Most of you nerds about space flight can tell me the first man-made satellite to be launched into space was Sputnik 1, done so by the USSR in 1957. More nerdy nerds can also say that later that year they also launched Sputnik 2, the second such satellite. What most people can’t answer is what the first USA built man-made satellite to successfully launch into space. So can you?
Here’s a hint … Explorer 1.
Okay that was more of an answer than a hint.
Explorer 1 was launched on January 31st, 1958 – meaning next week marks the 60th anniversary of the launch. Of course I know this because … it was built by JPL!
Explorer 1 was fairly small and light, especially compared to the Sputniks. A cigar tube shaped satellite, it measured just over 6 feet long and only 6 inches in diameter. It weighed only 30lbs, which was far less than the 180lbs Sputnik 1, and is practically nothing compared to the 1,100lbs Sputnik 2. That’s a bid difference because every pound needs to be thrusted up into space – so the fact that the best we could do for the time was fractional to the Russians was noteworthy. Not that we didn’t try, just a month before the US Navy tried to launch the Vanguard TV3 that only weighed 3 lbs, but it blew-up on the launch pad. At take-off Explore 1, launched on top of a Juno Rocket (that was nearly 10 times taller and wider than the satellite, looked like a toothpick sticking out the top of a booster. Yet, the launch went flawlessly and led the US into the Space Race.
Three main organizations get the credit for Explorer 1. Redstone made the rocket, which of course was as critical as anything back in those early days … there weren’t man of anything getting off the ground back then. The bulk of the science instruments were developed by people from University of Iowa … which … who knew they did something other than pig farming there. But the design, construction, testing, and management came through JPL. This was pre-NASA days, NASA didn’t exist yet, but there was JPL cranking out the space.
The thing about Explorer 1 was that it wasn’t just out to prove we can put things in space, it was made to do some real work. While rudimentary compared to current test equipment launched, the instruments on-board were sent to look for cosmic radiation, micro-meteor impacts, and temperature variations. The data from this satellite led to the discovery of the Van Allen Belt, an area in the atmosphere controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field that helps protect us from solar radiation. Sputnik 1 was intended just to get up there, equipped soley with a radio signal for tracking. Sputnik 2 was … well … you could say it was sent for scientific reasons (if you were evil) — as it launched with a cargo of (watch as I cover Auggie’s ears) Laika the dog, the first non-microbe launched into space. But Explorer 1 was sent to advance our knowledge of space … without having to kill fuzzy creatures in the process.
Also, Explorer 1 stuck around. Sputnik 1 did pretty well, with no data to send it still lasted about 2-1/2 months before burning up. Sputnik 2 sent data for about 5 days, and stayed in orbit for about 5 months. Explorer 1 sent data for 4 months, and didn’t come down for 11 years. That’s right, it finally ended it’s mission after man reached the moon.
So maybe, it is the forgotten of the first for flight things; but it shouldn’t … and we try not to. A mock-up of Explorer 1 sits in the JPL museum as well as the Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. The launchpad used, Launchpad 63 at Cape Canaveral, is designated as a museum itself. The Explorer program is actually a continuing program tallying up more than 90 launches to date with NASA funding earmarked for or physics, geophysics, heliophysics, and astrophysics investigations from space executed from multiple facilities and institutions. So here we are 60 years on, and the Explorer legacy continues.
So cheers to that first Explorer. 60 years years after bringing the good guys into space and you keep us going back.
Now … don’t you feel a little more nerdy than you did when this started?