Dec. 3, 1973: Pioneer 10 passes Jupiter on the first fly-by of an outer planet. Pioneer 10 (originally designated Pioneer F) is an American space probe, launched in 1972 and weighing 569 pounds, that completed the first mission to the planet Jupiter. Thereafter, Pioneer 10 became the first of five artificial objects to achieve the escape velocity needed to leave the Solar System. This space exploration project was conducted by the NASA Ames Research Center in California, and the space probe was manufactured by TRW Inc.
Pioneer 10 was assembled around a hexagonal bus with a 9-foot diameter parabolic dish high-gain antenna, and the spacecraft was spin stabilized around the axis of the antenna. Its electric power was supplied by four radioisotope thermoelectric generators that provided a combined 155 watts at launch.
It was launched on March 2, 1972, by an Atlas-Centaur expendable vehicle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Between July 15, 1972, and Feb. 15, 1973, it became the first spacecraft to traverse the asteroid belt. Photography of Jupiter began Nov. 6, 1973, at a range of 16,000,000 miles, and about 500 images were transmitted. The closest approach to the planet was on Dec. 4, 1973, at a range of 82,178 miles. During the mission, the on-board instruments were used to study the asteroid belt, the environment around Jupiter, the solar wind, cosmic rays, and eventually the far reaches of the Solar System and heliosphere. Radio communications were lost with Pioneer 10 on Jan. 23, 2003, because of the loss of electric power for its radio transmitter, with the probe at a distance of 12 billion kilometers (80 AU) from Earth.
Dec.3, 1999: NASA loses radio contact with the Mars Polar Lander moments before the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere. The Mars Polar Lander, also known as the Mars Surveyor ’98 Lander, was a 290-kilogram robotic spacecraft lander launched by NASA on Jan. 3, 1999, to study the soil and climate of Planum Australe, a region near the south pole on Mars. It formed part of the Mars Surveyor ’98 mission. On Dec. 3, 1999, however, after the descent phase was expected to be complete, the lander failed to reestablish communication with Earth. A post-mortem analysis determined the most likely cause of the mishap was premature termination of the engine firing prior to the lander touching the surface, causing it to strike the planet at a high velocity. The total cost of the Mars Polar Lander was $165 million. Spacecraft development cost $110 million, launch was estimated at $45 million, and mission operations at $10 million.
Dec. 3, 2005: XCOR Aerospace flew its EZ-Rocket (a rocket-powered Long-EZ aircraft the company built as a demonstrator for its reusable rocket engines) from Mojave to California City, Calif., both in Kern County. Test pilot Dick Rutan made the flight, which lasted about nine minutes and carried U.S. mail from the post office in Mojave to addresses in California City. This was the first time that a manned, rocket-powered aircraft was used to carry U.S. Mail.
Dec. 3, 2017: Expedition crew members on board the International Space Station hosted the first pizza party in space. From left: NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei; Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryazanskiy and Alexander Misurkin; European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli and NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Randy Bresnik show off their pizza creations.
Dec. 4, 1952: The Grumman S-2 Tracker made its first flight. The Tracker was the first purpose-built, single airframe anti-submarine warfare aircraft to enter service with the U.S. Navy. Designed and initially built by Grumman, the Tracker was of conventional design — propeller-driven with twin radial engines, a high wing that could be folded for storage on aircraft carriers, and tricycle undercarriage. The type was exported to a number of navies around the world. Introduced in 1952, the Tracker and its E-1 Tracer derivative saw service in the U.S. Navy until the mid-1970s, and its C-1 Trader derivative until the mid-1980s, with a few aircraft remaining in service with other air arms into the 21st century. In this photograph, a Tracker of anti-submarine squadron VS-29 Tromboners flies a mission.
Dec. 4, 1962: A team at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., began stability and control evaluation of the Kaman HH-43 Huskie crash rescue and fire suppression helicopter. The U.S. Air Force acquired the HH-43 Huskie primarily for local base rescue and fighting aircraft fires. Kaman delivered the first USAF H-43As in November 1958, and the B series followed in June 1959. In 1962 the Air Force changed the H-43 designation to HH-43 to reflect the aircraft’s rescue role. The final Air Force version was the HH-43F with engine modifications for improved performance.
The Huskie’s interesting intermeshing rotor configuration used two wooden rotors turning in opposite directions, eliminating the need for a tail rotor. Large tabs on the trailing edge of each blade warped the rotors and caused the helicopter to rise or descend.
A Huskie on rescue alert could be airborne in approximately one minute with a fire suppression kit hanging beneath. Developed at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, the fire suppression kit weighed only 1,000 pounds, but it could produce almost 700 gallons of fire-fighting foam. Huskies often reached crash sites before ground vehicles arrived, and the foam from the kit plus the powerful downwash of air from the rotors opened a path for rescuers to reach trapped crash victims.
During the Southeast Asia War, the Air Rescue Service (later the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service) first used HH-43 Huskies, which became known unofficially as “Pedros” from their radio call sign. First assigned to Da Nang and Bien Hoa Air Bases in the Republic of South Vietnam and to Nakon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in 1964, the HH-43 remained the only dedicated Air Force rescue helicopter until the arrival of the HH-3 Jolly Greens in late 1965.
