The Secret Cold War History of the Missile That Launched America's First Satellite

NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL

In 1950, a group of scientists proposed the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a sort of "Science Olympics" in which nations of the world would embark on ambitious experiments and share results openly and in the spirit of friendship. The IGY, they decided, would be celebrated in 1957.

As part of the IGY, the Soviet Union vowed that it would launch an artificial satellite for space science. The U.S., not to be left behind, said that it, too, would launch a satellite. Both countries had ulterior motives, of course; the ostensibly friendly rivalry in the name of science allowed the two superpowers, already engaged in the Cold War, to quite openly develop and test long-range ballistic missiles under the guise of "friendship."

The Soviet Union aimed to develop missiles capable of reaching both western Europe and the continental United States. Such "intercontinental ballistic missiles," a.k.a. ICBMs, would, Nikita Khrushchev hoped, neutralize the overwhelming nuclear superiority of America, which had a $1 billion squadron of B-52 bombers. Their development would solve another of the Soviet Union's pressing issues: Military expenditures were gobbling up one-fifth of the economy, while agricultural output was in a severe decline. In short, there were too many bullets being produced, and not enough bread. Long-range rockets armed with nuclear weapons, already in the Soviet arsenal, could allow Khrushchev to slash the size and expense of the Red Army, forego a heavy long-range bomber fleet, and solve the food problems plaguing the country.

Meanwhile, in the United States, an Army major general named John Bruce Medaris saw a big opportunity in the International Geophysical Year: to use a missile designed for war—which the Army had been prohibited from developing further—to launch a satellite into space. But Medaris, who commanded the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama, would need to be creative about selling it to the Department of Defense.

AN EDICT: NO ROCKETS OVER 200 MILES

Medaris was working under heavy restrictions against stiff competition. In 1956, the Secretary of Defense, Charlie Erwin Wilson, had issued an edict expressly forbidding the Army from even planning to build, let alone employ, long-range missiles "or for any other missiles with ranges beyond 200 miles." Land-based intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles were now to be the sole responsibility of the Air Force, while the Navy had authority for the sea-launched variety.

The idea was to avoid program redundancy and free up money to pay for the B-52 fleet, but the edict wound up having a catastrophic effect on the American missile program and its space ambitions, as author Matthew Brzezinski recounts in Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

At the time of Wilson's injunction, the Army's rocketry program was far ahead of the Air Force's or Navy's. The Army had just tested a rocket prototype called Jupiter that flew 3000 miles—but it was the new and flourishing Air Force that had the political backing of Washington. Moreover, few in the capital were worried about the Soviets developing long-range missile capability. Yes, they were trying, but they didn't have a prayer at developing one before the technically advanced United States, and in the meantime, the U.S. had overwhelming nuclear bomber superiority. When you got right down to it—the DOD reasoning went—who cared whether the Army, Air Force, or Navy developed our missiles?

Major General Medaris cared. He believed that, thanks to a German aerospace engineer named Wernher von Braun, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had made too much progress on ballistic missile technology to just stop working on them now.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States—and the Soviets—had scrambled to gather German missile technology. The U.S. lacked the ability to develop anything as powerful as Germany's lethal V-2 rocket and desperately wanted not only as much V-2 hardware as it could find but the V-2 designer himself, von Braun.

The U.S. succeeded in recruiting the engineer, ultimately assigning him to the Army's missile agency in 1950. There Von Braun and his team developed and deployed the Redstone, a short-range missile that could travel 200 miles. (This is where Wilson's 200-mile limitation came from.) Von Braun also began work on a research rocket (in parlance, a sounding rocket) based on the Redstone that could fly 1200 miles. It was not, technically, a missile—it wasn't designed to carry deadly ordnance. Its purpose was to test thermal nose-cone shields. This rocket was called the Jupiter C.

The 1956 injunction on Army missile development threatened the tremendous progress the Army had made. Both Medaris, who led the Army's missile program, and von Braun, who had now spent years trying to advance the rocket technology of the United States, were infuriated.

ARMY VS. NAVY (VS. THE SOVIETS)

With the IGY deadline looming, Medaris saw an opportunity to save the Army's role in rocket design. He had the genius German engineer and all the hardware necessary to do the job.

