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  Early spacecraft tracking ships and systems (Page 1)

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Author Topic:   Early spacecraft tracking ships and systems
Dwayne Day
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posted 02-21-2007 10:57 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Anybody know of any good books or articles or official histories concerning tracking for early American manned spacecraft? I'm interested in the tracking systems for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. I know there is one book on the Australian role, but I am more interested in the aircraft and ships used for tracking.

KSCartist
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posted 02-21-2007 11:49 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for KSCartist   Click Here to Email KSCartist     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There's a book called "Range Rats at Sea" or something like that written by Dan Kovalchik. It may be just what you're looking for.

Dwayne Day
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posted 02-21-2007 12:34 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks for that tip, although the book looks like it is more of a memoir than a historical account of how all the ships and aircraft worked together. I did find the author's website.

And that includes a link to an article that the author wrote that gives a little more detail.

What I would like to find is a dedicated history article on this topic. I imagine something has appeared in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society or possibly in a naval/maritime history journal.

Joe Frasketi
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posted 02-21-2007 10:12 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Joe Frasketi   Click Here to Email Joe Frasketi     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have in my personal library this book "A History of the Deep Space Network" by William R. Corliss , it is a NASA CR-151915 publication, May 1, 1976.

While this Deep Space Network is/was mainly for tracking space probes it was involved in the Apollo project and contributed much in terms of technology and facility support.

The book also makes reference to another book by Corliss titled: "Histories of the Space Tracking & Data Acquision Network (STADAN), The Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN), and the NASA Communications Network (NASCOM)", a NASA CR-140390 publication of June 1974.

j3stix
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posted 02-28-2007 07:47 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for j3stix     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Maybe you've found this site already, but there are some great photos (including some of my Dad's) and histories on the range instrumentation ships themselves.

spacecraft films
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posted 02-28-2007 09:49 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for spacecraft films   Click Here to Email spacecraft films     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
You might also take a look at "Uplink-Downlink: A History of the Deep Space Network 1957-1997" by Douglas Mulgrew. It is NASA-SP-2001-4227. It includes some info on Apollo, at least, and gives some early history.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-05-2007 12:16 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Joe Frasketi:
The book also makes reference to another book by Corliss titled: "Histories of the Space Tracking & Data Acquision Network (STADAN), The Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN), and the NASA Communications Network (NASCOM)", a NASA CR-140390 publication of June 1974.

Thanks. Sorry I'm replying so late. I have found that book (well, it's not formally bound, it's got one of those side punch bindings) at the NASA HQ history office. I am going to copy it. I did not have time to look and see how much info it contains. The office also has several boxes of tracking station records and at least some material on the tracking ships. So it looks like I have a good smattering of at least basic info.

The link to the navsea.org site is also potentially useful. That looks to have basic ship data.

What I'd like to do is write an overall article about ships in service of NASA and USAF space programs and provide perhaps a paragraph on each one, plus the photos.

Joe Frasketi
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posted 03-06-2007 06:14 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Joe Frasketi   Click Here to Email Joe Frasketi     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
While I know you are mainly interested in tracking ship information, I am going to mention a couple of booklets that I have in my space library, relating to this original post subject: "Tracking Mercury and Apollo?"
  1. "The Dow Hill Tracking Station, Antigua West Indies, a MSFN station", published by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2nd printing May 1968. Has many pictures of the station and tells the stations roll in the Apollo Program.

    Since the GSFC published this booklet I would assume that there might be similar bookets for the other stations, so consider the GSFC as another source for information.

  2. "The Ascension Island Story", 1977 edition, published by Bendix Field Engineering Corp. This is more of an orientation booklet giving to Bendix employees who come to the island to work but does give some information about the station itself.
Contractors, like Bendix, who operated the tracking stations and ships could be another source of information.

Before the advent of the internet and emails, I received quite a bit of useful information and photocopies on the Eastern Test Range tracking stations by writing to the Office of Public Information at Patrick Air Force Base, FL. This could be another possible source of information. One of the articles I wrote on the Grand Turk Tracking Station is on my website, which might be of interest.

(Since one of my main interests is space postage stamps, I would like to mention that Antigua, Ascension and the Turks and Caicos Islands all have issued stamps depicting the tracking stations built on their soil.)

