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John F. Graham, 1995
Photos courtesy NASA


The true beginnings of the space program started with the invention of gun powder. This basic ingredients of solid rocket fuel like most of humanity's great inventions probably had its beginning by accident. Picture a lonely campfire in the Gobi Desert with herdsmen trying to keep warm. Suddenly, the campfire leaps and fizzles around like a baby dragon's fiery breath. Most of the herdsmen were probably frightened, suspicious, and superstitious, but one man with curiosity may have looked at the fire pit and may have discovered that it was built on sulfur with a rock containing potassium perchlorate. Digging this mixture from the cooled campfire to amaze other friends at other campfires this herdsman had discovered gunpowder. To carry the precious mixture of baby dragon's breath, the herdsman may have employed a bamboo joint. When all the materials were put together inside this bamboo joint with mud at both ends for storage, and the joint was accidentally thrown into the fire, the rapidly expanding gases inside a confined space exploded with a bang; thus gunpowder and firecrackers may have been born within a short time of each other.

The Chinese soon realized that by filling a bamboo joint or a hollow reed with gunpowder and sticking a candle wick in one end and packing mud in the other could delay the explosion and eliminated the need to throw the entire firecracker into the campfire to get an explosion. By the end of the 11th Century the Chinese found that by tying the firecracker on to an arrow, the hot expanding gases would cause the arrow to fly tremendous distances. Chinese regularly used rocket arrows to defend themselves against neighboring invaders like the Mongols. After the great Khan had conquered China, his armies were introduced to this wonderful force enhancement tool. European visitors from the Great Silk Road like Marco Polo also saw the powers of this magical powder and by the 1300s rockets for bombardment had been used in India, Arabia, Italy, and Spain. During this period of neophyte rocketry there is a legend told of the first attempt at human rocket flight.

A great Russian scientist and writer Nicholas Rynin heard from the Chinese about a rich Lord named Wan Hu who decided one day that he wanted to fly to the Moon. He strapped himself into a chair to which 47 rockets were attached. Upon his signal his serfs lit the rockets. Rynin did not say what happened to Wan Hu or his servants, but we are fairly certain that he didn't reach the Moon.

When Napoleon threatened to invade England in 1804, William Congreve, a British artillery Officer, decided to develop a rocket weapon to destroy the French fleet across the English Channel. Inaccurate rockets had been used in great numbers as weapons in India from the 16th through the 18th Centuries, but they were used to frighten infantry troops and war elephants. These crude weapons were not very lethal, and Congreve learned about them because they were used by Indian Princes against British troops in the 1770s; the British military returned some of these weapons to Britain where they were displayed in an arms museum.

It was here that Congreve studied, experimented, and developed his rocket system. This system consisted of 15 rockets carrying warheads of incendiaries, explosives, and great quantities of musketballs called case shot. The sizes varied from 3 pound rockets to 300 pound weapons propelled by an eight inch diameter missile.

Congreve's rockets were much like the skyrockets of that time, except that his were larger and encased in sheet iron. A long stick on the side of the rocket stabilized it. In 1815, Congreve moved the guide stick from the side to the center of the rocket which, he found, gave the rocket far more stability and greater accuracy.

Gunpowder was Congreve's fuel of choice; this powder propelled the rockets from 900 - 3000 yards. In 1806, Congreve's rockets were used successfully against the French fleet, destroying several French ships; these rockets also helped to almost destroy the city of Copenhagen during the Napoleonic Wars.

After the success of Congreve's rockets nearly every army in Europe had its own rocket brigade. The Royal Artillery rocket troops successfully used their weapons during the War of 1812 against Fort McHenry near Baltimore, when Francis Scott Key described "the rockets' red glare" in the new American national anthem "The Star Spangled Banner." Additionally, these rocket troops employed their skills in Napoleon's downfall at Waterloo as well as in the Crimea in the 1850s. At this time another rocket was invented and used - the Hale Rocket.

The main purpose of the Hale rocket was to eliminate the cumbersome guide sticks used by the Congreve rocket. The rocket achieved stabilization by rotating around its axis as it flew toward its target. The rocket accomplished rotation by having holes drilled in its rear, thus causing the escaping gas to flow in a circular motion naturally rotating the entire rocket. The drawback to this idea was that too much gas escaped thus reducing the range. Hale moved the holes to the center of gravity and found that too much gas was still escaping. Finally, frustrated with holes, Hale went back to Congreve's approach of using a guide, but instead of using a huge stick in the middle of the rocket he placed three guide vanes at the rocket's base which "guided" the flow of the exhaust and ballistically rotated the rocket.

Hale also introduced a safer way to load powder rather than pounding it in by a hammer which had its dangerous moments. Hale's rockets were used by both sides during the U.S. Civil War and by the end of the 19th century were made obsolete by quick firing, rifled artillery guns. By this time many people were inspired by the possibilities which rockets and artillery pieces provided for exploring the final unknown frontier.


The modern space program received its inspiration from a French novelist whose dreams helped to start many of the modern inventions which today are commonplace. Jules Verne (1828 - 1905) wrote about how the Baltimore Gun Club in 1871 built a cannon of such great proportions that it propelled three men with all of their equipment and animals to the Moon.

From Earth to the Moon and its sequel Round the Moon, written in 1863, spoke about speeds, distances, and times which even today are accurate when we speak of space flight. For example, Verne wrote of using a launch site in Florida which had a latitude of 28 North to fly to the Moon. Today, this is not a strange concept considering the latitude of the Kennedy space launch complex is 28.5 North.

From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon inspired an entire generation of scientists including the three men, recognized as the Fathers of the modern space program, and the two space engineers who brought the world into the Space Age. All of these men said that they traced their early interest in space to the writings of Jules Verne.

In the small Russian town of Kaluga, one hundred miles southwest of Moscow, a deaf, forty-one year old mathematics teacher wrote a small book about how human beings would one day fly ships into outer space. Inspired by Jules Verne's books Konstantine Tsiolkovsky's (1857 - 1935) precise calculations for space flight were accomplished entirely on his own. In these writings he developed theories concerning the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the power of the Sun, and how to build liquid powered space ships. He wrote:

I have just worked out various aspects of the problem of ascending into space with the aid of a reaction machine, rather like a rocket... The scientifically verified mathematical conclusions indicate the feasibility of an ascent into space with the aid of such machines, and, perhaps, the establishment of settlements beyond the confines of the Earth's atmosphere.

Tsiolkovsky blended the passion for space with hard mathematical calculations to produce not only the dream inspired by Jules Verne, but also a vision for the future. He imagined a time when space ships would launch from the Earth to large space stations and colonies; from there he proposed these ships would propel humanity to explore the Moon and Mars. He predicted solar power stations, space suits, and artificial gravity; he also predicted humanity's first attempts at terraforming other worlds and living in the asteroid belt and beyond near the great gas giants. Tsiolkovsky stated: "Earth is the cradle of mankind; one does not remain in the cradle forever."

Tsiolkovsky's contributions to space flight were all theoretical; even though he made many models of spacecraft he never actually attempted to launch one. His influence on the world's space program and in particular the Soviet/Russian Space Program was legendary; his major contributions to the space age are as follows:

1. Tsiolkovsky believed that liquid rockets would be the exploration vehicle for the rocket age because these craft could be throttled, stopped, and restarted. This was far easier than using solid rockets because once a solid rocket is started, it cannot throttled or stopped.

2. Tsiolkovsky's mathematical calculations demonstrated that liquid fueled rockets would be more efficient for space travel because the hotter and lighter the exhaust gases are, the more efficient is the rocket engine. He also stated that liquid hydrogen could be burned to achieve hotter and lighter exhaust gases. This was the first true development of the concept of specific momentum for rocket fuels.

3. The deaf mathematician also calculated that a rocket must exceed 25,000 miles per hour in order to break free of the Earth's gravitational influence. This condition would be obviously mandatory to travel to the other bodies in the solar system.

4. Finally, Tsiolkovsky also devised a way of stacking rockets to use the thrust more efficiently to go into Earth orbit. He called this a principle of the sky train. The locomotive gets a boost from cars full of coal (fuel) , and as the cars deplete their fuel they are discarded. As the cars are discarded the weight which the locomotive pulls decreases and its speed increases. Similarly, Tsiolkovsky argued, by discarding the used rocket stages after their fuel is spent, the spacecraft accelerates and does not need to waste is power bringing useless weight into space.

