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NOTS-EV-1 Pilot / NOTSNIK

The NOTS-EV-1 Pilot, also known as NOTSNIK was an expendable launch system and anti-satellite weapon developed by the United States Navy's United States Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS). Ten were launched during July and August 1958.

The Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) at China Lake in California was established in 1943 to support California Institute of Technology’s wartime rocket development program. The Naval Ordnance Test Station engaged in prototype assembly and pilot manufacturing of rockets and missiles, but weapon systems cleared for operational use after testing and evaluation were turned over to industrial contractors for quantity production. Beginning in the late 1940's, working on his own time, and often with his own money, McLean invented the heat-seeking missile. Since its introduction in 1956, over 110,000 of Bill McLean's “Sidewinder” missiles have been produced. They remain the world's primary short-range air-to-air missile nearly 60 years after their introduction.

On 10 October 1957, less than a week after the first Sputnik launch, Bill McLean reported "that he had been doing considerable selling and that everyone with whom he had talked, including Adm. Raborn and Dr. Thompson, felt that it would be difficult to do anything more useful for the Navy than a TV-type satellite." For an estimated $200,000, McLean said, NOTS could conduct a test that would demonstrate Wilcox's idea of lofting a satellite into orbit from an F8U-3 aircraft at high altitude and supersonic speed and of getting back a useful TV signal. McLean asked Howard A. Wilcox, Assistant Technical Director for Research, to bring "a very brief feasibility study" with him to Washington the following week.

On 15 November 1957 the NOTS Advisory Board and the chiefs of BuOrd and BuAer heard a description of the stations plans for air- and ground-launched versions of the Naval Observational Television Satellite (NOTS I). The Advisory Board was enthusiastic about these ideas, commending the station "for ingenuity and invention in simplifying the methods of achieving satellite orbits" and recommending that NOTS I be given a high priority. McLean and Wilcox then made presentations and proposals to key people in OPNAV, ONR, and the Defense Science Research Board, as well as to the chief of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project; the President's science advisor, Killian; and Eisenhower himself.

With the political way thus paved, Wilcox and others rapidly put together a more detailed feasibility study for a ground-launched version of NOTS I. This document asked for $860,000 to fund a yearlong study, including up to six full-scale launchings, of a "uniquely simple, militarily useful, four-stage-solid- rocket, spin-stabilized television satellite system," with the total stack weighing 10,000 pounds.

The satellite's 20-pound infrared scanning payload would be gyro-stabilized in inertial space, thus eliminating the need for a stable platform inside the satellite for a television scanner. A germanium photodetector looking out at right angles to the spin axis would scan the earth's surface from horizon to horizon in mile-wide strips. The forward motion of the satellite in its orbit would cause a parallel displacement of about one strip width for each successive strip, so that a series of orbits would provide a complete picture of the Earth's surface. This simple scanning system had the advantage of requiring no moving parts.

The study proposed to launch NOTS I from a 47-foot rail angled upward at about 70 degrees. Three different methods for putting the satellite into orbit were discussed, with the preferred method incorporating three initial rocket stages to produce an apogee, or highest point of orbit, approximately half-way around the Earth from the launch point. A fourth stage would remain spin-stabilized in inertial space until NOTS I reached apogee, at which time a little rocket motor would fire to give the satellite what China Lakers later referred to as a "kick in the apogee." At that point the velocity vector would also be reversed in direction, so the push at apogee would be all the satellite would need to nudge it into orbit.

BuOrd authorized NOTS to proceed, but work had scarcely begun when in mid-December the bureau imposed a temporary limitation on the obligational authority the station needed to purchase the motors and launching facility called for in the November feasibility study. The Army turned down their request for the motors for the solid-fuel launch vehicle based on the motors in the Army's Seargent missile.

Undeterred, the station made a second space proposal in February 1958. The new NOTS satellite proposal, called "Project Pilot", used a six-stage air-launched system capable of orbiting a 1.05 kilogram (2.3 pound) satellite. The infrared scanning payload would be orbited by an air-launched system. Ruckner liked the air-launched version better, since it would allow a small, inexpensive tactical satellite to be launched from a carrier at sea into many more orbital planes than would be possible from a fixed land base. The China Lake team abandoned the ground- launched version and began working night and day on the air-launched version, nicknamed NOTSNIK [ie, NOTS sputNIK].

