It’s early August and people were starting to think “white stuff”. I had three jobs lined up, everyone desperate for me to start, yet not one of them was ready for me. What to do with the day off?
As luck would have it, Poker Flat Research Range had one of their summer walking tours that day, so I drove the 25 miles out to Chatanika.
“The Blockhouse” or bunker
PFRR is the world’s largest land-based rocket range. The facility is owned by the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. They launch sounding rockets from the range, in order to study the Earth’s atmosphere and the interaction between the atmosphere and the space environment.
Space junk returned to Earth
Study ranges from the Earth’s magnetic field to the aurora. NASA is prominent at the range, but researchers come from all over the world. All of the rockets launched from PFRR return to the Earth’s surface, and the range collects the spent payloads every summer. There is a reward paid out to anyone finding material from Poker Flat.
Poker Flat Launch Pad
The building above is open on the far end. The interior of the building, and the actual launch pad, was off limits to photography. It’s a NASA rule that doesn’t thrill UAF apparently, but we all honored the rule. The sounding rocket is brought in on what is basically an open trailer. The rocket is loaded onto the launcher, which looks like a giant erector set with a large pivot. The building itself is sitting on a pair of tracks. When ready to begin countdown, the building is pulled back away from the pad, and the rocket is spun vertical with the large erector set pivot.
The control center was surprisingly manual in operation. Scientists are extremely fussy about launch conditions, and they often pull the plug with one second to go. An automatic system does not give the flexibility that is needed, so there is still a “launch button”.
That doesn’t mean there is a shortage of cable, wires, or connectors.
The touring rocket
PFRR does a good job with the tour. It’s pretty relaxed, and a nice way to spend some time outdoors, for the most part, in an Interior Alaska summer. After the tour, don’t forget to stop by the Chatanika Lodge, which is just down the highway.
Image taken on the third day of Apollo 11’s flight. Earth seen from 162,400 nautical miles away; Africa, with the Sahara Desert, is quite clear. Image credit: LPI
Aldrin: “Houston, Apollo 11. We’ve got the continent of Africa right facing toward us right now, and of course, everything’s getting smaller and smaller as time goes on. The Mediterranean is completely clear. The Sun looks like it’s about to set around Madagascar. The equatorial belt of Africa stands out quite clearly. We’re seeing a dark green or a muddy colored green, compared to the sandier colors of the southern tip of Africa and, of course, the Sahara northern coast of Africa. There’s a rather remarkable cloud that appears in the vicinity of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s just about to go into the sunset now. It is casting quite a large shadow. It’s isolated. There don’t seem to be any other clouds. The band of clouds near the tropical convergent clouds down around the equator clearly separate the clockwise and the counter-clockwise cloud formations. Over.”
This was the final day of preparations for the lunar landing scheduled for the following day. The spacecraft approached the moon, and went behind it, putting Apollo 11 in a blackout with Earth. The crew used that time to prepare for their first lunar orbit insertion maneuver: To position themselves to orbit the moon.
Earth as seen from 113,500 miles away, on Day 2 of Apollo 11’s journey. North is up, with Greenland visible, South America can also bee seen. Image credit: LPI
Collins: “Rog. I’ve got the world in my window for a change and looking at it through the monocular, it’s really something. I wish I could describe it properly, but the weather is very good. South America is coming around into view. I can see on the – what appears to me to be upper horizon, a point that must be just about Seattle, Washington, and then from there I can see all the way down to the southern tip – Tierra del Fuego and the southern tip of the continent.”
Armstrong and Aldrin, while on live TV, put on their spacesuits and went down the docking tunnel from Columbia to the Lunar Module (LM). They gave viewers on Earth a short tour of the vehicle that would take them to the lunar surface.
To break away from the Earth’s gravitational field, Apollo 11 needed a speed of 7 miles per second. By the close of the second day, Apollo 11 would leave the Earth’s gravitational field, and enter the moon’s. The Columbia and Eagle would then slow to 2400 mph at this time.
The Saturn V Rocket of the Apollo 4 mission, stands at the launch pad in November 1967; Photo credit: NASA
The Saturn V rocket was developed under the direction of Wernher von Braun, the German-born engineer, and Adolph Hitler’s star rocketeer. The Saturn V went from idea on paper to actual flight in a period of six years. The rocket’s first flight was the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. It’s first manned flight was Apollo 8 in 1968.
The Saturn V had a height of 363 feet, and a width of 33 feet. It weighed 6,540,000 lbs, with a payload of 310,000 lbs to (low earth orbit) and a payload of 90,000 lbs to the moon. The Saturn V was a three stage rocket: The first stage was powered by five F-1 engines, the second stage by five J-2 engines, and the third stage by a single J-2 engine.
