The First Space Race

Excerpt: The First Space Race
By Matt Bille and Erika Lishock
2004, Texas A&M University Press
Copyright 2004 by Matt Bille and Erika Lishock

This excerpt describes the launch of Explorer 1, America’s first satellite, on 31 January 1958.

The First Space Race

The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) was ready for a launch on January 29, but high-altitude wind conditions were unacceptable. Vanguard was scheduled to make another try as early as possible. If the Army couldn’t launch in January, it would have to scrub the mission and turn the range and tracking equipment over to the Navy team. Two increasingly tense days went by, while Air Force meteorologists peppered the sky with balloons and ABMA engineers debated how strong the jet-stream winds could be without putting unacceptable stress on the launch vehicle.

Finally, the winds abated. On Friday, January 31, the Army made its attempt. Drs. Kurt Debus and Hans Gruene of ABMA, along with ABMA’s General Bruce Medaris and JPL’s Jack Froehlich, were there to oversee the operation. Wernher Von Braun, to his chagrin, had been ordered to Washington, to wait with Bill Pickering and James Van Allen and to be available to the press after the launch.

Fueling of the first stage began at 8:30 PM Eastern time. The destruct system was armed, the platforms around the missile removed, and the gantry rolled back on its tracks. Medaris watched through the green-tinted bulletproof glass of a blockhouse 100 yards away, where he was one of 57 people jammed in to direct the launch. He later wrote, “Floodlights were turned on and the missile stood like a great finger pointing to Heaven – stark, white, and alone on its launching pad.”

A planned 10:30 PM ignition time was postponed when technicians spotted what appeared to be a leak at the base of the booster. When an incredibly brave soul ran out to the pad and stuck his head under the rocket, it was learned this was only a spill left over from loading the hydrogen peroxide used to drive the turbopumps. The countdown was allowed to proceed. At 10:48, the head of the launch crew, Robert Moser, said, “Firing command,” and one of his subordinates pulled out a metal ring on the console and twisted it to begin the firing sequence.

Thirteen seconds later, the first-stage engine ignited. For three very long seconds, the launch crew watched from the blockhouse as the booster built up enough thrust to lift from the pad. When it finally rose, it did so perfectly, accelerating with a roar and a “tremendous golden jet” of flame as it vanished into the night. The United States had finally sent its own satellite on the long climb toward orbit.

There was an anguished moment when the radio receiver in the blockhouse stopped registering telemetry signals from the Jupiter. Fearing the worst, Medaris grabbed a phone to Hangar D, a larger building three miles away where most of the tracking and support staff was working. “I’ve lost my signal,” he said. An agonizing 40 seconds later, the general learned AFMTC’s central data recording station still had contact with the booster.

ABMA physicist Ernst Stuhlinger had perhaps the most critical job that night. The telemetry from an on-board accelerometer, along with radar tracking data and Doppler shift information (obtained by a system called DOVAP), was fed to his post in Hangar D to indicate when to fire the second stage. The data was far from perfect, and Stuhlinger called into play his knowledge of the rocket and a special analog computer he had developed to help him make the call.

The first stage burned out 157 seconds into the flight, with the rocket at an angle 40 degrees from the horizontal. A system combining explosive bolts and springs separated the upper section, with the guidance compartment, from the first stage. Five-pound-thrust air jets located at the base of the instrument compartment nudged the upper section to a horizontal position.

When Stuhlinger calculated the rocket had reached this point, 260 seconds after burnout, he sent the signal to fire the first group of Sergeant solid-fuel upper-stage rockets. The upper section roared away from the rocket, leaving the protective tub and all guidance equipment behind. The third and fourth stages were fired by timers.

In the blockhouse, General Medaris hovered over JPL’s Al Hibbs. Hibbs was making rough calculations based on the telemetry from the launch vehicle and the DOVAP measurements. A half-hour after launch, Hibbs reported he could conclude “with 95% confidence” there was a 60% probability the satellite was in orbit.

Medaris snapped, “Don’t give me that crap, Hibbs. Is it up?”

Hibbs replied, “It’s up.” The data received so far indicated the velocity was adequate and the insertion altitude and angle were good. But the engineers of AMBA and JPL knew they had to wait for probably another hour and a half before the satellite made its way around the Earth and confirmed Hibbs was right.

General Medaris sent a message to JPL suggesting their staff have a cigarette and relax. With stereotypical California humor, JPL engineers replied they were “being nonchalant and lighting up a marijuana.”

