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Thursday, January 31, 2008

It was rocket science and Cold War politics

The Juno 1 rocket blasting off 31 January 1958

Battery A had been at the little base on the Rhine River in West Germany less than two months 50 years ago today. It was a dank and dark place. We were there six weeks before a ray of sun managed to penetrate the gloom that hangs over the Rhine. In the eastern U.S., it was just before 11 p.m. on a Friday. On the Rhine it was just before 5 on Saturday morning. A Juno 1 rocket was blasting off at Cape Canaveral to put Explorer 1 satellite into orbit.

Battery A was a U.S. Army guided missile unit. We were aware that an attempt was going to be made to catch up with Soviets by putting a research satellite up. We were rooting for this one. The rocket that would carry Explorer 1 into orbit was an Army vehicle. There was a factor of inter-service rivalry involved.

In 1958, the military services had their own programs for the development of rockets. Just weeks prior to the launching of Explorer 1, a Navy rocket, the Vanguard, had been designated by Pres. Eisenhower to carry the first American satellite into orbit. He chose the Vanguard because it was designed for the purpose of injecting research satellites into orbit and did not have the warlike associations that other rockets had.

The Vanguard failed. It lifted off about four feet above the launch pad, lost power, and crashed in flames on the pad. Pres. Eisenhower then issued the order for the Army Jupiter-C rocket to carry a satellite into space. The Jupiter-C was a military rocket designed to carry war heads. It had a long genealogy as a military weapon. It was renamed Juno 1 as an attempt to disassociate it from its military function as an intermediate range ballistic missile. The Jupiter-C was basically a Redstone missile, which was designed by the German scientists who created the V-2 rocket during World War II. Pres. Eisenhower feared that using an IRBM to launch a satellite would be seen as a military threat by the Soviets. However, he thought it was more important to establish the U.S. as a contender in space exploration, so he finally chose the Redstone to do the job.

Battery A was familiar with the Redstone. While it worked with its ground-to-air missiles at White Sands and Red Canyon missile ranges, Redstone crews were busy developing and testing their missile.

By mid-morning on Saturday, as we manned our missile system, word came over our headsets that Explorer 1 was in orbit and that it was an Army vehicle that put it there. The dark skies on the Rhine seemed to lighten. We were proud to be Army missile men.

That Juno 1 carried another object of pride. The satellite was designed in part in Iowa City by Prof. Van Allen, who used it to probe the radiation belts that circle the earth. And that is quite a story in itself.

The day the space age began can be reviewed here.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States