MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109. TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contact: Mary Beth Murrill
January 28, 1998
SPACE PIONEERS RECALL FIRST U.S. SATELLITE LAUNCH UPON
Forty years ago this week, a team of scientists and
engineers successfully launched Explorer 1, the first U.S.
satellite to orbit around Earth. This historic accomplishment
marked the nation's debut in the Cold War-era space race and set
the stage for the establishment of the civilian space agency that
would become NASA.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, was still
operated as a research laboratory for the U.S. Army when it was
selected in November 1957 to develop the first U.S. satellite,
its science package, the communications system and the high-speed
upper stages for the Army's Redstone rocket that would guide the
tiny, 9-kilogram (20-pound) Explorer 1 into the great unknown.
JPL and the Army completed the assignment and successfully
launched the satellite in less than three months. JPL and the
Army Ballistic Missle Agency, based in Huntsville, AL, joined in
firing the satellite twoard space from the missle test center at
Cape Canaveral, FL on Jan. 31, 1958.
The scientific experiment onboard, a cosmic ray detector
built by Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, soon
returned one of the most important findings of the space program:
the discovery of what are now known as the Van Allen Radiation
Belts around Earth. Explorer 1 went on to operate for three
Following the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4,
1957, "there was a lot of pressure to get a satellite in orbit as
quickly as possible," said Dr. William Pickering, then JPL's
director and orchestrator of the Explorer 1 effort at JPL.
The intensive effort was accomplished by a team of experts
from U.S. academia and the military, along with top World War II
German rocket scientists such as Dr. Wernher von Braun, who
emigrated to the U.S. in the postwar years to help lead
development of American rocket capability. A globally linked
telecommunications system developed by JPL tracked Explorer 1 and
received its scientific data as it circled Earth. Amateur radio
operators around the world were invited to listen in on Explorer
1's radio communications, including one key amateur radio shack
operated largely by JPL ham radio operators at the Los Angeles
County Sheriff's substation in Temple City, near JPL.
The most difficult technical challenge, said Pickering, "was
getting the three rocket stages to work consistently, to get it
all to go in the right direction, with no guidance system."
Considering the telecommunications and computing capability of
the Explorer 1 era versus that available for last summer's Mars
Pathfinder mission, Pickering said, "it's astonishing to think
what has happened over 40 years."
Van Allen, still an active planetary and space physics
researcher, recalled that on the morning after the historic
Explorer 1 launch, "a big press conference had been called at
the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington,
D.C., and although it was 1:30 in the morning, there was still a
huge crowd of reporters waiting around."
Donna Shirley, Mars Exploration Program manager at JPL, was
in high school when the news hit that Explorer 1 had been
launched. "It was a terrific emotional moment," she recalled.
"It seemed like a scary thing that the Soviet Union was so
powerful that they could launch Sputnik. When Explorer went up,
it was, 'Rah, rah, our team!'" she said. "It seemed to be framed
in 'us versus them' rather than focused on the real technical and
scientific achievement. But the dawn of the space age affected
my life a lot," she said.
"I don't think the 'right stuff' to work in the space
program has really changed all that much" since the days of
Explorer 1, said Shirley. "You don't have cigar-smoking guys
with slide rules anymore, but I think the 'right stuff' is still
the same: dedication and competence."
In late 1958, JPL was reassigned from the U.S. Army to NASA
when the civilian space agency was created, and has helped lead
the world's exploration of space with robotic spacecraft since
then. Operated as a division of the California Institute of
Technology, JPL has sent spacecraft to all of the known planets
except Pluto, and this year will launch important astronomy and
planetary exploration missions to comets, asteroids and Mars,
along with many Earth-observing efforts.
As the size of NASA's space missions take advantage of
miniaturized electronics to shrink to fit the new "faster,
better, cheaper" mold, some space science packages are about the
size of that on tiny Explorer 1, Shirley said. "Miniaturization
is allowing us to shrink down the brains of our spacecraft but
still allow us to do more with them than we used to. And the
challenge now is to shrink the rest of the spacecraft down."
Considering the future of space science, Van Allen observed
that "there is no shortage of great ideas on what we'd like to
do. 'Faster, better, cheaper' is NASA's mantra, and the recent
successful launch of the Lunar Prospector spacecraft is the best
example of that. But the Hubble Space Telescope is a good
example of big projects that will continue to be conducted. I
think we have a very bright future in space science in all areas.
There is good public support," he said.. "There is virtually no
limit to what can be investigated in interplanetary science and
NOTE TO EDITORS: Photos are available to news media to illustrate
this story by calling the JPL Video and Imaging Group at 818/354-