Tsiolkovsky was given a stipend from the Tsar's government of 400 roubles; at best they thought of him as an eccentric scientist at worst they thought he was crazy. In 1917, following the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks honored Tsiolkovsky and proclaimed that his ideas and writings would propel the newly created Soviet Union into the modern era. The government gave him a pension for life and every important Russian engineer and theoretician was said to have been inspired by the old school teacher's writings. Because of his isolation and living in a country like Russia which became the totally xenophobic Soviet Union, Tsiolkovsky never contacted any of the scientists from around the world who were also working on the ideas of space travel. In particular two other theoreticians, Herman Oberth and Robert Goddard were hard at work trying to lift their respective parts of the world into the space age.

Robert H. Goddard (1882 - 1945), an American physics college professor, actually built and tested the world's first liquid rockets. This straight-laced Yankee professor had great passion and engineering skill which he readily applied to building inventions to make rockets fly. His great feats were overcome by an almost fanatical desire for secrecy and his unwillingness to share his discoveries with any other scientists interested in rocket flight. Robert Goddard was to be the last "mad scientist" working by himself or with one or two other colleagues to accomplish rocket flight.

Like Tsiolkovsky, Goddard was inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and due to this inspiration he devoted his entire life to rocketry. Unlike Tsiolkovsky, Goddard did more than scribble and squirrel away his astonishing ideas; he actually built a liquid-fueled craft which flew successfully.

After accomplishing research on solid propellants in 1907 which showed to Goddard that they had limited potential and efficiency, he concentrated his efforts on liquid propellants which carried more energy potential. Many problems needed to be solved such as fuel injection, engine cooling, and ignition. He worked on the liquid engine equipment in earnest. In 1914 he won his first patent for a liquid-fueled "rocket apparatus." This was followed by 214 patents all carefully registered with the U.S. Patent Office.

In 1920 the Smithsonian Institution published Goddard's most famous paper, "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." Its pages were filled with test results, as well as data and formulas for building a rocket to reach the upper atmosphere. On the very last page he mentioned that possibly an unmanned rocket may someday go to the Moon with an explosive charge aboard and that upon impact would flash a signal back to Earth. After members of the press read this they immediately labeled Goddard "the Moon rocket man." In 1920 he vented his frustrations and his vision to a Smithsonian official, but more importantly, it resolved him to keep all of his work more secret than previously to avoid such public scorn. The ideal rocket for space travel, he wrote, would use a mixture of liquefied hydrogen and liquid oxygen. This rocket would carry the human operator not only to the Moon at 240,000 miles away, but also to Mars at a distance of 49 million miles. Unable to get funding for his work and suffering ridicule from the New York Times which accused him of lacking knowledge which was "ladled out in high school", Goddard withdrew more into his studies to avoid further humiliation of his life's work.

Finally, on March 16, 1926, in Auburn, Massachusetts, Goddard launched his first rocket. The thin aluminum tube rocket had a length of 134 inches, a weight of about 10.5 pounds, and nine pounds of thrust. Its fuel was gasoline and liquid oxygen which launched the craft to a height of 41 feet and a horizontal range of 184 feet. The flight time was 2.5 seconds and its top speed was about 60 miles per hour. Following this successful launch he spent the rest of his life perfecting liquid propulsion systems. After the fire marshall kicked him out of Massachusetts, Goddard went to Roswell, New Mexico where he continued to perfect his liquid rockets. It was in Roswell that Goddard made some of his most important contributions to rocket science. Among these were the following which became patents:

1. Goddard was the first to use gyroscopes for guidance of his rockets.

2. He also learned how to separate payloads from the rest of the rocket and return them to Earth by way of a parachute.

3. Goddard developed the engineering technique of using vanes in the rocket nozzles to guide the craft with more effective flight control.

4. He developed valves for throttling the liquid engines, for stopping and restarting them.

5. Goddard also used liquid oxygen for cooling the nozzles to keep them from melting. This was done by circulating the cold material throughout the engine.

6. He developed liquid pressure and turbine pumps to insure that a steady stream of fuel was fed into his rocket engines.

After World War II just before his death in August 1945, Robert Goddard inspected the components of captured German V-2 rockets and noted similarities to his own work. "It's just a matter of imagination how far we go with rockets," he said. "You haven't seen anything yet." In 1960, the U.S. Government paid $2 million to the estate of Robert H. Goddard to buy all of his patents for liquid-fueled rocket engines. Goddard was almost paranoid about his work and very secretive. But in spite of this, word about his work diffused slowly to the rest of the world. When the news of his work reached Transylvania in Hungary it inspired the third great theorist in the beginning of the space age.

Herman Oberth (1894 - 1992) was mesmerized by Jules Verne's novel, From Earth to the Moon. He knew that the idea of shooting a spacecraft to the Moon by means of a cannon would not work because of the tremendous g forces involved, and that a rocket was really the only way for humans to travel into space. Primarily a theorist and not an inventor, Oberth, put all of his ideas into a book called Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (By Rocketry to Space) and tried to get it approved as a doctoral thesis at the University of Heidelberg - it was disapproved. He published these works and to his surprise it was sold out. The second and third printings were also sold out. The German people were extremely interested in his theory about a space station and rocket travel.

Die Rakete was in three parts: the first with all the arcane equations Oberth worked on for actual space flight; the second which discussed Oberth's model B rocket consisting of a two-stage hydrogen and oxygen powered vehicle; and the third portion which discussed a Model E which would carry humans to the Moon and beyond. Oberth sent a copy to Robert Goddard who promptly, but silently accused Oberth of copying his secret work. For the rest of his life, Goddard referred to Oberth as "that German." Goddard continued his secret work until his death in 1945.

Unconcerned about his lack of communication from Goddard, Oberth considered writing a more popularized version of his book, but he was busy teaching school, and a German named Max Valier published the book for him. This book inspired a number of new rocket clubs to spring up all over Germany as hard core rocket enthusiasts tried to put Oberth's words into practical vehicles. The most important rocket club in Germany was called Verein fur Raumschiffarht (Rocket Society) or the VfR. Very little money was available in Germany due to the World War I reparations with which the Allies crushed Germany's economy.

In 1929 Oberth published another major work, Wege Zur Raumschiffahrt (The Road to Space Travel), in which he visioned the development of ion propulsion and electric rockets. This book won an award established by the French rocket pioneer, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, and Oberth used the prize money to buy rocket motors for the VfR.

One man who foresaw a vision with the space program was the silent movie maker Fritz Lang. When Lang read Oberth's book about rockets he saw an adventure about space travel and he created Die Frau Im Mond (The Woman in the Moon). Lang wanted his movie set to be technically correct so he called upon Herman Oberth to be his main technical advisor. Oberth and a young VfR member Willy Ley helped Lang with his sets and built a spacecraft which looked very realistic. Ever the dramatist Lang even invented the countdown to increase the audience tension and to add drama to the rocket flight.

Oberth, Ley, and a German dilettante named Rudolph Nebel agreed with Lang to accomplish an actual rocket launching for part of the festivities during the premier for Die Frau Im Mond in October of 1929. With two days left before the premier, Oberth discovered that he couldn't possibly accomplish the task of launching a rocket so he walked away from the movie and from rocketry to return to teaching high school mathematics in Hungary to soothe his nerves. He would return to Germany to help Ley and Nebel with some of their projects, but he was never against seriously involved with hands on engineering. His major contribution was that his writings inspired German interest in rocket research that led directly to the space age.

With Oberth gone, Lang donated all of the movie props to the VfR, so Ley and Nebel decided to continue to attempt to build and launch rockets. Ley decided to recruit more engineers interested in rocketry to help them in the VfR's quest for space. Ley recruited one eighteen year old engineering student who was totally fascinated with Oberth's writings and was fanatically interested in launching rockets. His name was Wernher von Braun.


John F. Graham, 1995
Photos courtesy NASA

Following the great theorists came the men who actually bent metal to put rockets into the air. The most important of these engineers came from the Soviet Union and Germany where rocket clubs grew into government financed military programs. In each of these countries one man stood above all the others; men who were to lead the planet Earth into the space age. Both men had theorists as mentors, the Soviet had Tsiolkovsky and the German had Oberth. Both men began as members of rocket clubs; both men showed great leadership abilities to lead a team to build machines that had never been done before; and both men were unfortunately citizens of the most repressive governments ever seen on Earth. Both men were arrested for dreaming the dreams of their mentors and trying to put these dreams into reality; and both men led their respective countries into the space age with their triumphant rockets. These men were the German, Wernher von Braun and the Russian Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

Wernher von Braun

By the 1930s the VfR had gone as far as it could go without receiving any major capital from any organization; without impressive sums of money it was impossible to build rockets larger than toys. About this time German military officers were wondering if rockets could be used in place of airplanes or long range artillery. The German military needed some weapon which would not violate the Versailles Treaty from post World War I, and at the same time defend Germany. An artillery captain, Walter Dornberger, was assigned the task from his superiors to investigate the feasibility of using rockets instead of large guns.

