[5.0] The Space Race Begins

v1.1.2 / chapter 5 of 26 / 01 mar 15 / greg goebel

* While the Americans and the Soviets worked on ICBMs, interested parties on both sides lobbied for the peaceful exploration of space. Their lobbying would lead to the launch of the first artificial Earth satellite, the USSR's Sputnik 1, in November 1957. It was done almost as an afterthought, but it set in motion a "space race" that quickly acquired a momentum of its own.

R-7 / SLV-1, Vanguard, Jupiter-C / Juno 1



* In April 1951, James Van Allen arranged a meeting at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, bringing together researchers involved in space science to discuss how they could coordinate their activities. Participants included:

The scientists agreed that there was a precedent for an international research collaboration along the lines of what they envisioned. The International Meteorological Organization had organized similar research programs under the banner of the "International Polar Year" in both 1882 and 1932. Berkner had worked in the 1932 International Polar Year, and suggested that a Third Polar Year be conducted in 1957 or 1958, with the scope of the effort expanded to include space research activities.

The International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) would be a convenient forum for organizing such an event. Berkner was a senior member of the ICSU, in fact he would soon become its president, and convinced the organization to back the Third Polar Year effort. Chapman, noting that the activities being considered went far beyond mere polar research, suggested that the program be redesignated the "International Geophysical Year (IGY)", and his suggestion was adopted. Chapman became president of the ICSU's IGY committee, with Berkner as vice-president. The IGY program that emerged was very ambitious, ultimately involving 60,000 participants from 66 nations. It would run over a period of 18 months, from mid-1957 to the end of 1958. This timeframe coincided with several eclipses and a peak of solar activity.

* While the IGY program was taking shape, other civilians were coming up with plans for space exploration. In 1951, a number of national rocket societies formed the International Astronautical Federation (IAF). In 1953, at the IAF conference in Zurich, Switzerland, Fred Singer gave an address in which he proposed a scientific Earth satellite, which was designated the "Minimum Orbital Unmanned Satellite of Earth (MOUSE)".

MOUSE was envisioned as a 45 kilogram (100 pound) spacecraft, fitted with a suite of scientific instruments. Despite the name, it would not carry small rodents or any other animals. Singer elaborated on the MOUSE concept at a symposium at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City in May 1954, concluding in his lecture that MOUSE was a practical idea that could be, and should be, implemented.

The president of the IAF, Frederick Durant, was very interested in space satellites, and got in touch with an old Navy buddy, Commander George Hoover, who was with the Office of Naval Research. Since the ONR had created the Skyhook and Rockoon programs, to no great surprise Hoover was interested space satellites as well. The old-boy network went into high gear. Durant called Wernher von Braun and said: "I just had a very interesting talk with a man in the ONR. He wants to get rolling on a space vehicle. Do you want to meet him?" Von Braun wasted no time in getting in touch with Hoover.

Hoover was thinking of orbiting a small scientific satellite using a booster assembled from available technology. Von Braun had been thinking on similar lines, using a cluster of solid-fuel rockets mounted on top of a Redstone to put a small satellite into orbit. Von Braun wasn't even thinking of a satellite that did anything useful; he wanted to orbit a small, reflective balloon that people could see rising and setting in the night sky. It would be technical demonstration, a publicity stunt, pure von Braun. He called it "Project Orbiter".

Meanwhile, Singer was lobbying Lloyd Berkner to include satellite launches in the IGY. Berkner was skeptical, but he still ran it past senior IGY committee members. They warmed to the idea quickly and became very enthusiastic.

The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) represented America in the IGY effort, through a committee headed by Joseph Kaplan. Kaplan was the logical person to push an American satellite launch for the IGY. In January 1955, he set up a committee to consider rocketry efforts for the IGY, with a subcommittee on space satellites. One of the subcommittee members was Milt Rosen of the NRL, who had built and flown Viking for the US Navy. Rosen had heard about von Braun's Project Orbiter proposal and felt he could do better. He was already considering an uprated version of Viking for military research, featuring a new General Electric rocket engine providing 120 kN (12,200 kgp / 27,000 lbf) thrust, compared to the 90.7 kN (9,520 kgp / 21,000 lbf) provided by the current Reaction Motors engine.

Conveniently, Aerojet General was also considering an improved version of the Aerobee, the "Aerobee-Hi", that would double the rocket's altitude capability from 120 kilometers (75 miles) to 240 kilometers (150 miles). Rosen believed he could construct a satellite booster using the uprated Viking with the GE engine as the first stage, the Aerobee-Hi as the second stage, and a solid-fuel rocket as the third "kick" stage to put a satellite into its final orbit around the Earth. The satellite would weigh 13.6 kilograms (30 pounds), big enough to carry useful instruments and a radio transmitter.

Rosen sent the idea up to Kaplan, who passed it in turn through NAS leadership, as well as through the directors of the US National Science Foundation (NSF). While the NAS was basically a scientific society with little formal backing by the government, the NSF was a government organization that funded scientific research. The NAS and NSF had, and still have, a close relationship. NSF leadership was interested in the space satellite as well, but the NSF didn't have the resources to do the project on their own. In the spring of 1955, they got in touch with Defense Secretary Wilson, who passed the issue on to Donald Quarles, then the assistant secretary for research and development. Quarles was extremely interested, though few if any of the NAS or NSF people had a clue as to why.



