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Space Flight Achievements

Updated on December 31, 2016

The opportunity for achievements presented itself in the International Geophysical Year. The IGY was a program for international cooperation among meteorologists, geophysicists, and other scientists in obtaining scientific data on a worldwide basis from July 1957 through December 1958. The concept of an instrumented, artificial earth satellite was accepted as a desirable part of the IGY program by the international convening group of scientists.

Russia's Space First

In July 1955 the United States established an earth satellite program, selecting Vanguard rather than the Army's Jupiter C rocket. Vanguard was an all-new, 3-stage launch vehicle design capable of placing a 21.5 pound (9.7 kg) instrumented satellite in orbit. Thus commenced the chain of seriocomic events culminating in the Russian launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on Oct. 4, 1957. This demonstration of Soviet space power caught the world by surprise as Sputnik's "beep-beep' signal was tracked around the world. Many high-level U. S. officials and scientists first tried to downgrade the event, but the public nevertheless responded in shock and concern.

The USSR next launched the dog Laika into orbit in Sputnik 2 on Nov. 3, 1957, to obtain bio-medical data. Sputnik 1 weighed 184 pounds (83 kg), and Sputnik 2 weighed 1,121 pounds (504 kg). When the first attempt to orbit the 8 pound (3.6 kg) Vanguard satellite failed disastrously on December 6, worldwide press reaction was instantaneous: the fact that the USSR was leading the West in space was equated to mean Russian scientific and technical superiority.

The real explanation was that the USSR had made use of their large, military rocket development. The Soviets had developed a much larger intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear fission warhead. The United States, having successfully developed the smaller, more powerful fusion warhead, could achieve ICBM capability with a much smaller launch vehicle. Thus the United States had a more efficient ICBM arsenal, but the USSR had a much greater space launch capability.

Early Efforts

It should be added that immediately after World War II some consideration had been given to the feasibility of launching an earth satellite, but that the U. S. Department of Defense rejected the idea as having neither scientific nor military value. By mid-1954, however, von Braun and his team had a plan for launching a minimum weight satellite. It was based on a special test vehicle required for the Army's Jupiter, an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) under development. That is, the 1,500 mile (2,400 km) range of Jupiter required a high-performance launch vehicle for reentry tests. The special booster was an elongated Redstone rocket with three upper stages of clustered solid rockets. Essentially the same launch vehicle, designated Jupiter C, could meet the Jupiter reentry test needs and also have satellite launch capability. Thus a satellite launch vehicle was available as a by-product of the Army's ballistic missile development program. In fact, by the fall of 1954 a quasi-approved program, Project Orbiter, was under way, jointly supported by the Army and the Office of Naval Research.

Project Orbiter was not regarded as being as important as the Navy's 3-stage vehicle, Vanguard, which had the advantage (so it seemed to the deliberating scientists) of having no military "taint". The Vanguard program was underfunded and plagued with administrative and technical problems. Yet when the Naval Research Laboratory stated that by July 1958 perhaps only one success out of six launchings might result, no one worried about the propaganda effect of a successful Soviet launching. And no one conceived that the USSR would launch such a large satellite. In fact it was not until March 17, 1958, that a Vanguard satellite (not the first U. S. satellite) was successfully launched. It performed perfectly in its high orbit for several years.

A year of frenzied U. S. effort commenced in 1958, with Congressional investigations in Washington attempting to find scapegoats for the U. S. space lag and to counter the Soviet achievements in space. It was brought out that if Department of Defense approval had been given, Jupiter C could have launched a satellite a year before Sputnik. Five days after Sputnik 2 was launched, the Army was given the go-ahead to use a Jupiter C as a launch vehicle as a backup program for Vanguard. On Jan. 31, 1958, the first U. S. satellite, Explorer I, was boosted into orbit by Jupiter-C. Instrumentation was developed by California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and James Van Allen of the University of Iowa. An unusually high radiation count recorded and transmitted by Explorer I was noted. In March 1958, by the use of a tape recorder, Explorer III provided data that mapped the inner area of a doughnut-shaped zone of radiation surrounding the earth. In December 1958, Pioneer III discovered the outer area of the radiation; at the time it was thought to be a separate region, but this was later found not to be true. The radiation belt, now called Van Allen belt, was considered the most significant major scientific discovery resulting from the IGY.

The earlier Pioneer I and Pioneer II had been lunar probe attempts using a launch vehicle based upon the Thor IRBM. Pioneer III was launched by a Juno booster. None of these Pioneer probes succeeded in reaching the moon. However, important new data were obtained from the attempts. Meanwhile, the Thor IRBM and Atlas ICBM were tested.

In the midst of these U.S. deliberations about the Soviet lead, the USSR orbited Sputnik 3 on May 15, 1958. It weighed more than a ton. An orbiting geophysical laboratory containing many experiments, it operated successfully for two years before orbital decay caused it to reenter the earth's atmosphere and burn up.


Clearly the United States needed a national space program and an organization to manage it. Accordingly, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created on Oct. 1, 1958. Based on the long-established National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA had overall responsibility for space programs other than military. Dedicated to exploration of space by unmanned and manned spacecraft and dissemination of the knowledge gained, NASA was given a broad charter that included encouragement of international cooperation. The remainder of the Vanguard program and its personnel were transferred from the Navy to NASA. The von Braun team at Hunts-ville was taken from Army cognizance and became part of NASA, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory went under exclusive contract to NASA.

The year 1958 was drawing to a close when an Atlas ICBM was placed in orbit, carrying a tape recording of a Christmas message of President Eisenhower. It was transmitted on signal, becoming the first voice telemetered from space. At the year's end a rapidly escalating space effort was under way both by NASA and in such military programs as reconnaissance and nuclear explosion detection satellites, using Air Force IRBM's and ICBM's and a Navy submarine-launched Polaris IRBM. Nevertheless, the space advantage clearly was with the USSR. It would be three or four years before equal capability of the two nations could be argued successfully.


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