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Category: Space (Page 1 of 5)

Rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge

Rocket-testing relics in the Mojave Desert

Edwards Air Force Base, where the Air Force and NACA or NASA have tested experimental aircraft since before the Cold War, occupies a vast dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Although the base lies just south of California State Highway 58, most of it isn’t visible from the road, because sight-lines are blocked by low hills and a railway embankment between the highway and the lakebed. One exception to this is Leuhman Ridge, which rises above the desert floor southwest of the junction of CA-58 and US Highway 395. Several large metal and concrete structures stand on the crest of the ridge, plainly visible from the highway miles away. These are rocket test stands, used in the Cold War and Space Race to test out new rocket engines and test articles of complete rocket stages.

Rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge

View of the Rocket Engine Test Site on Leuhman Ridge, Edwards Air Force Base.

The Air Force started out testing missile components on Leuhman Ridge in the 1950s. Missiles tested there included the Thor IRBM, the Atlas and Titan ICBMs, and the Bomarc cruise missile. Some of the test stands had large gantries that could hold complete missile stages like the Atlas. One of the stands, Test Stand 1-1, still has its gantry in place.

Test stands used for Air Force missiles on the western end of the ridge. Test Stand 1-A is on the left of the picture.

Test stands used for Air Force missiles on the western end of Leuhman Ridge. Test Stand 1-1 is on the left of the picture, with a large gantry that could hold a complete Atlas missile in a vertical position for tests. The stand on the right is 1-2.

Atlas missile exploding during test in stand 1-A

Photo of an Atlas missile exploding in Test Stand 1-A, March 27, 1959. The stand was never repaired for Atlas use but was instead modified for F-1 engine testing. (Source: HAER)

Subsequently, NASA and Rocketdyne tested the F-1 engine for the first stage of the Saturn V moon rocket on Leuhman Ridge. F-1 tests started on stands originally used for the Atlas missiles, then moved to purpose-built stands that were much larger than the earlier missile stands. Rocketdyne test-fired a prototype F-1 for the first time on February 10, 1961, before Alan Shepard’s first flight and before President Kennedy had committed America to the moon race.

F-1 prototype firing in Test Stand 1-A

F-1 prototype test-firing in stand 1-A. This test engine is firing without its nozzle skirt, or rear part of the nozzle. (Source: HAER)

The biggest of the F-1 stands was Test Stand 1-C, which could hold a pair of engines side-by-side. As tall as an 11-storey building, it had foundations deep into the granite bedrock of the ridge in order to withstand the power of the engines.

Test Stand 1-C during a test-firing of an F-1 engine in 1962. (Source: NASA)

Test Stand 1-C during a test-firing of an F-1 engine in 1962. (Source: NASA)

Test Stand 1-C is the most prominent of the stands on Leuhman Ridge, because it now has a huge white building on top of it with an American flag painted down the side. Two similar test stands nearby, 1-D and 1-E, were also built for F-1 engine testing.

Apollo-era test stands on Leuhman Ridge: 1-D (L) and 1-C (R). Test Stand 1-C has been modified from its original configuration with the addition of a white tower on top, but 1-D looks about as it did in the 1960s. Test Stand 1-B is out of view to the right.

Apollo-era test stands on Leuhman Ridge: 1-D (L) and 1-C (R). Test Stand 1-C has been modified from its original configuration with the addition of a white tower on top, but 1-D looks about as it did in the 1960s. The large tanks directly behind and to the right of 1-C held water that was pumped over the flame deflector during tests. Test Stand 1-E is out of view on the other side of the ridge behind 1-D.

Since the Apollo-Saturn Program, some of the test stands have been modified for use on other programs. Even with the modifications, the stands are still visible relics of the Cold War and the race to the Moon.

Rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge with annotations

Panoramic view of the rocket test stands on Leuhman Ridge, with annotations.

Sources and links

Space Shuttle studies and model rockets

In 1969, the model rocket company Estes Industries introduced a kit called Orbital Transport. The rocket consisted of two parts, a larger carrier rocket and a small glider. When launched vertically from a standard model rocket launch pad, the carrier rocket would take the glider up to altitude, and then the glider would detach and glide back to the ground while the carrier rocket descended under a parachute.

My Estes Orbital Transport, which I built mostly in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. It is a “clone” of Orbital Transport, built not from a kit but from plans using stock parts. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

My Orbital Transport, which I built from plans in 2000 and flew just once in 2003. The markings are hand-painted rather than using decals, which I didn’t have.

The 1969 Estes catalog had this to say about the design of the kit:

Spectacular in flight and a true show model on the ground, the Orbital Transport is the launch vehicle of the 80’s. Based on the latest proposals for a reusable air breathing (scramjet) booster for orbital vehicles, the Transport is an exciting experience to build and fly.

What were these “latest proposals” that the catalog referenced?

