Explorer 1, America's Answer to Sputnik

Fifty years ago Thursday, a 30-pound satellite called Explorer 1 joined Sputnik in orbit around the Earth, sending the United States into the space race. Replicas of the historic spacecraft are on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

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Fifty years ago today the U.S. launched its first satellite, and the space race with the Soviet Union was on.

To hear the story, NPR's Richard Harris paid a visit to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

RICHARD HARRIS: In a display hall filled with wonders like Skylab, the Lunar Lander and the Apollo Soyuz Spacecraft, it's easy to overlook a small glass case with a modest rocket-shaped thing inside it. But the museum's chief space historian, Michael Neufeld, says this 30 pound object holds a special place in space history.

Mr. MICHAEL NEUFELD (National Air and Space Museum): This is a backup of Explorer 1, the first United States satellite that was launched on January 31, 1958.

HARRIS: And being an historian, Neufeld is excited to tell the back story of the space race. Four months earlier the Soviets had built a rocket that was able to carry Sputnik 1 into orbit. It was the first manmade satellite.

Mr. NEUFELD: The first Sputnik achievement was followed one month later, less than one month later, by Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika. And that was a real shock because the payload was so large.

HARRIS: The message was loud and clear. If the Soviets could lob a dog around the world, imagine was else long-range rockets could carry.

Mr. NEUFELD: We would never have invested all this money in rocket technology, nor would the Soviets, if we weren't fundamentally trying to find a way to loft a warhead thousands of miles.

HARRIS: Neufeld says the U.S. had been urgently working on its own space program, but it was running a bit behind the Soviets. And the first attempt to catch up came in December 1957. The Navy tried to launch a satellite with a rocket it was developing.

Mr. NEUFELD: And it's a humiliating failure. It goes up a few inches, engine cuts off, falls back, explodes, and dumps a satellite out on the scrubland. And in fact over here in another case we have the satellite.

HARRIS: The Navy got to work trying to figure out what was up with its rocket program, and that gave its rival, the Army Space Program, a chance to put America into orbit.

Wernher von Braun had adopted the German V-2 Rocket used in World War II. And at 10:48 p.m. on January 31st, the Army launched his rocket. On top was the Explorer 1 satellite. It left the Earth and went off into, well, von Braun and his colleagues didn't know exactly where it went.

Mr. NEUFELD: They were at the Pentagon waiting, waiting, waiting. And it went around the world and didn't show up on time. Well, it turns out it went into a higher orbit than planned, so it was eight minutes late. And for eight minutes they were all feeling doomed.

HARRIS: They called a press conference in the wee hours of the morning to announce their success.

Mr. NEUFELD: U.S. national honor had been saved. It was such an enormous relief for the American public that we'd finally done it after four months of, you know, feeling like a second-rate space power.

HARRIS: And Explorer 1 wasn't just a symbolic mission. It did some exciting science. It discovered the radiation belts around the Earth in magnetic fields that prevent us from being fried by charged particles from the sun. And as the Space Age blossomed, many other science experiments followed as a sideline to the ballistic missiles, the development of spy satellites, and the manned space program.

Mr. NEUFELD: We accelerated incredibly. From this little satellite to putting a human on the moon in 1969 in only 12 years was really astounding. One of the interesting things about it, however, is that we haven't gone nearly as far as the space true believers like Wernher von Braun thought we would. You know, by now we thought we thought we'd have Mars colonies and who knows what.

HARRIS: And at the current rate, Neufeld says, we'll be celebrating the 50th anniversary of our first man on the moon, 11 years from now, with a repeat of that mission.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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