Medaris began to wage bitter bureaucratic warfare to protect the Army's missile program. The Air Force's program, he pointed out to defense officials, seemed not to be going anywhere—there was simply not much rush to replace bomber pilots with long-range missiles in a pilot-led organization. Worse yet, the Naval Research Laboratory, which had been given charge of the U.S. satellite entry for the IGY, was hopelessly behind schedule and underfunded. The Navy's Vanguard program, as it was called, would never succeed in its goal on time. (Why, then, did the Navy get the coveted assignment? In large measure because the Naval Research Laboratory was an essentially civilian organization, which just seemed more in the spirit of the International Geophysical Year.)

design plan of explorer 1 satellite
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center Collection

Through all of this, it never occurred to Medaris that he was actually in a Space Race against the Soviet Union. To his mind, he was competing against the other branches of the U.S. military. To keep his missile program alive while he waged war in Washington, he allowed von Braun to continue work on ablative nose cone research using the Jupiter C research rocket. Not missile—Medaris could not emphasize that point enough to the Department of Defense. It was a research rocket, he stressed, and therefore exempt from the ban on Army missile development.

Medaris argued to Secretary Wilson that if they just gave the Jupiter C a fourth stage—that is, basically, a rocket on top of the rocket—it could reach orbital velocity of 18,000 miles per hour and get a satellite up there.

All of his arguments fell on deaf ears. "Not only were Medaris's pleas gruffly rebuffed," writes Brzezinski, but Wilson "spitefully ordered the general to personally inspect every Jupiter C launch to make sure the uppermost stage was a dud so that Von Braun did not launch a satellite 'by accident.'"

So instead, Medaris made sure that Jupiter C "nose-cone research" plunged ahead. It simulated everything about a long-range, satellite-capable ballistic missile, but it was not a missile. The Jupiter C kept the Army in the rocket development business. Just in case something went south with the Navy's Vanguard program, however, Medaris had two Jupiter C rockets put into storage. Just in case.

AND THEN CAME SPUTNIK

Two events would happen in 1957, the International Geophysical Year, that changed the trajectory of history. First: Secretary Wilson, who so vexed the Army missile program, retired. On October 4, 1957, his replacement, Neil McElroy, soon to be confirmed by the Senate, visited Huntsville to tour the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. Second: Later that same day, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching Sputnik-1 into orbit and ushering humankind into the Space Age.

Von Braun was apoplectic. He'd devoted his life to rocketry. To be beaten by the Soviets! "For God's sake," he implored McElroy, "cut us loose and let us do something! We have the hardware on the shelf." He asked the incoming secretary for just 60 days to get a rocket ready.

McElroy couldn't make any decisions until he was confirmed, but that didn't faze Medaris, who was so certain that his group would get the go-ahead to launch a satellite that he ordered von Braun to get started on launch preparations.

What Medaris didn't anticipate was the Eisenhower White House's response to Sputnik. Rather than appear reactionary or spooked by the Soviet's sudden access to the skies over the U.S., the President assured the American people that there was a plan already in place, and everything was fine—really. The Navy's Vanguard program would soon launch a satellite as scheduled.

One month later, there was indeed another launch—by the Soviet Union. This time the satellite was a dog named Laika. In response, both Medaris and von Braun threatened to quit. To pacify them, the Defense Department promised that they could indeed launch a satellite in January, after the Vanguard's launch. von Braun, satisfied that he would get his shot, had a prediction to make: "Vanguard," he said, "will never make it."

And he was right. On December 6, 1957, the nation watched from television as the Vanguard launch vehicle began countdown from a virtually unknown expanse of Florida swampland called Cape Canaveral. At liftoff, the rocket rose a few feet—then blew up.

THE SECRET IDENTITY OF MISSILE NO. 29

After the Navy's failure, the Army was back in business. Medaris had his approval. The Jupiter C rocket would be allowed to carry a satellite called Explorer-1 to space.

Unlike the public outreach that accompanied the Vanguard launch, however, Medaris's rocket readying was done in total secrecy. The upper stages of the rocket were kept under canvas shrouds. The rocket was not to be acknowledged by Cape Canaveral personnel as the rocket, but rather, only as a workaday Redstone rocket. In official communications, it was simply called "Missile Number 29."