Dornberger went to see the rocket club VfR, made famous by Fritz Lang's movie. Dornberger liked the enthusiasm generated by these young rocketeers and he gave them $400 to develop a rocket. A young engineer named Wernher von Braun worked through the spring and summer of 1932 to build a rocket with the funds. They tested the rocket in front of the military and it failed, but Dornberger liked von Braun and hired him to head up the military's rocket artillery unit as a civilian engineer. By 1934 von Braun and Dornberger had recruited a team of 80 engineers to build the new rockets in a town on the outskirts of Berlin called Kummersdorf. Throughout his time at Kummersdorf Von Braun showed that he was a team leader; he didn't work alone like Goddard, but encouraged those who worked for him to accomplish their best. He was also able to assimilate large amounts of data, literature, and technical drawings while keeping the big picture always in his mind.

By 1934 von Braun's team had designed two missiles, the A-1 and A-2 . Hitler had taken over Germany and Herman Goering now ruled the Luftwaffe. Dornberger held a public test of the A-2 which was greatly successful. Both the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht fought over who could give von Braun's rocket team more money.

In 1937 the rocket team moved to Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea; it was here that von Braun's team made the A-3 and eventually, after much hard work and many failures, the A-4. Six years of hard research and development went into making the A-4. It was a single-stage rocket powered by alcohol and liquid oxygen; it stood 46.1 feet high; had a thrust of 56,000 ponds; could carry a payload of 2,200 pounds; and had a velocity of 3,500 miles per hour. The hardest element to make was the guidance system. The solution - small clocks were able to position the gyroscopes which in turn moved the rocket vanes. On October 3, 1942 the A-4 roared into the skies over Peenemunde; it broke through the sound barrier and continued to an altitude of sixty miles and a range of 118 miles. It was the world's first launch of a ballistic missile and the first rocket ever to go into the fringes of space.

In 1943 after a meeting with Hitler at which the madman wanted to use the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon", the rocket group found themselves developing the A-4 to rain explosive terror on London. Fourteen months after Hitler ordered the it into production, the first combat A-4, now called the V-2, launched toward western Europe. The world's first medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) launched on September 7, 1944.

Perseverance had paid off for von Braun ; after over 65,000 failures the German rocket team had developed a very reliable system, and as the V-2s continued to rain on Antwerp and London and as the German war machine continued to crumble, the Allies wanted to get their hands on the V-2 and its master designer, Werhner von Braun.

The SS and the Gestapo had already detained von Braun and arrested him for crimes against the state because he dared to talk about building rockets which would go into orbit around the Earth and perhaps even go to the Moon someday. Von Braun's rocket team had plans on their designer boards of even larger V-2s with a potential for orbital flight. These craft had designations A-5 through A-8. The A-9 and A-10 were totally different craft; these were to be the world's first multistage rockets with first stage thrusts of 400,000 pounds and ranges of over 3000 miles. An A-11 on paper was designed to launch a pilot into orbit while an A-12 had a thrust of 2.5 million pounds and the capability of launching a payload of 60,000 pounds, a feat that rocketry finds challenging today. His crime against the state was for the frivolity of these dreams rather than total concentration of building bigger rocket bombs for the Nazi war machine. Dornberger convinced the SS and the Gestapo that without von Braun there would be no V-2 and that Hitler would have them all shot. The Gestapo released von Braun.

Knowing that Germany was doomed, von Braun, upon arriving back at Peenemunde, immediately assembled his rocket team and asked them to decide to whom did they want to surrender. The Russians frightened most of the scientists; the French would treat them like slaves; the British did not have enough money to afford a rocket program; that left the Americans. After stealing a train with forged papers , von Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. Additionally, the SS had orders to kill the German engineers who built the V-2. Hiding their notes in a mine shaft, the German scientists evaded their own army searching for the Americans. Finally, the entire German rocket team found an American private and surrendered to him. The Americans immediately went to Peenemunde and Nordhausen and captured all of the remaining V-2s and V-2 parts before the Russians. After they had picked the places clean, the American Army destroyed both places with explosives leaving the remains to the Russians. The Americans brought over 300 train car loads of spare V-2 parts to the United States.

"Operation Paperclip" brought von Braun and his entire rocket team to the United States where the Germans launched their newly adopted country into the space age. During the Nazi regime von Braun's team's main accomplishment was building the V-2 from the ground up in less than ten years. In 1934 the VfR was launching the equivalent of toy rockets 200 feet into the air, but by the end of 1944 von Braun's rocket team was launching V-2s into the edge of space an astonishing 60 miles above the Earth. While the German rocket engineers were being led off to the United States, a Soviet engineer was looking closely at the remains of Peenemude and marveling at the German's rocketry accomplishments. Even though the Americans had taken most of the good machinery, Sergei P. Korolev knew that the Germans had touched the edge of space.

The story of the life of Sergei P. Korolev is the story of the early, formative years of the Soviet Union's highly successful space program. Born in a typical Russian home in 1907 Sergei became a child of the revolution when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. In the 1920s Korolev went to Moscow to enroll in a number of technical schools to fulfill his ambition to become a test pilot. Throughout the 1920s he designed, built, and tested various aircraft. In the beginning of the 1930s he met Tsiolkovsky and Sergei P. Korolev's life was changed forever. From the moment he met the "Father of Cosmonautics" until his death in January 1966, Korolev devoted his life to spaceflight.

After his meeting with Tsiolkovsky, Korolev joined a rocket club under the close eye of Frederick Tsander a middle-aged Latvian who dreamed like Tsiolkovsky about spaceflight, but unlike his mentor, Tsander actually designed and built rockets that flew. The rocket club's name was GIRD and included two individuals who later became the most famous rocketeers in the Soviet Union: Korolev and Valentin P. Glushko.

In March 1933 Tsander contracted Typhus and died - an irreplaceable loss to Soviet Rocketry and the cause of spaceflight throughout the world. Later that year on August 17, 1933 GIRD launched the first rocket in the Soviet Union the GIRD 09 just outside Moscow. The rocket, fueled by liquid oxygen and benzene paste, had a thrust value of 73 pounds and reached an altitude of 400 meters (1300 feet). The GIRD-X, totally conceived and designed by Tsander, first flew on November 25, 1933; it was the Soviet Union's first liquid rocket, using propellants of alcohol and liquid oxygen. By the Fall of 1933 GIRD had caught the attention of the military under Field Marshal Tukachevsky.

As head of the Red Army Tukachevsky was extremely interested in modern technologies and what they would do to improve the fighting capabilities of his armies. The Field Marshal promptly drafted Korolev and the other members of GIRD into the Red Army and gave Korolev the rank of colonel with the express duties of developing military rockets.

While working with the Soviet military, Korolev developed flying bombs, rocket gliders, and rocket planes none of which were to lead the world into the space age, but he persisted with his belief that a winged rocket craft was destined to lead the way into the space age. He worked upon rocket assisted takeoffs for aircraft which led directly to the development of the first Soviet jet; he learned much about rocket stabilization with a series of rocket tests and winged rocket flights. By 1939 a two-stage rocket with a ram jet engine reached 500 miles per hour. Korolev's military bureau also completed work on surface-to-air, surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles. The surface-to-surface missile achieved a range of 13 miles leading the way to the successful development of the Soviet short range ballistic missile program of which its star has been the SS-1 or SCUD.

In 1937 Stalin accused Tukachevsky of developing a cult of the military and thus creating his own empire. Tukachevsky was promptly tried and shot in one day. This was the beginning of the great Stalinist purges of the 1930s in which the entire senior officer corps of the Red Army was executed along with 15 million bystanders who were either shot or imprisoned in the infamous Soviet gulags. Korolev, as a senior manager and as a member of the famous aircraft designer, Tupolev's, bureau , soon found himself in the gulag in 1938.