Between August 1965 and September 1966, a joint NASA-US Air Force panel studied the possibility of building spaceplaces to succeed the expendable boosters and single-use capsules that were then launching people into space. The panel studied three classes of spaceplanes, namely:

  • Class I: A reusable spaceplane launched atop an expendable booster, such as the Saturn I-B or Titan III-M.
  • Class II: A fully reusable two-stage spaceplane, both stages winged and both powered by rocket engines. The orbital second stage would ride piggyback atop the suborbital first stage.
  • Class III: Another two-stage spaceplane, similar to Class II, but with air-breathing engines (scramjets) in the first stage.
Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

Three different types of spaceplanes studied by the joint NASA-USAF panel in 1965-66 (L-R): Class I, launched atop a Saturn I-B booster; Class II, with two reusable rocket-powered stages; and Class III, with a scramjet-powered first stage. Class III is shown on the right in a three-view. (Source: USAF illustration printed in Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision, p. 83)

The panel envisioned all of these spaceplanes flying, one after the other, with the technology developed in one class being used in subsequent classes. In the panel’s optimistic timeline, Class I would fly by 1974, Class II by 1978, and Class III by 1981.1

The joint NASA-USAF panel issued its report in 1966, three years before Estes introduced the Orbital Transport. The design of the Orbital Transport kit is clearly based on the Class III spaceplane, and several details of the kit are drawn directly from the 1965-66 study. The carrier rocket, which represents the first stage of the Class III spaceplane, has open boxes under its “wings” (fins), which represent air-breathing scramjet engines. The 1980s date for the design (as the catalog description says) is also from the study, because Class III was supposed to be flying by 1981.

The Estes model rocket design included one fanciful element that was not present in the NASA-USAF study. While Class III was intended for launching satellites and possibly servicing a space station, Orbital Transport was a passenger transport, a space-airliner. The decal set that came with the kit identified it as being operated by “Astron Aerospace Lines,” and the decals for the glider had a row of windows with a stripe through them, like the airliners of the 1960s.

The NASA-USAF study proved to be fanciful as well. More than 55 years after the panel issued its report, a spaceplane like Class III has never been seriously considered. In the latter half of the sixties, NASA tried hard to make the Class II design work, but it was too big and too expensive, and the engineering challenges inherent in its design were too great. NASA at last fell back on a version of Class I, and in January 1972 (fifty years ago this month), President Nixon approved NASA’s plans to build a reusable spaceplane with a partially reusable booster—what would become known as the Space Shuttle. The shuttle first flew in 1981, the year that the vastly more sophisticated Class III spaceplane was supposed to start flying.

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

President Nixon (R) meeting with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to approve the Space Shuttle program, January 5, 1972. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)

The Space Shuttle concept as it appeared when initially approved in 1972. The basic elements of the design are all in place, but the liquid-fuel boosters pictured here would be replaced by solid boosters in the shuttle as built. (Source: NASA)


The Estes Orbital Transport has been out of production for a long time (except for a brief reissue in the early 2000s), but Semroc makes a reproduction of it. I made my Orbital Transport by “cloning” it, which means that I built it from plans using stock parts (rather than using a kit, which wasn’t available at the time). I got the plans from JimZ Rocket Plans.

  1. T.A. Heppenheimer, The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA’s Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle (Washington, DC: NASA History Office, 1999), 82-83. []

Seventeen sunrises (plus another 21,915)

The fourth man to fly in space—and the second to orbit the Earth—was Gherman Titov, a 25-year-old pilot from western Siberia. He flew in space sixty years ago today, and his flight lasted a full day, or seventeen orbits of the Earth.

By any account, it was not a great flight. Titov spent much of the flight nauseated by spacesickness. He also tried sleeping, but he had trouble falling asleep and was annoyed by his arms as they floated in front of his face. After 24 hours in space, his spacecraft reentered the atmosphere. As the capsule was descending by parachute, he ejected to land separately under his own parachute. (Human legs are good shock-absorbers, and the Vostok landed too fast for humans. Gagarin had ejected in the same way four months earlier.)

Gus Grissom’s flight had been essentially a repeat of Alan Shepard’s, but Titov’s flight was much longer than Gagarin’s—seventeen times longer, to be exact. This reflected the Soviets’ ambitious approach to spaceflight in 1961 and for the next several years. The Soviets did not want to use their limited resources repeating their previous accomplishments. Instead, every subsequent mission had to be a major step beyond the previous mission. Thus, the next Soviet flight after Titov’s was a dual launch: in August 1962, Vostoks 3 and 4 were inserted into similar orbits 24 hours apart, the first time that more than one man had been in space at the same time. The following June, the Soviets made another dual flight, but with a twist: the pilot of Vostok 6 was Valentina Tereshkova, the first and only woman to fly into space until the 1980s. The pilot of Vostok 5, Valery Bykovsky, set a duration record of five days.

