By Pamela Cheney, U. S. Army Military History InstituteNovember 30, 2009
On December 6, 1958, the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency launched the first of two lunar probes authorized by the Secretary of Defense. Although this probe, Pioneer III, failed, it was followed up by Pioneer IV, which successfully passed within 36,000 miles of the moon and later became the first U.S. satellite in permanent orbit around the sun. These historic launches were only a portion of the U.S. ArmyAca,!a,,cs role in space exploration which continues even today from its roots in the 1940s.
Although the Army had done some experimentation during World War II, the Army began to study missilery and rocketry in earnest after the war. Operation Paperclip was the Army project to bring to the United States prominent German scientists, whom the U.S. Army immediately put under contract. The Army soon put this team to work refining and improving the wartime V-2 design. These V-2 rockets, whose successful use during the war is well known, came under intensive study with the help of these scientists, particularly Dr. Werner von Braun. Dr. von Braun was very highly regarded and helped to guide the early days of the Army rocket program.
The first U.S. Army built rocket to leave the atmosphere was launched on March 22, 1946, reaching a height of approximately 50 miles. These early rockets were single-stage, but it soon became apparent that multiple-stage rockets would be necessary in order to have the thrust necessary to lift objects into orbit. As a result, in May 1948, the Army successfully developed and launched a two-stage test vehicle, which was soon followed by the REDSTONE rocket, a direct descendant of the German V-2 rocket, whose first launch occurred in August 1952.
Research and development continued, and in June of 1954, Dr. von Braun suggested that it would be possible to put an object in orbit around the earth using the REDSTONE rocket. Meanwhile, the Navy and Air Force were also working toward the same goal. In the early summer of 1954, an effort to team up the Navy and Army led to a joint effort called Project Orbiter, based on the ArmyAca,!a,,cs REDSTONE rocket. Unfortunately, Project Orbiter was cancelled less than a year later in favor of the Naval Research LaboratoryAca,!a,,cs Viking rocket, and the Army received a mandate to not work further toward a satellite launch.
This prohibition continued until October of 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world with the successful launch of SPUTNIK I. The uproar caused by this led the Defense Department to do a U-turn and give a green light to the ArmyAca,!a,,cs attempt to complete a satellite launch. As a result, Jupiter I was launched on January 31, 1958, lifting a 30 pound satellite carrying scientific instruments into orbit around the earth; subsequently, at midnight, the President officially announced the first successful launch of an American satellite to great celebration all over the country.
After the creation of NASA in July 1958, pressure was mounting for the Army to transfer its space related assets to NASA, and the ABMAAca,!a,,cs scientists and engineers, including Dr. von Braun, were transferred to them on October 20, 1959. In July 1960, the Army formally lost the remainder of its space related mission. Even so, the ArmyAca,!a,,cs contribution endures in AmericaAca,!a,,cs continuing presence in space.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.