Move Over, Sputnik

It was pretty tense because we knew that everybody was watching us, not only this country, but really the whole world, because here the Russians were making a big propaganda hit of how they were launching satellites and we were dropping rock­ets in a ball of fire on our launching pad. We did launch success­fully, at the end of January. That was a very interesting period to live through.

—William Pickering from a transcript of an oral history in the archives of

the California Institute ofTechnology.


n the late 1950s, there was no meeting of minds across the ideological divide.

“The country that gets a manned satellite into space first will be the undisputed master of the entire world. At the present time there is no defense against such a weapon. A satellite in a two-hour pole-to-pole orbit will pass over every part of the world every 24 hours [actually every 12 hours], and the launching of a guided missile against our cities would be a simple matter. Who is to control outer space? Russia? Or the United States?”

So wrote the editor of the Phoenix Republic sometime between Presi­dent Eisenhower’s announcement that the United States would launch satellites and Sputnik Vs arrival in orbit. Though more alarmist than many, the editor expressed a not uncommon fear.

Probably that fear was fueled by extracts from Soviet publications that appeared in the American press, such as the following from Soviet Fleet, a naval paper.

“American imperialists and their henchmen dream of using the pos­sibility of creating an artificial satellite… to set up outer world bases from which it would be possible to deliver attacks against countries of the democratic camp, and to hit the selected objectives.”

Amidst such rhetoric as well as the more measured and weighty crit­icisms of the New York Times, Sputnik II was launched on November 3, 1957. It was the second of three blows that year to America’s perception of its technological supremacy. The third, a month after the second Soviet satellite, would be self-inflicted. Sputnik II prompted yet more questions in

Congress, more headlines, more soul-searching editorials. Congressional critics urged Eisenhower to appoint a missile czar and pour money into education. On the Monday after the launch, Senator Lyndon Johnson spent the day closeted at the Pentagon. On Thursday, Eisenhower went on national television, attempting to reassure Americans that the country was secure. He emphasized the strategic importance of the Air Force, telling his audience that the United States Air Force was as effective as missiles.[8]

But the event that presaged America’s entry to the space age came on Friday, November 8, when Neil McElroy, the secretary of defense, directed the Army to prepare for a satellite launch as part of the Interna­tional Geophysical Year. The Vanguard team, however, was to get the first shot.

That shot took place on December 6. The countdown went smoothly; the launch was a disaster, one that was felt all the more keenly because, unlike the Soviet launches, it took place in full view of the world. Before the entire world, the rocket lifted about two feet off the ground and then burst into flames fourteen stories high. The explosion threw the third stage and satellite clear. The satellite landed on the beach. Its bent antenna beeped to a stunned audience.

J. Paul Walsh, the deputy director for the Vanguard project, had relayed the news over the telephone to listeners at the Naval Research Laboratory. His account was succinct: “Zero, fire, first ignition—explo­sion.”

The moment the news reached New York, there was a dash to unload Martin stock and that of other aerospace companies (though Lock­heed gained). At 11:50, the governors of the stock exchange suspended trading. The next day’s headlines in London included the ignominious words Flopnik and Kaputnik. Humor bolstered America, and people ordered Sputnik cocktails: one part vodka, two parts sour grapes.

There were to be worse failures. Astronauts and cosmonauts would die. In such a complex, unknown, and risky undertaking such disaster was (and is) inevitable. But this one had to hurt. The space community gritted its teeth and prepared for another launch. On January 27, 1958, Vanguard came within fourteen seconds of launch. The attempt was aborted. There was a problem with the second stage. Now, though, America had only four days to wait.

Immediately after McElroy’s direction of November 8, General Medaris, who headed the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) in Huntsville, Alabama, had called Pickering, Homer Joe Stewart, and others to a meeting with himself and von Braun. The question was how to carve up the work to achieve a launch sometime toward the end of January, 1958.

Medaris assigned responsibility for the first stage of the launch vehi­cle to von Braun. This was the Redstone rocket, a redesigned and more powerful version of the V2. JPL was given responsibility for the satellite, the tracking stations, and the three upper stages, which would be solid – propellant rockets that the lab had developed. The entire launch vehicle was called Jupiter C.

JPL already had the tracking stations and the rockets because of its ongoing work with the Army exploring designs that would allow a missile to reenter the atmosphere without burning up. But they needed a satellite.

Pickering turned to Van Allen. They had previously talked infor­mally about whether Van Allen’s payload could be modified for an Army launch. Independently, Van Allen had talked in 1956 with staff at ABMA about an alternative, should Vanguard not be ready in time for the I GY. Van Allen would have known that delay was a possibility because Van­guard’s technical director, Milton Rosen, had briefed the IGY’s satellite panel about the technical difficulties with the rocket.

Therefore, once McElroy gave the army the go-ahead, Pickering sought permission from the IGY and Van Allen to prepare Van Allen’s payload for an Army launch. The IGY was the easy part. It was more diffi­cult to reach Van Allen, who was on a research vessel in the Antarctic. There Van Allen wrote in his notebook that Sputnik was a “brilliant achievement.’’ His reaction (and Guier’s) was in contrast to Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett’s comment to NBC that Sputnik I was “a hunk of iron that anyone could launch.”

On the deck of his cold, distant ship, Van Allen felt out of touch with the review of the U. S. program that was taking place. He was concerned that his group might miss a launch opportunity.

Van Allen was particularly worried when JPL acquired responsibility for the satellites (which became known as Explorer), fearing that the lab, which he perceived as very aggressive, would try to take over his experi­ment. His consolation was the confidence he had in Bill Pickering.

