Take a step back in time and follow the historic story of how the United States responded to Sputnik, the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite launched by the Soviets in 1957.

Transcript:

Explorer 1 –JPL and the Beginnings of the Space Age

Narrator:

Robotic spacecraft from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explore our solar system and beyond.
The twin rovers examining Mars, the Cassini spacecraft touring Saturn and many other JPL missions continue to unlock scientific mysteries.
But early in the Cold War, JPL built missiles for the Army.
That all changed with the Soviet Union's first scientific satellite.
Sputnik 1 launched the space race.

Historic Clip:

Today a new moon is in the sky.
A 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.
You are hearing the actual signals transmitted by the Earth-circling satellite, one of the great scientific feats of the age.

William Pickering:

We were very disappointed when the first one was launched because we knew darn well that we could launch a satellite any time we were told to.

Walter McDougall:

Eisenhower finally came to understand that the only way to tranquilize the nation was to give the American people a satellite.

Narrator:

Even though JPL had a rocket nearly ready to launch, the Navy 's Vanguard project was chosen instead.

Historic Clip:

America's first attempt to launch a satellite -- a six-and-a-half-inch sphere weighing just over three pounds, was checked out by scientists and declared ready.
A great wave of advanced publicity focused attention at Cape Canaveral, Florida , for the launching of Test Vehicle 3 of Project Vanguard.
What happened is already unhappy history -- another set back for the United States.

Paul Dickson:

The whole world goes nuts. I mean, you know -- Flopnik. Excusenik.
There's just all these mocking headlines and there's this huge, huge, failure.

Walter McDougall:

To have the Communists lead in technology? To pioneer a new frontier of infinite size?
The symbolism was horrifying.

Narrator:

Under enormous pressure, President Eisenhower gives JPL and the Army the go ahead to build and launch Explorer 1.

Historic Clip:

This is what they’ve been waiting for.
The deadline is 90 days.
90 days to put a satellite into orbit.
Minutes clicked passed relentlessly.
The beams of powerful searchlights light up the missile, truly the star of one of the greatest suspense dramas of our time.
The drama approaches the final act.
The Army's first attempt to fire a man-made moon into orbit.
The time -- late evening -- Friday, January 31, 1958, in a block house at Canaveral.
The countdown to Explorer 1.
5, 4, 3, 2,1.

By command.

By command.

Pickering:

We got a report from the Cape that the launch looks pretty good, and it should fly over California at such and such a time.
And so the decision was made that we would make no public announcements about the rocket until it had actually been picked up in California.
And so we sat there for an hour and a half.
The time came and went and there was a period of 8 minutes, which were the longest 8 minutes I've spent in my entire life.

Narrator:

Explorer 1 finally signaled and went on to discover the existence of radiation belts around the Earth.

Roger Launius:

Because of these belts, we are able to survive.
It has dominated the way in which we've pursued our science since that time.
The success of Explorer, and what we've learned from it, really does, kind of, recreate in the most fundamental way, the nature of the Jet Propulsion Lab and moving it from a rocket development center to one in which space science becomes what it really does.
It really put JPL on the map scientifically.

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