It was while my wife Susan and I were, once again, watching the movie “The Right Stuff, which tells the story of the beginnings of the space race (and is one of our favorites), that I remembered a story I’d like to share with you through this blog.
But first, a little history. The space race explodes on the scene with the surprise launch into orbit of the Soviet Union’s first Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, thus dealing a blow to the prestige in science and technology of the United States. In this new battlefield of the Cold War, the Soviets would score a big win, while Westerners listened on their radios to the “beep” Sputnik transmitted while orbiting over their heads, which engendered both fear and admiration for the ideological enemy.
Eisenhower’s presidency had to respond quickly and effectively to stop the bleeding of prestige and national security. NASA had not yet been established and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where I work in Pasadena, California, was a center for research and development of rocketry for the United States Army. JPL had worked on a proposal to put the first satellite into Earth orbit as part of the scientific activities of the “International Geophysical Year” (IGY), which took place from July 1957 to December 1958. JPL’s proposal used a first stage Redstone rocket to launch, a U.S. Army missile developed by Wernher von Braun, the great yet controversial German scientist behind the V2 missiles that caused great destruction and loss of life in London during World War II. (After the war, von Braun and most of his team of Peenemünde”Rocket Scientists” chose to surrender to the U.S. and were transferred and incorporated into the U.S. Army arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, thus transferring the technology of the V2 to their previous enemy. This group of Germans establish the foundation of American space power, the roots of which would help put the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969, thus winning the battle of the space war that began with Sputnik 1). [Read more…]