Oberth, von Braun, Corona and me

Memories of the XI International Astronautical Congress in Stockholm, 15-20 August 1960

Sven Grahn, Sollentuna, Sweden

In 1960 the 11 th International Astronautical Congress was held in Stockholm, organised by the Swedish Interplanetary Society. I had become a member of the Society in the spring of 1959 at the tender age of thirteen. So, naturally, when the Congress took place the Society used even its junior members to do menial tasks. Even as a fourteen-year old (see picture on the left) I got tasks that gave me the opportunity to listen to lectures and mingle with the luminaries of spaceflight. I operated tape recorders in lecture halls, ran radio communications between various lecture halls all over the campus of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden - my home town. This all transpired during the tail end of the school summer vacation.

Who came to IAF 60? Well, how about Wernher von Braun, Hermann Oberth, Leonid Sedov, Theodore von Kármán, George Mueller, HH Koelle, Hubert Strughold, Ernst Stuhlinger, H Itokawa (founder of ISAS), Esther K Goddard (Robert H Goddard's widow), Frank Malina.... Do you see what I mean? For a star-struck teenager this was like living among demi-gods.

The two most notable events during the Congress was the success of the Discoverer program and the launch of Sputnik 5 with the dogs Strelka and Belka on board. Of course the launch of the Echo balloon satellite also spread glory over the Conress. The table below should convince you that it was an event-filled week!

Events at and during the IAF 60 Congress
(Time is given as local Swedish time=UT+ 1h)

Date Time Event
August 10 2138 Discoverer 13 is launched from Vandenberg AFB by a Thor-Agena rocket.
August 12 0230 Re-entry capsule from Discoverer 13 recovered from the Pacific
August 12 1039 Echo 1 balloon satellite for communications experiments launched from Cape Canaveral using a Thor-Delta rocket
August 15 1000 11 th IAF Congress starts at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden
- 1400 Reception at Stockholm City Hall. I get to see all the big-wigs up close!
August 16 0900 Wernher von Braun gives an invited lecture entitled "Status Report on the U.S. Space Rocket Program"
- 1000 George Muller, later of Apollo fame, lectures on the subject "Pioneer V and Explorer VI, Systems Engineered Space Probes"
- 1030 A Major Evans (USAF) gives a talk on a hot subject: "The U.S. Air Force Discoverer Program"
August 18 2057 Discoverer 14 is launched from Vandenberg AFB by a Thor-Agena rocket.
August 19 0938 Sputnik 5 is launched from Baikonur with dogs Strelka and Belka on board.
- 0900 Hermann Oberth lectures on "Der Rationelle Weg der Weltraumtechnik". ("The Rational Road of Space Technology")
- - Press conference about Sputnik 5. Leonid Sedov evaded all technical questions.
- 2314 Re-entry capsule from Discoverer 14 air-snatched over the Pacific
August 20 1300? Sputnik 5 capsule with Strelka and Belka successfully recovered in the Soviet Union
August 21 1300-
The Congress exhibition is open to the general public. 2000 people come, I explain the Discoverer exhibit to all sorts of people.

A copy of the Discoverer re-entry vehicle (without electronics and other gear) was on display in the (rather amateurish compared to latter-day congresses) exhibition at the Congress. I came to talk a lot with a major Howard of the USAF who taught me about the re-entry vehicle and when the exhibition opened to the general public on Sunday I came to be posted the Discoverer capsule to explain it to the public. I even got into the newspaper! You can see me circled in red behind the Discoverer capsule in the picture below together with the rest of the tape-recorder operators etc..

I realised that the capsule was part of a reconnaisance satellite project, but it seemed so little that it was hard to imagine it could have carried a film canister with real pictures. Of course we now know that is exactly what happened during the Discoverer 14 flight launched during the Congress (see table above) and that the real name of the programme was Corona. The other day (this is written in March 1997) I got a book in the mail entitled "CORONA - America's First satellite Programme"). It feels like a circle is closed!

By the way, was this the first public display of the Corona/Discoverer re-entry vehicle? Does anyone know?

Some of the congress staff gathered around the Discoverer. Me, Sven Grahn (14) in the red circle.

Here is acolor picture of the same moment.Left to right: Ove Gradin, Mĺrten Sandberg,
Kjell Palén, Sven Grahn, Micke Sandberg. Photo: Kjell Palén.

The flight of Sputnik 5 was a stunning event. Of course details about the flight were very scarce, and during a press conference on August 19, Leonid Sedov only answered general questions and answered technical questions with "we have not yet been informed by Moscow about these details". Hermann Oberth also participated in this press conference and said nice generalities about the flight.

I wish I could say that "I was v B:s projectionist", but this is not true, but I sat next to the projectionist during von Braun's lecture outlining the rockets that would lead to the landing on the Moon. At this time there was no talk about Lunar orbit rendezvous, only direct ascent or Earth orbit rendezvous.

In December 2009, Kjell Palén, my old boss during the Congress sent me a big box filled with lots of goodies about the Swedish Interplanetetary Society and the IAC 1960, including the original tape recording of Wernher von Braun's lecture, which lasted over an hour. Here is a short clip from the lecture's first minute. Please forgive the poor quality - it is an old tape! (BTW, here is the entire talk). Anyhow, I got von Braun's autograph on the preprint of his paper:

Another fascinating lecture was that given by professor H Itokawa about Japanese rocket experiments with small rockets called "Pencil". We now know that this work led to the successful launch vehicle series operated by ISAS!

Here are the tape recorder operators again, this time carrying an Arcas rocket.
Left to right: Mĺrten Sandberg, Ove Gradin, Micke Sandberg, myself, Kjell Palén (our boss).

Click here for more pictures from the Congress

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