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The Ranger 5 mission launched 57 years ago today. In a photograph of the launch, there's an irregular shroud of wrinkled white material either next to or wrapped around the upper Agena stage of the booster:

enter image description here

It appears to be connected to the launch tower, and unless it was moved away very soon after the point at which the photo was taken it seems like it couldn't avoid interfering with the larger-diameter Atlas stage which will be presently coming to meet it. (Please excuse the mixed tenses in this sentence.)

I couldn't find video of this particular launch, and I don't see anything similar in photos of other Ranger launches.

If I had to guess I'd say it's an insulation blanket, but I don't have anything to back that up.

What is this material? What is happening to it at the instant shown in the photo, and what happens to it as the rocket moves up through or past it?

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It's an air-conditioning blanket.

Photographs of the first four Agena ferret launches all show a vehicle with a relatively small, pointy launch shroud, often obscured by an inflatable air conditioning blanket while on the launch pad.

This photo shows the cover in place over the nose cone.

enter image description here

This film has a nice closeup of the cover:

You can see the thick hose attached to the cover, I assume this is the air supply.

and this film shows a Thor-Agena launch with a similar cover:

The cover is attached to the launch tower, and it has a rip seam. When the rocket lits off, the seam breaks and the cover is pulled away.

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