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50th anniversary of first U.S. satellite launch celebrated

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

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(01-30) 15:17 PST Los Angeles (AP) --

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States gave a 90-day deadline to the Army and a little-known research lab in California to send up its own satellite.

Seemingly against all odds, the project was completed in 84 days. On Jan. 31, 1958, a knot of rocket scientists and engineers waited anxiously as the satellite, Explorer 1, blasted into orbit, launching the U.S. into the space race.

Historians see the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 Thursday as a chance to go beyond the Reader's Digest version of events.

"It's been cemented in all the popular accounts," JPL historian Erik Conway said of the three-month turnaround. "It created the image of a superhuman effort."

By the time the Army and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory received the White House's blessing to fly Explorer 1, more than half of the parts were already in storage. To meet the deadline, they dusted off a rocket that had been built for a classified project, added a new fourth-stage motor and designed the bullet-shaped satellite from scratch.

The launch of Explorer 1 set in motion a series of milestones that led to the Apollo moon landings a decade later. It also transformed JPL from a military weapons lab to a civilian robotics center whose spacecraft have visited the sun, moon, eight planets and even the edge of the solar system. JPL is now part of NASA and run by the California Institute of Technology.

The Explorer program traces its origins to Project Orbiter, an Army venture that was canceled in 1955 after losing a competition to the Navy to fly a satellite into orbit. The Army and JPL redirected their efforts to a secret project to develop an intermediate-range ballistic missile named Jupiter.

One of the biggest misconceptions of that period was that the Americans were unprepared after the Sputnik launch, said Carl Raggio, a JPL employee who worked on the classified project and later on the Explorer design team.

In fact, Raggio and others were convinced they could have beaten the Russians to space if engineers had been allowed to tweak the Jupiter rocket by adding on a fourth-stage motor. But the team got turned down by the secretary of defense.

"We knew we were ready," said Raggio, who at 79 is among the last survivors of the program. "The fourth stage would have put it into orbit."

Yet the Army's efforts continued to be the backup to the Navy. Two months after Sputnik and a month after Sputnik 2 carried a dog into space, the Americans' first try to catch up with the Russians failed when the Navy's rocket engine lost power in flight and exploded on the way down. Newspapers dubbed it "flopnik."

Meanwhile, the Army and JPL pulled a backup Jupiter rocket out of storage and began work on Explorer 1 after the Navy's failure. The project, completed in 84 days, was headed by the triumvirate William Pickering, James Van Allen and the German Wernher von Braun. The Army modified the rocket while JPL designed the payload complete with an instrument to detect cosmic rays.

"There was a major push to do things," said Henry Richter, Explorer's radio engineer. "But it didn't happen nearly that fast."

Richter, now 80, was among a throng of scientists and engineers who waited nervously in coastal Florida on launch day as Explorer 1 sailed into space. He recalled feeling tense when the satellite failed to return a signal at the expected time.

"There's not much to do, but sit there and watch the clock go around," he said.

The delay occurred because Explorer 1 picked up speed as it rocketed out of the atmosphere and was lofted to a higher orbit. It finally beamed back a signal eight minutes later. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief. The U.S. officially entered the space race.

Besides being the first American satellite launch, Explorer 1 also discovered the radiation belt around the Earth. It sent back its last signal in 1958. In 1970, it re-entered the atmosphere and burned up after more than 58,000 loops around Earth.

Roger Lanius, senior curator for space history at the National Air and Space Museum, wants people to remember that the Americans' success "just didn't come out of nowhere."


On the Net:

Jet Propulsion Laboratory: www.jpl.nasa.gov

Explorer 1: www.jpl.nasa.gov/explorer


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