* The concern of America's leadership in the mid-1950s over Soviet nuclear capabilities seems highly paranoid in hindsight, but to President Eisenhower and many other senior US government officials, the threat of a devastating Soviet strike on America seemed only too real.

That fear led to the need to acquire intelligence on what the Soviets were really up to behind the Iron Curtain. Attempts to fly high-altitude balloons over the USSR to gather intelligence had accomplished little except to infuriate the Soviets. Following a recommendation in the Killian Report, Lockheed's secret design center, the "Skunk Works", was secretly developing a high-flying, long-range spyplane, the U-2, that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intended to fly over the USSR. The U-2 would provide some of that intelligence, but the Soviets were certain to object to U-2 overflights as loudly as they had the balloon overflights, and would even more certainly have the means to shoot down the aircraft in a few years once they set themselves to the task.

RAND had continued its studies on satellite intelligence, publishing significant reports on using satellites for weather observation and military reconnaissance in 1951, and then contracting with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to help produce a highly significant document that was released in March 1954. The title of this top-secret report was "An Analysis Of The Potential Of An Unconventional Reconnaissance Method". It was codenamed FEED-BACK, and detailed the use of a satellite fitted with a high-resolution television for military intelligence. A year later, in March 1955, the Air Force initiated an equally secret project to develop spy satellites under the designation of "Weapons System 117L (WS-117L)".

* The proposal for a civilian space satellite landed on Quarles' desk only a matter of weeks after WS-117L was given the go-ahead. RAND's Kecskemeti had suggested several years earlier on the possibility of launching a scientific satellite to set a precedent for freedom of space, and now the top scientific organizations in the US were asking the Defense Department to help them launch such a satellite. Of course, Quarles thought it was a great idea, though the source of his enthusiasm was a deep, black secret. The NAS and NSF scientists had not been particular about how the satellite was launched, and felt that either von Braun's Project Orbiter or Rosen's Viking-based scheme were fine. The program was authorized by President Eisenhower, leading to a public announcement in July 1955 that the US intended to put scientific satellites into space as part of the IGY.

At that time, nobody had decided which service was going to do the job. Some sources claim that Quarles was biased against Project Orbiter from the start, since ABMA was a clearly military organization and not the best outfit for launching a purely "civilian" space satellite, but the details seem somewhat more complicated. The Naval Research Laboratory was a military organization as well, and the fact that it had a long tradition of involvement in civilian research was not such a balance to the fact that its title clearly said "Navy".

It seems to have been an "Army-Navy" lobbying game, and the Navy won. Quarles passed the question on to a Pentagon "Committee on Special Capabilities" that recommended the Navy project. The committee cited technical reasons, among them the fact that the Navy satellite would actually carry instruments while the Army satellite did not, but von Braun and his Paperclippers were still furious -- they could do it right away, no need to develop a new booster to do the job -- and the Army protested loudly. The committee overruled them. The Navy project was approved in September 1955, and being designated "Vanguard".

There is a suspicion that the committee was biased against the Army's team because of the German von Braun and his Paperclippers. To be sure, they were fully legal Americans now, but the war had only been over for a decade; von Braun was still tainted by the Nazi swastika, he always would be, and there were also people who didn't care for his personal style. He was charismatic, sharp, resourceful, energetic, and politically shrewd, but he was still a Prussian aristocrat by breeding, and many found him arrogant and overbearing -- though he could keep his ego on a leash when it served his purposes.

However, after the Navy got the green light for Vanguard, the service promptly began to cool on the project. It was a low priority not merely for the Department of Defense but for the Martin Company, which had been awarded the contract to develop the Vanguard booster. Everyone was focused on getting the critical ICBMs out the door, and the Vanguard team wasn't at the front of the line for resources. Worse, initial budget estimates hadn't factored in things like launch handling or tracking station costs, and various technical problems arose. Vanguard's budget began to swell from $30 million USD to eventually top out at $111 million USD, much to Eisenhower's exasperation.

* Von Braun kept Project Orbiter on the back burner, as a backup in case Vanguard failed. He went ahead with development of his multistage Redstone derivative, named the "Jupiter-C", as a vehicle for testing Jupiter nose cones. The first Jupiter-C launch was on 20 September 1956. Before liftoff, von Braun got a call from his boss, General Medaris, to be told that he was to personally ensure that the final stage of the Jupiter-C was "not live". The Jupiter-C launch was a complete success, with the final stage reaching an altitude of 1,098 kilometers (682 miles) and flying 5,402 kilometers (3,355 miles) downrange. Von Braun must have been frustrated, knowing that he had the capability to put a satellite into orbit but wasn't allowed to do it. Once again, he bided his time.

