Sputniks and Soul-Searching

[28] On August 26, 1957, Tass, the official Soviet news agency, announced that the U.S.S.R. had successfully launched over its full design range a "super long distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket," probably a vehicle employing the improved V-2, the T-l, as an upper stage and a booster rocket with a thrust of over 400,000 pounds the T-3.82 In the furor in the West following the Russian announcement an American general allegedly exclaimed, "We captured the wrong Germans."83

Then, on October 4, the Soviets used apparently the same ICBM to blast into orbit the first artificial Earth satellite, a bundle of instruments weighing about 184 pounds called Sputnik, a combination of words meaning "fellow-traveler of the Earth." A month later Soviet scientists and rocket engineers sent into high elliptical orbit a heavily instrumented capsule, Sputnik II, weighing some 1120 pounds and carrying a dog named Laika.

The Russian ICBM shot in August had given new urgency to the missile competition and had prompted journalists to begin talking about the "missile gap." The Sputnik launches of the fall opened up a new phase of the Soviet-American technological and ideological struggle, and caused more chagrin, consternation, and indignant soul-searching in the United States than any episode since Pearl Harbor. Now there was a "space race" in addition to an "arms race," and it was manifest that at least for the time being there was a "space lag" to add to the ostensible missile gap.

After the first Sputnik went into orbit, President Dwight D. Eisenhower reminded the critics of his administration that, unlike ballistic missile development, "our satellite program has never been conducted as a race with other nations."84 As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, however, there had been a satellite race for at least two and perhaps four years before the Sputniks. There was probably a Soviet parallel to the highly secret studies carried out in the immediate postwar years by the Rand Corporation for the Air Force and by the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics on the feasibility and military applicability of instrumented Earth satellites.85 As late as 1952, however, Albert E. Lombard, scientific adviser in the Department of the Air Force, reported that "intelligence information on Soviet progress, although fragmentary, has given no indication on Soviet activity in this field."86 Late the next year, President A. N. Nesmeyanov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences proclaimed that "Science has reached a state when it is feasible to send a stratoplane to the Moon, to create an artificial satellite of the Earth."87 A torrent of Soviet books and articles on rockets, satellites, and interplanetary travel followed the Nesmeyanov statement.

In August 1955, a few days after the White House announced that the United States would launch a series of "small, unmanned, earth-circling satellites" during the 18-month International Geophysical Year, beginning July 1, 1957, Soviet aeronautical and astronautical expert Leonid Sedov remarked that the U.S.S.R. [29] would also send up satellites and that they would be larger than the announced American scientific payloads. Most Americans complacently tossed off Sedov's claim as another example of Russian braggadocio.88 The formal announcement of the Russian space intentions came at the Barcelona Geophysical Year Conference in 1956. And in June 1957 the Soviet press advertised the radio frequency on which the first Russian satellite would transmit signals. By the end of the summer a few American Sovietologists were predicting freely that the U.S.S.R. would attempt a satellite launching soon, and they were somewhat surprised that the shot did not occur on September 17, 1957, the centennial of the birth of Tsiolkovsky.89

American embarrassment reached its apex and American technological prestige its nadir just over a month after Sputnik II. As the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee, headed by Lyndon B. Johnson, began an investigation of the nation's satellite and missile activities, Americans turned their attention to Cape Canaveral. There, according to White House Press Secretary James C. Hagerty, scientists and engineers from the Naval Research Laboratory and its industrial contractors would attempt to put in orbit a grapefruit-sized package of instruments as part of Project Vanguard, the American International Geophysical Year satellite effort. In reality the Vanguard group was planning only to use a test satellite in the first launch of all three active stages of the research rocket. To their dismay swarms of newsmen descended on Cape Canaveral to watch what the public regarded as this country's effort to get into the space race. On December 6, before a national television audience, the Vanguard first stage exploded and the rest of the rocket collapsed into the wet sand surrounding the launch stand.90