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-06-2007 10:50 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
In my digging I also discovered that the Vandenberg tracking ship is going to be sunk as a reef and will head to a shipyard for stripping in a little while. I'm going to follow up on that, because the shipyard is in Norfolk, which is about three hours from where I live -- i.e. possible for me to visit if I can.

(Once again what starts out as a small project becomes a bigger one...)

Joe Frasketi
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posted 03-06-2007 02:59 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Joe Frasketi   Click Here to Email Joe Frasketi     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
These tracking ship/aircraft links might be helpful to you, I had these in my range ship/aircraft history bookmarks: The small tracking ship that I worked on in the early 60 on the Eastern Test Range was the FS Golf ("FS" class="Freighter, Small"). It rarely gets recognized or mentioned.

In those early days for some reason the tracking ships were called Picket Ships, but I never learned why.

art540
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posted 03-06-2007 03:05 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Perhaps in association with the line of picket destroyers that were part of the US early warning system at sea? If not, perhaps a cover story?

Joe Frasketi
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posted 03-06-2007 04:51 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Joe Frasketi   Click Here to Email Joe Frasketi     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Well that makes sense about "line of picket destroyers...", never thought of that. Please explain "perhaps a cover story?" I don't understand that.

art540
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posted 03-06-2007 05:05 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I was thinking that DoD did not want the Soviets to know what the ship's real purpose was, i.e. maybe hang around looking for lost RV or even beat a recovery force to the RV. Just conjecture...

Joe Frasketi
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posted 03-06-2007 05:40 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Joe Frasketi   Click Here to Email Joe Frasketi     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Understand about the "cover story", yep out little tracking ship FS Golf was actually assigned to a certain sea positions on occasions when we were not actually involved in any tracking, just for that reason, to fool the Russians.

I only spent 2 months aboard ship. I much preferred the land tracking stations. Didn't like the isolation of weeks at sea, the lack of mail and communications with the rest of the world. After two months at sea stopping at various ports, my mail never did catch up to me until arriving back at Port Canaveral. The civilian land mail clerk dragged two full mail sacks up the gangplank wanting to know who the heck was Frasketi, who overloaded him with all that work.

art540
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posted 03-06-2007 06:12 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I wish there were a 1000 more guys like you that served in the early days at AMR who would tell us their experiences.

Do you have any recollections of re-entry displays and recoveries? Any special salvage operations made to recover RV or data capsules that sank? Can you can provide a description of a data capsule? or is this all outside the tracking function? Can you name specific "famous" flights you tracked in the IRBM/ICBM programs?

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-07-2007 02:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Joe Frasketi:
These tracking ship/aircraft links might be helpful to you, I had these in my range ship/aircraft history bookmarks
Yep, those are quite useful. I'm now building up a decent base of information. Of course, I was hoping that I could simply find a previous comprehensive article and not have to do a lot of research, but clearly there is some information available.

I think I'm going to do a separate article about the ARIA missions. Those aircraft are really odd-looking, and worthy of attention.

I've written a number of articles in the past couple of years primarily because I have good photographs (see the Spaceflight thread in the publications section here). I also like to use diverse photos, and there's something appealing about pictures of ugly, rusting hulks of ships that used to play important roles in the space program. So I'm going to try and get some of those pictures as well.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-07-2007 03:29 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by j3stix:
Maybe you've found this site already, but there are some great photos (including some of my Dad's) and histories on the range instrumentation ships themselves.
This has been a really good resource. Many of the entries have a link to the Dictionary of Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS), which is the official US Navy dictionary record of each ship it has operated.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-08-2007 12:00 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
A Google search reveals that the Vandenberg tracking ship is going to be sunk as a diving attraction off Florida and is currently in storage at the Navy's James River storage facility. She is at W 76 38 41.1 N 37 07 10.2 It is the white ship third from right in that grouping. The tracking dishes are faintly visible.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-16-2007 03:33 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'm finding lots of interesting tidbits now. For instance, the missile tracking ship American Mariner today.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-16-2007 03:35 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The Vanguard in the ghost fleet.

