Friday, January 19, 2018

As the Super Blue Moon is Eclipsed, Remember Our First Satellite

By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

Photographed through a telescopic tracking camera from the Air Force Missile Test Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida on December 21, 1957, a Soviet booster passes overhead.  Based upon its estimated size, this is probably Sputnik 2, which launched on November 7 with the first animal to orbit the earth, Laika the dog.  Unfortunately, her capsule failed to separate from the booster and she died within hours due to overheating (a failure that the Soviets concealed).  A similar modified Soviet ICBM had lofted Sputnik I on October 4.  As far as American rocket engineers at the time could tell, this was the second orbital success by the Soviets in as many months.  Meanwhile, the first serious American orbital attempt had failed spectacularly on December 6.  (U.S. National Archives RG-330 via Naval History and Heritage Command/Flickr)  

These days we take for granted our nation’s versatile earth satellites that give us accurate weather information, convey nearly instantaneous voice and broadcast transmissions across the world and keep a close eye on our adversaries from their strategic space vantage points. Our earth satellites also track animal and bird migrations, highlight areas of vegetation and drought and provide global navigational aids, including travel directions we rely on from our personal GPS units.

So how and when did we first start launching earth satellites?

When we launched our first earth satellite, Explorer I, on January 31, 1958, we were playing catch-up at the dawn of this exciting era. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik I on Oct. 4, 1957, nearly four months before we duplicated its unprecedented feat. I clearly recall both of these accomplishments well. I was about to graduate from South Philly High School when Sputnik dazzled the world. And I had just started my freshman year, studying journalism at Penn State, when the United States orbited Explorer I.

Soldiers of a field artillery missile group erect a Redstone IRBM.  Named for the facility in Northern Alabama where it was developed, the Chrysler-built missile was designed to propel a conventional or atomic warhead 175 miles. Some of its basic propulsion technology was based upon the German V-2, and its development was guided by some of the V-2's designers, including the chief of both missile programs, Wernher von Braun.  (
History shows we could have beaten the Soviets into space if we had used a proven launch vehicle, one originally designed as a military rocket: The Redstone-an intermediate range ballistic missile. However, the Eisenhower administration wanted to show the world that we could, instead, use a new launch vehicle; one that was developed for the peaceful exploration of space, to orbit our first earth satellite. He based his opinion on the fact that NASA would soon be stood up, on July 29, 1958, to explore space peacefully for all mankind-and also that we were participating in the International Geophysical Year. So Ike, instead, chose the U.S. Navy’s civilian-developed Vanguard rocket. By that time the Soviets had already successfully launched two earth-orbiting satellites. 
Rigged for pre-launching tests in September 1957, the third Vanguard test vehicle and final scientific Earth satellite launcher is spotlighted against the night sky at the Air Force Missile Test Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Part of the United States' participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) was a program to launch small scientific Earth satellites. Technical phases of the  satellite program were assigned to the Department of Defense, which in turn assigned the job to the Office of Naval Research under the designation Project Vanguard. Engineers and technicians from the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C. worked with the Martin Company in developing the testing of the three-stage satellite launching vehicle. (U.S. National Archives RG-330 via Naval History and Heritage Command/Flickr)  
Vanguard Test Vehicle 3 experiences a catastrophic failure at approximately 4:44 pm on December 6, 1957.  Only two seconds after liftoff, the rocket lost thrust and crashed back into its launch pad.  Although presumed to be caused by a fuel leak, the exact cause of the highly-publicized debacle was never determined.  (U.S. National Archives RG-330 via Naval History and Heritage Command/Flickr)  
I also remember watching on television the failed attempt to launch Vanguard 1, on Dec. 4, 1957, in a live telecast from Cape Canaveral. The result was the rocket rose about four feet before it exploded, sending a still-beeping three-pound satellite into nearby Florida brush.