In the face of the fact that "they" orbited satellites before "we" did, together with the apparent complacency of official Washington, the Vanguard blowup took on disastrous proportions. McElroy had become Secretary of Defense on October 9, after Wilson's resignation. In mid-November he had authorized the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal to revive "Project Orbiter." This was a scheme for using a Redstone with upper stages to orbit an instrumented satellite. It had been proposed jointly by the Office of Naval Research and the Army in 1954-1955 but overruled in the Defense Department in favor of the Naval Research Laboratory's Vanguard proposal, based on the Viking and Aerobee.9l Now Wernher von Braun and company hurriedly converted their Jupiter C reentry test vehicle, an elongated Redstone topped by clustered solid-propellant upper stages developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, into a satellite launcher.92

On January 31, 1958, just 84 days after McElroy's go-ahead signal, and carrying satellite instruments developed for Project Vanguard by University of Iowa physicist James A. Van Allen, a Jupiter C (renamed Juno I by the von Braun team) boosted into orbit Explorer I, the first American satellite. The total weight of the pencil-shaped payload was about 31 pounds, 18 pounds of which consisted of instruments. Following a high elliptical orbit, Explorer I transmitted data revealing the existence of a deep zone of radiation girdling [30] Earth, dubbed the "Van Allen belt." The following March 17, the much maligned Vanguard finally accomplished its purpose, lifting a scientific payload weighing a little over 3 pounds into an orbit that was expected to keep the satellite up from 200 to 1,000 years. Vanguard I proved what geophysicists had long suspected, that Earth is not a perfect sphere but is slightly pear-shaped, bulging in the aqueous southern hemisphere. Explorer III, with an instrumented weight of 18 pounds, was fired into orbit by a Jupiter C nine days later. But in May a mammoth Soviet rocket launched a satellite with the then staggering weight of nearly 3,000 pounds, some 56 times as heavy as the combined weight of the three American satellite payloads.93

Clearly, rockets that could accelerate such bulky unmanned satellites to orbital velocity could also send a man into space. And it seemed safe to assume that the Soviet politicians, scientists, and military leaders, capitalizing on their lead in propulsion systems, had precisely such a feat in mind. When the one-and-one half-ton Sputnik III shot into orbit, the Atlas, star of the American missile drive, viewed not only as the preeminent weapon of the next decade but also as a highly promising space rocket, was still in its qualification flight program. Plagued by [31] turbopump problems and fuel sloshing, so far it had made only two successful test flights, out of four attempts.94

Yet American military planners remained confident that the Atlas finally would become a reliable missile. It must if the United States was not to fall perilously behind in the frenzied competition with the Soviets, if the missile gap was not to widen. And what of the advocates of manned space flight, the ambitious individuals on the fringes of the scientific community, NACA, and the military services - people who saw the Atlas, not the frail Vanguard or the Jupiter C, as holding the key to space? They also kept their hopes high.

82 Parry, Russia's Rockets and Missiles, 141; Ordway and Wakeford, International Missile and Spacecraft Guide, 3-4; Ritchie, "Soviet Rocket Propulsion," 71; Alfred Z. Zaehringer, "Table of Soviet Missiles," in F. J. Krieger, ed., A Casebook on Soviet Astronautics (2 vols., Santa Monica, Calif., 1956 - 1959), I, 242.

83 Quoted in Parry, Russia's Rockets and Missiles, 111.

84 Quoted in Mary Stone Ambrose, "The National Space Program," unpublished M.A. thesis, 2 vols., American University, 1960-1961, I, 17. See also Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961 (Garden City, N.Y., 1965). A useful anthology of official reactions to the Soviet space coup is Richard L. Witkin, ed., The Challenge of the Sputniks (New York, 1958).

85 See R. Cargill Hall, "Early U.S. Satellite Proposals," in Emme, ed., History of Rocket Technology, 67-93; also published in Technology and Culture, VI (Fall 1963), 410-434.

86 Memo, Albert E. Lombard, Scientific Advisor, Directorate of Research and Development, Department of the Air Force, to Committee on Aerodynamics, NACA, "Upper Stratosphere, Ionosphere, and Space Flight," June 25, 1952.