Pickering, in fact, went to considerable trouble to contact Van Allen, first with messages via the Navy. When that didn’t work, Pickering recalls that someone suggested Western Union. That succeeded. Van Allen cabled his agreement that his payload should be modified for an Army launch. His assistant, George Ludwig, picked up the bits and pieces around the lab­oratory and, in Pickering’s words, hightailed it out to Pasadena and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The launch was scheduled for the end of January. This time, there was no formal prior announcement, though there were plenty of leaks. Journalists were on the alert. Shortly before the launch, Pickering’s staff were telling callers that Pickering was in New York. A wire reporter, keen to be sure that Pickering was where he was said to be and not in Washing­ton D. C. or at Cape Canaveral, turned up at Pickering’s New York hotel. “Just checking,” the reporter told him.

Days later, Pickering was in Washington—at the Pentagon with von Braun, Van Allen, senior Army personnel, and the secretary of the Army. They were waiting for the launch attempt of what would become 1958 alpha /, better known today as Explorer I. High winds had delayed the shot for twenty-four-hours. But on the evening of January 31, it seemed likely that it would go ahead.

Periodically someone would call the Cape to see how the count­down was faring. At T minus 45 minutes, launch controllers halted the countdown because engineers thought there was a fuel leak. After eigh­teen minutes, they decided there had been a spill during fueling and wiped up the mess. The countdown resumed. The servicing structure rolled back, and its lights went out. Now a search light picked out the silver-gray missile as a Klaxon sounded in warning.

At 10:48, Jupiter C lifted off. When the Redstone finished its burn, von Braun said to Pickering, “Well, now it’s your bird.” The bird had apparently been injected safely into orbit. But to be sure, they had to wait. Not before the tracking station in California picked up the satellite’s signal would they be confident that the spacecraft was orbiting. The only other people on the planet who could really know what that wait was like were in Kazakhstan.

Frank Goddard, at the Goddard Space Flight Center, was waiting to hear from California. Pickering kept a phone line open to him. They had predicted when they should hear the satellite. They waited as the minutes ticked past the time when they should have heard its signal. Pickering felt the glares on his back. Eight minutes after their predicted time, California confirmed that the satellite was in orbit, and the satellite completed its first orbit in the early hours of February 1.

Now von Braun, Van Allen, and Pickering were whisked through the rainy streets of Washington to a press conference at the National Academy of Sciences. They walked into a barrage of lights and microphones. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Pickering later recalled. “The place was jammed to the rafters. It was very exciting.”

The news was relayed to President Eisenhower in Augusta, Georgia, where he was enjoying a golfing vacation. He said, “How wonderful.”

Within minutes of the news reaching Huntsville, thousands of people took to the streets, honking car horns and carrying placards that read, “Move over Sputnik, our missiles never miss.”

America had entered the space age.

Before Sputnik I, the United States had planned that its first attempt to launch a full-scale satellite would be in the spring of 1958 and that four test vehicles carrying grapefruit-sized test satellites would be launched in the autumn of 1957. There were hopes that one would attain orbit. In the event, Vanguard put its first grapefruit in orbit on March 17, the day that Frank McClure called Guier and Weiffenbach into his office to discuss how their computational and statistical approach to tracking could serve navigation satellites.

By then, the space community was growing more comfortable with the techniques of satellite tracking. Yet during 1957 they had asked them­selves how they would track all the spacecraft if as many as six were to be launched each year. The question arose in 1957 as the satellite advocates tried to persuade their colleagues to endorse a continuing space program beyond 1958. Now, when TRW’s Space Log reports that by the end of 1987 there had been 2,979 known successful satellite launches (not includ­ing those deployed from the shuttles), that concern exemplifies the adage that the past is another country.

To today’s politically minded citizens, however, yesterday has familiar traces of home, namely budget battles, sniping between participants, and press relations.

By the beginning of 1956 the IGY’s total budget for the satellites and tracking was $19,262,000 an amount that approximately equaled its bud­get for everything else. This did not include the cost of developing and building the launch vehicles. Twelve satellites had been proposed by the scientists. The administration had announced ten in July 1955. By mid 1956, the scientists could count on six but, conservatively, were selecting only four for full development within the IGY’s timetable. All this took place within the context of Defense Department’s budget skirmishes and the rising costs of Vanguard.

The satellite panel was warned to keep the reduction confidential lest it damage America’s international prestige. Some clearly thought that this warning should not be heeded, because stories about the reduced pro­gram trickled out to the press, as did Fritz Zwicky’s comments to the American Rocket Society in November 1956 that “all kinds of jealousies, bureaucracies, and buck passing” were hindering the American satellite program. Many newspapers complained that the Navy should not have got the job of launching a satellite, and others reported on delays in placing of contracts for basic components.

Relations with the press were, in general, a contentious issue be­tween the IGY and the Department of Defense. The scientists grew increasingly irritated because, in their opinion, the Defense Department’s publicity machine made the project look like a military exercise. Not a dif­ficult job given that the Naval Research Laboratory was developing the launch vehicle and that some payloads were being prepared by scientists in defense laboratories. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that many of the university-based scientists had professional relationships at some time with the military, the scientists were determined to ensure that results of exper­iments were published in the open literature so that their international sci­entific relationships would not suffer. One can’t help but wonder what Soviet scientists were going through.

Amidst these concerns perhaps the most intriguing is the one that emerges in a flurry of correspondence in early 1957 that docu­ments that the IGY scientists feared that the Department of Defense would cancel the program once one satellite had been launched suc­cessfully

Nevertheless, planning for four satellites continued. And the space advocates succeeded in their campaign to convince their less enthusiastic colleagues to recommend that the satellite program continue after the IGY. As late as the day before the launch of Sputnik, this was not certain. But Sputnik, of course, changed everything for the space program. Like navigation, meteorology benefited.