There was the possibility that the Soviets might fly an Earth satellite before the Americans did, and intelligence reports suggested they were working toward that goal. That was undesireable from the point of view of US prestige, but from the point of view of setting a precedent for freedom of space, it was even better than an American satellite launch. The US government wouldn't think of objecting if a Soviet satellite overflew American territory, and if the Soviets launched first, they would be in a difficult position to object if the Americans then flew one over the USSR.

* In the meantime, work on the WS-117L spy satellite was moving ahead. The project had been assigned to General Schriever's BMD empire in February 1956, and a development contract was awarded to Lockheed in June 1956. Lockheed gave the program the internal designation of "Pied Piper". The company's designs focused on a satellite built into an upper stage that the company was developing, known as "Agena", which could be placed on top of an Atlas or Thor. The Agena would later prove very important to civilian space missions. Lockheed considered three different options for spy satellites based on the Agena:

The WS-117L program also investigated the use of satellites to provide warnings of ballistic missile launches, with the spacecraft using infrared sensors to detect missile launches and relaying an alarm back to a control center.



* While the Americans had labored on long-range missiles, the Soviets had been hard at work on them as well. In the days when Korolyev was working on the Soviet R-1 V-2 clone and its improved successor, the R-2, he had been looking down the road to a missile with a much longer range of 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles). That was ambitious, but not ambitious enough for the Great Leader, Stalin. The Americans had bases in Western Europe and aircraft carriers from which they could easily perform atomic strikes deep into the USSR, but the Soviet Union had no real means of carrying atomic war back to the US homelands. Development of long-range bombers that could do the job was proving troublesome. A missile with intercontinental range would the Soviets the ability to put all of America at risk.

In July 1949, Stalin called a meeting at the Kremlin, with the meeting attended by Igor Kurchatov, the head of the Soviet Bomb program; Armaments Minister Ustinov; and Korolyev. After listening to reports, Stalin concluded: "We want long, durable peace. But Churchill, well, he's warmonger number one. And Truman, he fears the Soviet land as the devil's own stench. They threaten us with atomic war. But we are not Japan. That is why you, Comrade Kurchatov, and you, Comrade Ustinov, and you [Korolyev] as well, must speed things up! Are there any more questions?!"

In December 1949, Korolyev submitted his proposal for the "R-3". It would be a single-stage design, since a multistage rocket was a considerable technical leap. It would be powered by a monster new engine being developed by Glushko's design bureau, which would provide 1,160 kN (118,000 kgp / 260,000 lbf) thrust.

Although there was no way to deliver on such an ambitious project quickly and even the demanding Stalin realized it, Korolyev's star rose. He acquired complete control of the entire long-range rocket division. While work went forward on the R-3, he began development of two more conservative single-stage missiles:

The reason that the R-5 wasn't fielded was because it had become obsolete even before work on it was complete. Work on another missile, the "R-12", in the same class but with a longer range of about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), had been initiated while the R-5 project was underway, but the R-12 would end up being available at about the same time as the R-5, leaving the R-5 redundant. The R-12 would be given the NATO codename of "SS-4 Sandal".

The Soviets would also work on a more formidable single-stage IRBM roughly in the class of the Thor, the "R-14" (NATO "SS-5 Skean"), with a range of 3,600 kilometers (2,235 miles). Both the R-12 and R-14 would go into service at the end of the decade and would quickly play a starring role in a nerve-wracking superpower drama.

* The big engine that Glushko promised for the R-3 unsurprisingly proved troublesome, with catastrophic test failures in 1950 and 1951. It was particularly difficult to build a nozzle that was big enough to provide high thrust and still be strong enough to withstand the stresses. That meant that the R-3 might well have to be powered by multiple smaller engines, which imposed a weight and reliability penalty. However, in 1952 Glushko's design bureau came up with a simple and elegant design compromise: instead of one big engine or several smaller engines, Glushko's new design used a single turbopump system driving several thrust chambers. In the next few years, this concept would materialize into the similar "RD-107" and "RD-108" engines, each with four thrust chambers and a single turbopump. The engines allowed the flight direction to be controlled using small auxiliary "steering engines" or "vernier engines". The RD-107 had two vernier engines, the RD-108 had four. They both produced 907 kN (92,500 kgp / 204,000 lbf) thrust.

Korolyev realized that with Glushko's new engine design, the Soviet Union could build a true intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the US, and in early 1953, not long before his death, Stalin ordered the development of an intercontinental-range nuclear-tipped missile. There was a controversy over whether the new missile would be a pure rocket, or a jet-powered cruise missile. Korolyev of course preferred the rocket concept, and promoted it at a meeting at the Kremlin. Much to the shock of many of the listeners, Korolyev proposed that work on the R-3 be abandoned so that efforts could be focused on the new ICBM.

Korolyev's new missile would use "clustering", with a central core rocket powered by an RD-108 engine surrounded by four similar "strap-on" boosters, each with an RD-107 engine, which were to be discarded after the initial "boost phase". That allowed all engines to ignited at the same time at liftoff; the configuration also allowed the booster to be built as modules that were small enough to be conveniently transported by rail. The concept was essentially the brainchild of Korolyev's friend Mikhail Tikhonravov; the idea was straightforward and no doubt others thought of it as well, but Tikhoravov had set up a research team to work out the technical details, such as how to link together the cluster and then detach the boosters after they were spent.

