REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama -- Since America's beginning, the U.S. Army led the nation in exploration of the continent, and this year it celebrates the 60th anniversary of leading the nation in the exploration of space.
On Jan. 31, 1958, the Army launched Explorer I, the United States' first satellite, from Launch Complex 26 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex, Florida.
The U.S. Earth satellite program began in 1954 as a joint U.S. Army and U.S. Navy proposal. Called Project Orbiter, its goal was to place a scientific satellite into orbit. The Army's effort, using a military Redstone missile, was rejected in 1955 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration in favor of the Navy's Project Vanguard which used a civilian booster, considered more appropriate for scientific exploration.
The U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency, or ABMA, formed at Redstone Arsenal Feb. 1, 1956, to develop the Army's first offensive ballistic missiles. It was commanded by Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris with Dr. Wernher von Braun serving as its technical director.
Following the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, ABMA's effort using modified Redstone -- Jupiter C rockets was revived to catch up with the Soviet Union. Jupiter C would place an Explorer 1 satellite in orbit. With a deadline of only 90 days, the ABMA team went to work.
"We could have been in orbit a year ago," von Braun said. "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."
The ABMA team, under the direction of von Braun, worked closely with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to complete the job of modifying the Jupiter-C and building Explorer I in only 84 days. The Navy's attempt to put the first U.S. satellite into orbit failed with the unsuccessful launch of Vanguard TV-3 on Dec. 6, 1957.
The Explorer I satellite was 80 inches long, 6.25 inches in diameter and weighed 30 pounds.
Dr. James A. Van Allen of the State University of Iowa, who designed and built the scientific instruments on Explorer I said the period following the launch was an anxious period and silence settled over the whole group. He said they drank coffee and chewed their nails, wondering what had happened after the launch. The expectation was that the satellite would go into orbit, come around Earth, and reach California in about 91 minutes.
He added that 91 minutes after launch, when the satellite was supposed to be in the reception window, there was no reception.
"For about an hour following receipt of the last down-range station reports, there was an exasperating absence of information," Van Allen said. "The clock ticked away and we all drank coffee to allay our collective anxiety. After some 90 minutes all conversation ceased and an air of dazed disappointment settled over the room.
"Then, nearly two hours after launch, a telephone report of confirmed reception of the radio signal by two professional stations in Earthquake Valley, California, was received," he added. "The roomful of people exploded with exultation, and everyone was pounding each other on the back with mutual congratulations."
After the successful launch and signal acquisition, von Braun said, "We have now established our foothold in space, we will never give it up again."
The primary science instrument on the satellite was a cosmic ray detector designed to measure the radiation environment in Earth orbit. Explorer 1 was the first spacecraft to detect a belt of electronically charged particles emanating from the sun and held in place by the earth's magnetic field. This belt was later named for Van Allen. The satellite continued to return data until its batteries were exhausted after nearly four months. It reentered the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean March 31, 1970, having made more than 58,000 orbits.
On the night of the launch, then an Air Force first lieutenant, Dr. John Meisenheimer Sr., served as a meteorologist with Detachment. 11, 4th Weather Group, at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, and provided weather forecasts to the launch management team throughout the countdown.
"Had I not correctly predicted the extreme upper air wind shear on Jan. 29 and 30, the rocket almost certainly would have gone off-course and been destroyed by Range Safety," Meisenheimer said.
Meisenheimer was on the roof of the central control building and remembered it being a clear night and realizing he would be a witness to America's entrance into the space age.
"It is a wonderful memory to have had a part in that historical event that was so very important for the USA," Meisenheimer said, not knowing how far future NASA teams would take the nation into space.
Approximately two hours after launch, it was confirmed that Explorer 1 had successfully completed its first orbit around the earth.
Meisenheimer said it was a very exciting time and the people he worked with accomplished amazing things. He added that he still cannot believe how far along the technology used to forecast the weather and launch rockets has come.
"I must honestly say that I am very proud of my role in the Explorer 1 launch," Meisenheimer said. "It was very exciting during the launch. I left the blockhouse of Pad 26A after giving my last forecast and went up high on the steps of the Central Control building so I could get a perfect view of the launch. I can still remember seeing the upper stage rotating as the rocket was launched."
Years after the success of Explorer I, Van Allen spoke about the significance of the Army taking the first step in leading America's journey in space exploration.
"The successful orbiting of Explorer I is one of the landmarks in the technical and scientific history of the human race," Van Allen said. "Its instrumentation revealed the existence of radiation belts around the Earth and opened a massive new field of scientific exploration in space. It inspired an entire generation of young men and women in the United States to higher achievement and propelled the Western World into the Space Age."