No one was nonchalant in Washington. Von Braun expected to hear of a signal about half past midnight. Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was holding a telephone line open to JPL’s tracking stations. Nothing happened at the appointed time, or for several minutes after. Von Braun wrote, “We were miserable. Obviously, we’d been mistaken. The Explorer had never really gone into orbit.”

Then, 117 minutes after launch, the signal came.

There is a bit of a mystery concerning this event. General Medaris, in his memoir Countdown for Decision, recorded that his aide handed him a note reading, “Goldstone has the bird.” This quote has been included in most histories of this event, but it appears to be incorrect. No tracking installation – indeed, no equipment of any kind – was located at Goldstone Dry Lake in California at the time of the Explorer 1 launch. The first tracking station at Goldstone was set up in the summer of 1958 to support the Pioneer lunar probes. JPL had erected a temporary Microlock station for the Explorer 1 launch at Borrego Springs, 150 miles to the southwest of Goldstone. The only other station in California was one established by an amateur radio group and located in Temple City.

Henry Magill, the aide involved, is certain the note he handed Medaris said nothing about Goldstone. This raises the possibility Medaris and/or his co-author, Arthur Gordon, inadvertently ascribed an event from one of the Pioneer launches to the aftermath of this first launch.

Wherever the news came from, it was a major boost to the nation’s mood. In Washington, von Braun and the other key participants were waiting at the Pentagon. The confirmation of the satellite’s orbit, coming at the end of a long string of tension-filled late nights, all-out effort, and a diet heavy on coffee and cigarettes, galvanized the entire building. A jubilant von Braun declared, “We have firmly established our foothold in space. We will never give it up again.” At a 2 AM press conference at the National Academy of Sciences, Pickering, von Braun, and Van Allen raised a satellite model over their heads. The resulting picture made newspapers all over the world.

President Eisenhower was cautious when informed the launch appeared successful. He remarked, “Let’s not make too great a hullabaloo about this.” Later, when it was confirmed the satellite was in orbit, he added, “That’s wonderful. I sure feel a lot better now.”


Newsweek, “Up There – At Last,” 10 February 1958, 28; Debus, “From A-4 to Explorer I: A Memoir.”

Bruce Medaris, Countdown to Decision, 214-17.

Ernst Stuhlinger, “Launching of Explorer 1” (unpublished paper), 29 May 1998.

NASA, “Explorer 1 and Jupiter-C” (no date), at

NASA, “Explorer 1 and Jupiter-C;” Kurt Debus, “From A-4 to Explorer I: A Memoir.”

Wernher Von Braun, “The Story Behind the Explorers.”

Albert Hibbs, telephone interview with Matt Bille, 9 July 1998.

Clayton Koppes, JPL and the American Space Program, 90.

Von Braun, “The Story Behind the Explorers.”

William Pickering, Email to Matt Bille, 18 September 2000.

Henry Magill, Emails to Matt Bille, 30 and 31 March 1999. Magill writes, “No, the note that I passed did not say ‘Goldstone.’ I said Earthquake Valley has heard the signal.” Other sources on the location of the tracking station include: William Corliss, A History of the Deep Space Network, NASA CR-151915 (Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1 May 1976); Curtis Emerson, personal communication to Matt Bille, 25 March 1999; Jet Propulsion Laboratory Publication no. 135, “Description of World Network for Radio Tracking of Space Vehicles,” 1 July 1958; Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “Deep Space Network: History,” at (26 March 1999); Cliff Lethbridge, Email to Matt Bille, 3 April 1999; William Pickering, telephone interview with Matt Bille, 2 June 1999; Medaris, Countdown, 224. No contemporary media account examined, including LIFE magazine for 10 February 1958, which has a photograph of Medaris holding the famous note, reports the “Goldstone” phrase. The only source for this quote which does not cite Medaris’ account is Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, of the von Braun team. (Ernst Stuhlinger, Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space, (Malabar, FL: Kreiger Publishing Company, 1994), 138; Stuhlinger, telephone interview with Matt Bille, 27 May 1999). Dr. Stuhlinger recalled this statement being made as an announcement by Charles Lundquist to the crew assembled at the Cape, not as a note. If he is correct, the reason Lundquist would have said “Goldstone” is unknown.

William Burrows, This New Ocean, (New York: Random House, 1998), 209.