The "first stage" of NOTSNIK was a specially modified Douglas F4D-1 "Skyray" jet fighter supplied by BuAer. When the F4D-1 entered service in 1956, it was the Navy's first carrier-based delta-winged jet fighter. Shaped like a manta ray, the 13.9 meter (45.67 foot) long F4D-1 to be used for NOTSNIK, serial number 130745, was a specially modified, stripped down version used for high speed trial flights. With its Pratt and Whitney J57-P-2 turbojet on full afterburner, this plane was capable of attaining speeds (on afterburner) of Mach 1.05.

The missile design team of the Naval Ordnance Test Station made six attempts to air-launch a satellite in the summer of 1958. With a fin span of 5.4 feet, the rocket would barely fit within the Skyray's ground clearance. Navy Commander William W. West, whose wartime service included flying Hellcat fighters from the USS Enterprise, was selected to pilot the launch aircraft using a the precision "bomb-toss" maneuver. The 2,100-pound NOTS rocket was mounted under the left wing of the aircraft on a standard Aero 7A bomb rack. To counterbalance the offset load, a large fuel tank was carried under the right wing. Though officially known as "Project Pilot", the rocket quickly acquired the nickname "NOTSNIK" at the station.

Upon departing the NOTS airfield at Inyokem, the Skyray proceeded at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet to the Navy test range at Point Mugu on the California coast north of Los Angeles. The pilot would initiate a 2-g pull-up maneuver at Mach 0.9 and enter a 58 degree climb. Release of the rocket occurred automatically at 41,000 feet, followed three seconds later by ignition of the first two HOTROC motors [so named because they were shaved-down ASROC motors motors with thinner, reduced-weight cases and added propellant load]. Each HOTROC pair were scheduled to burn for 4.86 seconds with a gap of 12 seconds between them. The 35 second fourth-stage burn (after a 100 second coasting period) would be followed by a brief 5.7 second firing of the fifth stage. A tiny 1.25 pound sixth­stage rocket motor in the eight-inch payload would inject it into orbit at an elapsed time of 53 minutes.

A small, dedicated group hand-built and tested a series of NOTSNIK components in Building X, a duplicate of the A-bomb assembly building on Tinian Island that had been constructed at NOTS during the closing months of World War II. Things did not go exactly as planned. The first indication of trouble came during two ground test flights of the HOTROC motors. Mock-ups of the vehicle with two live HOTROCs were launched from the G-2 test range at China Lake. The first, on Independence Day, ended with an explosion after only one second aloft, the result of a cracked propellant grain. The second test vehicle never made it into the air. Eight seconds before the end of the countdown, the stationary HOTROC motors blew up, the victim of an electrical system glitch.

NOTS managers were under pressure to launch their satellites by 08 August 1958 to meet a deadline imposed by the Argus series of high-altitude nuclear tests. Three of the NOTS satellites were instrumented to record radiation from the Argus blasts, but the Argus tests were not conducted until after the NOTSNIK flights. On 25 July 1958, Commander Wect lifted off from Inyokem with the first NOTS vehicle under the Skyray's wing. A burst of smoke and flame obscured the rocket at ignition, preventing Commander West and the chase pilot from tracking it further. Tracking stations reported hearing strange signals, but further evidence of success was not forthcoming. Eighteen days later, NOTS tried again, but the HOTROC motors blew up at ignition. Commander West entered a spin and nearly lost control of his aircraft.

After this narrow escape, two additional ground tests were conducted at NOTS. During these tests, both missiles shed their fins and broke up within three seconds of liftoff. The vehicles lacked adequate strength to withstand the stresses of launch. The third attempt on 22 August 1958 again raised hopes that NOTSNIK may have achieved orbit. Once again, the pilots lost sight of the vehicle after release but the NOTS tracklng station at Christchurch, New Zealand reported receiving possible signals from space at the scheduled times of the first and third passes. NOTS management did not believe that the satellite had entered orbit. The signals may have been nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of the operating technicians. The three remaining vehicles were expended in rapid-fire order within the timeframe of four days. Two attempts in late August 1958 ended with HOTROC motor malfunctions, while the other failed to ignite and fell into the Pacific.

In spite of these unfavorable results, development of air-launch at NOTS with the Improved Caleb vehicle. Caleb was cancelled in 1962, perhaps due to the pressure from by the Air Force to preserve their monopoly of military space launch. Throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s, China Lake continuously served as the Navy’s primary source of missile and rocket technology. By the 1980s, however, the mission of the Naval Ordnance Test Station — renamed the Naval Weapons Center in 1967 — had begun to change to reflect the realities of the Defense Department’s growing reliance on industrial contractors and other private-sector institutions for weapons R&D and production.




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