87 Quoted in Parry, Russia's Rockets and Missiles, 184; and Krieger, ed., Casebook on Soviet Astronautics, II, 1.

88 Parry, Russia's Rockets and Missiles, 185-186; Astronautics and Space Exploration, testimony of Andrew G. Haley, 1462-1463.

89 Kreiger, ed., Casebook on Soviet Astronautics, II, 2-10; Parry, Russia's Rockets and Missiles, 186-188; Astronautics and Space Exploration, testimony of Haley, 1464.

90 Hagen, "Viking and Vanguard," 137; John Lear, "The Moon That Refused to Be Eclipsed," Saturday Review, XLIII (March 5, 1963), 45-48; Kurt R. Stehling, Project Vanguard (Garden City, N.Y., 1961), 141-181.

91 The controversial history of the decision to build a new satellite rocket based on the Viking and the Aerobee, as proposed by the Naval Research Laboratory, rather than to adapt the Redstone for the Geophysical Year satellite program, as proposed by the Office of Naval Research and the Army in Project Orbiter, is beyond the scope of this work. The Vanguard-Orbiter imbroglio is covered in von Braun, "Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno," 111113; Carsbie C. Adams, Space Flight (New York, 1958), 112-113; E. Nelson Hayes, "The Smithsonian's Satellite Tracking Program: Its History and Organization," Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1961 (Washington, 1962), 275-322; Astronautics and Space Exploration, testimony of John T. Hayward, 293-294; Inquiry into Satellite and Missile Programs, testimony of James M. Gavin and J. B. Medaris, Part 2, 1473-1475, 1633-1634; Hagen, "Viking and Vanguard," 125-127; Akens, Historical Origins of the Marshall Space Flight Center, 38-40; Jay Holmes, America on the Moon: The Enterprise of the Sixties (Philadelphia, 1962), 46-51; and R. Cargill Hall, "Origins and Development of the Vanguard and Explorer Satellite Programs," Air Power Historian, XI (Oct. 1964).

92 After losing out in the satellite rocket competition, the Army engineers at Redstone Arsenal had stubbornly sought authorization to reactivate their satellite project. Rebuffed in the Defense Department, the Army group shrewdly renamed a modified Redstone, which they were preparing for tests of the Jupiter reentry nose cone, the Jupiter-C, in order to continue receiving funds for the satellite project. See von Braun, "Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno," 113-114; Inquiry into Satellite and Missile Programs, testimony of J. B. Medaris, Part 2, 1700-1701; Medaris, Countdown for Decision; James M. Gavin, War and Peace in the Space Age (New York, 1958); Astronautics and Space Exploration, testimony of Gavin, 183-184; Akens, Historical Origins of the Marshall Space Flight Center, 40-44; Organization and Management of Missile Programs, 130.

93 Akens, Historical Origins of the Marshall Space Flight Center, 44-50; von Braun, "Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno," 114; Bullard, "History of the Redstone," 142-146; Lear, "Moon That Refused to Be Eclipsed," 47; Hagen, "Viking and Vanguard," 448-451; Stehling, Project Vanguard, 182-219; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 86 Cong., 1 sess. (1959), U.S. Aeronautics and Space Activities, Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1958: Message from the President of the United States, 3-4. On March 5, 1958, an attempt to launch Explorer II failed when the Jupiter-C fourth stage did not ignite.

94 These four shots were made with the Atlas A, a version with a dummy sustainer engine and nose cone, designed solely for test purposes. The first Atlas A went out of control and was destroyed after less than a minute of flight on June 11, 1957, and a second attempt, on Sept. 25, ended in the same fashion. Success came on Dec. 17, 1957, when an Atlas A impacted on its target about 500 miles downrange from Cape Canaveral. On April 5, 1958, the test rocket flew successfully 600 miles downrange from the Cape. Chapman, Atlas, 118-133; Perry, "Atlas, Thor, Titan, and Minuteman," 151; George Alexander, "Atlas Accuracy Improves as Test Program is Completed," Aviation Week, LXXVIII (Feb. 25, 1963), 57-58.

Previous Next Index