Chapter Three

Late 1957

          The cause of the Vanguard TV3 explosion was never determined with certainty, but an examination of the wreckage indicated that the accident had occurred as a result of a failure in the first stage turbopump. As a result, the fuel supply had been cut off and the rocket fell back on to the pad due to lack of thrust. Even though the rocket only fell a few feet, the impact was sufficient to upset the rocket’s centre of gravity and to damage the fuel system. As a result the Vanguard rocket fell over and exploded. The one pound satellite that the Vanguard rocket was intended to send into space survived the initial explosion and was found still functioning on the concrete apron surrounding the launch pad. However, it was sufficiently heavily damaged that it was deemed to be unsalvageable.  While the United States had been recovering from the embarrassment of Vanguard, the Soviets saw fit to add insult to injury with the launch of Sputnik 2. Unlike Sputnik, which was a simple satellite with only a few primitive instruments, Sputnik 2 was more ambitious. In addition to its suite of scientific instruments, Sputnik 2 also carried a dog named Laika. Even though she died of stress and overheating six hours into the flight, the achievement of sending a life form in orbit was a significant one. The Americans were now two steps behind and racing to catch up. It was clear that the Russians would next attempt to launch a capsule, not with a dog, with a Cosmonaut.

Launch Complex 26

Cape Canaveral, Florida

January 31, 1958

10:48 PM

            The gantry rolled slowly back from the Juno rocket. It was night time and the rocket was bathed in the harsh glare of bright floodlights. The gantry stopped moving when it was 200 yards away from the launch pad. The rocket stood by itself in the balmy Florida night. In spite of warmth of the night it was wreathed in frigid looking vapour and coated in a sheet of ice. Even though it was more than 80 degrees outside, internally the rocket’s temperature hovered a somewhere around minus a hundred. This was thanks to its liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuels, which had to be kept in a cryogenic state in order to ensure that they would flow through the fuel system properly.

             A voice spoke over a loud speaker. “Attention. All personnel clear the pad and retreat to the blockhouse. Stand by for final pre-flight checks.” There followed a number of different voices over the loud speaker confirming the readiness of the rocket’s internal systems and the status of the Explorer 1 satellite.

            “Fuel tank chilldown sequence complete.”

            “Copy that.”

            “Requesting primary power bus status.”

            “Primary power bus is A OK.”

            “Stand by for guidance computer check.”

            “Roger. Standing by.”

            “Guidance computer checks out 100%”

            “Proceeding with engine gimbal test.”

            “Understood. Engine gimbal looks good.”

            “All flight controllers report go/no go for launch.” After several minuets the flight director came on again. “We are go for launch.” A voice began to count backward fromT-00:00: 10.

         10

         9

        8

        7

        6

        5

        4

        3

        2

       1

        There was a loud whoosh and bright flames spewed out from under the launch pad. A second later, the lockdown clamps hold the rocket to the pad released and the rocket leaped off the pad on a column of fire and soared into the night sky. The world seemed to fall away as the rocket bearing Explorer 1 sped higher and higher. From the ground the rocket seemed to disappear quickly among the stars. At an altitude of 20 miles, the first stage was jettisoned and went spinning away into the night, to land somewhere in the ocean. Three small rocket motors fired briefly to push the spacecraft away from the tumbling first stage. A second or two later, the second stage motors kicked in and began to power the spacecraft through the upper reaches of the atmosphere. At 60 miles, the second stage was spent and it too fell away to burn up in the atmosphere. The third stage glided silently into orbit. A few minutes after that, the rotating drum containing the satellite was ejected from the nosecone of the spacecraft. The drum cracked open and Explorer 1 was jettisoned from the rocket.  It soared into the vacuum with the Earth turning placidly below.

The White House

Washington DC

July 29, 1958

            President Eisenhower sat behind his desk in the Oval Office and allowed the frenetic activity to swirl around him. A TV camera stood in the middle of the room. It was flanked by a pair of large portable lights pointed at the President’s desk. In between Eisenhower’s desk and the camera, low down and out of the camera’s field of view, was a collection of microphones. Around the edges of the room, was a gaggle of print reporters armed with pens and note pads.

            “30 seconds, Mr. President.”

            The light on the camera began to blink.

            “Ten seconds.”

            5

            4

            3

            2

            1

            Eisenhower stared into the camera and began to speak. “My fellow Americans, I am coming before you tonight to speak to you about events of the last few weeks. As you are no doubt aware, some months ago the Soviet Union launched a missile into space. In the nosecone of this missile was a satellite, a tiny spacecraft with a radio transmitter and a few primative scientific instruments. This satellite was harmless, designed only to gather scientific data. Even though this satellite was harmless, its launch represents a dangerous escalation in the ideological conflict we find ourselves locked in with the Soviets. A missile that can launch a satellite into space can also bring death to our shores. Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States is not an aggressor nation. On behalf of the American people, I pledge to devote American space activities to peaceful purposes, to scientific exploration and the furthering of mankind. It is for these reasons that earlier today I signed into law, the National Air and Space Act. This act will bring together all civilian space activities in the United States under a single organization, whose sole goal is to explore in peace and to develop space for the benefit of all humankind. It is my express hope that we can do so in peace and co-operation with all the peoples of the world. Thank you, and God bless America.”

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