Manned Ballistic Vehicle 1 / Project BROOM

The “Manned Ballistic Vehicle 1” or “MBV-1” was a man carrying space capsule capable of orbital flight, reentry, and soft landing via parachute. Preliminary designs were made by Project BROOM (“Ballistic Recovery Of Orbiting Man”) staff in 1948 to use the Atlas B ICBM, then entering final testing. When BROOM was transferred from the Army to NACA governance in 1949, NACA leaders requested a “civilian” version of the Atlas to launch the vehicle, in order to maintain the civilian separation of the program from the military's own space programs (the Army's “HIGHSTEP,” the Navy's “Seascape” and “Sea Spout” programs, and the new Air Force's “High Frontier” program, itself a spin-off of BROOM). Robert Condit, project head, had been on the team that had developed the Atlas and wrote the specifications for the spin-off “Aphrodite” in June of that year.

The MBV-1's original specifications were for a vehicle weighing no more than 2,725 kilograms (6,000 pounds), four meters or less at the base, so as to mount to the Aphrodite booster, and capable of initially carrying a single man, but also able to be modified to carry two without modifying the capsule frame. It was also to be capable of supporting a man in space for a minimum of five days (three, for two men), able to safely reenter, and land within any reasonably flat area. The craft was unusual in having no escape system in event of an abort after launch. The plan in such an event was to separate the capsule from the booster using the main maneuvering thrusters, but such an escape could only work if the abort in question included engine shutdown on the Aphrodite, something unlikely to happen, at least in time, during an actual emergency.

Consolidated Vultee won the bid in early 1949, and began work on the vehicle soon after. No real changes were required due to the switch from Atlas to Aphrodite launch systems and delivery of the first MBV-1 was on April 2nd, 1950. In all, eleven MBV-1s were produced – nine complete and two with rudimentary electronics and no life-support to be used for drop tests of the parachute system. In most respects, they exceeded the initial requirements, being lighter, and capable of nearly twice as much time in space as initially requested. However, the heat-shield system was still undergoing testing at Convair in San Diego, so none of the vehicles were capable of reentry at the time of delivery. Convair promised to have the finished heat-shields delivered by the end of the year.

MBV-1 Following the three month drop test program, ALV-01 launched the first MBV-1 capsule (MBV-1-003) on October 31st of 1950. The capsule was fully automated and capable of testing nearly all functions except reentry, as the heat-shields had still not been delivered (unknown to BROOM leaders, the project was at that time almost a year behind schedule back at Convair). The flight was nominal, but the capsule – nick-named “Witch's BROOM” because of the launch date – began to tumble on the second day of the flight and all contact with NACA was lost. Tumbling and dead, the capsule orbited until early 1957, when it reentered and burned up over the Pacific.

Convair delivered the first of the heat-shields in December and the ALV-02 booster launched a second automated capsule – “Second Sweep” (MBV-1-001) – on January 3rd, 1951. This time the capsule operated successfully for the full seven days of the flight. With battery power nearing its end, NACA operators deorbited the craft and it reentered at the correct angle and location for a landing on the Great Plains. The test heat-shield, however, did not fully protect the craft and it partially burned, the remains eventually crashing in the Rockies where they were recovered two weeks later.

MBV-1-004 was supposed to launch in February and be a full orbital flight and return while carrying “Bongo,” a chimpanzee, but because of the continuing heat-shield problems the flight was delayed until March, then delayed again until April. Finally in May, with a working heat-shield still apparently months in the future, it was decided to launch Bongo on a suborbital flight, as even the current model of the shield could handle the relatively slow reentry of a suborbital craft. And it would test life-support and the recovery systems, while also testing how living beings handled weightlessness – even if only for a few minutes. ALV-03, carrying “The Monkey House,” lifted off on May 10th, 1951 from Edwards with the Aphrodite's tanks only 70% fueled. The capsule made a 17 minute flight, landing in southern Utah carrying a healthy, but extremely agitated, Bongo.