The Jupiter C destined to carry the spacecraft was one of the rockets placed in storage "just in case" after the Army was locked out of the long-range missile business. On the launch pad, however, it would be called "Juno." (The name change was in part an effort to conceal the rocket's V-2 and military lineage.) Explorer-1 was built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. JPL had worked with the Army "just in case" the Navy's Vanguard program failed. ("We bootlegged the whole job," said William Pickering, the then-director of the JPL lab.) The onboard scientific instrument, a Geiger counter developed by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, had also been designed with the Army's rocket in mind … just in case.

Medaris wanted no publicity for his launch. No VIPs, no press, no distractions. Even the launch day was to be kept secret until the Explorer-1 team could confirm that the satellite had achieved orbit successfully.

And then 60 years ago today, Explorer-1 left Earth from launch pad 26 at the cape. The response is best captured by the breathless headline atop the front page of the New York Times [PDF] the following morning: "ARMY LAUNCHES U.S. SATELLITE INTO ORBIT; PRESIDENT PROMISES WORLD WILL GET DATA; 30-POUND DEVICE IS HURLED UP 2,000 MILES."


NASA/JPL

America's first satellite would go on to circle the Earth 58,000 times over the span of 12 years. The modest science payload was the first ever to go into space, and the discovery of the Van Allen belts—caused by the capture of the solar wind's charged particles by the Earth's magnetic field—established the scientific field of magnetospheric research.

Six months after the spacecraft launched, the U.S. would establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a.k.a. NASA. (For the next three years, however, the Soviet Union would continue to dominate the Space Race, establishing a long run of "firsts," including placing the first human in space.) Wernher von Braun became director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and was chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that powered the Moon missions. Jet Propulsion Laboratory has since launched more than 100 spacecraft across the solar system and beyond.

The unsung hero today, of course, is Major General Bruce Medaris, whose tenacity righted the U.S. rocket program. It is impossible to know how the Space Race might have ended without his contributions. We do know how his career ended, though. When at last he retired from the military, he rejected overtures to advise John F. Kennedy on space policy. Instead, he took a job as president of the Lionel Corporation, famed for its toy trains. He eventually set his sights on the heavens, literally, and entered the priesthood. He died in 1990 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, his legacy forever set among the stars.

For further reading, see Matthew Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age.

Life on Nearby Exoplanet Barnard's Star B Might Be Possible, According to Astronomers

iStock.com/PavelSmilyk
iStock.com/PavelSmilyk

Despite contradictory statements from UFO eyewitnesses, we have yet to confirm the presence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But astronomers continue to flirt with that hope. The most recent speculation comes from Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to Earth, which is circled by a frozen super-Earth dubbed Barnard's Star b. While its surface might be as cold as -274°F, there may just be potential for life.

According to CNET, the chilly Barnard's Star b—located 6 light years away from Earth—could still be hospitable to living organisms. Astrophysicists at Villanova University speculate the planet could have a hot liquid-iron core that produces geothermal energy. That warmth might support primitive life under the icy surface. A similar situation could possibly occur on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where tidal heating might allow for subsurface oceans containing living things.

Barnard's Star b has a mass just over three times that of Earth. The conclusions about potential life were drawn by Villanova researchers from 15 years of photometry examination of the solar system [PDF].

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets,” Scott Engle, a Villanova astrophysicist, said in a statement. “This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions. Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun—about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

Scientists hope to learn more about the potential for life on Barnard's Star b as new, more powerful telescopes are put into use. NASA’s delayed James Webb Space Telescope could be one such solution. Its 21-foot mirror—three times the size of the Hubble—is set to open in 2021.

[h/t CNET]

15 Fantastic Buzz Aldrin Quotes

Christopher Polk, Getty Images
Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Buzz Aldrin—born Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. on January 20, 1930—celebrates his 89th birthday this year. The fighter pilot-turned-astronaut flew on Apollo 11 and became one of the first people to set foot on the Moon (and was one of just 12 to do so). Over the course of his life, Aldrin has learned a lot, and he’s shared his wisdom in a number of books and interviews. Here are a few of his most awesome and inspirational quotes.

