Late on the night of Jan. 31, 1958, it was party time in downtown Huntsville, Alabama. Thousands of local residents gathered on the square around the county courthouse amid the din created by blaring sirens, blasting car horns, exploding fireworks, and the sounds of human jubilation. People waved their own homemade signs or held up placards provided by the city’s Boys Club, showing what local journalists described as the “infectious excitement and swelling pride at having a part — however small — in launching the new artificial moon.”
News of the blast-off itself was all that was needed to get the commotion started. In only 84 days, the people of Huntsville had moved from shock over the launches of Sputnik I and Sputnik II to celebrating the successful orbit of EXPLORER I. The following day the hometown newspaper issued a “Satellite Extra” commemorating “Huntsville’s Satellite.” Thousands of congratulatory telegrams flowed into town and arsenal. Previously planned festivities to mark the Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s (ABMA’s) second anniversary continued the prior night’s downtown celebration onto Redstone Arsenal for much of Saturday.
Throughout the United States it seemed almost miraculous to the American public that Dr. Wernher von Braun, head of ABMA’s Development Operations Division; Dr. William H. Pickering, director of the Army’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL); and Dr. James A. Van Allen, the University of Iowa space scientist who provided the instrumentation, and their respective associates could have launched the first U.S. Earth satellite in less than three months after receiving the mission.
In actuality, more than 20 years of dedicated hard work had laid a strong foundation for the years of intense effort between 1953 and 1958 when the rocket scientists and engineers who originally worked for the Guided Missile Development Division of Redstone Arsenal’s Ordnance Missile Laboratories first informally began to consider plans for a minimal satellite launch vehicle using “off-the-shelf” components. As the ABMA Public Information Office later reminded journalists and their readers, “EXPLORERs don’t just happen — they represent a tremendous amount of scientific and technical effort, planning, investigations, and computations involving all the physical sciences and most of the fields of engineering.”
Manmade satellites first orbited the planet as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957 to 1958. In November 1952, the international committee established to manage the massive program dispatched invitations to take part in the IGY to national scientific organizations and international scientific unions across the globe. The call for participants ultimately attracted 67 nations, involved 4,000 research stations and about 60,000 scientists, and cost an estimated $200 million to $1 billion in 1958 U.S. dollars. Preliminary planning for and work on the project began formally in the United States in February 1953. It took until March 1954 for the Soviet Academy of Sciences to decide to join the endeavor.
Rockets and satellites were two of the most significant technological advancements to be employed during the IGY. At its meeting in Rome on Oct. 4, 1954, international committee members proposed “that thought be given to the launching of small satellite vehicles…,” a suggestion that would have significant ramifications for the U.S. Army missile and rocket missions being consolidated at Redstone Arsenal. On July 29, 1955, the White House announced President Dwight D. Eisenhower had approved U.S. plans for participating in the satellite-launch venture. The following day, the Soviet Union made public its intention to place a satellite in orbit, as well.
Even before orbital launch vehicles became part of the IGY, the Von Braun team and the Office of Naval Research in Washington won approval for a joint endeavor called Project Orbiter. As part of this effort, Von Braun produced the first true engineered thesis for a minimum satellite vehicle utilizing existing Army Ordnance Corps hardware. By May 1955, plans had been laid for the launch of an Earth satellite by September 1956. However, unexpected competing launch-vehicle proposals from the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and the U.S. Air Force caused an abrupt halt to Project Orbiter. In September 1955, the Department of Defense selected the NRL plan, which later became known as Project VANGUARD.
Although the latter project began with much enthusiasm and high expectations, it was “basically a crash program” for a complex satellite-launch vehicle with a high public profile. Compared to the proposed Project Orbiter a later journalist described the NRL project as a thoroughbred and the Army plan as a workhorse. Almost from the start, however, Project VANGUARD was troubled by a lack of sufficient time for the research, development, and testing of its technically ambitious plan. Meanwhile, higher headquarters informed the Army that it was not to initiate any plans or preparations as the basis for an orbital launch vehicle.