The first stage of the Saturn V, saw the five F-1 engines use 20 tons of fuel a second, producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust. When Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic in 1927 in his Spirit of St. Louis, the small plane used 450 pounds of fuel for the entire flight. The Saturn V used 10x that amount in it’s first 1/10 of a second.
The five F-1 engines of the Saturn V; Photo credit: space.com
The Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket to launch. It holds the record for heaviest payload launched. Fifteen Saturn V rockets were built, but only thirteen saw flight, with all 13 launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. To this date, it remains the only vehicle to transport humans beyond low earth orbit. 24 astronauts were sent to the moon on the Saturn V. Of its thirteen missions, the Saturn V saw no loss of life or loss of payload. However, the rocket was tested by Mother Nature during Apollo 12, when lightning struck the vehicle moments after launch. Other than some strange warning lights within the cockpit, there was no major damage, and they went on to land in the moon’s Ocean of Storms. Which seems more than appropriate.
The Saturn V saw it’s final flight on May 14, 1973, when it carried Skylab into orbit.
The two main Fairbanks Fires as seen from space; Photo credit: NASA
NASA released a photo from one of their satellites the other day, showing the smoke from both the Shovel Creek and Nugget Creek fires. As of Monday morning, the Nugget Creek Fire had reached 6900 acres, and the Shovel Creek Fire at 10,000 acres, with zero percent containment.
Residents of 52 homes in two subdivisions have been told to evacuate, along with residents of 93 homes being told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Cabins and homes along the Chatanika River are also under threat. The area received .3″ of rain on Sunday evening, which isn’t much, but along with cooler temperatures, the firefighters were able to catch a small break. Hot, dry weather is back in the forecast, however.
The Niagara Aerospace Museum is located in the old terminal of the Niagara Falls International Airport. Because the Curtiss-Wright and Bell Aircraft corporations played such a huge part in the aviation history of the Buffalo/Niagara area, those two companies are well represented within the museum.
The P39: “Miss Lend-Lease”
Arguably the centerpiece to the museum is this Bell Aircraft P39Q “Airacobra”. The P39 left Niagara Falls on December 26, 1943 bound for Russia due to the Lend Lease program. Talking to the museum volunteers, the P39 went through Ladd Field in Fairbanks before crossing the Bering Sea. The P39 then went missing in action during November of 1944.
In 2004, the P39 was found in Lake Mart-Yavr in northwestern Russia. Bell Aircraft took recovery of the aircraft in 2008, the pilot’s remains were given a military funeral, and the plane’s logbook was recovered and preserved. Over 4500 Bell P39 Airacobras were sent to Russia during lend-lease, along with 2500 Curtiss-Wright P40 Warhawks and 2500 Bell P63 King Cobras. Russia’s top ten aces during WWII flew P39 aircraft.
The plane has been nicknamed “Miss Lend-Lease” by the museum. Two local Niagara women, who worked at Bell Aircraft during the war, wrote hidden messages in the P39 when they worked on its assembly over 70 years ago. They have been discovered, and are now on display next to their P39.
P40 Warhawk mural
More than 16,000 P40 Warhawks were built at the Curtiss-Wright Buffalo plants. On September 11, 1942, a P40 on a test flight, caught fire. The test pilot parachuted safely to the ground, but the P40 mysteriously turned back and traveled two miles before plummeted through the Curtiss-Wright Plant roof, killing six workers at the scene, while eight died of their injuries later. 43 others were wounded, mostly with burns.
The Curtiss plant was torn down in 1999, but a plaque honoring the victims who lost their life due to the P40 crash is still displayed at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport. The one in the photo above is a copy of that plaque, located at the Niagara Aerospace Museum, within the Curtiss-Wright section.
A replica of a Curtiss “Jenny”
The Curtiss “Jenny” above is a replica, on display showing the wings without their canvas covering. 10,000 Curtiss “Jenny” aircraft were produced in Buffalo between 1914 – 1917.
Apollo EECOM Station
Thanks to Bell’s involvement in the space program, there is quite a display at the museum on the Apollo missions. The EECOM Station above, was used throughout the Apollo Programs, but played a particularly vital role in the Apollo 13 Mission.
The Agena 8081 Rocket Engine
The Agena rocket engine saw 360 mission flights, with a reliability record of 99.7%. It had action in the Ranger Mariner, Gemini and Nimbus Programs. It was used extensively to launch the Lunar Orbiter space probes, which preceded the successful Apollo missions.