Mass arrests of aircraft engineers reflected Stalin's paranoia that these citizens had an expertise that could later turn into political rivalry. In Stalin's twisted mind, he could not have this happen, but the Communist Party needed these experts to bring the Soviet Union more into the 20th Century and also to defend the Motherland in case of an attack. For that reason the Communist Party developed the infamous sharaga, intellectual work camps. Initially, before the Party developed the sharagas, Korolev was sent to Siberia to work in the Kolyma gold mines with an average life expectancy of six months and where survival rates were in the one-half percentile. As time went on and the sharagas were created; Tupolev, himself a prisoner, requested that Korolev be sent to the sharaga for aircraft designers also known as Tupolevskaya. It was here that the cream of Soviet aircraft engineering worked for the State under the "protection" of the KGB; it was here that they developed aircraft which brought the Soviet Union even with the Nazi aviation industry; it was here that Georgy Langemak and Korolev developed the famous Katyusha rockets also known as "Stalin's Organ" which fired an array of truck mounted 2.75 inch rockets up to three miles to destroy enemy trenches and tanks; and it was here that Korolev kept his dream for spaceflight alive.

By World War II's end, the Soviet Union was extremely interested in getting von Braun and his rocket team included among their spoils of war. The Red Army had complete dossiers on all Peenemude personnel, the German rocket facilities at the launch site, and the manufacturing site at Nordhausen. Stalin even diverted the final attack on Berlin in February 1945 to send the armies northwards toward the Baltic Sea where Peenemude was located. The Soviets also received Peenemunde and Nordhausen in their zones of occupation. By May 1945 when the Soviets rushed into Peenemude and Nordhausen to occupy them, they found the sites deserted and no rockets to be found; the Americans had got there first. Stalin was extremely irate, but in July 1945 von Braun and most of his scientist were on their way to the United States. The Russians located only Helmut Grotrupp and put him in charge of rebuilding the Peenemude V-2 assembly line.

By mid-1946 Grotrupp had the V-2 assembly lines working again and they were static tested by Glushko. Korolev had looked over the German designs for the V-2 and decided that Russians were not really behind the Germans in terms of ideas and theories, they lagged the Germans in practical technology, and the Russian engineers were just as good as the Germans. To catch up to German technology in 1946, the Soviets whisked Grotrupp and his 6200 technicians and engineers off to the Soviet Union to spend seven years there.

After the war, von Braun found himself in America at the White Sands Proving Grounds ready to push the United States into the Space Age; Sergei Korolev was a free men after seven years and about to apply himself to complete his life's dream of space flight. The ground work for the Space Age had been laid.


John F. Graham, 1995
Photos courtesy NASA

At the end of World War II two powers emerged to dominate the world for the foreseeable future: the United States and the Soviet Union. Both of these powers helped to start the Space Age which at its beginning was a race toward Armageddon using new technologies hatched in the throes of a world at war.

During World War II the birth of four distinct technologies led directly to the advent of the Space Age. The most obvious and important of these technologies for the Space Age was the development of the V-2 rocket in Germany. This terroristic weapon of war could fly to the edge of space; this missile was the basis for the design of all other missiles after the war. The Americans used this technology directly from the German engineers themselves and the Russians used the German technologies in combination with their own theorists' and engineers' ideas.

The second technology that led directly to the Space Age was the development of the atomic bomb. For three years the best minds in the U.S. were held very much like Korolev and his colleagues in an American version of a Kashaga in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Here the Manhattan Project developed the first atomic bomb. How was this to affect the beginning of the Space Age? The Russians had no strategic bomber fleet which could carry the huge atomic weapons around the globe; in fact, until 1949, the Russians didn't have any atomic weapons. The Americans had both the huge atomic weapons and the heavy bomber aircraft required to deliver their horrendous loads. When the Russians developed their own atomic bomb, they had no aircraft to carry the huge thing. From that moment until he died in 1953, Stalin wanted the Soviet Union to develop a rocket to deliver this huge atomic weapon to America if the need arose. The advent of atomic weapons led directly to the development of the carrier craft needed to get them to their target, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The third technology required for the space age was developed in Great Britain. Radar technology helped to win the Battle of Britain. Radars were mandatory for developing the tracking and telemetry capability needed to launch and track a rocket. This became vitally important during the initial development of the guidance, control and navigation capabilities of the fledgling rocket programs.

The fourth technology was the development of the computer. Initially developed in the United States as an analog calculator, the computer changed the world after it gained digital capability given to it by men like John von Neumann. Even though it was invented during the war, the computer would have to wait for other electronic development before it would come into its own as a force at the beginning of the Space Age.

The United States

At the end of the war the U.S. found itself as the leader of the Free World and the only world power with atomic weapons. The rocket launching capability of this victorious country was nil largely because of the lack of interest in the subject from the government and the military and due to the fact that Robert H. Goddard had kept all of his excellent work in rocketry to himself. It was not until after his death in 1945 that Robert Goddard became known for the work he had done in this brand new science.

In July 1945 Wernher von Braun and his 120 German rocket scientists soon found themselves in El Paso, Texas helping to start a nonexistent space program in the United States. In May 1946 the Germans successfully launched its first V-2 at White Sands Proving Grounds and once again von Braun and his engineers found themselves in the hands of the military courtesy of the U.S. Army.

The post war study of the U.S. Space Program is a study of military power and how it was to be used against the new enemy, the Soviet Union. With an atomic monopoly and no common enemy to fight the U.S. military now began fighting among themselves for the scarce resources of the post war years. The Army, its precocious youngster the Army Air Force(AAF), and the Navy went head to head to head over who should control the rocket programs and the new atomic weapon system. Since its pilots dropped the bombs on Japan and their aircraft were built to deliver the weapon, the AAF insisted on being in control of the atomic bombs and all delivery vehicles, aircraft and missiles. The Army insisted that rockets were artillery, so, naturally, it should control the rockets and for that reason they retained von Braun and his Germans at White Sands. The Navy felt they were the only service who could project U.S. power globally, so they should be in charge of these important weapons. In September 1947 the AAF became the U.S. Air Force and they proceeded to explain why the U.S. should never put atomic weapons under international control like the politicians wanted. International control of atomic weapons became a moot point because on September 23, 1949 the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic weapon and the Cold War and the race for space began in earnest.

President Truman killed a number of attempts to start an American space program because there was no need for it and there was not enough money for it in the budget. The Navy was extremely enthusiastic about putting a satellite into orbit to watch for other ships, but when given the choice between having their own ships built and a satellite launched into space they chose to build their own ships. The AAF tasked Rand Corporation to study Space Flight and Rand came up with several ideas including building a four-stage space rocket, study cosmic rays with a satellite of about 500 pounds, and orbit military reconnaissance craft on board satellites. The AAF even tasked Convair Corporation to design and build a 5000 mile missile in a project called MX-774. An ICBM was not needed; the AAF had plenty of bombers near enough to the Soviet Union to obliterate it and so the MX-774 was cancelled, but Convair kept their plans. Convair did not go away empty handed because they used the V-2 technology to learn how to gimbal engines, to separate nose cones from main rockets, and how to make the main rockets into nothing but fuel tanks and thin, pressurized skin; this was the forerunner of the Atlas missile. The USAF tried to disguise this program as high altitude research and to develop the Atlas to the point of launching it, but the tight-fisted budget people said no.

The Navy had better luck with the budget people than did the Air Force. In 1946 the Navy got approval to build the Viking, a rocket designed to probe the high altitudes of the upper atmosphere. Based on V-2 technology the Viking had a second stage called an Aerobee. The Navy launched six Vikings through 1950 from Wallops Island, Virginia and even launched one from a carrier deck.

Von Braun and his team continued to test variants of the V-2 at White Sands. Project Hermes modified the V-2 for larger payloads while Project Bumber added a small upper stage called the WAC Corporal. This project broke all records when it launched the WAC Corporal to a height of over 250 miles. When all of the remaining V-2s had been launched from White Sands the Army moved the successful von Braun and his colleagues to Huntsville, Alabama, in November 1950 to work in the Redstone Arsenal. It was here that the Germans built the Redstone Missile based on a liquid engine for a cruise missile an IRBM with a DOD restricted range of less than 200 miles. The first Redstone was launched in 1953, about four years after the Soviet Union had launched a similar missile called the Pobeda in 1949. At this time it was evident that the U.S. was at least four years behind the Soviets. The U.S. Government may have been lagging the Soviet Union in real space travel, but the U.S. citizen's fascination about space was being inspired by a new influx of science fiction.

The atomic bomb is often given as the reason for the rise in science fiction after World War II. Another big reason for this interest in space and science fiction was the sudden increase in Hollywood "B" movies which led to more science fiction which led to a greater desire for more "B" movies etc. About this time in 1947 the American public started seeing Unidentified Flying Objects or UFOs as they are popularly known. So many of these curious lights were seen in fact that the Air Force began its own personal investigation called "Project Blue Book". Nothing ever came of this investigation, and the Air Force is always accused of covering up their findings, but this UFO enthusiasm continued throughout the 1950s.

