Watching the Space Race: Finally! America Enters the Race with Explorer

by Walt Staples


The TV picture was crystal clear—which by today's standards means it was grainy and in living black and white. The thing that caught the eye was the spinning cylinder at the top of the rocket, just below the last stage. That one side was painted white and the other black made it seem to almost blink. Black chevrons running between a pair of black bands encircling the second stage screamed that the launch vehicle was a product of Wernher von Braun's Redstone Arsenal shop (I didn't know it at the time, but the Army did this with their domesticated V2s and later American made rockets that they launched from White Sands so they could study the rockets' roll pattern). The night scene on the TV lit up as flame billowed up around the lower part of the rocket. Rather than tiredly falling over and exploding as in the previous launch attempt of an American satellite, the Army's rocket rose slowly into the dark sky. Explorer I was on it's way. We were in space!


Explorer's launch was a bright spot in the winter of my family's discontent. The launch occurred near the cusp of 31 December-1 February 1958 (22:48 EST, 31 December and 03:48 GMT, 1 February). At the time, I was safely in bed (when you're seven, you have to put up with such ridiculous hours as a 20:00 bedtime—thank you, WSLS-Channel 10 for the early news on Saturdays). The Wednesday before, my mother and I put my father on a Piedmont DC-3 to Corning, New York. He'd given up trying to make ends meet working for a Roanoke exterminator and Corning Glass was the closest anyone was erecting steel. We'd get to see him for a weekend every three months.

Explorer's launch had an electric effect on Americans. Suddenly, we were in the race. The jokes stopped...mostly, and people were eager to scan the papers for stories about spaceflight. For us kids, Christmas came twice in 1958. As far as we were concerned, the Army was ten feet tall! (The Navy returned to our good graces when Monogram Models' 1/48th scale F4U Corsair appeared on drugstore shelves that spring—you just can't stay mad at a service that flew such a neat airplane.) Proof that America had entered the Space Age came Christmas 1958 when Marx Toys' Cape Canaveral playset pushed aside their Dinosaur Land playset from under the tree.

At the time, everyone knew the Explorer launch vehicle as the “Jupiter-C,” an outgrowth of the Army's Redstone nuclear-capable ballistic missile. To the illuminati, it was actually designated the Juno 1 to distinguish it from the original Jupiter-C which was used in 1956 and 1957 for suborbital flights as a re-entry vehicle testbed.

The Explorer satellite, itself, was shaped like a mini-rocket rather than a ball like its predecessors, weighing in at about 31 pounds (14 kg), and was produced by the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), a truly wonderful place.

One of the things the Army was keeping under its helmet was that the data on cosmic ray strikes they were receiving from Explorer wasn't adding up. Instead of the nice steady rate of comic ray strikes they expected, when the satellite was at about 300 miles (500 km), Explorer received the expected hits; when it rose to 1,250+ miles (2,000+ km), it said there were no hits at all. It wasn't until the launch of Explorer III that a team under Dr. James Van Allen at the University of Iowa tumbled to what was going on—the Earth's magnetic field had a pair of belts of charged particles trapped in space and the detector was swamped at the higher altitude. These belts were christened the “Van Allen Belt” for some reason. (Oh, and Explorer II? It failed to reach orbit when it was launched on 5 March 1958, so we don't like to talk about it.)

A second thing under that helmet was that, supposedly, von Braun and the Army were ordered in 1956 by the White House not to attempt to orbit a satellite. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted the first satellite orbited by a squeaky-clean civilian rocket. After the civilian bird (built by the Naval Research Laboratory) laid an egg, Washington burnt up the phone lines to Huntsville looking to get something—anything--into orbit. And orbit they did.

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