Star Talk: 50 years ago this week, U.S. provided answer to Sputnik

Three months ago, the space science community marked the 50th anniversary of the first man-made obje
The three men responsible for the success of Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, launched Jan. 31, 1958: from left, JPL director William H. Pickering, James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun.
The three men responsible for the success of Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, launched Jan. 31, 1958: from left, JPL director William H. Pickering, James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun.

Three months ago, the space science community marked the 50th anniversary of the first man-made object to orbit Earth, the Russian Sputnik I. On Jan. 31, we observe the 50th anniversary of the U.S. response to this Soviet triumph: the day the space race took hold.

The first Sputnik flew into space from a Soviet launch pad on Oct. 4, 1957. America mobilized quickly. A few weeks later, the United States rolled out its civilian Vanguard rocket and aimed it for Earth orbit, but all hopes were dashed when the Vanguard exploded on liftoff.

Fortunately for America, there was a parallel military rocket program in progress. About a week after the second launch of a Sputnik on Nov. 3, 1957, President Eisenhower instructed the Army to prepare for a satellite launch.

This directive sent Wernher Von Braun, the wunderkind of German rocketry, and his team of resettled rocket scientists in Huntsville, Ala., into action to prepare their modified Redstone rocket, the “Jupiter C,” for launch. Not only would this rocket be ready to send a payload around Earth, but the cargo would be the world’s first scientific satellite.

The Army and the newly formed Jet Propulsion Laboratory believed that they could build and launch this satellite within 90 days. JPL handled modifying the satellite for the rocket — a radiation detector prototyped by James Van Allen and his students at the University of Iowa.

A few days before Christmas 1957, the major components of the Jupiter rocket began to arrive at Cape Canaveral, Fla., from Huntsville. Three weeks later, assembly and testing of the satellite, renamed Explorer 1, was complete and by the last week of January 1958, the Jupiter C rocket was ready for launch.

Anxious moments

After a two-day delay because of excessive high-altitude winds, Explorer 1 was cleared for launch on Friday, Jan. 31, 1958. At 8:30 p.m., technicians began fueling the rocket. Floodlights were then turned on and the rocket appeared as a stark, white, lone mechanical pointer aimed at the heavens. At the same time, clustered in the press area, was the most expansive film crew ever to cover a news event.

Then at 10:48 p.m., a little past the 10:30 p.m. target launch time, the firing command was sent to the rocket. Thirteen seconds later, the Jupiter C rocket roared to life. Three seconds later, it began lifting itself off the launch platform and climbed into the night sky.

The launch team had determined that it would be 12:30 a.m. before the satellite passed over California in order to get a confirmation of its orbit, but the deadline came and went with no signal. One JPL manager remarked that the military officers “were having kittens across the hall from my crew.” A launch scientist then realized that the Jupiter C rocket had put the satellite into a little higher orbit than planned and calculated that it would take a few more minutes than expected before it flew over California.

Three minutes short of two hours after launch, a ground-station received the satellite signal and “California had the bird.” In Washington at the National Academy of Sciences, Von Braun, Van Allen and JPL director William H. Pickering announced their success, held a model of the Jupiter rocket over their heads and the image passed into history. America was now in space.


A Vanguard rocket did have a successful liftoff on Feb. 5, 1958, but 57 seconds after launch, the rocket went off course and had to be destroyed by the range safety officer. Success came for the Vanguard program on March 17, when this rocket successfully placed a satellite into orbit around Earth — a satellite that still orbits Earth today.

The Explorer program also had its share of successes and failures. Explorer 2 ended up putting its payload into the Atlantic Ocean when its fourth stage rocket did not fire. Explorer 3 had much better luck and put an improved scientific satellite into orbit.

With the data from Explorer 1 and 3, Van Allen was able to map out a doughnut-shaped radiation belt around Earth, now known as the Van Allen Belts.

President Eisenhower signed the Space Act bill on Oct. 1, 1958, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), while JPL remained a government-funded unit of the California Institute of Technology. The next year, Von Braun’s group became a new NASA agency, the Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Vanguard team formed NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Mars Attack

For a while, it looked as if the planet Mars was going to have a close call with an asteroid this Wednesday, Jan. 30. This object, called 2007 WD5, was first noticed on Nov. 20, when it flew near Earth. At that time, it appeared that 2007 WD5 was only going to miss Mars by some 30,000 miles, only about one-eighth of the Earth-moon distance. Further observations of the asteroid’s orbit in early January have reduced the odds of collision to 1 in 10,000.

If 2007 WD5 had collided with Mars, it would have released the energy equivalent of three megatons of TNT. That is comparable to the air blast that took place over Siberia in 1908, when a space object exploded in Earth’s atmosphere because of air turbulence. The detonation pulverized a large area of Siberian forest. On Mars, 2007 WD5 would have hit at 30,000 miles per hour and made a crater a half-mile wide.

Lunar Eclipse

The moon will begin to enter Earth’s dark inner shadow (the umbra) on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 8:43 p.m., starting the partial phases of a lunar eclipse. During this time, the curve of Earth’s shadow can be seen across the moon illustrating that Earth is round.

For 52 minutes starting at 10 p.m., all of the moon will be within Earth’s dark shadow, giving us a total eclipse of the moon. At this time, the moon will usually take on a coppery-reddish color from red rays of sunlight shining around Earth. Once totality ends, the partial eclipse phases will again take place until 12:09 a.m., but this time in reverse order, as the moon moves out of Earth’s shadow.

This lunar eclipse will start with the moon about a third of the way up in the eastern sky. Just east of the moon will be the planet Saturn; Mars will be high above the southern horizon.

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply