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Column took several facts for granted

February 12, 2012|By Carl W. Raggio

As one of the very few remaining members of the team that put America’s first satellite, Explorer I, into space, I find it necessary to comment on Pat Grant’s “Taken For Granted” column in last week’s Sunday edition regarding this nation’s entry into the space age.

In the 1950s, there was a very threatening unrest between the Soviet Union and the United States. The currency of the day was the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and its ability to deliver atomic warheads.

That era, in time, was called the Cold War. In some respects, there are similarities to Iran’s quest of today, a half century later.


Inclusive in this precarious time was a peaceful event called the International Geophysical Year. It was to take place from July 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1958 — a designated time to investigate the geophysical aspects of Earth, including the surrounding space.

When the Eisenhower administration announced that the United States would launch a satellite, both the Army and the Navy submitted satellite proposals. NASA did not yet exist — it was established in late 1958 as the principle civilian agency for space exploration. The Army’s proposal was named project Orbiter — later to become Explorer — and the Navy’s proposal was named Vanguard.

What Grant takes for granted is in error. His reference to the Redstone rocket crashing and burning is not true. It was Vanguard that attempted a launch on Dec. 6, 1957, and was a spectacular and very visible failure two months and two days after Russia’s Sputnik launch.

Explorer I was successfully launched on Jan. 31, 1958. Its primary stage was a Redstone missile followed by three stages, the last one being the satellite. Explorer I also confirmed the existence of cosmic radiation belts emanating from the Earth’s poles via an experiment on board.

Developed by a scientist from the University of Iowa by the name of James Van Allen — later referred to as the “Van Allen Belts” — the first stage was developed at the Army Ballistics Missile Agency under the direction of Werner von Braun. The upper three stages, including the satellite, were developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory under William Pickering, where I spent close to 40 years, and as stated before, the onboard experiment was Van Allen’s cosmic radiation detector.

Vanguard successfully launched an orbiter March 17, 1958.

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