The launch of the Russian satellite, now known to be called Sputnik, caught the United States totally off guard. Since the end of the Second World War, the Americans had claimed to be the world leaders in technology and scientific research. In the dying days of the war, the Office of Strategic Services, had instituted Operation Paperclip, which had been designed to smuggle large numbers of Nazi scientists out of Europe before they could fall into Russian hands. Among these scientists were Dr. Werner von Braun, and the entire Peenemunde research team.
Over the course of the 22 days that Sputnik had broadcast its radio signal people all over the United States could be seen standing outside night after night, watching as the satellite circled the Earth every 96 minuets.
“How does it stay up there?” they asked.
“Is it spying on us?”
“Are the Russians going to attack us?”
Ever since the news of Sputnik’s launch had been broken by the media, a wave of near hysteria had swept the United States. Now there was talk of a Congressional investigation to answer these and other questions.
That was where Werner von Braun found himself now, in front of a Congressional Committee answering questions about Sputnik and about space flight in general. The committee room was large and decorated with dark wood paneling. Von Braun, sat alone a long table. The dozen or so committee members sat behind microphones on a raised dias. Directly above and behind the Committee Chairman was a portrait of George Washington. It flanked on either side by the American flag and the seal of the Government of the United States of America. Congressman Overton Brooks peered owlishly through black rimmed glasses at the German rocket scientist.
“Dr. von Braun,” began Brooks” what can you tell us about the rocket that the Russians used to launch their satellite?”
“The Russians used a variant of their R-7 ballistic missile,” von Braun started. “As you know, the basic model is a sub-orbital rocket designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets up to ten thousand miles away. The rocket used for the Sputnik launch has obviously been modified to be able to place a payload into orbit.”
“In what way has the R-7 been modified?” asked Brooks.
“The Sputnik rocket has clearly been modified to fly higher and faster.”
“How exactly does Sputnik stay up there?”
“Through inertia,” explained von Bruan.
“Through inertia?” asked Brooks, “you mean its’ own momentum?”
“Yes,” replied von Braun. “Newton’s Laws of Motion tell us that an objection motion stays in motion. Think of it like this. Imagine that you have a cannon sitting on a flat plane. You fire it, and the shell travels for several miles. The momentum imparted by the gunpowder is not sufficient to overcome the force of gravity. Therefore the shell will fly for awhile and return to Earth. Next imagine that the cannon is sitting on top of a very high hill. The shell also has a larger charge of gunpowder. As a result, more momentum is imparted and the shell may travel for a hundred miles or more.”
“So with a sufficiently large force propelling it, a satellite will travel an equal distance in the opposite direction?”
“So tell me, Dr. von Braun,” asked Brooks, “how is that Sputnik simply doesn’t fly off into the universe?”
Von Braun paused for a moment before answering. “The rocket used to launch Sputnik does not have sufficient momentum for that to occur. The speed needed to achieve a stable orbit is 17,500 miles per hour. To leave the gravitational influence of the Earth, you must be going considerably faster.”
“Doctor, what do you think the ultimate goal of the Russian space program is?”
“I think it is the moon,” said Von Braun.
“Why is that?”
“Because it is close, and could yield tangible benefits, both for science and national defence.”
“On what time frame might the Soviet attempt a moon landing?”
“That I can not say with total certainty,” said von Braun. “There would be many technological hurdles to overcome in such an enterprise. It would require hardware and materials that have not even been conceived of yet, but I think with a decade or two of concerted national effort it would be possible. It would not be easy, but it could be done.”
“What should our response to the Soviets be?” replied Brooks
“We must launch a satellite of our own,” replied von Braun promptly. “We could have done so a year ago, had the Pentagon not interfered.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?” asked Brooks.
“I mean the Jupiter C rocket,” returned von Braun.
“You mean the Army’s intermediate ballistic missile?”
“Yes.” Von Braun continued. “We conducted series of nosecone tests to see how they would stand up to the stress of re-entry. It would not have been difficult to include a small satellite as a payload.”
“What stopped you?” asked Brooks.
“On at least one occasion” von Braun responded, “observers from the Pentagon came to observer our launches. They told us that they were there to ensure that we did not ‘accidentally’ launch our rocket into orbit. Evidently President Eisenhower did not want to antagonize the Russians.”
“Do you have any final comments you’d like to make Dr. von Braun?” asked Brooks
“When I designed rockets for the Nazis, they saw them only as weapons. When I and my team escaped from Germany at the end of the war, we took a vow that we would only build rockets for peaceful purposes. The Soviets have made no such promises. If we are to compete with them in this Space Race, as it has been called, then let them compete with us on our terms.”
Launch Complex 18
Cape Canaveral, Florida
December 6, 1957
The Vanguard rocket was bathed in the bright Florida sunshine. It was tall and spindly looking and bathed in vapour. Perched atop the rocket under the protective cover of its nosecone was a small satellite, even smaller than Sputnik had been. Like Sputnik it was silver in colour. It had six stubby antennas projecting outward and was powered by several small solar cells. Inside the blockhouse, frantic activity swirled around Dr. John Hagen as the flight controllers prepared for launch.
Hagen keyed his mike and spoke into the Flight Director’s loop. “Attention all flight controllers, let’s go around the horn one last time for go/no go.”
“Fido is go flight.
“Guidence is go.”
“FAO is go.”
“Tracking is go.”
“All controllers, this is Flight. We are go for launch. Commencing final countdown.”
Hagen flipped up a clear plastic cover and pushed a large red button underneath. It depressed with an audible click. “Fire”
On the pad several hundred yards away, the Vanguard rocket began to rise up on a pillar of fire. Then something seemed to go wrong, because the rocket settled back down on to the pad toppled sideways and exploded.