Sputnik, Explorer, and “The” Bathroom

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.


Credit: U.S. Air Force

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). 

The Eisenhower administration ended up rejecting the proposal for the JPL project, Vanguard, choosing instead the U.S. Navy proposal that used a civilian rocket rather than the Redstone of JPL’s proposal. Eisenhower’s preference for a purely civilian and scientific profile for the launch of the first earth satellite would respond to reasons understood decades later when the U.S. government declassified Corona, the ultra-secret project that developed the country’s first military spy satellites.

Eisenhower’s presidency, recognizing that flying U2 spy planes over Soviet territory was increasingly dangerous and noting that satellites could be a perfect platform to replace them, decided in the mid-50s to start the Corona Project. The problem is that at that time there was no international precedent on the legality of a satellite flying over the space above a sovereign country. Could that action be considered an act of war by the country observed by the satellite? Decades later, we learned that the Eisenhower administration decided to put a satellite into orbit as part of the IGY precisely to establish that legal precedent. To improve the chances that the international community, especially the Soviet Union and China, did not object to foreign satellite flights on their space, everything had to have a strictly scientific and civilian nature. This explains the rejection of JPL’s proposal, which used a military rocket.

The successful launch of Sputnik with a military rocket by the Soviet Union did Eisenhower the favor of setting the precedent better than his own plan, thus opening the door to spy satellites.

While Eisenhower was probably very happy with this result, the American public was completely unaware of these political machinations, feeling their pride and security diminished by the technological prowess of the enemy. The increased pressure on the U.S. to equal the Russian feat was nearing hysteria.  The first attempt would take place on December 6, 1957 with the launch of Vanguard, resulting in failure and total humiliation.


Pickering, Van Allen, von Braun
Credit: NASA

With the desired legal precedent by Sputnik established, the U.S. took of its gloves and called von Braun’s team of experts and JPL for the next attempt, Explorer 1. The  team, anticipating the failure of Vanguard, had ignored orders from superiors and continued working and preparing in secret. This allowed them to be ready for launch on January 31, 1958 . . . only four months after Sputnik 1.

The launch of Explorer 1 was not only a huge success, but its scientific instruments made the first discovery of the space age: The Van Allen Belts.  With this win under his belt, in July 1958 Eisenhower established NASA as a civilian space agency and in December of that year JPL was transferred from control of the army to the new agency.

Now finished my history lesson, which took a lot more text than I expected, here’s my little anecdote.

It was January 2008 and JPL was preparing to celebrate in style the 50th anniversary of the successful launch of Explorer 1. The event culminated with a great lunch on the Laboratory campus with participants and survivors of that historic mission as guests of honor. The plan was that each guest was to be joined at the lunch by a current member of the lab who, after lunch, would escort the guest of honor around the Lab as they pleased. I had the honor and pleasure of being chosen for this noble task.

I arrived at my table eager to meet my assigned guest. Boy, I was not disappointed!! Exp 1 Guest To the contrary, the gentleman — and I do not remember his name — seemed straight out of a Hollywood science fiction movie. Tall, with a patch over one eye, a cane in hand, and a wide smile, he introduced his elegant wife and we started talking. He told me that his role in Explorer 1 was the design and analysis of the rocket trajectory. He also told me that the day of the famous flight, he was part of the team at JPL that had to assess whether the satellite orbit insertion had been a success based on information from tracking stations scattered throughout the world. In Washington, President Eisenhower anxiously awaited the news of this team for the official announcement.

Then I asked him if he had met von Braun. His face lit up and he said that yes, of course. He told me that he remembers well a very intense meeting held at JPL where the great German scientist was present. At one point in the meeting, he said, they needed to take a break and he decided to go to the bathroom. He continued his story, which I did not have a clue about where it was going, saying that he was standing in the urinal when he noticed that at the urinal next to him was standing von Braun himself, who decided to continue the technical discussion they had begun in the meeting. The guy continues saying:  “Here we were, both standing there, with members in hand, in the midst of a deep technical discussion about launching a rocket upon which the whole country was hanging their hopes.”

In general, I am not one to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable with such language or scene but I though it was kind of unusual, and when I looked at his wife, it was quite evident that she wanted to dig a hole in the ground and disappear from the embarrassment.

We finished lunch and I offered to take my guest and his wife anywhere they wanted to go within the laboratory. First we went to a couple of places where he shared interesting and colorful details about buildings that I was not aware of. Then he asked me to take him to the building where he had his office during the Explorer project. It was not close; the laboratory facilities are expansive, separated by parks and stairs. Finally, we arrived at the building and he asked to go to the second floor. When we arrived, he showed me his office, which was still in the same place.  We continued walking through the halls when he suddenly stopped and made a decisive and unannounced turn into a bathroom. I then turned to his wife to start a conversation while we waited for him to finish when she looks at me and says with an air of resignation and tenderness: “This is The bathroom.” I, mentally slow as usual, looked at her with a puzzled face and she explained: “This is the bathroom where he had the conversation with von Braun.” Aha!! Now everything is clear to me.  This ritual was obviously a very important thing for him and was part of his plan from the very start of the day!  Suddenly, the bathroom door opens and out he comes out with a smile from ear to ear. He told me that he was now ready to end his visit.

I accompanied them to the laboratory entrance and we parted affectionately, wondering if I was ever going to see him again. I started the return back to my office with a smile on my face thinking of those tender and colorful moments I had just experienced, when I notice that nature was calling.  Guess what bathroom I went to…

@MigOnMars signing off.



  1. Hi Miguel, nice story! controversies apart, it had to be really cool to have the privilege to know someone like von Braun..in our department we have a bust of him, together with the mock-up of Saturn V!!

    Cheers from Bremen

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