Spaceflight to Parade Float

Posted on Tue, November 1, 2016

Visitors to the newly renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall may miss one particular satellite hanging amongst historical heavyweights such as the Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis and the Lunar Module LM-2. This object, however, with its distinctive blue solar panels deployed, is a full-scale engineering prototype of Mariner 2, the first spacecraft to radio useful scientific data from the vicinity of another planet, Venus.

Image of Mariner 2

The Mariner 2 spacecraft

Although this fact may not seem like a major accomplishment today, in an age of nuclear-powered robotic rovers exploring Mars, in 1962 it was quite an event. Some scientists had speculated that Venus might be habitable to some forms of life. Venus was the closest to Earth in terms of size, mass, and gravitation in the solar system, and some scientists theorized that conditions on Venus were similar to those of ancient Earth, allowing for liquid water to exist. These theories helped make Venus a prime target for planetary exploration.

While evidence from ground-based radio telescope observations had begun to dash the idea of life on Venus, Mariner 2 laid the theory completely to rest. On August 27, 1962, Mariner 2 was successfully launched and set on a course to Venus. After a 108-day journey, Mariner 2 made its closest approach to Venus on December 14, 1962, coming within 34,839 kilometers (21,648 miles) of the planet. The numerous scientific instruments aboard recorded information about the atmosphere of Venus and radioed it back to Earth, allowing scientists to confirm, amongst other things, that the temperature hovered around 800° Fahrenheit, a rather uncomfortable temperature for life.

Reams of data radioed back to Earth by the Mariner 2 spacecraft

Showing off some of the reams of data radioed back to Earth by the Mariner 2 spacecraft.

The success of the mission was amplified by the fact that it was one of America’s early “first-in-space” moments. After a number of successful Soviet “firsts,” the Mariner 2 mission provided the United States with bragging rights to the title of “first successful spacecraft from Earth to reach Venus.”

The fact that the mission nearly failed also played into the excitement of its eventual success. NASA was still learning as it developed the Mariner series of spacecraft. A number of spacecraft were lost during launch, including Mariner 1. And Mariner 2 had a poorly functioning solar panel and an overheated computer system that nearly scrapped the mission.

This increased attention brought great publicity to the mission itself, as well as the scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory involved in the accomplishment. In fact, the publicity of the successful mission brought about quite the unusual honor for the little spacecraft; a representation in the annual Rose Bowl Parade, or Tournament of Roses, held annually in Pasadena, California.

With the mission success of December 1962 still fresh in the minds of the public, Dr. William Pickering, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (also located in Pasadena, California), was asked to be the Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1963. Accompanying Dr. Pickering was a float featuring a flower-covered Venus with a full-scale Mariner 2 “orbiting” it and the words “Venus to Pasadena” spelled out in flowers across the front.

Venus of Pasadena Rose Bowl float

The Venus of Pasadena Rose Bowl float

With such a unique honor to its history, make sure to give Mariner 2 a little closer look the next time you see it, and imagine what it must have been like to see it passing over Venus, even a flower encrusted version.