The Cunningham-Hall Aircraft Company produced aircraft such as the GA-36 in Rochester, NY during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. This particular GA-36 was found languishing in a field at a small airport in Michigan. It was acquired and restored by volunteers at the Amherst Museum.
Admission to the museum was $8 for adults. Parking is directly in front of the old terminal, where passenger drop off and pick up used to take place. The volunteers were very knowledgeable and eager to talk about their collection.
The Poker Flat Research Range had its 50th Anniversary party over the weekend, and Fairbanks residents showed up in droves to celebrate. I think it is safe to say that Fairbanks is quite proud of its far-north launch facility. I was amazed at how many people came out for the event.
Owned by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, Poker Flat is the world’s largest land-based rocket range. The 5132 acre site is located 30 miles from Fairbanks, just north of Chatanika, on the Steese Highway, where Poker Creek flows into the Chatanika River.
More than 300 major, high altitude rockets and 1800 meteorological rockets have been launched from Poker Flat to study the Earth’s atmosphere, and the interaction between that atmosphere and the space environment. The rockets launched are sounding rockets, which are designed to operate between the height that a weather ballon can reach, yet below satellites. Sounding rockets are relatively low cost, with a quick lead time, which is advantageous in the world of research.
NASA launches a sounding rocket at Poker Flat; Photo credit: PFRR
NASA, Wallops Flight Facility, the Department of Defense, and many universities world-wide, have launched rockets from Poker Flat.
A recovered payload from a March 2017 launch
One busy week at Poker Flat had four launches in 33 minutes during a night with high aurora activity. One mission saw two rockets launched to measure the turbulence in the upper atmosphere: was it two dimensional or three? Also measured were air density along the rocket’s parabola, which had an apex of 100 miles above northern Alaska. Also measured was the lowest reaches of where the aurora interacts with the upper atmosphere.
On the same night, two rockets from Clemson University launched. These rockets released a white vapor, trimethyl aluminum, so that researchers could visualize the turbulence 60 miles above the ground.
Not to be outdone, two nights later, a rocket launched for Utah State that released instruments to measure the voltages and currents in the aurora display over Kaktovik, Alaska.
Weather balloons ready to launch
I’m glad I arrived early, because I think turn out was greater than expected. After visiting the main offices, I walked down to where the shuttle busses were hauling people to the various sites. Poker Flat is fairly spread out, plus there was a cow moose and a calf wandering about, and officials seemed wary that someone could get stomped. Weather balloons were launched every 15 minutes or so, which I watched while waiting for a shuttle. Turns out there is an advantage to attending things like this solo. A University police officer offered rides to the upper facilities, and he had room for three. The first couple climbed in, and I seemed to be the only single paying attention, so I volunteered to climb in the back of the squad SUV.
Some NASA & PFRR “Rocketeers”
The facility is really quite impressive. I was able to talk to several NASA scientists, as well as some Poker Flat “rocketeers”. Everything was available to view, from the radar screens to the “catwalk” outside, and the green lidar beam, which is part laser and part radar, and is shot 50 miles into the sky. There wasn’t one person involved with the sounding rockets, that didn’t get excited talking about what they did, or what they had planned for next year. The representative from Wallops told me they were excited now to get down under to Australia to launch rockets next. It will be their winter soon, and they had some rockets designed that would open in the back with telescopes to get images of the southern sky.
A NASA launch as viewed by the Poker Flat Skycam; Image credit: PFRR
One thing about the aurora borealis that is not widely known, is that, due to the Earth’s magnetic field, what we see here in the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere sees the mirror image of. I have always found that fascinating.*
Early artwork of auroral display
The earliest written record of an auroral display was from 567 BC on a Babylonian clay tablet. The tablet describes a “red glow in the sky” lasting two hours. The red aurora was often thought of as an evil omen in medieval times. Nearly all northern native cultures associate the aurora with spirits of the dead.
Some statistics from PFRR:
First launch: March 1969
Heaviest rocket: Aries – 11 tons
Longest rocket: Black Brant XII – 85 feet
Heaviest payload: 2200 pounds
Highest altitude flown: 930 miles
Distance downrange: 1100 miles
Rocket acceleration: 17 Gs
Rocket speed: Mach 2
The view from a very bouncy squad SUV. The ride is not as comfortable as one might think.
The peak season for launches at Poker Flat is between January and March. Most often launches occur when the aurora is going, and the moon is down. Cleary Summit is a great place to watch and/or film a rocket launch. Poker Flat also streams launches live on its youtube channel.
The line for the shuttle bus, or the reason I took the police car; Image credit: PFRR
*See: Rockets Over Alaska: The Genesis of Poker Flat by Neil Davis