Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sputnik - The Human Story (part 2 of 4)

In Part 1, we saw how rocetry and spaceflight were ancient dreams.  Today we see how they were made real.  Today also bring on scene Dr. James Van Allen, the father of modern atmospheric physics, who was wonderfully helpful in our book, contributing a Foreword and spending a full day with Erika taping interviews.

“No sane nation would make such a fantastically expensive piece of precision machinery (think of the cost of the turbine engine) to drop a ton of explosives on England. But what a break for astronautics!” - Arthur C. Clarke on the V-2

“This is what cannot be.”
-Russian engineer Viktor Bolkhovitinov, viewing the captured V-2’s engine

Von Braun’s American counterpart in the prewar years was physicist Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945). Goddard, writer of two seminal papers on the technology and uses of rocketry, launched the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket on March 16, 1926. In developing rocket theory and design, Goddard and the handful of associates who worked with him were ahead of their German and Russian counterparts. What Goddard never had, though, was the money and materiel to develop a rocket as powerful as the V-2. He was unable to gain the interest of the War Department, who could not grasp the possible military applications of rockets. This must have brought back his memory of being mocked in a 1920 article in the New York Times for daring to suggest that a rocket could function in the vacuum of space. On the physicist’s dismay at learning of the V-2, and thinking what he could have done for the United States with military backing, a colleague remarked, “I don’t think he ever got over the V-2.”

“In my opinion, such a thing is impossible and will be impossible for many years.”
- Dr. Vannever Bush, head of the Pentagon’s Research and Development Board, speaking in 1945 on long-range ballistic missiles

“Every vision is a joke, until someone accomplishes it. Once realized, it becomes commonplace.” 
– Robert H. Goddard

On 5 April 1950, American physicist James Van Allen (1914-2006) hosted a gathering of scientists at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss international cooperation in scientific research. The guest of honor was one of the world’s leading geophysicists, Dr. Sidney Chapman of Great Britain. In the course of the discussion, American physicist and engineer Lloyd V. Berkner asked Chapman, “Sydney, isn’t it about time we had another International Polar Year?” in reference to an international, collaborative polar research effort first conducted in 1882 and again in 1932. The idea of a Third International Polar Year excited the group, and they immediately went to work contacting educational and research leaders. Broadened in scope and renamed the International Geophysical Year, the IGY, which ran from July 1957 to December 1958, spurred the U.S. and the Soviet Union onward towards a new goal: the successful placement of a man-made satellite into Earth orbit. Officially or not, the first space race had begun.

“The race into space may be said to have started in Van Allen’s living room that evening in 1950.” -TIME magazine, 1959

In June 1954, Commander George Hoover of the Office of Naval Research arranged a meeting in Washington which included some of the leading minds in space science and technology. These included Fred Durant, president of the International Astronautical Federation; Professor S. Fred Singer of the University of Maryland; and Smithsonian astronomer Dr. Fred L. Whipple, in addition to von Braun. Out of that meeting came an Army-Navy-civilian proposal called Project Orbiter. Orbiter was never launched, but it became the blueprint for the Army program which eventually launched the first American satellite, Explorer 1.

“Everybody talks about satellites, then nobody does anything. So maybe we should put to use the hardware we already have.” - George Hoover at the famous meeting of 25 June 1954

The U.S. Department of Defense in 1955 selected Project Vanguard, under the auspices of the Naval Research Laboratory, to attempt to orbit a scientific satellite during the 1957-58 IGY. The U.S. National Committee (USNC) created a Technical Panel on Rocketry, which appointed a subcommittee to study “a long-playing rocket.” As Dr. William H. Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory put it, “...this is about the time the long-playing records came out, 33 rpm. We had the long-playing rocket which would go up and round and round and round.”

Directing the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, whose proposal for a satellite lost out to the Project Vanguard, was Major General John B. Medaris. He was a hard-charging, no-nonsense solider who, perhaps surprisingly, bonded very well with the outgoing Wernher von Braun and his German colleagues. After Vanguard was selected as the official program, he continued to pester his superiors about the need for an Army program as a backup. As he later observed, “In various languages, our fingers were slapped, and we were told to mind our own business.”

“You know how complicated it is to launch a satellite. Those people (the Soviets) will never do it.” - General John Medaris (before Sputnik 1)

And so the stage was set, and the two competitors, the United States Navy and the Soviet Union, pressed towards the goal, with the Army still waiting on the bench. With the world as audience, both sides reached higher and higher towards space, sometimes coming close, sometimes engulfing the launch pad in a fiery spectacle. Then, on 4 October 1957, Sergey Korolev successfully placed a satellite in Earth orbit. The spacecraft itself was an unimpressive-looking sphere, not much bigger than a basketball. What it signified, though, was enormous. The first space race was over.


Denever said...

Footnote to your description of Medaris: after he retired from the Army, he became an Episcopal priest. I've always found that a charming postscript to his career as a soldier. It may also have something to do with why he and von Braun got on so well.

Matt Bille said...

It was an interesting shift in carers, wasn't it? Hermann Oberth also turned to other matters, writing a book on democracy and choosing for his tombstone the Biblical quotation, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice."