Saturday, February 1, 2014

Retro Saturday: Army Satellites

Click the arrow to watch the video on YouTube.

Last week's Retro Saturday was a 1956 documentary on the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, where Dr. Wernher von Braun made his living in Huntsville until his team was transferred to NASA in 1960.

This week's episode is a semi-sequel titled “Army Satellites,” but it's really about the launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958. Some of the film footage in this episode is recycled from last week's 1956 ABMA episode.

Explorer 1 was the first U.S. satellite, created specifically as a response to the Soviet Sputnik 1 launch on October 4, 1957.

Sputnik 1 shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone paying attention. Both nations were participating in the International Geophysical Year, and had committed years before to launch the world's first satellites.

Even though their Soviet counterparts had kept everyone apprised of their progress, apparently few in the U.S. program believed the Russians capable of doing it.

When the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on an R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile, part of the panic was that the Russians had used a military weapon as a booster. The U.S. had the Atlas in the wings, but it wouldn't be operational until 1959.

The Eisenhower administration was also concerned that if the U.S. used a military weapon such as von Braun's Redstone to launch a satellite, it would have set a precedent that would allow the USSR to militarize space. The Naval Research Laboratory was developing a nominally civilian rocket called Vanguard to launch their IGY satellite, but it wouldn't be operational until 1958.

Once Sputnik 1 launched, the Russians established the precedent of using a military booster, and also overflights by the satellite of other nations' territories, so the Eisenhower administration felt they could now authorize von Braun to use his Redstone.

For more information on the era, visit Vanguard — a History on the NASA History Office web site.

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