We conclude our stody after the launch of Explorer 1. I hope you've enjoyed it!
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.
Physicist Len Cormier, who personally made up one-half of the National Academy of Sciences’ tiny IGY satellites office, recalled, “About a month before the announcement of the radiation belts – over pizza at Luigi’s – Van Allen remarked that they had been unable to decipher the data from Explorer.” Soon after that, though, Van Allen did decipher it. The strange “dropout” periods reported by his Geiger-Mueller counters in Explorers 1 and 3 were not caused by the absence of radiation, but by being swamped with reading far higher than expected.
In May 1958, Project Vanguard, on its third try, put a satellite into orbit.
“I heard a tremendous roar, as if a fire had started. Suddenly, books, shoes, and other things flew over the balcony down into the hangar.”- Propulsion engineer Kurt Stehling on the Vanguard celebration at Cape Canaveral
Several thousand miles west of Huntsville, in the Mojave Desert of California, a group of maverick physicists and engineers at the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in China Lake took matters into their own hands, and unofficially jumped into the satellite race in late 1957. Without authorization or official funding, the NOTS team attempted to leapfrog the larger programs with a five-stage rocket launched from a fighter plane. On a shoestring budget, largely “borrowed” from other programs, the satellite was pulled together in the NOTS workshops with not much more than the proverbial “chewing gum and baling wire.” But morale was high; after Commander William West, USN, a World War II hero then flying test aircraft at NOTS, watched a ground-test version of the rocket explode, he remarked with typical test-pilot swagger: “Don’t worry. It won’t do that when I’m carrying it.” On the second of the six launch attempts, the rocket did, in fact, explode - just far enough away from West’s F4D-1 Skyray for pilot and plane to survive. The NOTS program most likely produced only one short-lived satellite, but it deserves to be remembered for its sheer audacity.
And so the world had two space powers, and the story unfolded from there – a complex tale of engineering, Cold War politics, and human dreams. Sputnik 1 set in motion events Sergey Korolev could never have predicted.
“I must say, if I think about it from the viewpoint of history, I suspect that the whole space program is better because the Russians went up first. It shook up the complacency of the West…it was a challenge for us to do better than they were. The result was that the space programs got a lot of support from this country…In fact, the whole formation of NASA might not have happened if we had gone first.”
- William Pickering, JPL Director in the Sputnik era, in 1989
In October 1958, the U.S. created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to run civilian space programs. This organization eventually absorbed JPL, the Vanguard program, and Wernher von Braun and most of his Army team.
The people of the early Space Age live on in their achievements and the organizations they created. Korolev’s government design bureau is now the giant Russian space firm RSC Energia. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Naval Research Laboratory, Marshall Space Flight Center, and other American organizations with “space roots” in the Sputnik era, continue to develop space probes, satellites, and launch systems.
Of the three great theorists of the early 20th century, only Hermann Oberth lived to see the launch of satellites and men into space. Oberth had the satisfaction of seeing humans land on the moon using the lunar-orbit rendezvous approach – something he had conceived in the 1920s. He died in 1989 at the age of 95.
Sergey Korolev went on to launch many more satellites and space probes, put the first human into space, and lead the Soviet drive for a lunar program. He died on January 14, 1966, the result of a botched medical operation. Only after that was his identity revealed to the world.
Wernher von Braun had his great triumph with the landing of men on the moon using the Saturn booster his organization – now NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center – developed. He hoped to follow it with a greater triumph, a voyage to Mars, but the money and political will did not exist. Von Braun died in 1977.
James Van Allen led the team that developed the world’s first student-built satellite and continued work with NASA space probes. For almost five decades after Sputnik, he kept studying, teaching, and writing on space science. When the authors of this article approached him about the book which became The First Space Race, he was happy to discuss his activities in 1957-58, which he remembered with astonishing clarity, spend a day taping interviews in his office in the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Building, and contribute a Foreword for the book.
The last word on the legacy of the Sputnik era goes to a man who never lived to see it.
"There can be no thought of finishing, for 'aiming at the stars,' both literally and figuratively, is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning."
- Robert Goddard, 1932
A Personal Note
As authors, we have been pursuing this story since 1998, carrying it through the 2004 publication of our book and subsequently through the articles and papers we’ve been writing ever since. We had the great fortune to speak or correspond with many of the greats of this era, some of whom are no longer with us. We cherish our memories of time spent with them, and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those who assisted us – as everyone we contacted, without exception, enthusiastically did. We are honored to have contributed to the preservation of knowledge about the birth of the Space Age.
Matt Bille and Erika Lishock
The stories of the Sputnik era and the people who lived it are scattered in countless places. For those seeking worthwhile books on the subject, we have some suggestions for a “starter list.” See:
William E. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (New York: Random House, 1998).
Boris Chertok, Rockets and People (Washington, DC: NASA SP20054110, 2005).
Paul Dickson. Sputnik: Shock of the Century. (New York: Walker & Co., 2001).
Roger Launius, John Logsdon, and Robert Smith (eds.) Reconsidering Sputnik: Forty Years Since the Soviet Satellite (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000).
James Harford. Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997).
Clayton R. Koppes, JPL and the American Space Program (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.)
Walter A. McDougall. …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
Constance McLaughlin Green and Milton Lomask, 1969. Vanguard - A History (Washington, DC: NASA SP-4202, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969).
Asif Siddiqi, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974 (Washington, DC: NASA SP-2000-4408, 2000).
Kurt Stehling, Project Vanguard (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1961).
Ernst Stuhlinger, with Frederick Ordway III, Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co. 1994).
James Van Allen, Origins of Magnetospheric Physics (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983).