Capitalizing upon this interest in space and science, Collier's Magazine in 1952 published a number of articles by space scientists such as von Braun with paintings by Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestall. At the same time Walt Disney filmed a series called the "Conquest of Space" and also included a Moon rocket ride in his new amusement park, Disneyland, in 1955. The result of all this interest was a renewed fascination with space flight, but, as in many movements, the government was the last entity to know about this phenomenon.

On November 1, 1952 the United States detonated its first hydrogen bomb at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. The ten megaton device was not really a bomb, but needed liquid Deuterium at -250C to be cold enough to detonate. Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet physicist, discovered lithium-deuteride a salt which enabled the Soviets to make a real hydrogen bomb that was detonated in August of 1953. The U.S. also discovered the secret of making small hydrogen bombs and destroyed Bikini Atoll to test their new weapon. The resistance to the creating of an ICBM was now futile because of the small powerful weapon.

The reasons for the ICBM being brought back from its paperwork grave were many; here are a few of them:

5. The invention of the hydrogen bomb.

6. Improved guidance made possible by Stark Draper.

7. A blunt reentry vehicle designed by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA)

8. Reports from RAND that the Soviet Union was far ahead of the U.S. in developing an ICBM.

At once there began a crash program to acquire an American ICBM. As this program was being developed the U.S. Air Force was beginning a secret program to watch its enemies on Earth from outer space; this was called Project WS-117L or a strategic satellite. This momentous decision occurred on March 16, 1955 twenty-nine years after Goddard launched his first rocket. Convair quickly pulled its plans from the vault, dusted them off and built the Atlas rocket, America's first ICBM; and because it was not suited to a fast launch under an attack, the USAF asked Martin Aircraft to develop the Titan - a two-stage ICBM. The Titan's acquisition occurred while finishing touches took place on the Atlas.

Meanwhile, the Army was working on a new missile called the Jupiter which was to be an IRBM and the USAF was working on their version called the Thor. On September 20, 1956 the Army rocket launchers, under von Braun, launched a Jupiter-C missile, also called a Juno, 682 miles into space with a downrange distance of 3355 miles. It had a top speed of 13,000 miles per hour. Von Braun stated that if they had been permitted to put an engine on the last stage of this rocket, they could have easily orbited a satellite achieving the velocity of 17,000 required for this feat.

In 1950 Dr. James Van Allen, an American physics professor from the University of Iowa who was working with the Germans on the V-2 experimental launchings in White Sands, got together with some friends and decided that an international science year would be a great way to advance the science and the knowledge of the Earth. From this little dinner party came the International Geophysical Year (IGY) which was formally endorsed by the United Nations in 1954.. The IGY was to run from July 1957 - December 1958 and would involve all branches of science. On July 29, 1955 the United States said that it would launch a scientific space satellite during the IGY to study space. The very next day the Soviet Union stated that it too would launch a satellite into orbit to study the Earth from space. No one gave much recognition to this Russian proposal; it was considered the boasting of a technologically slow country for propaganda purposes. World space experts thought that the Americans would launch a satellite because they had all the known space expertise in the world. President Eisenhower and his advisors stated that they would not launch a spacecraft based upon a missile developed by the Army or by the Air Force to launch America's first satellite, but would rely on a spacecraft built strictly for the civilian space program. At this point the U.S. military and civilian space programs became separate entities.

Vanguard was the name of the U.S. program designed to launch its first satellite. It consisted of a V-2 derived first stage from the Viking rocket which used kerosene and liquid oxygen for fuel. The second stage was based upon Aerobee technology and was fueled by two hypergolic fuels, white inhibited fuming nitric acid (WIFNA) and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH). Hypergolic means that when the two fuels come into contact they automatically ignite. The third stage was a solid rocket which was to place the payload, a 6.4 inch diameter sphere weighing 3.25 pounds, into orbit. After three tests the U.S. was ready to launch the first satellite into low Earth orbit (LEO), but a funny thing happened; someone else launched a satellite into space first.


After the war, Stalin decided that because the United States had the atomic bomb and the bombers to drop these weapons he needed a system that, when he finally did get the bomb, could deliver it quickly to American targets. The solution to this problem was to design huge rockets which could carry these huge bombs. In 1946 Korolev was appointed Chief Constructor for developing a series of automatically guided, long range ballistic missiles. He had to design the missiles and bring together all the components as well.

In 1947 a conference in the Kremlin produced three possible designs for these rockets. In 1948 at Kapustin Yar, the first Soviet missile for carrying a weapon was tested successfully. In a separate think tank, the German technicians had planned for a V-2 upgrade called the R-14, a true ICBM designed to lift a 6,600 pound warhead 1800 miles. This plan disappeared in 1949 into the Soviet's hands never to be seen again. The Germans were put to work on anti-aircraft missiles and never again on ICBMs. On November 22, 1953 the Soviets sent the German technicians back to Germany.

Korolev, Glushko, Vladimir Barmin, V.I. Kuznetsov, Nikolai Pilyugin, and N.A. Ryazanski became the Chief Designer's Council. This informal group had no legal charter in the Soviet Union's government, but they brought the world into the space age. Korolev and Glushko launched the R-1 and the R-2 at Kapustin Yar. At the same time, new construction on Tyuratam, a planned missile test site just off the Siberian Railroad near the Aral Sea in Kazahkstan, began in earnest.

During the R-1 and R-2 tests Korolev showed that his main interest was always spaceflight. He put instruments on board the missiles to measure cosmic rays and he designed a separate reentry vehicle for the R-1. In these reentry vehicles Korolev put instruments, measuring not only cosmic rays, but also air pressure, winds, and micrometeorites. He also devised capsules for animals to measure the effects of space on biological entities. He developed air purifying systems for the animals as they blasted to 100 miles above the Earth. He also tested rocket escape capsules which ejected the animals at 60, 50, and 40 miles above the Earth in an effort to develop escape mechanisms for rocket pilots.

Under Stalin's unrelenting pressure, in 1951 Korolev began to develop a missile to carry the newly acquired atomic warhead about 1900 miles. It was a single-stage rocket which could be clustered together to launch an artificial space satellite, but after the birth of the hydrogen bomb this idea was abandoned in favor of building an ICBM to strike the American homeland. Korolev's design for the ICBM was approved in 1954. At the same time the Soviet Union's Academy of Sciences approved both pure and applied research in atomic energy, radar, jet and rocket technology, semiconductors and electronic theory, and computers. The Council of Ministers also tripled the scientists' salaries who then found themselves the richest people in the country. This Soviet technological maturity also led to a rebirth of the dreams of Tsiolkovsky and Tsander; that of spaceflight.

After the death of Stalin in 1953, the iron grip of government was loosened, thinking about the applications of science was freer, and from the kashagas came the rest of the imprisoned scientists to help with the new revolution of the Space Age. The rocketeers and their supporters in the Kremlin were ready to begin spaceflight.

In 1955 the new ICBM range from Tyuratam to Kamchatka was ready for use and on May 15, 1957 Korolev's team attempted the first ICBM launch. The R-7 was about 95.8 feet in height and 33.8 feet at its base. Upon ignition one of the first stage pods caught on fire and the entire missile burned. During the second attempt in June a control system failed while in July the missile was over-fueled and exploded before flight. These lessons learned finally, on August 21, 1957 the first ICBM hit Kamchatka. The way was paved for a satellite launch.


John F. Graham, 1995
Photos courtesy NASA

Early in 1957 Korolev requested permission to launch the first two Soviet satellites before the beginning of the IGY. His concern was that the U.S. would launch a spacecraft first on its Vanguard booster. The Soviet leadership told him that his first priority was to build an ICBM and not to worry about spaceflight. After the successful test of the ICBM the leadership granted Korolev his wish. On September 17, 1957, the 100th anniversary of Tsiolkovsky's birth, Korolev told a gathering that "In the immediate future the USSR and the US will conduct trials of rockets to launch the first Earth satellites."

To beat the US into space, Korolev decided to launch a very unsophisticated satellite into orbit. The designers decided to make the satellite a sphere to give it the largest volume for a given surface area. It was highly polished aluminum to keep the temperature controlled and it had two radio transmitters on 20.005 and 40.002 MegaHertz (MHz) respectively. There was a group of silver-zinc batteries to provide one watt of power for up to three weeks. On the outside of the craft sprung to the open sweptback position were four rods about 9.5 feet long , the satellite's antennae.

