Sixty-one years ago this month, Viking No. 4 soared to a record altitude of 91.2 nautical miles following launch from the USS Norton Sound. Known as Project Reach, the flight was conducted by the United States Navy to demonstrate the feasibility of using ship-launched rockets to carry scientific payloads into space.
The Viking rocket was the first large-scale, liquid-fueled launch vehicle to be developed by the United States. It’s primary mission was to carry scientific instrumentation and research payloads to altitudes as high as 140-nm. As such, the Viking was the domestic follow-on to the V2’s captured from Germany and flown on scientific missions from White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG) in New Mexico.
The Glenn L. Martin developed and built the Viking rocket for the United States Navy. The contract for doing so was let in August of 1946. A total of 12 airframes were built for the Viking Program. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) flew 11 of these vehicles between May of 1949 and February of 1955.
There were actually two Viking airframe configurations. The first 7 vehicles measured 47.5 feet in length and had a diameter of 32 inches. Depending on payload and propellant load, gross weight varied between 9,650 and 11,440 lbs. Viking’s 8-12 measured 41.4 feet in length and had a diameter of 45 inches. The average gross weight was 14,796 lbs.
The Viking rocket motor was a product of Reaction Motors Incorporated. It had a sea level thrust rating of 20,000 lbs. As was the case for the V2 rocket powerplant, the Viking’s propellants included alcohol (fuel) and liquid oxygen (oxidizer). Maximum demonstrated rocket motor burn time was 79 seconds for the Viking 1-7 series and 103 seconds for Vikings 8-12. The latter was longer due to the type’s larger propellant capacity.
The Viking’s nominal launch site was White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG) in New Mexico. However, early in the program, the Navy showed great interest in launching the vehicle from a ship at sea. The Navy’s biggest selling point for a shipboard launch was that researchers could choose their launch site. While the service had launched a V-2 from the deck of the USS Midway in 1947, the vehicle went into the drink shortly after lift-off when its control system failed. They hoped to do much better with the Viking.
Project Reach was the official name given to the Navy’s effort to conduct a shipboard launch of a Viking rocket. The USS Norton Sound, a ship that would figure prominently in the history of missile and space testing, was selected as the launch platform. The launch point chosen was the intersection of the Earth’s geographic and geomagnetic equators located near Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean. The primary payload was a cosmic ray experiment weighing 394 lbs.
Viking No. 4 lifted-off from the deck of the USS Norton Sound at 1608 hours local time on Thursday, 11 May 1950. The vehicle rose straight and true into the partly cloudy tropical sky. Following a 74-second burn and a 168-second coast, the vehicle achieved an apogee of 91.2 nautical miles; the highest a Viking rocket had flown up to that time. Viking No. 4 impacted the ocean within sight of the launch ship about 435 seconds (7.25 minutes) after lift-off. Impact was supersonic.
Viking No. 4 gave the cosmic ray experimenta package a good ride and the data harvest was plentiful. Shipboard launch operations were uneventful in the main and entirely successful. Indeed, the experimentalists, the NRL launch operations team, the USS Norton Sound crew and the United States Navy were pleased with the results of the flight of Viking No. 4. Project Reach was a resounding success.
The Viking Program resumed launches back at WSPG in November of 1950. On Monday, 24 May 1954, Viking 11 reached an altitude of 137 nautical miles. It would be the all-time highest Viking flight.
The rapid pace of space technology during the second half of the 20th century soon caused Viking to fade into history. However, multi-disciplined technology developed during the Viking Program would influence the design and function of numerous subsequent launch vehicles. Perhaps the most direct example being the Navy’s 3-stage Vanguard satellite launch vehicle.