A panel reviewed the design, and on 20 May 1954, Korolyev was given authorization to build the Soviet Union's first ICBM. It would be designated the "R-7", leading to the nickname "Semyorka (Little Seven)". The USSR would also pursue long-range cruise missiles, with designs more or less comparable in capability to the American Navaho to be investigated by the Myasishchev and Lavochkin aircraft design bureaus.

* Launch of the R-7 required a larger range area than available at Kapustin Yar, which was also too close to American listening posts on the Turkish shore of the Black Sea, and a number of new candidate launch sites were evaluated. In early 1955, the decision was made to construct the new launch site at Tyuratam in Kazakhstan in central Asia. Tyuratam was to the east of the Aral Sea and northwest of Tashkent. The area was very isolated and sparsely populated, permitting the reservation of a range area covering almost 105,000 square kilometers (over 40,000 square miles) where spent rocket stages could fall to Earth, without hitting a village.

The isolation meant a distinct primitiveness even by Soviet standards. Somebody later joked that the site was selected on the basis of "maximizing all possible inconveniences". It was in the middle of desolation, scrub land unsuitable for pasture much less farming, with little water but plenty of scorpions, snakes, plus ground squirrels infected with cholera and plague. It was bone-chillingly cold in the winter and swelteringly hot in the summer, with windstorms blanketing the landscape in choking dry dust and sending tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. Many of the workers had come from the nuclear test site near Semiplatinsk, also in Kazakhstan, where conditions had been harsh as well. They were glad to leave Semiplatinsk until they arrived at Tyuratam, finding it no improvement, though at least they didn't have to suffer exposure to radiation.

Since there were no accommodations in the area, Tyuratam itself being little more than a whistle stop, at first everyone lived in tents, with electric power and some other facilities provided by special railroad cars. That was of course only a stopgap solution, and so a town named "Zarya (Dawn)", later renamed "Leninsk", would grow up near the launch site. It would be nicknamed "Zvezdograd (Star City)".

After the Soviets began putting payloads into space, they would not mention the name of the launch facility for several years, and then they insisted on calling it "Baikonur" as a cover story, even though the Kazakh town named Baikonur was nowhere near the launch site. It was just compulsive Soviet secrecy at work: a CIA U-2 would overfly the site in June 1957, the Americans had detailed map of it even before the first R-7 launches.

* Korolyev's star was rising high. The new Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev later wrote in his memoirs about Korolyev in Khrushchev's unpretentious peasant style:


Not too long after Stalin's death, Korolyev came to a Politburo meeting to report on his work. I don't want to exaggerate, but I'd say we gawked at what he showed us as if we were a bunch of sheep seeing a new gate for the first time. When he showed us one of his rockets, we thought it looked like nothing but a huge, cigar-shaped tube, and we didn't believe it could fly. Korolyev took us on a tour of the launching pad and tried to explain to us how the rocket worked. We were like peasants in a marketplace. We walked around and around the rocket, touching it, tapping it to see if it was sturdy enough -- we did everything but lick it to see how it tasted.

We had absolute confidence in Comrade Korolyev. We believed him when he told us that his rocket would not only fly, but that it would travel 7,000 kilometers. When he expounded or defended his ideas, you could see passion burning in his eyes, and his reports were always models of clarity. He had unlimited energy and determination, and he was a brilliant organizer.


Korolyev was the Soviet Union's answer to von Braun, a match or more in genius, drive, shrewdness, and salesmanship. Korolyev also didn't carry around anything like von Braun's Nazi excess baggage. To be sure, Korolyev had been thrown in prison, but few could hold that against him: even many of the authorities had family who had been arrested, or in a few cases had been arrested themselves. Khrushchev was working hard to "de-Stalinize" the USSR and would denounce his former boss in 1956, though his erratic efforts would have correspondingly mixed results.



* Soviet interest in satellites evolved roughly in parallel with Western activities. In 1947, Mikhail Tikhonravov had set up an informal committee of colleagues to consider a satellite. The group determined the idea was feasible, and outlined possibilities and technical requirements. Tikhonravov was asked to deliver a paper at the Academy of Artillery Sciences in June 1948, but being reserved by nature, he was unsure if the concepts he and his group had been playing with would be well-received. He passed his paper on to the president of the academy, General Anatoly Blagonravov, who replied that he did not think anyone would understand it and that the only result would be that the academy would be accused of wasting time on irrelevant matters.

That was a predictable Stalinist bureaucrat answer, but there was more to Blagonravov than that. He reread the paper and saw that it contained some interesting ideas. Tikhonravov, encouraged by his colleagues, also decided that he didn't feel like taking NO for an answer, and went back to the general to press his case again. Blagonravov heard him out, and amiably caved in: "All right, we'll include the report. Be prepared. We'll be embarrassed together." Tikhonravov delivered his lecture. As Blagonravov had anticipated, there was a little mockery, but Korolyev was in the audience, and after the lecture he went to Tikhonravov and the two had an earnest chat about possibilities.

