Thursday, May 4, 2023

America’s Space Goals and Reputation Rode into Orbit with Explorer I

By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

Blog author Steve Milner with a full-scale, non-flyable Apollo/Saturn V space vehicle used to perform fit checks and mobile launcher connections, November 1967.

Sixty-five years ago, on January 31, 1958, the United States entered the space age when it successfully launched and orbited Explorer I, our nation’s first earth satellite. This 30-pound payload was launched by the Army’s Redstone rocket as the first stage of the four-stage vehicle. This payload included scientific instruments that, among other measurements, discovered an inner radiation belt around earth named for its prime researcher, Dr. James Van Allen. And incredibly, less than 11 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and returned safely to earth, fulfilling President John Kennedy’s directive issued in May 1961—to achieve this monumental task ahead of the Soviet Union. But we were initially playing catch-up, because the Russians had already dazzled the world by launching Sputnik, the first earth satellite, in October 1957, nearly four months ahead of Explorer I. In doing so the Soviets used a powerful military rocket for the “push” needed to send a satellite into earth orbit.

At that time the U.S. had the rocket hardware and the smarts to beat the Soviets, but President Dwight Eisenhower wanted to show the world we would, instead, pursue space exploration by not using a proven military launch vehicle. Eisenhower’s idea was a noble one but not from a public relations standpoint—and the Soviets capitalized on their beeping Sputnik, orbiting earth every 90 minutes, repeatedly signaling its dominance in space.

Instead, the U.S. tried to launch its Vanguard satellite, using a much less powerful and unproven rocket. I clearly remember watching on live television as Vanguard exploded on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral on December 4, 1957. (The first successful Vanguard was launched from the Cape two months after the Army’s Explorer I launch.)

Three key persons involved in the successful Explorer I launch were, left-to-right: Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director, Dr William Pickering; Dr. James van Allen of the University of Iowa; and Dr. Wernher von Braun of the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency. (U.S. Army)

Finally, the United States switched gears and tasked Dr. Wernher von Braun, the former World War II German rocket engineer, and his Peenemunde team, along with U.S. engineers, to use the Redstone missile as the Jupiter-C’s first stage to launch our first earth satellite.

A modified Jupiter-C used a Restone rocket as its first stage to launch America’s first earth satellite, Explorer I, on January 31, 1958. The UE designation was a once-classified code that designated the specific Redstone used for this mission. (NASA)

Explorer I resembled a rolling pin in shape and was nearly eight feet long and six inches in diameter. It transmitted data to earth and orbited every 115 minutes. At its farthest point from earth, Explorer I’s apogee was more than 1,500 miles. At its closest point, or perigee, it orbited 225 miles above earth.

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 burned up.

Artist's concept of Explorer I (U.S. Army)

During the past 65 years, the U.S. has successfully launched a variety of satellites whose contributions we take for granted. These include those used for worldwide communications and weather forecasting, as well as for the global positioning (GPS), a setting we have on our phones. And there have been many spinoff products developed during our U.S. space program, in addition to significant advancements in computer technology.

As a NASA public affairs contractor at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral (then temporarily renamed Cape Kennedy), I was privileged to have worked with some members of the Explorer I launch team a decade later.

Editor’s Note: In addition to serving as the public affairs officer for 17 years at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Steve Milner was a NASA public affairs contractor at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral for nearly a decade, during the manned Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs.

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