The satellite, filled with nitrogen, stayed at a temperature of 20-30C. The small satellite had a diameter of 23 inches and a mass of 184 pounds. To attach the satellite to the rocket a special adapter and a nose cone were made. Additionally, a special separation system was needed to disconnect the spacecraft from the rocket. In conditions thought to replicate those in space, Korolev and his engineers tested these various spring mechanisms several dozen times. The spacecraft was ready as well as the rocket.

At Tyuratam the R-7 rocket was horizontally transferred from the assembly building on a railroad car; a boom erected the rocket vertically at the launch pad. The alcohol fuel and liquid oxygen oxidizer was pumped into the tanks from nearby railroad cars. On October 4, 1957 at 10:28 P.M. Moscow time the world's first artificial satellite was launched from Tyuratam. After the satellite separated from its rocket carrier, the small craft began to transmit its message over its two designated frequencies. The message was nothing more than a simple "beep...beep...beep." Astronomers and other observers calculated the following initial orbital elements for the spacecraft. Its inclination was 65.1 with a low point or perigee of 228 km (142 miles), a high point or apogee of 947 km (588 miles), and a period of 96 minutes and 10.2 seconds to make one Earth circuit.

The Soviets name the spacecraft "SPUTNIK" which basically means "fellow traveler" in Russian. This word entered the world's vocabulary overnight as people all over the Earth cheered humanity's first escape from its home planet. This little craft was to stay in orbit until January 4, 1958 when it burned into the Earth's atmosphere and into the history books. It was a new Soviet first!

While the rest of the world congratulated the Soviets on the feat, the US was in a complete panic. The Russians had beaten us into space! Why had we grown complacent? Did the Russians get an entire troop of German technicians to work for them? Is our education system that far behind in science and mathematics? All of these questions flooded the White House and the hallowed halls of Congress. Lyndon Johnson the Senate Majority Leader from Texas, decided to hold hearings to determine just how far behind the US was in the "space race."

President Eisenhower completely misjudged this panic. He felt that it was no big deal for the Russians to put a satellite into orbit. So what if they were first! Our science and technology was far ahead of theirs! He also neglected to tell the American people that the US was indeed far ahead of the Russians in the development of the ballistic missile. This lead to the famous "missile gap" theories which contributed to the defeat of Richard Nixon in his quest for the presidency in 1960. To defuse the situation on October 9, 1957 President Eisenhower told the American people that the U.S. would launch a satellite in December 1957. A month before this goal the Soviets were again to shock the U.S. and the rest of the world.

SPUTNIK 2 - LAIKA, Space Dog

On November 3, 1957 Korolev's design bureau launched a second spacecraft into orbit. This was no mere metal balloon to be denigrated by members of the Eisenhower Administration, but it was a 508 kg (1118 lb) spacecraft with the world's first biological traveler, a female Siberian dog named Laika.

During the first week of the flight biological data were sent to Earth noting the condition of the dog and the affect of the conditions of space on the dog's normal biological functions. Whether purposely or not the upper stage of the spacecraft stayed attached to the capsule and it actually helped to stabilize the craft using a gravity gradient technique, this means that the greater mass will point directly toward the center of the Earth. Since the second stage had more mass than Laika's capsule it pointed toward the Earth and kept the spacecraft from tumbling out of control.

Because the launch occurred so early in the Soviet Space Program, no reentry technique had been devised to return the animal back to Earth safely after orbit. For that reason, Laika was put to sleep after a week in orbit. There has always been an argument about Laika's final demise. Some say the dog lived four days when its capsule was filled with gas for euthanasia, others state that the dog lived for ten days during which time its total biological functions were investigated and then it was put to sleep. Regardless of when Laika pass away, her spacecraft continued to send important information to Earth about the radioactivity and cosmic rays at the spacecraft's altitude. On April 14, 1958 Sputnik 2 with Laika's remains on board burned into the Earth's atmosphere after a flight of 162 days. Laika's martyrdom paved the way for humans to go into space. In Star City, outside Moscow in Kaliningrad stands a large monument to the Russian space heroes. In a small forward section of this stone edifice, peeking out from behind the cosmonauts, her ears at alert, stands the image of Laika, a true space pioneer.


If Sputnik 1 caused an uproar in the United States, Sputnik 2 with Laika aboard caused pandemonium. The cries were for the government to do something fast before the Communists obtained a foothold throughout space. Many of the World War II generation claimed that this was worse than Pearl Harbor because the two Sputnik launches occurred within a month; there was only one Pearl Harbor.

With President Eisenhower's promise to launch a spacecraft by December spurring them on, the scientists in charge of Vanguard changed their test flight originally scheduled for December, into an operational launch. Only Vanguard's first stage had been successfully tested and the launch was scheduled with great hope and expectations.

In contrast to the Soviet's launch of Sputnik which was held in secrecy on the steppes of Kazahkstan, the American launch of Vanguard was held at Cape Canaveral, Florida and was open to anyone who wanted to watch it from a safe distance. The world's press gathered to watch the Americans answer the challenge laid down by Korolev and his boss Nikita Sergeivich Khrushchev the leader of the Soviet Union. More than a hundred reporters and cameramen gathered on the beaches to watch the grapefruit-sized spacecraft launch into orbit. Hourly press briefings were held to keep the newsmen apprised of every technical detail even though the scientists seemed to be speaking a language as foreign as ancient Babylonian.

The countdown for the launch began on December 5, 1957; just before Noon on December 6, 1957 the countdown reached zero. The blockhouse crew ignited the engines and Vanguard raised four feet off the pad and then fell back to its starting point. The nose cone separated from the rest of the missile which immediately exploded into a brilliant ball of orange flame hovering over the gantries for a few moments and then quickly transforming into a large cloud of black smoke.

As the firemen went to the pad to help quell what remained of the fire on the pad they noticed something spinning in the grass. There, rolling pitifully in the tall sea oats was the grapefruit-sized satellite with one of its antennas deployed sending telemetry to its non-existent tracking stations. By being hurtled away from the explosion the small spacecraft reacted as if it had separated in space from its booster. This action activated a timer whose time expiration triggered within Vanguard two actions. Using the time expiration scientists had calculated safe separation from the booster. Once this was obtained by use of the timer the satellite's antenna deployed and the satellite began to transmit from orbit. The spacecraft did its job perfectly; the launch vehicle did not.

This was national humiliation for the American people for the entire world to witness. The U.S. government in general and the Eisenhower administration in particular had failed to grasp the national psychological advantages of placing satellites into space. At the United Nations, the Russian rubbed salt into the Vanguard wound when the Soviet delegates asked their U.S. counterparts if they would like Soviet aid given to third world countries to help get the American space program on track. James Killian, Chairman of the President's Science Advisory Committee, only gave the U.S. a fifty-fifty chance of launching a satellite in 1958. He urged President Eisenhower to drop his ban on military space vehicles and to give the Army with Werhner von Braun's German Rocket Team the opportunity to launch their satellite.


After the Sputnik launch, von Braun had a team unofficially working to orbit a satellite. His Rocket Team already had a vehicle which they confidently felt would accomplish the mission; it was the Jupiter-C or Juno, a Redstone derivative rocket which had gone over 600 miles into space and had obtained a speed of 13,000 miles per hour. The major problem was designing a payload which could fit on the Jupiter-C and still contain scientific instruments. Von Braun approached James Van Allen and Allen Pickering to create a payload; they called it Explorer 1 and it fit into the small, cylinder rocket cone without problem.

The Vanguard fiasco had occurred on December 6 and von Braun was ready to launch his spacecraft in less than 60 days. The president had asked that the spacecraft be put into orbit within 90 days, but von Braun was ready earlier. The Army commander in charge of the launch wanted little publicity because he was frightened by the uproar which the Vanguard failure caused. The countdown for the launch was put on hold for forty-eight hours because of high winds from the jet stream. On January 31, 1958 the winds were still strong aloft; then one of the German rocket scientists heard of a report of a fuel leak from one of the technicians in the block house. With only a hard hat and a handkerchief, the German approached the vehicle and wiped the side of the Jupiter-C at the point where the fuel leak was located; the "fuel" was really only condensation caused from the "boiling off" of the liquid oxygen.

At 10:48 P.M. the Jupiter-C ignited and rose from the launch pad.