Flying the first Air Force rescue helicopter to arrive in Southeast Asia and the last to leave, HH-43 aircrews saved more lives in combat than crews flying any other USAF helicopter. From 1966 to 1970, they performed a total of 888 combat saves — 343 aircrew rescues and 545 non-aircrew rescues. It was an HH-43 that carried Airman 1st Class William J. Pitsenbarger on his Medal of Honor mission on April 11, 1966.
Dec. 4, 1965: Gemini 7 is launched. Gemini 7 was a 1965 crewed spaceflight in NASA’s Gemini program. It was the fourth crewed Gemini flight, the 12th crewed American spaceflight, and the 21st crewed spaceflight including Soviet flights and X-15 flights above the Kármán line. The crew of Frank Borman and Jim Lovell spent nearly 14 days in space, making a total of 206 orbits. Their spacecraft was the passive target for the first crewed space rendezvous performed by the crew of Gemini 6A. Gemini 7 held the record for the longest space flight until Soyuz 9 in June 1970 and was the longest crewed space flight in U.S. history until the Skylab 2 mission of May and June 1973.
Dec. 5, 1963: U.S. Air Force Pilot Maj. Robert Rushworth flew an X-15 to Mach 6.06, the highest speed ever achieved by a winged aircraft at that time. During his time with the program, Rushworth completed 34 X-15 flights, more than any other pilot.
Dec. 6, 1957: With Lockheed Aircraft Corporations chief engineering test pilot, Herman “Fish” Salmon, and co-pilot Roy Edwin Wimmer onboard, the Lockheed L-188 Electra made its maiden flight from the Lockheed Air Terminal (now Hollywood Burbank Airport). The aircraft flew to the U.S. Navy’s restricted missile test ranges off the southern California coastline, flying between Naval Air Station Point Mugu and San Diego. During the flight, the Electra reached 400 miles per hour and 14,000 feet. Salmon radioed, “She controls beautifully. No sweat.” The Electra was followed by two chase planes, a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star, and a Super Constellation airliner. After the initial flight test, Salmon returned to LAT, landing after a flight of 1 hour, 27 minutes. The test flight was made 56 days ahead of schedule. The Electra was the first large turboprop airliner built in the United States. Initial sales were good, but after two fatal crashes that led to expensive modifications to fix a design defect, no more were ordered.
Dec. 6, 1963: Maj. Robert W. Smith zoomed a Lockheed NF-104A aerospace trainer to an altitude of 120,800 feet, setting an unofficial record for altitude.
Dec. 6, 1979: The A-10 Standard Inertial Navigation Competition concluded; the Litton system was ultimately selected for the attack aircraft. The Republic YA-10 Thunderbolt II in this photograph is the only two-seater A-10 ever built and is currently in the collection of the Edwards Air Force Flight Test Museum.
Dec. 7, 1942: The Bell P-63 Kingcobra made its first flight. The Kingcobra was an American fighter aircraft developed by Bell Aircraft during World War II. Based on the preceding Bell P-39 Airacobra, the P-63’s design incorporated suggestions from P-39 pilots and was superior to its predecessor in virtually all respects. Deliveries of production P-63As began in October 1943. The U.S. Army Air Force concluded the Kingcobra was inferior to the Mustang, and declined to order larger quantities. American allies, particularly the Soviet Union, had a great need for fighter aircraft, however, and the Soviets were already the largest users of the Airacobra. Therefore, the Kingcobra was ordered into production to be delivered under Lend-Lease. In February 1944, the Soviet government sent a highly experienced test pilot, Andrey G. Kochetkov, and an aviation engineer, Fyodor P. Suprun, to the Bell factories to participate in the development of the first production variant, the P-63A. Initially ignored by Bell engineers, Kochetkov’s expert testing of the machine’s spin characteristics (which led to airframe buckling) eventually led to a significant Soviet role in the development. After flat spin recovery proved impossible, and upon Kochetkov’s making a final recommendation that pilots should bail out upon entering such a spin, he received a commendation from the Irving Parachute Company.
Dec. 7, 1972: Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon in the Apollo series, launched with astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, commander, Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot, and Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot, on board. Apollo 17 was a “J-type mission” that included three days on the lunar surface, extended scientific capability, and the use of the third Lunar Roving Vehicle. Cernan and Schmitt landed in the Taurus–Littrow valley and completed three moonwalks, taking lunar samples and deploying scientific instruments. The landing site had been chosen to further the mission’s main goals: to sample lunar highland material older than Mare Imbrium, and to investigate the possibility of relatively recent volcanic activity. Evans remained in lunar orbit in the command and service module, taking scientific measurements and photographs.
Cernan, Evans, Schmitt, and the mice returned to Earth on Dec. 19.
Apollo 17 was the first mission to have no one on board who had been a test pilot; X-15 test pilot Joe Engle lost the lunar module pilot assignment to Schmitt, a geologist. The mission included the first night launch of a U.S. human spaceflight and the final crewed launch of a Saturn V rocket. It was also the final use of Apollo hardware for its original purpose (extra Apollo spacecraft were later used in the Skylab and Apollo–Soyuz programs).
