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Blast from the past: How Explorer 1, America's first satellite, launched the space race and NASA

Wednesday marks the United States’ 60th anniversary in space with the launch of Explorer 1.

The success of the fast-tracked mission, which carried the country’s first satellite into orbit, helped bring the little-known Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge to scientific prominence and led to the creation of NASA.

“I really believe that Explorer 1 was the first landmark of space exploration,” veteran JPL engineer John Casani said in a NASA video celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch. “Although it followed Sputnik, Explorer 1 had science instruments on it.”

Come along with us on a nostalgia-filled look back at how the U.S. entered the space race.

 
The anniversary of the Explorer 1 launch marks 60 years in space for the United States. NASA

‘Flopnik’

In 1957, the United States’ efforts to catch up to the Soviet Union had gotten off to a stuttering start.

The International Geophysical Year, a worldwide scientific project, challenged would-be space-faring nations to put a satellite in orbit. The U.S.S.R. was the first to do so, sending Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 into space in the fall of that year.

Newsreel footage covering the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957.

But the United States’ early effort, the Vanguard rocket, exploded on Dec. 6, just seconds after lifting off. The satellite it was carrying only got as far as the bushes near the edge of the Cape Canaveral launchpad. Newspapers called it “Flopnik.”

The Navy’s Vanguard rocket failed upon launch on Dec. 6, 1957.

Luckily, the United States had a backup plan: the Jupiter-C rocket and the Explorer 1 satellite.

JPL to the rescue

Pressure to compete with the Soviets led the government to direct the Jet Propulsion Lab, then operated by the Army, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Alabama to use their Jupiter-C rocket to carry a satellite into orbit. The Jupiter-C rockets were designed to strike distant targets across the globe, so they were deemed more than capable of reaching orbit.

Explorer I
An internal view of the Explorer 1 satellite. NASA / Marshall Space Flight Center Collection

Just 87 days after the order came down, Jupiter-C lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and sent Explorer 1 into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958, at 10:48 p.m. EST. The satellite, which weighed less than 31 pounds, was equipped with instruments to measure cosmic rays.

Two views of the Jupiter-C rocket launch that carried the Explorer 1 satellite into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958. (U.S. Army and NASA-JPL/Caltech)

Off the blocks in the space race

The minds behind the project — JPL Director William H. Pickering, Wernher von Braun of the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and James Van Allen, who developed the cosmic ray detector — described the rocket and satellite at a late-night news conference two hours after the launch. At the media’s request, the trio of scientists lifted one of their props above their heads.

William H. Pickering, James A. Van Allen and Wernher von Braun discuss the Explorer 1 launch and lift a model of the spacecraft over their heads.

‘The artificial moon’

The day after the launch, the Los Angeles Times described the satellite as an “artificial moon” that could spend up to 10 years in space.

“The missile was off to a beautiful launching,” The Times reported. “It rose slowly at first in a huge splash of flame with a roar that could be heard for miles.”

 
Los Angeles Times

“There were many stars in the sky and it was difficult to determine which was the missile and which was a star.”

Earth’s newest “moon” orbited the planet 58,376 times before it ran out of battery power and went dormant on May 23, 1958. It finally fell toward Earth and burned up in the atmosphere on March 31, 1970.

In this historical animation, Explorer 1 was represented by a simple dot moving through space.

sean.greene@latimes.com

@seangreene89

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