A model of Explorer 1, held by JPL's Director William Pickering, scientist James Van Allen and rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun

The U.S. space program turns 40 on Saturday, January 31 -- and the public is invited to share in the celebration when space pioneers and others gather at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium at 8 p.m. to revisit the historic launch of the Explorer 1 satellite, developed by Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) four decades ago, before NASA was even born. The event is free of charge.

"Explorer 1: Forty Years After, A Look Back and a Look Ahead" will feature Dr. William Pickering, the former director of JPL and a pioneering space telecommunications researcher who led the Laboratory's work in the Explorer era. He will describe the political, technical and scientific challenges and benefits of the Eisenhower-era race into space after the Soviet Union stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. JPL's current director, Dr. Edward C. Stone, will follow with a presentation on all the exciting space discoveries made since then, and offer his vision for future explorations.

Caltech's JPL was still operated as a research laboratory for the U.S. Army when it was selected in the autumn of 1957 to develop the first U.S. satellite, science package, communications system and the high-speed upper stages for the Army's Redstone rocket that would launch the tiny, 9-kilogram (20-pound) Explorer 1. JPL and the Army completed the assignment and successfully launched the satellite in less than three months.

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. Werner 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 the 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, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from JPL.

In late 1958, JPL was reassigned from the U.S. Army to NASA when the civilian space agency was created, and has led the world's exploration of space with robotic spacecraft since then. Still operated as a division of Caltech, 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.

For more information about the January 31 event at Caltech, contact JPL's Public Services Office at (818) 354-0112.

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