General Blagonravov remained interested enough to help arrange for the launch of several R-1 V-2 clones from Kapustin Yar with research payloads. Interestingly, they would not only mount payloads on the nose but in special payload modules attached to the sides of the rocket, with these modules recoverable by parachute. Some of the test flights carried passengers, in the form of dogs. The Soviets liked to use dogs as flight test subjects, because they were so easy to handle and train. They were also cheap: all the dogs were mutts, some of them very scruffy-looking, the belief being that mongrels were hardier than purebreds. Dogs of the desired size were obtained from veterinarians who gave them a clean bill of health. Only bitches were used on the flights, since it proved easier to implement sanitation gear for females than males.

The first shot with dogs was in June 1951, with an R-1 sending two dogs on a hop 65 kilometers (40 miles) up into the sky in the side-mounted payload carriers. The R-2 was similarly modified with the nose and side-mounted payload carriers to perform shots to higher altitudes. In 1955, the Soviets would consider using an R-5 to launch two humans on a suborbital flight in a parachute-recovered capsule -- based on a "piloted V-2" concept, the "VR-190", that Tikhonravov had come up with in 1946 -- but R-7 development took priority at the time and the crewed suborbital shot didn't happen.

R-2 missile

Incidentally, some of the test shots involved high-altitude ejections of dogs wearing "pressure suits" of a sort. The suit was a pressure-tight bag, featuring stub extensions for a dog's front paws, made of three-ply rubberized fabric with a plastic bubble helmet. The suit was mounted in a frame on an ejection sled, with straps restraining the suit and its occupant to the sled, which carried the suit's oxygen supply.

The pressure suit was made by State Factory 918, which had been formally tasked with work on high-altitude pressure suits in 1952, following work on such technology at state research institutes from the days of the Soviet high-altitude crewed balloon program of the 1930s. State Factory 918 would continue to develop pressure suits for the Soviet space program, with the organization becoming more conveniently known as "Zvezda (Star)" -- exactly when it acquired that name is unclear, but it is referred to as "Zvezda" in later text for the sake of simplicity.

* During this time, Korolyev was mostly focused on missile and ICBM development, which was what his political masters really wanted. However, from his youth Korolyev had wanted to fly into space, and that was where his heart really was. He and Tikhonravov wrote papers on satellites and their uses.

With the go-ahead for the R-7 ICBM in May 1954, Korolyev knew he was not only working on an ICBM, but a satellite launch vehicle that could put a heavy payload into space. In July 1954, Tikhonravov estimated that the R-7 could put as much as 1,400 kilograms (3,100 pounds) into orbit. While the Americans began to discuss their plans for a satellite, the Soviets publicly dropped hints that they were planning a satellite, too, and might even have one in orbit before the US.

As work on the R-7 progressed into 1955, Korolyev continued to consider plans for an Earth satellite, working with Tikhonravov and a mathematician named Mstislav Keldysh who had considerable influence. Although both Korolyev and Keldysh were members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Keldysh was much closer to the pure-science community than Korolyev, making Keldysh an important ally inside the Academy, where he could promote the satellite group's views.

The go-ahead for preliminary studies on a Soviet satellite was given in August 1955. In November 1955, the Academy issued a memorandum to senior Soviet government officials outlining possible Soviet space research activities. The idea for a satellite got a good reception, and in January 1956 the academy was authorized to set up a commission to consider moving to full development of a space satellite. Keldysh was assigned to be chairman, with Tikhonravov and Korolyev as his deputies. The commission recommended construction and launch of a large satellite, weighing 1,200 kilograms (2,650 pounds). The "Object D", as it was blandly named, would include a re-entry vehicle to allow recovery of payloads. From January 1956, Korolyev's OKB-1 also began preliminary investigation of a spy satellite, named "Zenit (Zenith)", with Tikhonravov one of the prime movers in the effort. The Zenit was also to be launched by the R-7, with the development exercise focusing on the various technologies needed for the spacecraft.

Korolyev finally got his hands on a complete prototype R-7 in December 1956 for testing. The means of launching a satellite were coming closer, but nobody believed that development of such a large and complicated rocket vehicle would be absolutely straightforward, and work on the satellite itself was running into snags. Korolyev was confident that the USSR was ahead in the game at the time, but given enough delays the Americans might well put a satellite into orbit before the Soviet Union. Tikhonravov suggested that if the USSR wanted to be the first into orbit, the smartest thing to do would be to develop a small, cheap, simple satellite with a minimal payload and launch it at the first opportunity. Tikhonravov's idea was conceptually identical to von Braun's Project Orbiter.

Korolyev liked the idea. Keldysh resisted the change in plans, but Korolyev managed to win him over. In a report issued in January 1957, Korolyev proposed construction of two "Prosteishy Sputniks (PS / Simple Satellites)". Each PS would be a sphere, 76 centimeters (23 inches) in diameter and with a weight of 84 kilograms (185 pounds), with four whip antennas about 2.5 meters (8 feet 2 inches) long. It carried a payload of two radio transmitters that emitted a simple sequence of beeps, with the transmitters powered by a battery that would keep them running for up to three weeks. The orbit of the satellite would be tracked to determine the density profile of the traces of atmosphere in low Earth orbit, and variations in the signal would provide information on the Earth's ionosphere. The PS project was approved and work went ahead. Work on the Object D project remained on track in parallel.



* By that time, Korolyev was getting ready to fly his big R-7. The huge missile was shipped to Baikonur by rail in pieces, was put together horizontally at a "preparation building" on the launch site, and then rolled to the pad bottom-first on rails.

The pad was known as the "Tyulpan (Tulip)". Instead of building a roll-back gantry as the Americans generally did, the Soviets built a set of support structures like the petals of a flower that folded back down to the ground before launch. The launch blast would pour through a deflector and into a huge open concrete-lined pit known as the "stadium". Setting up the elaborate launch site in such an isolated area was an impressive triumph of Soviet construction capabilities, with the stadium being a big part of the job.

After much frustration, the R-7 was launched for the first time on 15 May 1957. It went up in a fireball after 100 seconds of flight. The problem was traced to a ruptured fuel line. The second launch attempt was on 9 June, but the R-7 simply failed to ignite; the fuel valves had been set to the wrong position. Korolyev, conditioned by life under Stalin when mistakes were equivalent to treason and could be punished by death, tried to blame the failures on others, particularly Glushko, but they were actually his own responsibility. Korolyev's superiors were not fooled, one responding: "What a cunning man you are. So much stink about what might have been caused by others, and so much perfume for your own shit."

All Korolyev managed to do was antagonize Glushko, and the missiles were still not flying. The third R-7 launch attempt was on 11 July, but went off course 33 seconds into flight and disintegrated. This time the fault was in the guidance system, and Korolyev could legitimately blame it on someone else.

The fourth launch of an R-7 was on 21 August 1957, and it was flawless, flying 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) downrange to the impact area on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia. The warhead broke up as it re-entered, but the missile itself had performed flawlessly. The Soviet Union was ahead of America in ICBM development, and the shot was announced publicly to let everyone know.

A September launch was also a success, and Korolyev received authorization to launch the PS-1 satellite on the fifth R-7 shot. The R-7 received the necessary modifications for launch, acquiring the new designation of "SL-1 (Satellite Launch Vehicle 1)".

Sputnik 1 replica

On 4 October 1957, it lifted off the pad and put PS-1, known publicly as "Sputnik 1", into orbit. After the beeping was picked up by flight control, champagne flowed and Korolyev announced: "The storming of space had begun." And the Soviet Union was leading the charge.



* The launch of Sputnik 1 had repercussions that nobody could have foreseen. In the first place, it set off what would become a frenzy of sorts in the United States.

When the news reached Huntsville late that evening, ABMA was being paid a visit by incoming Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy. Wernher von Braun took the news as if stung, and excitedly told McElroy: "Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. For God's sake, turn us loose and let us do something! We can put up a satellite in 60 days, Mr. McElroy! Just give us a green light and 60 days! 60 days!"

General Medaris interrupted: "No, Wernher, 90 days." The ABMA crew gave McElroy a briefing the next morning. He was noncommittal, but Medaris, sensing the change in the wind and knowing that there was nothing to lose by being prepared, told von Braun to begin work for the launch anyway.

The uproar over Sputnik was a purely manufactured crisis, driven by the Democrats and hardline Republican critics of the Eisenhower Administration in Congress on one side, and the sensationalism of the news media on the other. Reporters were normally friendly to him in press conferences, but in a press conference on 9 October, they hectored him over Sputnik 1:


REPORTER: Mr. President, Russia has launched an earth satellite. They also claim to have had a successful firing of an intercontinental ballistics missile, none of which this country has done. I ask you, sir, what are we going to do about it?


Eisenhower tried to explain how the US was working on a satellite for the IGY, saying that the effort had never "been considered a race", while missile work was going at high priority. He truthfully pointed out:


... the value of that satellite going around the earth is still problematical ... if we were doing it for science, and not for security, which we were doing, I don't know of any reasons why the scientists should have come in and urged that we do this before anybody else could do it.

... I think that [the Soviets] have fired objects a very considerable distance, but I don't know anything about their accuracy, and until you know something of their accuracy, you know nothing at all about their usefulness in warfare.


Eisenhower had realistic intelligence estimates of Soviet capabilities and recognized Sputnik I for what it was, a publicity stunt that the US could have already performed had it seemed worth the bother. Few were listening, and the Soviets were milking their lead for all that it was worth.

Two PS satellites had been built to ensure that there was a backup if the first flight failed. With the success of Sputnik 1, the backup was redundant. There had been no specific schedule for a follow-up launch, though there was a general assumption that the Object D satellite would be sent up next. Korolyev had a different idea, coming up with a concept for a fast-track spacecraft that would put a dog into orbit. It was a complete improvisation, using life-support gear derived from the sounding rocket shots with dogs and the PS-2 satellite integrated into a frame.