1. “From the distance of the Moon, Earth was four times the size of a full moon seen from Earth. It was a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky. Yet it was still at a great distance, considering the challenges of the voyage home.” —From an interview with Scholastic

2. “‘Where are the billions and billions and billions of people, on what I'm looking at? We're the only three that are not back there.' And we didn't get to celebrate. Because we were out of town.” —On what he was thinking as he looked back at Earth from the Moon, from a Reddit AMA

An image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon.
NASA/Getty Images

3. “Some people don’t like to admit that they have failed or that they have not yet achieved their goals or lived up to their own expectations. But failure is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are alive and growing.” —From the book No Dream is Too High

4. “As the senior crew member, it was appropriate for [Neil Armstrong] to be the first. But after years and years of being asked to speak to a group of people and then be introduced as the second man on the Moon, it does get a little frustrating. Is it really necessary to point out to the crowd that somebody else was first when we all went through the same training, we all landed at the same time and all contributed? But for the rest of my life I'll always be identified as the second man to walk on the Moon. [Laughs.]” —From an interview with National Geographic

5. “Resilience is what humans have and resilience is what humans need to take advantage of—their ability to explore and to understand and then to react positively and with motivation, not as a defeatist, to the constant flow of challenges. Negativity doesn’t get anybody anywhere. It takes reacting to all of life in a positive way to make the most out of what you’ve experienced and to make a better life and a better world.” —From an interview with Biography.com

6. “The urge to explore has propelled evolution since the first water creatures reconnoitered the land. Like all living systems, cultures cannot remain static; they evolve or decline. They explore or expire.” —From a 1999 article in the Albuquerque Tribune

An image of the Apollo 11 astronauts getting out of their lunar vehicle into a boat on the ocean.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

7. “There's a tremendously satisfying freedom associated with weightlessness. It's challenging in the absence of traction or leverage, and it requires thoughtful readjustment. I found the experience of weightlessness to be one of the most fun and enjoyable, challenging and rewarding, experiences of spaceflight. Returning to Earth brings with it a great sense of heaviness, and a need for careful movement. In some ways it's not too different from returning from a rocking ocean ship.” —From an interview with Scholastic

8. “It certainly didn't make me feel lonely, except to realize that we were as far away as people had ever been. Once we were on the surface of the Moon we could look back and see the Earth, a little blue dot in the sky. We are a very small part of the solar system and the whole universe. The sky was black as could be, and the horizon was so well defined as it curved many miles away from us into space.” —From an interview with National Geographic

An image of Buzz Aldrin's boot and footprint on the Moon.
Keystone/Getty Images

9. “I know the sky is not the limit, because there are footprints on the Moon—and I made some of them! So don’t allow anyone to denigrate or inhibit your lofty aspirations. Your dream can take you might higher and much farther than anyone ever thought possible! I know mine did.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

10. “Take a good, long, honest, positive look at what good can come out of every situation you’re in. Wherever you are, that’s where you are. You’re there with it. This is your history you’re living right now. So do what you can to make the most of what comes along. And please, don’t try to do everything on your own. There are a lot of people out there in the universe who wish you well and want to be your friend. Let them help you. You don’t have to carry it all on your own.” —From an interview with Biography.com

11. “Your mind is like a parachute: If it isn’t open, it doesn’t work.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

12. “I prefer the soft singing voice of Karen Carpenter. I have heard Frank Sinatra sing 'Fly Me to the Moon' almost too many times. So I'm interested in composing a new song, entitled "Get Your Ass to Mars!" —From a Reddit AMA

13. “Fear paralyzes in many ways, but especially if it keeps you from responding wisely and intelligently to challenges. The only way to overcome your fears is to face them head-on.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

An image of Buzz Aldrin performing an experiment on the Moon.
NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

14. “My first words of my impression of being on the surface of the Moon that just came to my mind was ‘magnificent desolation’. [...] there is no place on Earth as desolate as what I was viewing in those first moments on the lunar surface. Because I realized what I was looking at, towards the horizon and in every direction, had not changed in hundreds, thousands of years. Beyond me I could see the Moon curving away—no atmosphere, black sky. Cold. Colder than anyone could experience on Earth when the Sun is up […] No sign of life whatsoever. That is desolate. More desolate than any place on Earth.” —From a Reddit AMA

15. “Choose your heroes wisely, and be careful who you idolize. Why? Simple: you will become like the people with whom you most often associate.” —From the book No Dream Is Too High

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