The fiery explosion of a Titan rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base April 18, less than four months after the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, came as no surprise to many of the pioneers who helped give birth to the space program.
"It's amazing it took so long to happen," said one.
"People have forgotten the history of the space program," said John W. Daily, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "Right up to the start of the Mercury program, we had failure after failure. I mean all the time. These systems are really complex, and a lot of things can go wrong. We've really been riding a lucky streak, and it may be coming home to roost."
The fact that disaster struck both the Titan and the shuttle is an interesting historical twist because they are similar vehicles, designed to make the most of what was available, hybrids called upon to do great things.
And both owe part of their origin to a fierce battle waged among some of the keenest minds in the world over which course to follow in the early development of the nation's missile program.
The nuclear age was in its infancy, and a mushroom cloud over Japan had altered the course of human history. In laboratories throughout the land scientists and engineers fought among themselves about how best to proceed on a course that would carry the world into the age of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
The struggle divided quickly into two camps over a most fundamental question: What kind of fuel should the rockets burn?
Wernher von Braun, the German genius who had such great success in the development of Germany's V2 rocket, had emerged as the leader of the U.S. effort. History had convinced Von Braun that only liquid-fueled rockets like the V2 could be counted on to do the job.
But liquid rockets required constant attention and were far more complex than the emerging technology of solid-fueled rockets. The solids were like firecrackers, always ready to go.
All you had to do was "press the button, and it goes," recalled Melvin Gerstein, professor of mechanical engineering at USC and one of the pioneer's in America's rocketry program.
The question then was simple. Should the nation go forward with the proven technology of liquid-fueled rockets, despite their problems, or should it proceed with the new concept of solids?
It turned out that the debate was so difficult to resolve that the decision was made to develop both technologies at the same time, Gerstein recalled. The Minuteman missile would see if the proponents of solids were right. And the Titan would prove if the advocates of liquids were correct.
The liquids won the first round, with the Titans giving the nation an awesome arsenal of long-range ballistic missiles. The solids won the second round as the Minuteman moved in to replace Titans in silos across the heartland of the nation.
But in the end, the two technologies came together to move the United States into the era of the mighty Titan 34-D, powerful enough to launch an object as heavy as a large truck. They also made the space shuttle possible.
The two vehicles are similar in that both use liquid-fueled motors as their primary propulsion units, and both use strapped-on solid-fuel rockets to help break the bonds of Earth in the first stage of ascent.
And now, both represent the shaken confidence of a nation that not so long ago thought it was knocking on the door of the universe.
Source of Failure
The bitter irony of the tragedy of the Challenger on Jan. 28 and the explosion of a Titan 34-D earlier this month is that they came back-to-back, both apparently caused by the failure of the part of each system that had been considered most reliable, a solid rocket.
The disasters are similar in many ways, as are the systems. Both systems combined the best of different technologies to move the United States more quickly--and more cheaply--into the space age than would have been possible if the nation had chosen to develop the best, rather than the most expeditious, technology, Gerstein said.
Both experienced a relatively long history of success before disaster taught them humility.
But to experts who were there in the beginning, the greatest irony is that it took so long to happen.
Men like Gerstein recall that the early days were punctuated frequently with failures. Most of the early rockets either did not fire at all, or got a little way up and, to the consternation of people on the ground, turned around and came right back down.
"We used to call them pad-to-pad missiles," Gerstein quipped.
It is "phenomenal," he said, that the nation has come so far so fast.
The development of solid rockets began so primitively that the propellent, which must meet exacting specifications, was prepared in standard mixers used to make bread. Sometimes the mixers blew up.