As the Soviet flights became more ambitious, they also became riskier. In October 1964, the Voskhod 1 mission flew three cosmonauts into space in a heavily modified Vostok capsule. In order to fit three men into a capsule that was originally designed for only one, the Voskhod had no ejection seats and the crew did not wear spacesuits, both of which had been important safety features on the Vostok. Had there been a problem with the booster early in launch, the three men on Voskhod 1 would have been doomed with no chance of escape. Similarly, they couldn’t eject out of the capsule at the end of the mission. Instead, the parachute system needed to have retrorockets to slow the capsule down to a safe speed just before impact with the ground. Lacking the resources to build a test article for the Voskhod parachute system, the OKB-1 design bureau took Gherman Titov’s Vostok 2 capsule out of a museum and refitted it with the new system. In a drop test at the Feodosiya testing range in Crimea, the new parachute system failed and the Vostok 2 capsule slammed into the earth at high speed and broke into pieces.

The engineers at OKB-1 diagnosed the problem with the parachute system, and the Voskhod 1 flight went ahead successfully but with considerable risk. The following March, the second Voskhod flight was another risky but ultimately successful mission. Alexei Leonov climbed out of an airlock and became the first person in history to walk in space, just two-and-a-half months before an American, Ed White, did the same thing on the Gemini 4 mission.

By this point, the Soviet piloted space program had begun to run out of momentum, and the Americans took the lead with ten increasingly complex and successful Gemini missions. It was not until two years after Voskhod 2 that the next Soviet space mission flew on an all-new spacecraft, the Soyuz. Although Soyuz 1 was probably less risky than either of the Voskhod flights had been—because the Soyuz had a launch abort rocket—the mission ended in tragedy when the descent module’s parachutes failed to deploy before landing. The spacecraft’s one crewman, Vladimir Komarov, died on impact.

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to fly into space. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)

President Kennedy visits with American astronaut John Glenn (L) and Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov (R) at the White House in 1962. At 25, Titov was the youngest person ever to orbit the Earth. In 1998, John Glenn would become the oldest spacefarer, flying on the Space Shuttle at age 77. (Source: JFK Library)


It has been sixty years since the first men flew into space. Sixty years is a long time—longer than the median age of the human species (31 years) or the median ages in Russia (39.6 years) and the United States (38.1 years). A minority of the Earth’s population was alive in 1961, and it’s worth reflecting here what that might mean to us as humans.

The pioneering spacefarers of 1961 are all gone now. They died in pairs: two later in the sixties from terrible accidents, and two around the turn of the millennium from disease or old age. Gus Grissom was the first to die; as mentioned in the previous post, he perished in the Apollo 1 fire on the launchpad on January 27, 1967. Yuri Gagarin died a year later in the crash of a MiG-15 jet. Alan Shepard died of leukemia in 1998. Gherman Titov succumbed to cardiac arrest in 2000 at the age of 65.

A lot can change in sixty years, and a lot has. Despite continued tensions between Russia and the United States in the twenty-first century, the Cold War is over, and so is the Space Race. The two leading space powers have cooperated in spaceflight for more than a quarter century. The International Space Station has been continuously crewed by both Russians and Americans since November 2001. Although the ISS agreement is set to expire in 2024 and the future of spaceflight cooperation remains in doubt, US-Russian space cooperation has continued throughout the tensions between the two countries in recent years.

If politics can change in sixty years, then so can culture. I am not equipped to evaluate how Russian culture has changed in six decades, but I can say for certain that American culture has changed immensely in the same amount of time. With immigration reform in 1965, the American population has gotten a good deal more diverse than it was in 1961. In the same time, American culture has had to become more tolerant of diversity (recent backlash against diversity notwithstanding).

This was not the case in the early sixties. As seen in both the book and film versions of The Right Stuff, Alan Shepard delighted in imitating the character José Jiménez, created by comedian Bill Dana. José Jiménez was a Latino astronaut with a thick accent and dull wits. Shepard imitated José Jiménez so much that the other astronauts started to call him by that name. When Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone lifted off on May 5, 1961, Deke Slayton radioed from launch control, “You’re on your way, José!”

In the sixties, for Anglo-Americans like Alan Shepard, the idea of a Latino flying into space was a joke in and of itself. This is, of course, no longer the case. Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and other Hispanics and Latinos have been flying into space since the 1980s. The José Jiménez character was only funny because it was based on negative ethnic stereotypes. The José Jiménez scenes in The Right Stuff are positively cringe-worthy today. (To his credit, Bill Dana retired the character in 1970, only nine years after Shepard’s flight.)

These cultural and political changes over the past six decades highlight something that is all too easy to miss in our discussions about spaceflight: spaceflight belongs to the past as well as the future. So much of our discourse about spaceflight imagines it as futuristic—science-fiction becoming real. Vostok and Mercury were indeed futuristic in their day, but like the Cold War and Bill Dana’s José Jiménez character, they now belong to the past.

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