The mission broke several crewed spaceflight records: the longest Moon landing, longest total extravehicular activities (moonwalks), largest lunar sample, longest time in lunar orbit, and, at 75, most lunar orbits.
Dec. 8, 1949: Muroc Army Airfield in the California High Desert is renamed Edwards Air Force Base in honor of test pilot Capt. Glen Edwards who was killed in the 1948 crash of the YB-49 Flying Wing prototype. While the crash claimed the lives of five crewmembers, Edwards was the only with a link to California having moved to Lincoln, Calif., at age 13. A ceremony was held at Edwards AFB to mark the name change, but the plaque misspelled Edwards first name and had to be replaced at a later date. The base of the plaque reads “A pioneer of the Flying Wing in the western skies, with courage and daring unrecognized by himself.”
Dec. 8, 1953: The needle-nosed X-3 Stiletto jet-powered research airplane, was delivered to the U.S. Air Force after initial flight testing by the Douglas company. The Flight Test Center was to conduct a series of flights before turning it over to the NACA’s High Speed Flight Research Station at Edwards AFB for further flight research.
Dec. 8, 1954: A Republic F-84 Thunderjet made the first successful arrested landing on the inflated rubber mat in the ZELMAL program. A test pilot made a second successful landing three days later but experienced a strained neck from a sudden pitching movement after the hook engaged. The ZELMAL project was terminated on Dec. 16.
Dec. 8, 1962: Performance and stability tests began on the Convair B-58A Multiple Weapons Configuration program. This enabled the supersonic bomber to carry four externally mounted special weapons on under-wing pylons.
Dec. 8, 1967: The first African-American NASA astronaut, Maj. Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., is killed in the crash of a Lockheed F-104D Starfighter, 57-1327, of the 6515th Organizational Maintenance Squadron, while practicing zoom landings with Maj. Harvey Royer at Edwards AFB, Calif. Lawrence was flying backseat on the mission as the instructor pilot for a flight test trainee learning the steep-descent glide technique intended for the cancelled Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar program. The pilot of the aircraft successfully ejected and survived the accident, but with major injuries. The F-104 they were flying came in too low and hit the runway. Royer ejected, but Lawrence was killed. He left behind a wife and one son.
Born and raised in Chicago, Ill., Lawrence attended Haines Elementary School and, at age sixteen, graduated in the top 10 percent from Englewood High School in 1952. Four years later in 1956, he graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. At Bradley, Lawrence became a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and distinguished himself as Cadet Commander in the Air Force ROTC and received the commission of second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program. At the age of 21, he was designated as a U.S. Air Force pilot after completing flight training at Malden Air Force Base, Mo. By the time he was 25, he had completed an Air Force assignment as an instructor pilot in the T-33 training aircraft for the German Air Force. In 1965, Lawrence earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Ohio State University. His doctoral thesis was “The Mechanism of The Tritium Beta Ray Induced Exchange Reaction Of Deuterium With Methane and Ethane In The Gas Phase.”
He was a senior U.S. Air Force pilot, accumulating well over 2,500 flight hours, 2,000 of which were in jets. Lawrence flew many tests in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to investigate the gliding flight of various unpowered spacecraft returning to Earth from orbit, such as the North American X-15 rocket-plane. NASA cited Lawrence for accomplishments and flight maneuver data that “contributed greatly to the development of the Space Shuttle.” In June 1967, Lawrence successfully completed the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (Class 66B) at Edwards AFB, Calif. The same month, he was selected by the Air Force as an astronaut in the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory program, thus becoming the country’s first black astronaut. Lawrence was 32 when he was killed in the F-104 crash. Had Lawrence lived, he likely would have been among the MOL astronauts who became NASA Astronaut Group Seven after MOL’s cancellation, all of whom flew on the Space Shuttle.
Dec. 8, 2006: Boeing’s X-53 Active Aeroelastic Wing made its first flight. The development program was a completed American research project that was undertaken jointly by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Boeing Phantom Works and NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (now Armstrong FRC), at Edwards, Calif., where the technology was flight tested on a modified McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. Active Aeroelastic Wing Technology is a technology that integrates wing aerodynamics, controls, and structure to harness and control wing aeroelastic twist at high speeds and dynamic pressures. By using multiple leading and trailing edge controls like “aerodynamic tabs,” subtle amounts of aeroelastic twist can be controlled to provide large amounts of wing control power, while minimizing maneuver air loads at high wing strain conditions or aerodynamic drag at low wing strain conditions. This program was the first full-scale proof of AAW technology.
Dec. 9, 1946: The XS-1 high-speed research aircraft, with a rocket engine installed, was air-dropped over Rogers Dry Lake for its first powered flight. Bell Aircraft Corporation test pilot Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin was the pilot.
Dec. 9, 1952: The dual-powered XF-91 Thunderceptor accomplished its first supersonic flight, reaching Mach 1.07 when its XLR11-RM-9 rocket engine was activated. Republic test pilot Russell M. “Rusty” Roth (standing on the ladder) made the flight.