Remembering When U.S. Finally (and Really) Joined the Space Race

If Sputnik 1 was the beep-beep-beep heard round the world, Explorer 1 announced itself 50 years ago this week by the collective sigh of relief from an anxious American public.

It was late in the evening, Jan. 31, 1958, almost four months after the Soviet Union stunned the world on Oct. 4 with the launching of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite. A second, larger Sputnik soon followed, carrying a canine passenger.

The first American attempt, with the modest Vanguard 1 in December, was an embarrassing failure, immediately derided as “flopnik.”

Now it was up to a rocket assembled from German V-2 technology and American upper stages to boost the slender, bullet-shape Explorer into orbit. Liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla., looked good. That was progress. Vanguard had shut down a few feet above the launching pad, collapsing and exploding for all to see on live television.

But flight controllers waited and waited for a signal that Explorer had reached orbit. Tracking antennas were sparse in those days, communications unreliable. Only after the satellite had almost completely circled the globe was its signal finally received, by alert amateur radio operations near Los Angeles.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Randll Reese Besch - 1/30/2008

My main criticism of the entire space program had been galvinized by poitical one-up-manship not for scientific reasons shows the drawbacks of our space exploration. Why it is continually cut-back and not supported. Why we went to the moon a few times then just stopped. Why we abandonded the space-plane in the 1960's and space station in the 1970's. The space shuttle wasn't a true space-plane. The 'flying wedge' wasn't what was sold to us for the lowest bidder.
I may be alone in this but I consider the past 40 years to have been wasted.Politics and science do not mix well.

Subscribe to our mailing list