Watching the Space Race: Why All of the Sudden?

by Walt Staples

The Sputnik I and II, Vanguard I, and Explorer I launches all hit around the end of 1957--beginning of 1958. Why? Even at the advanced age of seven, it never occurred to me that this was a nexus in history. At that age, things just happened with little or no rhyme or reason. The only things you could depend on were Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy—everything else was up for grabs.  About all a kid could do was enjoy the good parts and try to keep their head down through the bad. I was really only aware that suddenly rockets seemed to be popping out of the woodwork as the Americans and Soviets tried to outdo each other.

The reason for this somewhat unsightly scramble was that both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had pledged to join just about every other country in the world in taking part in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18 month period that would encompass research on the Earth sciences. The only two major  countries that didn't take part in the IGY were the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Peoples Republic of China (the mainland), who were too busy trying to kill each other at the time to worry about minor matters such as the Earth and what made it tick.

One of the main thrusts of the IGY was research revolving around the polar regions. True to the IGY's roots in the periodic International Polar Year scientific efforts, Antarctica was the scene of intense collaboration involving around 68 scientific organizations. For those of us following from the sidelines through TV, radio, newsreels, newspapers, and magazines such as Life and Look, it was pretty much accepted as a seamless continuation of the Navy's Operation Deep Freeze (the first two, Deep Freeze I and II, 1955-57), the building up of bases, stores, and equipment for the coming studies.

Aside from the two Sputnik orbital launches and the Vanguard misstep, there were 92 successful or attempted suborbital launches in support of the IGY from July 1957 to the end of the year, and, in 1958, 6 successful orbital missions out of 28 tries and 133 successful or attempted suborbital launches. Most of the suborbital launches were small sounding rockets such as the Aerobee and Britain's Skylark (the latter launched from Woomera, in South Australia). It's thought that some of the Soviet launches may have been in support of the IGY, but, as is often the case at that time, things start getting murky once one moves east of the Fulda Gap.

1958 also ushered in a number of failed efforts to launch exploratory probes to the moon. The Americans were ahead of the Soviets in blowing up lunar probes, with their first unsuccessful try at sending Pioneer 0 to the moon in August. The Soviets weren't able to lose their first lunar probe, Luna E-1 1 (NASA designation Luna 1958A), until September. Pioneer 1 and Luna E-1 2 (NASA designation Luna 1958B) were lost the same day, 11 October. The pain continued with Pioneer 2's failure to reach the moon in early November.

While the IGY was wildly successful with such discoveries as the Van Allen Belt, the corpuscular nature of radiation from the solar wind, and the non-space related evidence for the theory of Continental Drift provided by the discovery of the mid-ocean ridges, one question still stumped the American people--the why of an 18 month year eluded just about everyone not actually involved. Even the characters of Walt Kelly's popular comic strip, “Pogo,” seemed equally bemused, as Howland Owl and Churchy the turtle wonder if it meant the imposition of the ten-and-a-half-day week. I think my father summed up the feelings of many when, having just watched several heavy-hitters of science trying to explain it to “Today Show” host Dave Garroway, he quietly remarked, “I'm not totally sure some of those folks are from this planet.”

For more information:

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS


Post a Comment