Sputnik 2

The new satellite, "Sputnik 2", weighed 510 kilograms (1,120 pounds). It was launched more or less on schedule on 3 November 1957, carrying the mutt Laika into orbit. She was supposed to survive about a week, though there was no way to recover her. However, the spacecraft apparently lost some insulation during launch because it badly overheated. Ground controllers monitored Laika's distressed barking until the heat killed her within a day of the launch. Soviet media announced that she had been painlessly killed by being fed poisoned food. Still, it was better to lose a dog than a human in a test flight, and the mission was still a coup. The USSR was rubbing their success into the noses of the Americans, upstaging them first with Sputnik and now with "Mutt-nik".

ABMA received formal authorization to go ahead with their satellite launch on 8 November. The Army was also given greater priority for development of the Jupiter missile.

Von Braun and his ABMA team expected to both build and launch the satellite, but Medaris farmed out construction of the satellite to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The JPL had been in communication with von Braun and the ABMA on Project Orbiter, and the current boss of JPL, a New Zealander named William H. Pickering, really wanted a piece of the action; besides, it was clear to Pickering that space work, not Army missile projects, was the way of the future for his organization. Medaris felt that his people had enough to do and that JPL could build the satellite perfectly well.

* In the meantime, the politicians and the press fussed, while the Navy got ready to launch Vanguard "Test Vehicle 3 (TV-3)", carrying a sphere about 15 centimeters (6 inches) diameter and with a weight of about 1.36 kilograms (3 pounds). The launch took place on 6 December 1957. Unfortunately, the pencil-slim Vanguard booster made it a little more than a meter off the launch pad, and then settled back down into a blossoming ball of flame. The satellite bounced away from the explosion into the brush, chirping away its telemetry as it sat on the ground. A newswriter said: "Why doesn't somebody go out and kill it?!"

Vanguard destroyed

Now the issue started to get the attention of the American public. The US had tried to match the Soviets and fumbled badly. The press called the satellite "Flopnik", "Puffnik", "Kaputnik", and "Stayputnik". Representatives of the USSR at the United Nations asked their American counterparts if they would be interested in receiving Soviet technical aid for backward nations.

The domestic debate continued to overheat. One Congressman actually laid the blame for the fiasco on Wernher von Braun; the general reaction wasn't that much more sensible. The Vanguard launch failure had been due to inadequate fuel tank pressure and was easily fixed, but once again neither the public nor Congress in general understood that such failures happened almost predictably, and that the Soviets were keeping their failures secret while American troubles made headlines. TIME magazine put Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev on the cover as "the man of the year".

Eisenhower was exasperated at what he perceived as insecure whining. Along with his intelligence on Soviet capabilities, he also knew that the US was working on rocket technology full speed ahead and making remarkable progress. Hobbled by secrecy, he had to sit and endure the attacks of opposition Democratic politicians in Congress. One of the loudest voices protesting Soviet leadership in space was the Senate majority leader, a pushy, energetic Texas Democrat named Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was quickly making the issue his own. Hardline anti-Communists such as Edward Teller added their own blasts, Teller suggesting in his usual understated way that the US had just lost "a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbor." When asked what would be found on the Moon, Teller snapped: "Russians!" Eisenhower could only groan.

Moderate voices were ignored. The president of General Dynamics, echoing Eisenhower's own sentiments, told a reporter: "You cannot overlook Russia's capacity to concentrate in specific areas. If the area has real military or psychological value to them, they'll put massive concentration on it, and achieve results all out of proportion to their technical ability."

* Another attempted Vanguard launch on 25 January 1958, was aborted 14 seconds before ignition, much to public dismay. The ABMA continued work on getting their enhanced Jupiter-C, known as "Juno", and its JPL-built satellite, "Explorer 1", ready for launch.

Somewhere along the line, the Navy and the Army satellite efforts had made a switch. The Navy project was originally focused on launching a satellite that could actually obtain some scientific data, but ended up being little more sophisticated and not as big as Sputnik 1. Von Braun had envisioned his Project Orbiter as launching a satellite that had little more than a radio and a beeper in it, but Explorer 1 was a modestly sophisticated spacecraft that could perform useful research.

Explorer 1 looked like a little pencil-like solid-fuel missile, 2 meters (6 feet 8 inches) long and 15 centimeters (6 inches) in diameter, and in fact its rear half was a solid-fuel rocket. However, the forward half carried 8.2 kilograms (18 pounds) of radio and instrument payload. Four whip antennas were deployed from the middle of the satellite. Explorer 1 carried three experiments and two radio transmitters, with enough power to run the spacecraft for two weeks. One instrument recorded the temperature changes on the satellite. A second recorded the impact of micrometeorites on a microphone and sent the sound back to Earth. The third, a Geiger-Mueller counter, was designed to measure cosmic radiation. The satellite had been referred to as "Missile 29" in correspondence between ABMA and JPL, in order keep a low profile on the effort and not build up overblown expectations, as had happened with the first Vanguard launch attempt.