Plans to sink the Vandenberg as an artificial reef.

art540
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posted 03-16-2007 04:54 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I only wish Squadron would do a Vandenberg On Deck book, nice complex superstructure. Lots to learn... nah.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-16-2007 05:49 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The American Mariner was pretty interesting as well. Note the big dish at the stern and the two dishes on either side.

If you look at the pictures of her as a hulk, you can still see the large mount for the big main dish.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-16-2007 05:50 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
My article on the Vandenberg will be on The Space Review on Monday.

art540
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posted 03-16-2007 07:14 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks for the info and images. I wonder if the funnel gases and heat affected the dish? I will look to The Space Review on Monday, thank you for the heads up. No preservation for these ships...

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-19-2007 07:56 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
My article on the Vandenberg is posted.

(There's one goof in the article, which should be fixed by the end of the day.)

KC Stoever
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posted 03-19-2007 12:08 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for KC Stoever   Click Here to Email KC Stoever     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
A really enjoyable story. Thanks for linking.

One quibble: Blue Steel was a terrific movie--even though the villain was silly. The heroine, Jamie Lee Curtis, dressed as a cop, acted her heart out in it.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-19-2007 05:00 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I'm hoping to do another one on the American Mariner, which met an unusual fate as well.

As for Blue Steel, it has been awhile since I saw that movie, but I remember it being lousy. Maybe I should give it the benefit of the doubt.

Jamie Lee Curtis is not one of my favorite actresses, but she's always come across well in interviews. She seems like she would be a lot of fun in person.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-22-2007 03:09 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks to everybody for the help here. I have managed to find some good info thanks to your tips. I have now obtained a copy of the American Mariner book. Although it does not look like a particularly good book, it does have info that is probably not available anywhere else. Sadly, I doubt the author is still alive, as he was born in 1915.

Also, during a recent trip to NASA's history archives, I came across a great (small) photo collection including many photos taken aboard the Apollo Instrumentation Ship USNS Mercury. NASA built three dedicated ships for Apollo, called Vanguard, Redstone and Mercury. I managed to find photographs taken during an inspection tour (I think) of the vessel and these include great shots of the tracking dishes and some other equipment.

I'll be turning all of this information into articles for Spaceflight magazine over the next year or so, including an article on the ARIA tracking aircraft, something on the AIS ships, and probably a two-parter on the tracking ships in general.

American Mariner seems to be a bit of an oddball ship. I have not read the book yet, but one question I have is why they stuck all of the tracking dishes at the stern, which was not like any of the other tracking vessels. It would appear to have some severe operating penalties.

art540
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posted 03-22-2007 04:15 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Looking forward to tracking ship articles!

Speaking of operating penalties did you see the two British battleships Rodney and Nelson? The 16 inch turrets were all mounted forward of the structure.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-22-2007 05:09 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Yes, I've always thought that they were quite elegant ships. In profile they had a wedge shape, narrow at the bow getting thicker by the stern. But how do you shoot behind you?

That said, I'm not sure how big a penalty that was for those ships. After all, in most naval engagements you want to fire broadside, and this capability was unaffected. Also, if you're attacking, having all the guns forward allows you to fire all of them forward, as you move in on the target.

In the case of the American Mariner, I see a big problem with having the dishes on the stern because at least one will be blocked from looking to one side if the target is on that side, and all of them cannot look forward.

It strikes me that the most common operating mode for the ships would be to essentially steam perpendicular to the satellite/rocket track. When doing this, at some point you move out of range and have to reverse course 180 degrees. If the dishes have unhindered views forward and to either side, then this is not a problem. Putting them all on the stern means that as the ship reverses course to stay in range, it cannot see anything, because the dishes all face in the wrong direction.

I assume that this would be a real problem during launch tracking, because there the launch could be delayed and thus the ship could move out of position and have to come back. You want the dishes able to rotate no matter what course the ship is heading.

art540
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posted 03-22-2007 06:52 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
If you were being pursued (for some reason you could not slug it out or were outnumbered) you would have no way to create course changes in the ships pursuing you. That said the dish issue needs to be further studied. Usually everything is a compromise for one reason or another, Thanks for the input on the RN ships.

