HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - You can mark it down. What we once called the space race began on January 31st 1958. That's the day America launched its first satellite into orbit. It was called Explorer One, and it was the answer to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957.
Sputnik was a surprise. Newspaper headlines worried about the propaganda victory, and the U.S. falling behind our cold war enemies. Sputnik also meant that a satellite was orbiting over the heads of millions of Americans. That was scary.
There was a drive to respond, and at first the response was going to come from the Navy's Vanguard program, but Vanguard failed. In November of 1957 the job of responding to the Soviets went to Redstone Arsenal, and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. The team led by Wernher Von Braun got the job. The late Ernst Stuhlinger was on that team, and what upset him was not that the Soviets had launched, but that we could have beaten them by a year. "It could be ours. That satellite could be ours here, and now it's theirs," said Stuhlinger. He said the only thing that stopped a launch by the team from Redstone in 1956 was the lack of permission.
Steve Smith was a co-op student at the ABMA, and he ended up doing the soldering on the Explorer. Thinking about it later made him a little nervous. "Yes, I think if I had done a poor job of soldering, it might not have gone beep, beep, beep," said Smith.
Explorer would beep just fine. On January 31st the satellite went to space atop a modified Redstone Rocket, a Jupiter C.
Among other things that launch put America in the space race. Explorer One wasn't just for show either. It discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts.
The launch was a major milestone for sure. It made a statement to the world that America wasn't behind the Soviets. The launch made another statement too. "Oh yeah, it put Huntsville on the map. Absolutely, because of all the attention it got. Coming from behind and very quickly accomplishing that goal," said the late Dave Christensen, a member of the Von Braun Team.
Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal have stayed on the map. The Army's work on missiles has never stopped. In July of 1960, Doctor Wernher Von Braun led some 4,700 army workers as they moved to the newly created Marshall Space Flight Center.
Workers at Marshall helped put men on the moon, created the 30 year run of the Space Shuttle, made the International Space Station possible, and now have us poised to return to the moon and go on to Mars.
There is one thing to remember though. The Army got it all started with Explorer One 60 years ago. They are very proud of that fact.