Finally, the United States shifted gears and tasked Dr. Wcrnher von Braun, the former German rocket engineer and his Peenemunde team that he led during World War II, to use the Redstone rocket to launch our nation’s first earth satellite.
Although his day job for the Army during the early-1950s was to develop delivery vehicles for weapons of mass-destruction, Werner von Braun yearned to channel his efforts into space exploration.  To that end he became a pioneer in space-related public relations, years before NASA even existed.  He is seen here serving as the host of a Defense Department film “The Challenge of Outer Space.”  The 50-minute film presented a comprehensive discussion of space travel possibilities. The photograph was released February 29, 1956. (U.S. National Archives via Naval History and Heritage Command/Flickr)  
At that time, the main von Braun team worked at the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency facility in Huntsville, Alabama. A few years before the Explorer I launch, this civilian and U.S. Army group was developing, and later launching, ballistic military missiles on test flights from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

In those early days of U.S. military rocket testing, von Braun sent ABMA launch teams and their hardware to the Cape on temporary duty. Once they launched their missiles, which were trucked from Huntsville to the Cape, the crews returned to Alabama. Eventually, von Braun established a permanent presence at the Florida site, and he assigned one of his key team members, Dr. Kurt Debus, also a Peenemunde alumnus, to oversee this effort.

Dr. Werner Von Braun and Dr. Kurt Debus, Director of the Kennedy Space Center, attend the Saturn 500F rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in 1966. The Saturn 500F, after testing the VAB stacking operations, was used to test the crawler transport and Launch Pad 39A operations. (NASA via Wikimedia Commons)
In later years, Dr. Debus would head the Cape’s Launch Operations Center, renamed as the John F. Kennedy Space Center, in memory of our late president. Dr. Debus and other members of von Braun’s World War II launch team would assume top managerial positions at this Florida launch site and at the Huntsville production facility.

My interaction for eight years with these transplanted World War II German rocketeers at the Cape, such as when I interviewed them for stories I wrote for KSC’s employee newspaper and for external news releases, was generally favorable. Looking back, I had mixed personal feelings about the former Peenemunde experts. But, I reasoned, the U.S. needed their unique qualifications after the war. I say this because these same Germans had developed, built and flight-tested V-1 and V-2 missiles that the German Army later launched at civilian targets in Britain. In all, some 10,000 V-1s were launched at London and nearby English cities, resulting in 22,000 casualties, including 6,000 deaths. And 1,500 V-2s were launched against London, killing more than 7,000, in addition to causing extensive property damage.
A display of jet and rocket-powered German munitions from the Second World War at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, Shropshire, England, features (foreground), a V-1 cruise missile and (background), a V-2 IRBM. (Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons
The V-1 was a cruise missile with an explosive payload of about 1.600 pounds.  It was nicknamed a “buzz bomb” due to its in-fight eerie sounds heard en route to its targets. Some were shot down by air or ground fire.

By contrast, the V-2 guided ballistic missile was more frightening. It struck with no advance warning from its space trajectory, and couldn’t be destroyed by the Allies in flight. After the war, the V-2 morphed into the Redstone rocket, under von Braun’s guidance, and some of its technology, ironically, was incorporated in our manned Apollo launches to the moon.

Following the first Sputnik launch, comedian Bob Hope reportedly joked that the Soviets’ captured German scientists were better than ours. But in reality, the U.S. got the best of the best. More than 100 German scientists, engineers and technicians surrendered to the Americans and were brought to our country under “Operation Paperclip.” They believed it was better to work for the Americans than the Soviets.