Project leader Robert Condit now began agitating himself for a manned launch. Bongo's flight had told them little about conditions of weightlessness as the chimp had shaken most of the sensors off during ascent. And it had taught them nothing about the capsule's maneuvering capability as Bongo obviously did not have control of the craft. A manned flight, even though it was suborbital, would answer many of these questions and keep the project moving forward even though the heat-shield remained delayed. NACA administrators were reluctant to sign off on this test, however, stating the potential dangers to the pilot. They wanted to have at least three more chimpanzee suborbital flights, followed by two orbital ones before they'd let someone fly the capsule. A frustrated Condit pointed out this was one more vehicle than they had, just to cover the “monkey flights,” but the administrators remained firm.

Finally, at a meeting on May 27th, fed up by what he later called “timid pencil-pushers who knew less about the real hazards of space flight than I do about Latin literature, wringing their hands and going 'but what if someone dies?'” Condit is reported to have slammed his fist on the conference table and yelled “Fine! I'll climb in the damn thing!”

True or not, early on the morning of June 5th, 1951, Robert Condit was slid into the MBV-1 capsule (MBV-1-005) – now dubbed “Lucky Lindy” – on top of ALV-04 for a scheduled 7 am launch into history. Delays kept the vehicle on the ground for over three hours past the scheduled launch, but at 10:47 PDT, the “Lucky Lindy” lifted off from Edwards test facility on Muroc Dry Lake. Because the under-fueled booster was running “light,” Condit was subjected to over 6.5g's of acceleration in the two minutes and thirty seconds of powered flight. Ten seconds after engine cut-off, the capsule separated from the booster and Condit gave the maneuvering rockets a quick boost to pull the two farther apart. He now coasted up to an altitude of 200 km (120 miles), becoming the first human to experience weightlessness in space. He also managed to shoot five shots out the capsule window, including the historic “Oh my God, Edwards, it's Beautiful” shot.

As the vehicle began to descend, Condit completed a turnaround maneuver to place it in its “back end forward” reentry position and fired the maneuvering rockets to further decelerate the craft and align its landing spot as closely as possible to the planned one on the flatlands north-west of Cedar City, Utah. Soon after the drogue parachute was deployed followed a minute later by the main chute. Nineteen minutes and forty seconds after liftoff, Robert Condit landed 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the small town of Newcastle with, as he later said, “a big crunch and a bigger drag.” The drag in fact went on for nearly a kilometer before Condit could get the main chute to detach from the capsule.

AVL-05 didn't launch until nearly four months later on September 26th 1951, but did so carrying a capsule with the new heat-shield. The capsule (MBV-1-006-2, nicknamed “Two-for-One”) was also unusual in that it tested the “two man” configuration, with the twin couches and additional life support supplies two men would need. In spite of this, it carried only the single chimpanzee “Little-Kong” on a five orbit flight. Slightly less than 5 hours after liftoff, Kong touched down (with the chute correctly detaching on landing) a little outside of Pawnee, Kansas. This would be the only flight of a two-man MBV-1 during the project.

AVL-06 launched on December 7th 1951 and carried the first person to actually orbit the Earth, Joe Walker, on a five orbit flight that flew over every single continent except Antarctica at least once. An undetected leak in the maneuvering unit's fuel system resulted in a loss of thrust during the reentry burn and Walker overshot his landing spot by over 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles), landing on a farm in Macon Georgia.

AVL-07 was the last of the program, and carried Forrest Petersen in the MBV-1-009 “Bon Voyage” on a fifteen orbit flight that landed perfectly near Hays Kansas on January 15th, 1952.

MBV-1-002 and MBV-1-009 were never launched and were held as backups in case the primary crafts had problems. It is unknown why MBV-1-001 and MBV-1-003 were launched out of order.

Gross mass: 2,395 kg (5,269 lb).
Unfuelled mass: 2,020 kg (4,444 lb).
Height: 3.85 m (12.63 ft).
Thrust: 706 N (158 lbf).
Specific impulse: 273 s.
First Launch: 1950.10.31.
Last Launch: 1952.01.15.
Number: 11.

Associated Spacecraft