
  • Naval Research Laboratory, U.S. Navy
  • Read image description

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