The close observers with field glasses or telescopes trained on the top of the rocket may have noticed the payload spinning; this was to give spin stabilization to the satellite so that it could remain in a stable orbit. The vehicle rose higher in the dark sky until it disappeared from view without exploding. Unseen by human eyes or tracking equipment, the first stage burned out as planned after 157 seconds into flight; the upper stage carrying the instrument payload separated from this stage and coasted to its high point of flight. At 247 seconds after launch the second stage ignited, firing all eleven of its motors. The third and the fourth stages followed suit.

Ninety minutes later the Goldstone Tracking station sent a small but extremely important message to the world: "Goldstone has the bird." President Eisenhower was relieved and the entire country sat back with a sigh of relief; the U.S. was back in "the Space Race".

Explorer 1 was a cylinder 80 inches long and 6 inches in diameter; it had eleven pounds of scientific instruments, batteries, and radios and was the fourth stage of the rocket. The orbit stretched out to an apogee of 984 miles putting it much higher than the Russian spacecraft. One set of instruments on board Explorer 1 was a series of Geiger Counters for measuring radiation. Strangely, the instruments would quit working at a certain part of the orbit and then they would mysteriously start again. This phenomenon led to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts around the Earth. These belts of trapped radioactive particles encircle the Earth like two large donuts extending from 700 miles - 20,000 miles. Often credited with the total discovery of the Van Allen Belts, Explorer 1 really only gave a clue as to these belts' existence. After careful exploration with many satellites, the belts' existence were determined and future satellite designers could compensate for the radiation hazard which they posed.


John F. Graham, 1995
Photos courtesy NASA

After the heady triumph of Explorer I the U.S. settled down to start an exploration program based on probing space. On January 7, 1958 before the launch of Explorer I, Senator Lyndon Johnson had laid down the challenge that now it was time for the administration to build a space program which would take the U.S. to the stars. After a failure occurring 57 seconds into orbit on February 5, on March 17, 1958 a Vanguard rocket finally placed Vanguard I into orbit. The satellite was very much like its predecessor, weighing in at 3.25 pounds with a 6.25 inch diameter, but it had two transmitters; one battery powered which lasted twenty-nine days and another which was powered by six solar cells and lasted several years.

Vanguard did not return any scientific data directly, but the determination of the satellite's orbit through a Navy tracking system called "Minitrack" enabled scientists to determine valuable information on the shape and mass distribution of the Earth.

Von Braun's Rocket Team successfully launched Explorer III on March26, 1958 after a failed launch attempt on the 5th of March with Explorer II. Explorer III confirmed the existence of the Van Allen belts and also measured cosmic ray radiation as well as micrometeoroids. The major difference between the two successful Explorers was that III had a data recorder whereas I did not.

Even though behind the Soviets at the beginning of the "Space Race" the U.S. government extolled one significant virtue about American satellites; in spite of their small size they had more science gathering devices than did either of the larger Sputniks. As if to directly answer this criticism, Korolev directed the launch of Sputnik 3 on May 15, 1958. This followed the first failure of a Russian Sputnik launch which had been attempted on February 3, 1958. On board the 3000 pound satellite were 2,130 pounds of a dozen scientific instruments. The spacecraft was launched into a highly eccentric orbit with an apogee of 1880 km and a perigee of 230 km. Sputnik 3 was an advanced geophysical laboratory that confirmed the existence of the outer Van Allen radiation belt, and determined that the inner belt was made of high energy protons. The satellite also found electromagnetic currents flowing through the upper atmosphere as the Earth's magnetic field went through a series of fast changes. The large spacecraft also measured the temperature, pressure, and particle density of the upper atmosphere; pressure and particle density were greater than previously thought. At that time micrometeorites in space were thought to be a great hazard to flight, but Sputnik 3 proved that the micrometeorite particles were extremely scarce and that flight through this region was very safe. This scientific satellite remained in orbit until April 6, 1960.

Sputnik 3 may have been the first satellite scheduled to go into orbit instead of the 184 pound Sputnik 1. If this feat had been accomplished American morale would have been devastated because the Soviets launched a 1.3 ton satellite while the Americans had failed to launch the 3.25 pound Vanguard. Korolev probably decided that getting any satellite such as unsophisticated at Sputnik 1 into orbit was more important than getting the 3000 pound Sputnik 3 into orbit. This also marked the last time the basic R-7 missile and a strap-on were used to boost a spacecraft into orbit. Following that launch there was always another propellant stage included. Western intelligence circles called the R-7 booster the SS-6 in its ICBM form and the SL-1 for the satellite booster. The SL stands simply for "Space Launcher." During most of 1958 the Soviets endured a number of launch failures which were never publicized due to the fanatical secrecy behind the Soviet Space Program. In contrast the American failures were emblazoned throughout the various world media. The Soviet failures were spacecraft built to go to the Moon.


While the Russians were trying to launch spacecraft to the Moon, the American space program was trying to become bureaucratically organized. After the shock of Sputnik and the relief generated by the Explorer launch, there was a drive to establish a national space program. Everyone in the government agreed this should be done, but no one could agree on which agency would head such a national space program. The agency most thought to head such a program was the Department of Defense with all of their space assets. Because the Atomic Energy Commission was already involved in nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion, many congressmen thought that this would be the ideal agency to run the space tasks. But a very small government organization involved in aeronautics since 1915 had been doing missile research throughout the 1950s; this close knit organization of engineers and scientists was called the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics or NACA.

NACA had a unique role in the American aeronautical research at the time because it not only completed contracts for the various military services which had aeronautical research problems to be solved but it also accomplished tasks for the civilian sector of the aviation industry as well. This research frequently led to new breakthroughs in aviation which was translated to both the military and civilian institutions. Because President Eisenhower believed that the military should not be the front runner for the American space program he supported NACA to head it. Senator Johnson agreed with the President that cold war tensions should not be put into the new medium of outer space by letting the military head the American space program.

In March 1958 James Killian's committee started drafting legislation for a new agency which would head the civilian portion of the space program. This agency, based on science and technology, would consolidate all existing space activities with the big exception of the military and present plans and programs to create an expanded space exploration program. On April 2, 1958 the Eisenhower Administration presented to Congress a bill to create a civilian national aeronautics and space agency. After the normal amount of debate and refinements the bill quickly passed both houses of Congress and was sent to President Eisenhower for signature. On July 29, 1958 President Eisenhower signed Public Law 85-568, the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958. The law called for the establishment of a civilian space program, dedicated to peaceful exploration and the development of new technology. This new government agency was given the mandate under a broad charter to provide information concerning the American Space Program directly to the public. Recognizing the importance of outer space for national security, the same act assigned to the Department of Defense those space programs related to the U.S. military. Finally, the act required NASA and the military space programs to share technology for the advantage of both parties. As the lead government agency, NACA spent the summer of 1958 quickly transforming itself into NASA.

President Eisenhower nominated T. Keith Glennan, the President of Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, to become the first NASA Administrator. He was quickly confirmed by both houses of Congress and on October 1, 1958 Mr. Glennan found himself in charge of Project Vanguard, the Army Lunar probes, the Air Force rocket engine programs, three laboratories, and two stations. One week after NASA's official activation Glennan approved Project Mercury, America's first human space program.

In February 1960 NASA presented its first long range plan to Congress. This plan called for the following ambitious ten-tear program: the development of bigger launch vehicles to lift heavier payloads farther from Earth; satellites to further measure the near Earth space environment; weather satellites; lunar probes to photograph the Moon and investigate its environment; orbital and circumlunar human flight; and planetary probes to photograph and investigate our nearest planetary neighbors, Venus and Mars.


The von Braun Rocket Team scored another success on July 26, 1958 when Explorer 4 blasted into orbit. This spacecraft like the first successful Explorers confirmed the radiation data gathered concerning the Van Allen radiation belts and relayed this to Earth. The following Explorer launch on August 24, 1958 failed as was the last Jupiter-C to attempt to launch an Explorer satellite. Even though Von Braun's Jupiter-C ended its career with a 50% average, it accomplished its main task, to put the United States into space for the first time. The Vanguard, which was supposed to accomplish this task was plagued with failures despite one success.

On April 28, 1958 the third stage of the Vanguard vehicle failed thus starting a string of failures lasting the rest of the year. Less than a month later, on May 27, the second stage malfunctioned destroying the vehicle. On June 26 a premature second stage cutoff left the satellite with insufficient thrust for orbit; the satellite was destroyed. On September 26 the second stage ignited and operated, but again there was insufficient thrust to put the vehicle into orbit; the satellite was destroyed. Finally, the first successful operational Vanguard satellite flew into orbit on February 17, 1959. Vanguard 2 was the world's first weather satellite designed to measure the Earth's albedo, the amount of Sunlight reflected by the Earth' surface and cloud layers. This 20 inch metal sphere weighed in at 20.7 pounds, contained two photoelectric detecting units, a data recorder, a transmitter and a receiver. As the satellite spun, its photocells registered variation in albedo intensity on the spacecraft recorder which relayed the information to Earth. Due to satellite rotational instabilities, scientists had trouble interpreting the data.