It was at this time that the essential organizational elements and personnel responsible for the Army’s early accomplishments in space came together on Feb. 1, 1956 with the activation of ABMA. The Von Braun team and the rest of Redstone Arsenal’s Guided Missile Development Division also became part of the new agency. Although ABMA began its existence with purely military mission responsibilities for the new JUPITER Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, the ongoing REDSTONE ballistic missile, and management of the new PERSHING Medium Range Ballistic Missile, it would be known and remembered best for its space achievements.
While NRL’s Project VANGUARD team worked through the myriad details, challenges, and problems associated with trying to put up the nation’s first artificial satellite within the IGY time constraints, the scientists and engineers at ABMA and JPL kept the rejected Orbiter launch vehicle viable by making it the test missile for the JUPITER nose cone reentry tests. One major triumph of this effort was the firing of JUPITER-C RS-27, a staged missile that could have orbited the world’s first Earth satellite had permission been granted to do so.
Despite growing apprehension and frustration among the ABMA and JPL researchers, most Americans in 1957 overlooked one important rival in the Cold War race to space. Although they were cautious at first about committing support to the IGY of 1957 and 1958, once the Soviets did endorse the international endeavor they became very outspoken about the U.S.S.R.’s plans to launch an Earth satellite. Unconcerned about the niceties of design, dignity, or a nonmilitary pedigree for their launch vehicle, the Soviets perceived the IGY Earth satellite program as a worldwide competition that they meant to win.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the U.S.S.R. successfully placed the first satellite into orbit around the Earth. Although it carried no specific scientific instrumentation, Sputnik I “was able to transmit some temperature and density measurements to the ground, demonstrating that spacecraft could supply valuable information from space.” The first Sputnik’s rudimentary design, however, resulted from schedule delays on the sophisticated and significantly larger “Object D” originally intended for launch. Soviet concern that the United States would put up its satellite first convinced them to scrap the more complex Object D “for a “lighter, simpler design.” It was primarily a technical demonstration of Soviet missile and orbital hardware, which announced to the world that the U.S.S.R. had surpassed its American rival in the race to space that the Western superpower had been expected to win.
That same evening, news of the Soviet achievement transformed a social event at Redstone Arsenal for visiting Secretary of Defense designate Neil H. McElroy into an off-the-cuff yet fervent bid by Von Braun to win McElroy’s permission for the ABMA rocket team to respond to the Soviet challenge. The usually unflappable rocket scientist vowed to launch America’s first Earth satellite within 60 days. ABMA commander, Maj. Gen. John B. Medari,s quickly modified that time span to 90 days. Despite Von Braun’s passionate plea to “turn us loose and let us do something,” it would be another 35 days before the teams at Redstone Arsenal and JPL actually received the go-ahead on their already-proven satellite-launch project.
While some Eisenhower administration officials discounted the “one small ball in the air” as a threat to U.S. security and technological superiority, many Americans were flabbergasted by the Soviet accomplishment. A month later, the Soviet Union once more transfixed the international community by placing the stray dog, Laika, into orbit. It was, remarked veteran newscaster Mike Wallace, “a second punch in a row” that convinced McElroy to give the Army teams at Redstone Arsenal and JPL an unequivocal green light on Nov. 8 to proceed with preparing the Army’s JUPITER-C RS-29 as an alternate satellite carrier.
At the same time, though, the White House decided on an earlier VANGUARD launch, forcing NRL to attempt to orbit a satellite ahead of schedule. On Dec. 6, 1957, the VANGUARD test vehicle rose about 4 feet off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, before the engine lost thrust, causing the vehicle to collapse in a fiery explosion in full view of the international press corps and the first-ever live television cameras allowed at the Cape’s launch facilities. It also increased the pressure to succeed felt by the ABMA teams in Alabama and California.
