By Charles Matthews

Monday, July 5, 2010

13. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 315-349

Book VI: Building the Unstoppable, 49. A Competitor; 50. The Team of Mettler and Thiel; 51. John Bruce Medaris and Wernher von Braun; 52. The Cape of the Canebrake vs. "Moose" Mathison; 53. A Few Grains of Sand; 54. Medaris Goes for the ICBM
The Soviets' intermediate-range missile made Washington decide that concentrating all missile efforts on the ICBM might not be such a great idea, so Schriever had pressure put on him to develop an IRBM as well. As so often, interservice rivalry had something to do with it, too: The Army had its Jupiter IRBM under way at Redstone, under the direction of Wernher von Braun. Now Schriever was forced to get people to work on the Air Force's version, which was named for another thunderer, Thor.

Ramo chose Ruben Mettler, an engineering and technical director recently hired by Ramo-Wooldridge, to head the Thor project. Mettler was an expert in radar and had been present at one of the postwar bomb tests at Bikini, an experience that "led Mettler to vow that he would do all he could in future years to prevent weapons like this from being used against the United States." He had worked for Ramo and Wooldridge at Hughes Aircraft, but had declined an offer to join them when they left. This time he agreed to work for them again. Assisting Mettler on Thor was Adolf Thiel, an aeronautical engineer who had worked on the V-2 and had come to the States with the group of German rocketeers recruited after the war in Operation Paperclip. He had worked with von Braun at Redstone, but had broken away to form his own research group. Thiel knew enough about the work being done at Redstone that it's no surprise "that Thor was essentially a copy of the missile that was to become the Army's Jupiter." Edward Hall was project manager for Thor, but he had his hands full working on the backup ICBM, Titan, as well.

Schriever's counterpart on the Army's missile was Maj. Gen. Bruce Medaris of the Ordnance Corps. Medaris had an advantage in the rocketeering expertise of von Braun and his fellow Germans. Von Braun was more interested in space exploration than in warfare; he claimed that his membership in the Nazi party, his commission as an officer in the SS and his work on the V-2 were merely means to an end: developing spacecraft. (This would lead to the joke that von Braun's book, I Aim at the Stars, should have had a subtitle: But I Sometimes Hit London.) He had in fact been arrested by the SS, under Himmler's orders, and briefly jailed on suspicion of "defeatist talk and hindering V-2 production by wasting time discussing the future of rockets in space exploration."

The stage for the conflict between Thor and Jupiter was a reclaimed canebrake in Florida called Cape Canaveral (Spanish for "canebrake"). Schriever put Lt. Col. Charles "Moose" Mathison in charge of supervising the construction of the launch facilities at the cape. Thor No. 101 (its designating number inflated to fool the Soviets into thinking it had a hundred predecessors) arrived there in October 1956 and was readied to launch in January 1957.
It rose about eighteen inches and then suddenly fell back on the pad. With a deafening blast and a shock wave that was felt in the blockhouse, the missile blew up, not only tearing itself into pieces but also damaging the concrete launch pad seriously enough that Mathison's civilian construction crews needed two months to restore the pad to usable conditions.
Mettler expected to be fired, but Schriever just said, "I expect things like this to happen." It turned out that two technicians in charge of the liquid oxygen (LOX) tanks had dragged the hose used to fill the tanks on the ground, contaminating the LOX with sand.

Thor 102 also met with disaster when it was launched in April 1957. It left the launch pad and headed out to the ocean, but 32 seconds into the flight it exploded -- or rather it was blown up by the range safety officer. Thiel was so enraged that he almost punched the safety officer, an Air Force major, in the face before Mettler restrained him. The safety officer had three instruments that showed the course of the missile, and one of them had shown it not heading out to sea but inland toward Orlando. It turned out that a Ramo-Wooldridge had installed the Doppler radar apparatus backward. But the safety officer should have checked the other two instruments before detonating the rocket. "He was transferred not long afterward to Alaska."

Thor 103 was ready to launch in May. The launch team had agreed on a countdown of twenty-four hours, reasoning that if the countdown lasted longer, everyone would be so fatigued that human error might be introduced. When they reached the twenty-four limit on Thor 103, Mettler and Thiel were so eager to launch that they called Schriever to ask for an extension. He was reluctant at first but finally agreed. But the technician in charge of reading the gauge that recorded the pressurization of the LOX tank was so exhausted that he didn't see the needle slip over into red. The rocket exploded, doing so much damage that the pad had to be rebuilt again.

Meanwhile, the first Jupiter had launched in March 1957, five weeks after Thor 101 blew up. It flew for seventy-two seconds before breaking up. A second Jupiter lasted ninety-two seconds. After they discovered that the breakup happened because of the sloshing of fuel in the tanks and adjusted for that, on May 31, 1957, ten days after the fireball of Thor 103, a third Jupiter flew downrange for eight minutes and 1,610 miles. The Jupiter's Germans had almost succeeded in creating a missile that would meet the required 1,725-mile flight. But Medaris was unhappy because of two rulings by Secretary Wilson: any successful missile that the Army produced would be turned over to the Air Force for deployment, and in the future, Army missiles would be restricted to a 200-mile range. On the other hand, Medaris could argue that the Air Force was incapable of building an IRBM, and if it couldn't do this, how could it be trusted with the more crucial ICBM project? Surely the success of von Braun and his team meant that the Army should take over the development of the ICBM?

Schriever blamed Ed Hall for the failures, which were not so much the result of flaws in the missile itself as flaws in the testing process. Hall was also at odds with Mettler, and Thiel regarded him as "a horrible guy ... very arrogant." Schriever decided he needed to replace Hall. 

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