The Vanguard Program continued with two more second-stage malfunctions on April 13 and June 22, 1959. Then, on September 18, 1959 Vanguard 3 was launched. This 100 pound satellite had an apogee of 2,329 miles, a perigee of 317 miles and a period of 130.2 minutes. Vanguard 3 mapped Earth's magnetic field, especially the lower edge of the Van Allen radiation belts; monitored solar radiation; and it was the first American spacecraft to extensively study the micrometeorite environment.

Vanguard 3 had four different kind of micrometeorite detectors on board. One detector was similar to a microphone as it converted micrometeorite impacts into electronic pulses, recorded them and sent the information to the ground. The second detector was an opaque material over a photocell. As the micrometeorites poked holes in the opaque material, more and more light would impact the cell. The amount of light reaching the photocell was a direct measurement of how many meteorites struck the spacecraft. A third detector was simply a piece of foil that had an electrical resistance which increased with each impact. The final impact detector was a tiny group of pressure cells when punctured would trip a small pressure switch. The measurement of the number of switch activations would determine the extent of the micrometeorite environment. During its 84-day operation the micrometeorites bombarded the detectors more times than predicted.

Vanguard 3 was the final launch of the Vanguard Program; its short, troubled life was over. Both the Soviets and the Americans now attempted to test the true reach of their rockets by sending spacecraft out to the Earth's nearest neighbor, the Moon.

Exploration Continues - The Moon

In 1958, the highly active Korolev wrote a paper about Lunar exploration enumerating the steps necessary to reach the Moon including key problems to be solved, launch windows, instrumentation required for guidance and tracking , and the all-important payload instruments. These payloads would investigate the following: the Moon's magnetic field; interplanetary dust and gas; micrometeorites away from Earth; cosmic radiation outside the Earth's magnetic field; and the general topography of the Moon viewed from a close distance without atmospheric interference. Cameras as part of the payload would accomplish the last task with photographs; spacecraft antennas would relay the pictures electronically to a waiting Earth station.

The main technological obstacle for Korolev's team was to design a rocket with enough power to escape the Earth's gravitational influence. This required a rocket to achieve the speed of 11.19 km/sec or about 7 miles/sec. The R-7 booster needed a third stage to obtain the extra thrust necessary to achieve the required velocity. Additionally, the rocket's guidance and control system would have to be accurate enough to place the payload in the vicinity of the Moon. Deviations in navigation of one minute of arc or in velocity of one meter per second would cause deviations of 200 km or 250 km respectively. Communications systems, attitude control systems and navigation systems would be required to insure the spacecraft reached the Moon. None of this equipment had been designed and a voyage to the Moon had been done only in fantasy. Korolev was prepared to change fantasy into fact.

On January 2, 1959 Luna-1 began its voyage to the Moon after it boosted to escape velocity. Unsure of their radar data, Korolev's team had a small amount of sodium vapor released from the spacecraft at 70,000 miles from Earth to aid in determining the craft's trajectory. Thirty-four hours after launch, Luna-1 flew by the Moon at a distance of 6000 Km, the first spacecraft to do this. It then went into a Heliocentric (Sun-centered orbit) where it remains to this day.

Luna-1 discovered that the Van Allen radiation belts were not as thick or intense in their outer layers as first speculated. It also made a major discovery when the instruments found that the Moon has no magnetic field. Although the spacecraft had no cameras on board, it did have detectors to determine corpuscular or particle radiation. Employing this equipment, Luna-1 discovered heavily ionized plasma fluxes from the Sun which were given the term of "solar wind." The spacecraft also studied cosmic rays and registered the photons of cosmic radiation.

Luna-1 proved that interplanetary flight was not just a paper-bound exercise; it could really happen. On September 12, 1959 Korolev quickly followed up the successful Luna-1 mission with Luna-2; its mission was to impact the Moon. After a day and half flight, Luna-2 with its 800 pound payload impacted the Moon at a point east of the Sea of Serenity scattering memorial metal pendants over the surface. Interestingly, these pendants in the shape of pentagons were launched in metallic spheres so when they impacted, the spheres would explode scattering their parts all over the surface. The pendants simply read " USSR September 1959." There is evidence that Korolev's team may have tried to impact the Moon earlier because of known launch failures on the following dates: January 9, 16, and June 16, 1959.

On October 4, 1959 two years after Sputnik, Korolev and his team launched Luna-3; its mission was to fly into a highly elliptical orbit from the Earth, around the Moon, and then fly by the Earth again. While Luna-3 traveled around the "dark side" of the Moon it would take photographs and then it would transmit these photos as the satellite approached Earth on its return trip.

Luna-3 made its closest approach to the Moon on October 6; as it approached 67,000 km above the Lunar surface, the craft's attitude control jets stabilized it and the photography session began lasting forty minutes . The pictures initiated with those familiar features as seen from Earth and then continued around the other side so that scientists and mapmakers could correlate known with unknown features. After the pictures were taken they were developed on board the spacecraft and a television camera transmitted the images back to Earth. Although 30 % of the far side of the Moon was still unseen after Luna-3, its pictures showed many craters as well as other features similar to the visible side with the significant exception of no large Mares or dark "seas" as seen on the visible side. The successful Luna-3 mission was vintage Korolev which clearly displayed his intense planning and unequalled skill as the "Chief Designer." Two other possible Soviet Lunar photography missions may have failed occurring on April 12 and 18, 1960. The Americans had not accomplished anything like these feats up to this time.

The U.S. Army and the Air Force jointly designed the earliest American program scheduled to go to the Moon during the IGY. NASA inherited these programs on October 1, 1958. Before this the U.S. Air Force attempted to launch the first Moon probe on August 17, 1958; the Thor-Able rocket exploded after a 77 second flight because a turbo pump in its rocket motor seized. The Thor-Able rocket consisted of a first stage Thor intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a Vanguard used as the second stage. One October 11, 1958 the Thor-Able flight was a success and the spacecraft was named Pioneer 1.

On October 11, 1958 the Air Force launched Pioneer 1 toward the Moon. This laminated plastic spacecraft was shaped into two cones whose bases were attached to a cylindrical midsection with a diameter of 29 inches and a height of 30 inches. The designers outfitted Pioneer 1 with mid-course correction rockets and a retro rocket to place the craft into Lunar orbit. The satellite with the rockets weighed 75 pounds including the 40 pound instrument package. These instruments were an ionization chamber to measure radiation intensities up to 1000 Roentgens per hour (400 Roentgens is a lethal dose to humans); a microphone micrometeorite detector similar to the Vanguard instrument; a magnetometer; and an infrared image scanner to obtain photos of the Moon's far side. None of these instruments were to approach the Moon. A premature shutdown of the second stage led directly to a spacecraft velocity sending the satellite only out to 33,000 kilometers above the Earth and then brought it crashing back into the atmosphere. The spacecraft was not a total loss because during Pioneer's 43 hour life it radially mapped the Van Allen radiation belts and measured the Earth's magnetic field. Pioneer 2 failed in its Moon voyage on November 8, 1958 when the rocket's third stage malfunctioned. It reached 963 miles and sent back no data. This was the Air Force's last chance to launch a Moon probe before they turned the program over to NASA.

Von Braun's Huntsville team got their crack at the Moon employing a second generation Jupiter-C, Juno 2, to launch Pioneer 3 on December 6, 1958. This satellite was a plastic cone with a base of 9 inches, a height of 20 inches, and weighed 13 pounds. This time, the first stage shut down four seconds before it was supposed to and the spacecraft only reached a height of 63,500 miles before it, too, burned into the Earth's atmosphere. Pioneer 3 confirmed the existence of both Van Allen Belts during its 30 hour life.

Two months after Luna 1's successful flight the Huntsville team launched Pioneer 4 and succeeded in flying within 20,000 miles of the Moon's surface. The two geiger counters, a prototype photoelectric cell, and a despinning mechanism were aboard the spacecraft. The geiger counters confirmed that the intensity of the Van Allen belts was not enough to preclude humans from flying through them; the despinning mechanism unreeled its counterweights like an figure skater extending her arms to slow her spin; but the photocell did not get close enough to the Moon to photograph it. These Pioneer Moon missions emphasized that America needed a workable rocket booster.