The 84 days from Nov. 8, 1957 to Jan. 31, 1958 were a hectic, exciting blur of readying the Army launch vehicle, preparing launch pad 26A of Launch Complex 26 at Cape Canaveral, assembling the three upper stages, building the satellite, and packaging the scientific payload. Although team members completed their intense preparations within the allotted time span, unfortunately, the weather was not cooperative in the final days of the Army’s satellite launch endeavor.
As a subsequent ABMA press release detailed, the forecast at the Cape had been a matter of serious worry since Jan. 29, 1958, the originally scheduled launch date. Heavy thunderstorms as well as high surface and upper winds caused by a dip in the northern jet stream forced the Army to postpone until Jan. 30, when another “‘no-go’ forecast” added considerably to the mounting pressure to succeed. Finally the atmospheric conditions relented on Friday, Jan. 31. At 10:48 p.m. EST the rocket blasted off with its scientific payload. It was in orbit seven minutes later.
The sense of euphoria shared by the launch team in Florida and in the Pentagon War Room where Von Braun, Pickering, and Van Allen waited along with Secretary of the Army Wilbur M. Brucker and “a selected handful of generals and top Army scientists” was tempered quickly by the decision to verify the satellite’s orbit by receipt of its signal at 12:41 a.m. EST, when it was estimated it would be audible to JPL’s temporary tracking station in Earthquake Valley, outside San Diego. Little did the people waiting in Washington D.C. and Florida know that a final unexpected “hiccup” in their calculations, brought on by the upper atmospheric winds, would add one last measure of anxiety to the anticipated 106-minute wait between liftoff and signal acquisition.
As Pickering explained later, “It went a little faster than we expected, so the orbit went out a little bit farther and so took a little longer to go around.” As the time for hearing the satellite pass came and went without a sound “an air of dazed disappointment settled over” the War Room. Within eight minutes, though, deflation became elation when the tracking station in California reported EXPLORER I was definitely in orbit. Once the vigil was over high spirits abounded at the Pentagon, as well as at the Cape.
The 30.8-pound stainless steel, bullet-shaped artificial moon circled the Earth once every 113 minutes providing radio-transmitted data on temperatures, cosmic rays, and meteorites. Van Allen’s instrumentation also detected the two belts of intense radiation encircling the planet that now bear his name. This discovery is still considered to be the single greatest achievement of the IGY of 1957 and 1958.
EXPLORER I transmitted its last useable data 63 days after it achieved orbit. Originally estimated to remain aloft from two to 10 years, the satellite continued to circle the globe more than 58,000 times before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific on March 31, 1970.
“ABMA ‘Birthday Gift:’ Explorer,” The Redstone Rocket (February 5, 1958): 1-2.
Barbour, John A. “It Was Workhorse Vs. Thoroughbred,” The Greenville [SC] News (February 2, 1958): 1.
Hughes, Kaylene. Eight Minutes of Silence … 60 Years in Space. Redstone, AL: U.S.
Army Aviation and Missile Command History Office, January 31, 2018.
Hughes, Kaylene. “From Shock to Celebration in 84 Days: The Redstone Arsenal-Huntsville
Response to Sputnik,” Initiatives (October 2007): 21-22.
Hughes, Kaylene. “Leader Note: Explorer I Anniversary Showcases Impact Army had on Space
Program,” AMCOM Flight, January 29, 2018.
Hughes, Kaylene. Redstone Arsenal’s Pioneering Efforts in Space. Redstone Arsenal, AL:
Historical Division, Secretary of the General Staff, U.S. Army Missile Command, 2d
“Jupiter C Puts Up Moon,” The Huntsville Times Satellite Extra (February 1, 1958): 1-2.
Public Information Office, Explorer Press Release, Redstone Arsenal, AL: Army Ballistic Missile
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“U.S. Satellite Sending Back Important Data As It Circles The Earth,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (February 2, 1958): 1.
Dr. Kaylene Hughes has worked in the AMCOM History Office for almost 36 years. She has helped to celebrate the launch of Sputnik and EXPLORER I since she was in elementary school, where she learned to sing such songs as “Beep! Beep! (Here Comes A Satellite)” by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer, released as part of the six-album Singing Science series for children.