This footage from the U.S. Army's "The Big Picture" TV series recounts the tense days leading up to the successful launch of America's first satellite in 1958.


The morning of November 8, 1957, at Huntsville, Alabama. A sudden meeting has been called by General John B. Medaris, commanding general of the Army's Ballistic Missile Agency.

"I have a very important announcement for you. We've been assigned the mission of launching a scientific Earth satellite. And we will use the Jupiter-C configuration as a carrier that we developed along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I promised the Secretary of the Army that we would be ready in 90 days or less. Let's go, Wehrner!"

Meanwhile, far across the country at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a sprawling 80-acre research and development complex in Pasadena, California, scientists and engineers were racing toward the same deadline. Ninety days to put a satellite into orbit. Their job: furnish the high-speed upper stages to take over after the first stage powered the satellite to the prescribed distance from the Earth.

The beams of powerful searchlights light up the missile. The drama approaches the final act, the Army's first attempt to fire a manmade moon into orbit.

Late evening, Friday, January 31, 1958, in a blockhouse at Canaveral, the countdown to Explorer 1. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 Fire command Fire command. [unintelligible] [Roar of rocket] [Teletype sound] The missile is in flight. But it will take another hour and a half to know whether the satellite is in orbit.

About midnight General Medaris finally called his assistant, Colonel Leonard Orman.

"Hello, Len. You can send this off to the Secretary: that our satellite is definitely on orbit!"

Twenty minutes later, Dr. Porter opened the question-and-answer session by introducing three of the key men in the success story of Explorer 1.

"Well, the question is: has any form of life been placed in the satellite. I think I could answer that one almost myself. Not intentionally." [Laughter] "May... maybe we have a Florida cockroach inside. We don't know." [Laughter]

"Just one more!" came the inevitable plea from the photographers. And, exhausted as they were, the trio obliged-with what was to be the page one spread in newspapers all over the world. The United States was in the space business along with the Russians, and Explorer 1 was the beginning.

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