417How To Pick a President Or, Why Explorer I Came After Sputnik I
- Feb 3, 2008
U.S. joined space race 50 years ago
Launching Explorer 1 'a superhuman effort' that came just 84 days after Sputnik shocked world.By Alicia Chang ASSOCIATED PRESS 02/03/2008 03:08:34 AM PST
LOS ANGELES -- After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States gave a 90-day deadline to the Army and a little-known research lab in California to send up its own satellite. Seemingly against all odds, the project was completed in 84 days. On Jan. 31, 1958, a group of rocket scientists and engineers waited anxiously as the satellite, Explorer 1, blasted into orbit, launching the U.S. into the space race. Historians see the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 as a chance to go beyond the Reader's Digest version of events.
"It's been cemented in all the popular accounts," Jet Propulsion Laboratory historian Erik Conway said of the three-month turnaround. "It created the image of a superhuman effort." By the time the Army and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory received the White House's blessing to fly Explorer 1, more than half of the parts were already in storage. To meet the deadline, they dusted off a rocket that had been built for a classified project, added a new fourth-stage motor and designed the bullet-shaped satellite from scratch.
The launch of Explorer 1 set in motion a series of milestones that led to the Apollo moon landings a decade later. It also transformed the laboratory from a military weapons lab to a civilian robotics center whose spacecraft have visited the sun, moon, eight planets and even the edge of the solar system. The laboratory is now part of NASA and run by the California Institute of Technology. The Explorer program traces its origins to Project Orbiter, an Army venture that was canceled in 1955 after losing a competition to the Navy to fly a satellite into orbit. The Army and the laboratory redirected their efforts to a secret project to develop an intermediate-range ballistic missile, Jupiter.
One of the biggest misconceptions of that period was that the Americans were unprepared after the Sputnik launch, said Carl Raggio, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee who worked on the classified project and later on the Explorer design team. In fact, Raggio and others were convinced they could have beaten the Russians to space if engineers had been allowed to tweak the Jupiter rocket by adding a fourth-stage motor. But the team got turned down by the secretary of defense. "We knew we were ready," said Raggio, who at 79 is among the last survivors of the program. "The fourth stage would have put it into orbit."
Yet the Army's efforts continued to be the Navy's backup. Two months after Sputnik and a month after Sputnik 2 carried a dog into space, the Americans' first attempt to catch up with the Russians failed when the Navy's rocket engine lost power in flight and exploded on the way down. Newspapers dubbed it "Flopnik."
Meanwhile, the Army and the laboratory pulled a backup Jupiter rocket out of storage and began work on Explorer 1 after the Navy's failure. The project, completed in 84 days, was headed by William Pickering, James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun, a German. The Army modified the rocket while the laboratory designed the payload, complete with an instrument to detect cosmic rays. "There was a major push to do things," said Henry Richter, Explorer's radio engineer. "But it didn't happen nearly that fast."
Richter, now 80, was among a throng of scientists and engineers who waited nervously in coastal Florida on the day Explorer 1 sailed into space. He recalled feeling tense when the satellite failed to return a signal at the expected time. "There's not much to do, but sit there and watch the clock go around," he said. The delay occurred because Explorer 1 picked up speed as it rocketed out of the atmosphere and was lofted to a higher orbit. It finally beamed back a signal -- eight minutes later. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. The U.S. officially had entered the space race.
Besides being the first American satellite launch, Explorer 1 also discovered the radiation belt around the Earth. It sent back its last signal in 1958. In 1970, it re-entered the atmosphere and burned up after more than 58,000 loops around Earth. Roger Lanius, senior curator for space history at the National Air and Space Museum, wants people to remember that the Americans' success "just didn't come out of nowhere.""We Kind of Refused to Die" Monday, Feb. 10, 1958
On the unexpected-meter, it probably falls somewhere between Man Bites Dog and Trump Declines Commen... For months, recalls Major General John Medaris, the U.S. Army and its missilemen "were in the position of a patient that has been given a death sentence by the doctor â"but we kind of refused to die." How the Army patient survived to launch the first successful U.S. satellite is a history of groans, gall and grit.
In satellite terms, the history began on June 25, 1954 in Room 1803 of the T-3 Building in Washington's Office of Naval Research. Among the service and civilian scientists present to discuss the possibility of firing a satellite into outer space was Dr. Wernher von Braun, father of the German V-2 turned U.S. Army missile expert. Von Braun assured the group that the Redstone missile, already developed at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. and successfully fired at Cape Canaveral in 1953, could be souped up to put a 5-lb. satellite into outer-space orbit.
First Came Science. From that meeting came a joint Army-Navy undertaking named Project Orbiter. The Navy was to develop the satellite itself; the Army was to build the vehicle, using Redstone as its first stage. Target dates: launching sites to be established by April 1956, and the actual satellite shoot to be made in the summer or fall of 1957.
Project Orbiter died almost aborning. Reason: the decision was made at the highest Administration levels, and was announced by President Eisenhower in July 1955, to scrap the U.S. satellite as a military project and to make it part of the International Geophysical Year's scientific program.
The Navy got the franchise in Project Vanguard, and the Army was ordered to stay away from satellite work. The decision was made in the name of pure science: pressures were heavy on the White House to dissociate the satellite program from weaponry so the world's neutralists would not be offended. In retrospect, giving jurisdiction of the satellite programs to the service that knew least about it was a blunderâ"and it was protested by Medaris, Von Braun & Co. But the Huntsville team (later, Marshall Space Center) had some consolation: it did have a 1955 go-ahead on the Jupiter intermediate-range missile.