At the Office of Naval Research, Werhner von Braun proposed a joint Army-Navy venture in June 1954 using the Redstone as the main booster.  Dubbed Project Orbiter, the proposal reached the cabinet level in the Department of Defense in January 1955, only to be nixed in favor of Project Vanguard.  Von Braun's Redstone was waiting in the wings when Vanguard crashed and burned on the pad in December 1957.  His team used components created for Project Orbiter and launched RS29, this modified Jupiter C utilizing the Redstone as its first stage, into orbit on January 31, 1958. (
After being told initially to take a back seat to our Navy’s unproven Vanguard rocket, the von Braun team, under the direction of U.S. Army Major General John Medaris, successfully launched Explorer I at 10:48 p.m. on January 31, 1958, from Launch Complex 26-A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

One main reason the von Braun team was able to launch Explorer I in about three months after finally being tasked, was because it was constantly improving the Redstone hardware in the interim, while Gen. Medaris was storing these upgraded components in the event the Army Ballistic Missile Agency was called on to replace the ineffective early Vanguard launch vehicles.

The Redstone, which incorporated the Juno rocket, was the first stage of the four-stage, approximately six-story-tall Jupiter-C space vehicle that launched America’s first earth satellite. The Jupiter- C’s first stage, a Redstone, lifted off with 78,000 pounds of thrust-sufficient power to later launch two one-man Mercury missions-milestones that were flown by astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, respectively.

Because this was a military launch, the number painted on the Redstone--UE--was coded as being the 29th vehicle in this rocket series. The UE evolved from the city name of Huntsville. The second letter in Huntsville was designated a “2,”with the “U” being the ninth letter
Army Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris, head of the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency, inspects a model of Explorer I with Dr. Wernher von Braun and members of his team.   (  
Resembling a rolling pin in shape, Explorer I was nearly eight feet long, six inches in diameter and weighed about 30 pounds. It transmitted scientific data via radio signals to earth, which it orbited every 115 minutes. At its farthest point from earth, Explorer I’s apogee was more than 1,560 miles. At its closest, or perigee, it orbited 225 miles above earth.

In addition to the Redstone rocket team, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena,  built the Explorer I satellite. It was assisted by Iowa State University scientists who, with JPL, helped develop the onboard radiological, micrometeorite detectors and other sensors. In addition to providing much-needed psychological reinforcement to Americans, Explorer I documented the existence of the James van Allen radiation belts surrounding the earth, while pursuing President Eisenhower’s goal of exploring space for peaceful purposes.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Dr. William H Pickering, who was born in New Zealand, Dr. James Van Allen, a native Iowan, and the German-born Dr. Dr. Wernher von Braun raise their arms in triumph, holding a model of Explorer I after its successful launch. (  
Explorer I transmitted data for about four months after it was orbited, and remained silently in orbit for another 12 years. It reentered the earth’s atmosphere on March 30, 1970 and, of course, burned up.

Coincidentally, a second super moon is forecast to appear over our East Coast this January 31, the 60th anniversary of Explorer I’s launch. Cloud cover permitting, a partial eclipse will be visible over this “blue moon."  I’d like to imagine this coincidence is a tribute to the outstanding accomplishment of orbiting America’s own moon 60 years ago.
A Jupiter booster on display at Hampton Air Power Park, near Langley Air Force Base (M.C. Farrington)
In his congratulatory letter to Explorer I’s team on the tenth anniversary of the satellite’s launching, President Eisenhower said, in part:

Though Explorer I no longer transmits from its outer Space "berth," it serves as a silent sentinel, ushering new American space accomplishments along the first leg of their varied space missions. The Explorer I’s launch team’s dedication and ingenuity also is evident nowadays and, hopefully, will provide an inspiration for future space engineers in years and centuries to come.
As a side note about Explorer I’s launch site, Complex 26-A, one of my former carpool members and fellow Cape worker, space aficionado Dick Coup wanted to get married at this site. So after getting NASA’s permission and promising that the ceremony wouldn’t interfere with tour buses stopping there, another historical milestone took place in 1970. After the ceremony, my wife, Enid, and I hosted their reception at our home on nearby Merritt Island. Coup was a NASA contractor who taught school children about the space agency’s accomplishments, as part of the Space Mobile project.

Editor’s Note: In addition to serving as public affairs officer for 17 years at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Steve Milner was also a public affairs contractor with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at Cape Canaveral during the manned Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs.

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