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-23-2007 08:16 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by art540:
That said the dish issue needs to be further studied. Usually everything is a compromise for one reason or another.

The book I have may explain the reason. My guess is that it was simply cost and that they mounted the dishes at the location that required the fewest structural changes to the ship.

Of course, I imagine that the Navy types would say that this was because it was a US Army ship and the Army knows nothing about designing ships...

garymilgrom
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posted 03-23-2007 03:20 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for garymilgrom   Click Here to Email garymilgrom     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
You may find some interesting material in the book Tracking Apollo to the Moon. Although billed as the story of the Australian tracking network; it is really an overview of the first era of spaceflight, with some tid bits of the Aussie's network. The stories about Australia are great, just not too prevalent in the book. There is a movie The Dish about the Aussie tracking effort too but I have not seen that.

kyra
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posted 03-24-2007 12:01 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for kyra   Click Here to Email kyra     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Kind of interesting for Apollo how they changed approaches to send everything on S-Band!

So I presume the ships would not only track, but act as relay points!

These don't have much on the ships themselves, but sometimes they are listed - so at least we know what we are looking for.

If you want to encompass the Soviet tracking by ships of the 60's I have some pics and other info.

Believe me, I understand your frustration in looking for info and not finding much! Then looking through literally hundreds of sources. But that's part of the reason were "called" by our higher source to do the research and write articles and books in some of the more neglected areas of space history!

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-26-2007 06:41 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by kyra:
If you want to encompass the Soviet Tracking by ships of the 60's I have some pics and other info.
Has anything been written on this?

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-27-2007 05:48 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Went to NASA the other day and got some good info on the Apollo tracking ships. This includes info on their various dishes and antennas and internal construction.

I'm now probably going to write at least half a dozen articles for Spaceflight magazine on the tracking ships:

  • an article on the impending sinking of the Vandenberg (mentioned previously, already submitted)
  • an article on the American Mariner
  • a two-part overview of all of the US tracking ships ever placed in service
  • an article on the Apollo Instrumentation Ships (AIS) Vanguard, Redstone and Mercury
  • an article on the AIRS tracking planes

art540
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posted 03-27-2007 06:04 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for art540   Click Here to Email art540     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Looking forward to your informative articles! I wonder if any maritime magazines
ever covered such ships?

Dwayne Day
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posted 03-28-2007 12:11 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I'm sure that some maritime magazine at some time wrote something on this. I haven't looked in that direction, however.

The stuff I have on the AIS ships is really pretty good. Some wonderful photos of the Mercury in particular.

Also just acquired the book Range Rats at Sea, as recommended here, and am continuing to acquire nice photos as well.

Joe Frasketi
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posted 04-01-2007 10:23 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Joe Frasketi   Click Here to Email Joe Frasketi     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Dwayne Day:
Plans to sink the Vandenberg as an artificial reef
The website now has latest info on plans for the sinking as of March 30.

Dwayne Day
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posted 04-02-2007 11:01 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Dwayne Day   Click Here to Email Dwayne Day     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks for the tip. That square structure at the stern is a weather balloon hangar. They would inflate the balloons in there and then release them.

I'm continuing to research the tracking ships and discovering some interesting things (well, interesting to me, anyway). For instance, the book on the American Mariner has quite a bit of detail on the ship's operations. She was primarily used to study reentry vehicle characteristics as part of the missile defense program back in the late 1950s. They wanted to see what a missile RV would look like at reentry so that they could target it. She was also used in the space nuclear tests.

I've also learned why the USNS Mercury was retired so early (Vanguard stayed in NASA service and Redstone was turned over to the Air Force). It seems that the early approach to space tracking was very conservative and over-designed. Actual experience indicated that some systems were far more reliable than they expected and also that they did not need as much coverage as they originally thought. So they ended up with more assets than they needed. It's rather startling that NASA built three big, expensive Apollo tracking ships in the mid-1960s and then retired two of them within about six-seven years. Vanguard stayed in NASA service until the early 1980s and was then turned over to the Air Force. Redstone stayed in USAF service through the 1980s and was retired. I don't know what happened to either ship yet, however. And I still have not figured out what happened to the Mercury.


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