Then Came Termites. Jupiter was put into blazing competition with the Air Force's Thor IRBM, and the race more than occupied the energies of the Huntsville scientists. Even so, says Von Braun, the Army missilemen "had clear sailing for about a year." And then: "The termites got into the system again." Ironically, some of the termites were hatched by the Army itself. The Army was not satisfied merely with building intermediate-range missiles; it also wanted sanction to use them operationally.
To get that sanction, Army Pentagonians deemed it necessary to knock down Air Force doctrine that claimed exclusive operational rights to all but battlefield missiles.
In May 1956, they began handing out scalding anti-Air Force docu ments to favored reporters. The Air Force replied with its own propaganda bombs, and the interservice brawl finally forced Defense Secretary Charles Wilson to redefine service roles and missions in the light of advancing missile technology. The war, begun by the Army, nearly ruined it: Wilson allowed the Army to continue its Jupiter work, but it seemed hardly worthwhile since the Air Force had won the right to operational use of all missiles with more than 200-mile range.
Wearing Them Out. From that point on, says Von Braun, Huntsville lived "under a continued threat of extinction. We were all the time told that in all likelihood, since the Air Force had roles and missions, there was no need for the Jupiter, and we would go out of business."
But Huntsville did not go out of business; instead, it fought back, bitterly and sometimes unwisely. Colonel John Nickerson, one of the Army's top men at Huntsville, wrote a violent criticism of Wilson's roles-and-missions order, sent it off to Congressmen and columnists (including Drew Pearson) and, for his pains, was court-martialed and sent off to the Panama Canal Zone.*
Still, the Army kept working on Jupiter, with Medaris and Von Braun shuttling between Huntsville and Washington, begging and borrowing Army research and development funds to keep going.
Said Medaris: "We bend every effort we can to make up for whatever handicaps or checks have been thrown into it, and we tire people and wear them out, but we get it done." With the job of testing a nose cone for Jupiter, the Huntsville team kept going on Jupiter-C. Actually Jupiter-C was a bundle of rockets beefing up the Army's Redstone was hardly kin to the sophisticated, sleek Jupiter itself. But while other services hooted at its "brute-force approach" to space, Jupiter-C once flew 3,500 miles, once carried the test Jupiter nose cone into space and back again; President Eisenhower displayed the recovered nose cone in his first television speech after Sputnik.
The Army missilemen never for an instant lost sight of Jupiter-C as a satellite vehicle in case Vanguard failed -as they were convinced it would. All told, the Army made ten official pleas on behalf of Jupiter-C as a satellite vehicle.
Last Oct. 4, Defense Secretary-designate Neil McElroy, touring U.S. military bases before taking office, was dining in the officers' club at Huntsville when Wernher von Braun was called from the table to the telephone. Von Braun returned red-faced: he had just been told that the Russians had launched Sputnik I.
Next morning Von Braun urged McElroy to put Jupiter-C into the satellite contest. During the next few weeks, McElroy received more than 100 ideas from the services for putting a U.S. satellite into space. Finally, on Nov. 8, McElroy announced his decision: to backstop Vanguard, the Army was ordered to "proceed with preparations for launching a scientific satellite by use of a modified Jupiter-C test vehicle." (Vanguard exploded after falling back to its launching platform, Comedians and USSR made much of it).
That order was passed on to General Medaris in what Medaris calls "good old-fashioned military terminology, 'You will on or about such-and-such a date do so-and so.' It just delighted my soul." Such-and-such a date turned out to be Friday, Jan. 31, 1958, when the U.S. Army missile team, which had just kind of refused to die, launched the first U.S. satellite. *Last week Nickerson declined to comment on the Explorer's success. His wife had no such inhibitions. "He has orders not to comment on missiles," said she by telephone from Panama. "But I have no orders not to talk, and I think it's wonderful that the Army has lived up to all the things it promised."
That is not the end of the story.
A key decision had to be made on the Lunar Landing Apollo Program. The choices were Direct Ascent to the Moon to land from lunar orbit or, Near Earth Orbit capsule reconfiguration and test and then fly to the moon. In principle, the first option had some energy benefits, the second one had the some safety benefits. (On hindsight, the Near Earth Orbit assembly was proven and saved, at least, Apollo XIII)
Dr. Von Braun, Director of the Army Rocket Center and Marshall Space Center, was over ridden but refused to give up. He insisted that Pres. Kennedy make the final decision on Sept. 11, 1962, and told him that, way out of the chain of command. JFK asked ¨Where is Jerry?" Jerome Weisner was Presidential Scientific Advisor.
Pres. Kennedy invited the two sides to give him a presentation on this matter which lasted a few hours and Pres. John F. Kennedy overrode the decision of NASA and the rest is, truly, the actual history.
How many of the Presidential candidates have the patience and smarts to listen, question and undersant similarly complex issues? Like Global Warming, is it wise to invest on Coal Sequestration, Safety of Nuclear Power plants, etc.
We often hear the term Global Warming, do you know of any existing major project that will make substantial difference? Are politicians willing to bet mankind and do nothing? Most are willing to send others to evaluate and recommend and even have a second group to evaluate the recommendations.
JFK did it all in a few hours and the highest ranking NASA and USAF Officers saw their recommendations rejected. Yet, they all must have done their best because neither Apollo nor the launch rocket, Saturn V lost a single person on a trip to the moon. Three Astronauts died while doing some ground testing, one was in my Graduate school class, AFIT, in Wright Patterson aAFB, Class 1964.
''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''' Only Sen. Edwards, Obama and McCain have shown the intellectual capacity to personally deal with such complex matters. Some do wonder about Sen. McCain age and his momentary mental lapses, such as I now have, also. Aging is the price of survival.