NASA’s Little Joe II booster was designed and built by General Dynamics as a testbed for Apollo program hardware from 1963 to 1966. The 26-meter silver rocket was launched on a total of five missions and suffered just one failure, a failure that would ironically be its greatest success.
The failed mission was launched on May 19, 1965. The booster carried the Boilerplate-22 (BP-22) capsule, an engineering mockup of the Apollo command module that was of identical size and weight. The mission was to be used to test the spacecraft’s Launch Escape System (LES) that would pull the astronauts away from the Saturn V rocket should the unthinkable occur.
Following a successful launch, the Little Joe II booster was expected to carry the BP-22 to the edge of space (an altitude of approximately 33,528 meters). Once at altitude, the LES would fire and pull the spacecraft away from the booster. It didn’t turn out that way.
The Little Joe II booster utilised its four fins as elevons to steer the rocket. During the BP-22 flight launch on May 19, 1965, one of the four elevons became stuck in position, which caused the rocket to roll. The resulting force on the vehicle produced by the uncontrollable roll started to tear it apart at an altitude of just 3,600 meters.
As the booster broke up, NASA engineers on the ground looked on helplessly fearing the vehicle would be lost. However, the LES did just what it was supposed to firing and pulling the spacecraft away from the doomed booster. Moments after the escape system had pulled the vehicle away from the failed Little Joe II booster, the LES was jettisoned and the spacecraft’s parachutes were deployed.
The BP-22 spacecraft was successfully recovered following the dramatic test and would later be used again.
Despite many citing Apollo 4 as the milestone that got NASA’s manned space program back on track following the Apollo 1 fire, the May 19 Little Joe II test was the mission that gave both engineers and astronauts the faith in the system they needed to push on.