The Juno 1 launcher consisted of a Jupiter-C first stage, with a cluster of 11 solid-fuel rockets in a drum. The rockets were substantially scaled-down versions of the Army "Sergeant" battlefield missile. Eight of the mini-Sergeants in a ring inside the drum provided the second stage, with the three remaining mini-Sergeants inside that ring providing the third stage. The satellite, which looked much like the mini-Sergeants, had its own "kick" motor to put itself into orbit. It was an improvisation, what an engineer would call a "lashup" or a "kluge", but it was a very workable kluge.

Explorer 1 was successfully launched into orbit on 31 January 1958. Pickering, von Braun, and project scientist James Van Allen were photographed exultantly holding up a model of Explorer 1 over their heads. The underdog ABMA had come from behind and scored the goal to get America back into the running in the emerging "Space Race".

Pickering, Van Allen, & von Braun

Von Braun made the cover of TIME magazine. His face was now almost as widely recognized by the American public as Eisenhower's. The rest of the ABMA team remained almost completely anonymous, but they didn't mind, and indeed appreciated the high-profile advocacy position that von Braun had created for himself. He could lobby for the group while the rest of them built rockets, which is what they wanted to do.

Von Braun had big ideas. In December, at the direction of Medaris, he and his team put together the "von Braun plan" for near-term space exploration, envisioning a succession of ever greater achievements:

   ____________   ______________________________________________________

   SPRING 1960:   900 kilograms (2,000 pounds) in orbit.
   FALL   1960:   Soft lunar landing by a robot spacecraft.
   SPRING 1961:   2,250 kilograms (5,000 pounds) in orbit.
   SPRING 1962:   Robot photo-mapping Moon orbital mission.
   FALL   1962:   Two-man orbital spacecraft.
   SPRING 1963:   9,000 kilograms (20,000 pounds) in orbit.
   FALL   1963:   Manned Moon orbital mission.
   FALL   1965:   Permanent orbital space station with crew of 20.
   SPRING 1967:   Three-man lunar landing mission.
   SPRING 1971:   50-man lunar landing expedition & permanent Moonbase.
   ____________   ______________________________________________________

The cost of the program was given as $21 billion USD, a big sum now, monstrous then. The COLLIER'S space program now seemed to be within reach, if somebody wanted to pick up the tab. Eisenhower did not.

* For the moment, all the rocket men could do was loft small satellites, but even the small satellites had their payoffs. Explorer 1 had been sent into an orbit with an apogee of 2,540 kilometers (1,580 miles) and a perigee of 375 kilometers (233 miles). Although earlier experiments had shown that cosmic ray counts increased with altitude, as the satellite neared its apogee, the count fell to zero. After a bit of bafflement, it was quickly realized that the satellite was encountering such a high level of radiation that the counter had pegged.

While Van Allen was digesting this information, the Navy managed to get a Vanguard satellite into orbit on 17 March 1958. The Army's next shot, "Explorer 2", was a failure when the satellite's solid-rocket booster didn't ignite, but there were more where it came from, and "Explorer 3" went into orbit on 26 March 1958. Explorer 3 confirmed Van Allen's suspicions that the Earth was encircled by radiation belts. He reported this finding at a scientific meeting on 1 May 1958, and the belts became known as the "Van Allen belts" in his honor. Sputnik 2 had carried a cosmic ray counter, but the satellite had only passed through the belts on the high part of its orbit, when it was on the other side of the planet from the Soviet Union. Van Allen had scored a few scientific points for the American team.

The Soviets were ready to strike back. Two of the big Object D satellites had been completed and were ready to fly into space. The first shot, on 27 April 1958, ended in a launch failure. The second attempt, on 15 May 1958, was successful, with "Sputnik 3" placed in Earth orbit. Sputnik 3 was huge by the standards of the time, a metal cone covered with an untidy litter of bumps and antennas, with a launch weight of 1,040 kilograms (2,950 pounds). It carried a suite of 12 instruments, including magnetometers, particle detectors, and micrometeorite detectors. Khrushchev gloated to a group of Arab visitors that the Americans would need "very many satellites the size of oranges in order to catch up with the Soviet Union!"

Sputnik 3

* However, although the Americans were indeed being embarrassed by impressive Soviet accomplishments in space, US government officials involved with the supersecret WS-117L spy satellite project were having the last laugh. The Americans had wanted to orbit a satellite to establish freedom of space. Now both sides had launched three satellites each that passed over countries all around the globe. There was no way the Americans were going to object to satellites orbiting over their homeland. Neither did the Soviets, putting them in a difficult position to object later. Khrushchev's efforts to show off Soviet strength neatly coincided with the interests of the American intelligence community. In fact, Don Quarles made precisely this point in testimony to the Presidential Science Advisory Committee.

Not everyone was happy with the satellites beeping overhead. A Chicagoan named James Thomas Mangan had declared some years earlier that all of outer space was a nation named "Celestia", more formally the "Nation of Celestial Space", and that he was its ruler. He made proclamations to the newspapers: "Neither Russia, the United States, nor Great Britain has any claim to space except through my nation, Celestia." The newspapers reported his proclamations until his amusement value faded out.