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.
“It was a complete shock. I had not anticipated it in the least. But I knew it would change the modern world.” - Arthur C. Clarke
“Those damn bastards.” - General John Medaris (after Sputnik 1)
Korolev was not allowed to rest on the laurels of Sputnik 1, nor did he wish to. His brain and his files bulged with ideas for lunar probes and piloted spacecraft, but nothing beyond the first Sputnik had been approved until he had that first great success. Korolev and his team, including rocket designer Mikhail Tikhonravov and propulsion engineer Valentin P. Glushko, immediately set to work.
“We never thought that you would launch a Sputnik before the Americans. But you did it. Now please launch something new in space for the next anniversary of our revolution.”
- Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, immediately after Sputnik 1
Korolev answered the Premier’s demand with Sputnik 2, which captured the world’s imagination by virtue of its size (over half a ton) as well as its passenger – the dog Laika, the first living creature in orbit. Laika’s name and likeness were everywhere, including on a brand of Russian cigarettes. The man who launched her, though, was a cipher. The world, including most of the Soviet Union, had no idea who Korolev was. He was only “the Chief Designer,” and his name was a state secret.
Back in the United States, Project Vanguard hustled to develop a response to the Soviet Union – or perhaps even more to a questioning American public. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had approved Project Vanguard in 1955, then watched with growing impatience as its timetable slipped and costs mushroomed. When Sputnik succeeded, he called the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Donald Quarles, on the carpet. The President’s words to the public were stoic: “Our satellite program has never been conducted as a race with other nations.” To his aides, he confessed, “I can’t understand why the American people have got so worked up over this thing. It’s certainly not going to drop on their heads.” Quarles’ response was to note that the Administration’s policy had never been to launch the first satellite, only to launch a successful one. But perhaps he was one of the first to see what many came to believe was a silver lining to the whole affair: “…the Russians have done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space.”
On December 6, 1957, what had originally been meant as a non-orbital Vanguard test vehicle, now fitted with a tiny satellite, attempted a launch from Cape Canaveral in full television view of the entire world. The result was an embarrassment that for many years tainted the Vanguard name: a massive explosion two seconds after launch. Vanguard’s director, John P; Hagen, was in Washington, connected by telephone to the launch team under his deputy, J. Paul Walsh. Their conversation was brief and to the point. Walsh: “Explosion!” Hagen: “Nuts.”
In the end, it was von Braun’s Jupiter-C rocket, a modification of the Redstone missile born from V-2 technology, which answered Korolev’s challenge in space. After the shock of the Soviet triumph, Wernher von Braun received what he and General Medaris had long sought: permission to attempt a satellite launch. Moreover, their directive was to do it as quickly as possible. In von Braun’s words to the incoming Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy: “We knew they were going to do it. Vanguard will never make it! We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake, turn us loose and let us do something! We can put up a satellite in 60 days, Mr. McElroy. Just give us a green light and 60 days!” On January 31, 1958, he fulfilled his promise. Wernher von Braun’s Jupiter-C (renamed Juno 1 to make it sound more civilian) was thrust into the night sky over Cape Canaveral with its American payload, Explorer 1.
"It [space travel] will free man from the remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven."
-- Von Braun after succeeding in the launch of the first American satellite
One of the colorful personalities who witnessed the launch was JPL mathematician and head of the Research and Analysis Section, Al Hibbs. Hibbs had previously achieved some degree of fame when LIFE magazine reported his profitable success in discovering and exploiting a flaw in the “random” pattern of a casino’s roulette wheel. After the launch, he sat in the blockhouse at the Cape making calculations based on telemetry from the launch vehicle. With General Medaris hovering over him, he concluded “with 95 percent confidence there’s a 60 percent chance that it’s in orbit.” The General snapped, “Don’t give me that crap, Hibbs! Is it up?”
Apparently the President was more cautious. His initial response after being told of a successful launch was, “Let’s not make too great a hullabaloo about this.” However, after it was confirmed the satellite was in orbit, he added, “That’s wonderful. I sure feel a lot better now.”
The instrumentation aboard that first American satellite was the brainchild of Dr. James Van Allen, then head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa. Beginning with a childhood filled with crystal radio sets and electric motors, Van Allen had earned a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1939. Since then he’d been a naval gunnery officer, a developer of proximity fuses, head of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel, and the drafter of specifications for the Aerobee sounding rocket. Before Explorer, Van Allen was best known for his work studying the physics of the upper atmosphere using “rockoons.” He proposed a particle detection experiment for Project Vanguard, but kept it small enough so it would likely be useful in the event Vanguard was supplemented by von Braun’s proposed Army satellite. The result of this foresight was the discovery of the radiation belts around Earth – the Van Allen belts.