Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[133] Even as NASA was being formed, the stable of American sounding rockets was impressive. There were small (Deacon, Cajun, Arcon, Arcas), medium (Aerobee, Aerobee-Hi), and large (Viking) rockets. Viking had been designed to replace the V-2, which was no longer used after the test program ended in 1952. There were rockets using solid propellants (Deacon, Cajun, Arcon, Arcas) and rockets using liquid propellants (second stage of Aerobee, Viking). Multistage combinations (Nike-Deacon, Nike-Cajun, Aerobee) achieved higher altitudes than could economically be attained with single-stage rockets. Rockets had been launched from balloons, from aircraft, and from launchers aboard ships at sea. These sounding rockets and the high-altitude research program that went with them provided NASA with an immediately on-going component of its space science program.1
A similar situation existed with respect to the larger vehicles needed for launching spacecraft into orbit. The reentry test vehicle Jupiter C-which launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, and which used the Redstone missile as its first stage-gave rise to a first group of what were called Juno space launch vehicles. Later versions of Juno used the more powerful Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missile as the first stage.2 The Redstone, which was created for the Army by the von Braun team and in which one could detect a distinct V-2 ancestry, was on hand and was used for America's first suborbital manned flights.3 The Vanguard IGY launch vehicle, which used derivatives of the Viking and Aerobee sounding rockets as its first and second stages, was also available.4 NASA took over Vanguard from the Naval Research Laboratory and completed the program, after which the Vanguard first stage was retired; but the upper stages were combined with the Air Force's Thor to create the Thor-Delta, or simply Delta, launch vehicle, which from the very start was one of the most useful of the medium-sized combinations.5 In 1958 the Air Force's Atlas was the most powerful U.S. rocket that could be quickly pressed into service as a [134] space launcher. To it was assigned the launching of The first American astronauts to go into orbit.6 Atlas eventually became the main stage of Atlas-Agena and Atlas-Centaur, multistage launch vehicles used to put multiton payloads into space.
The imposing presence of the Soviet Union in space following the launching of the first Sputniks and the substantial lead it apparently had over the U.S. in payload capability generated a sense of urgency to develop very large payload capabilities. But with the variety of vehicles already in its stable or imminent, the United States clearly was not going to have to start from scratch. Indeed, had the country been willing to use the von Braun rockets for the IGY satellite program, the first satellite in orbit could well have borne a "made in America" stamp. At any rate, even this partial survey of the situation at the time NASA got going shows how deep in the rocket and missile work of the 1950s lay some of the roots of the subsequent space program.
Of course, along with the missiles and rockets available to NASA and the military were associated facilities and equipment already in operation. Launch ranges existed in Florida, California, New Mexico, and Canada. Tracking and telemetering stations, strategically located in the U.S. and elsewhere, were working. Vanguard Minitrack network of radio-tracking and telemetering stations for operating with the IGY satellites spanned the globe and provided a nucleus on which to build for an enlarged program of the future. IGY optical tracking stations also girdled the globe and were immediately available for photographic and visual tracking of spacecraft that were large enough to be detected by such means. To produce all these a substantial component of American aerospace, electronics, and other industry had been employed, generating hardware and acquiring an experience ready to be used for tackling the challenges that lay ahead.7
One of the first tasks facing NASA in the fall of 1958 was to determine what additional launch vehicles would be required to accomplish the space missions planned for the program. While most of the launchers would derive from military hardware, some, especially for the manned spaceflight program, would have to be built from scratch. So, too, would the space craft for the science, applications, and manned spaceflight missions.