Newhouse News Story on Sputnik

From this morning's Times-Picayune:

Beeping ball lights fire that launches U.S. to moon

Sputnik's ascent pushed Americans 50 years ago

Wednesday, October 03, 2007
By Kent Faulk

HUNTSVILLE, ALA. -- A simple radio broadcast from space 50 years ago this week changed the world and launched the United States on a path to the moon.

Beep . . . Beep . . . Beep.

The signal came from Sputnik, the world's first satellite. The 184-pound sphere, a little larger than a basketball with whiskerlike antennae, was launched into orbit Oct. 4, 1957, by what was then the Soviet Union.

As it circled the globe, ham radio operators listened. Americans living in a world of atomic fallout shelters searched the autumn sky for a glimpse of the communist-made "moon." Generals, politicians and scientists tried to figure out how to get the sputtering U.S. satellite program launched as newspapers reported on the Russian success.

Sputnik's launch did not come as a surprise to many of the scientists and engineers working at the Army's Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

"I was very much impressed. However, my first reaction was, 'I told you so,' " Ernst Stuhlinger said.

Stuhlinger, 93, was among a core group of 118 German rocket scientists led by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun. After World War II, the team came to the United States to use its expertise to build missiles for the Army, moving to Huntsville in 1950.

Stuhlinger said he had been telling the Army missile agency's general that the Soviets were about to launch, and he and others had been trying to convince those higher up in the agency that the United States could launch a satellite atop a modified Redstone missile.

Instead, the Army engineers were ordered to stay away from satellite launch development, and that work was assigned to the Navy and its Vanguard program.

Several reasons were given for the Army not getting the job. One was that President Eisenhower didn't want the same Army missiles that delivered warheads to be used in the space race.

"There's some speculation that, probably because there were Germans in charge of that project, they preferred to have a more American team building it," said University of Alabama in Huntsville history professor Andrew Dunar, who co-wrote "Power to Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center 1960-1990."

Spurred into action

The day Sputnik was launched, incoming Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy was visiting Redstone Arsenal. During a dinner, the public affairs officer rushed into the room with the news. Von Braun told McElroy that, if given permission, the Army in Huntsville could get a rocket ready to launch a satellite in 60 days. Gen. John Medaris, head of the missile agency at the time, chimed in that they had better make that 90 days.

Five weeks after Sputnik's launch, the Army in Huntsville was given the go-ahead to prepare for a launch. Explorer I was launched atop a modified Redstone rocket -- called a Jupiter C missile -- on Jan. 31, 1958.

It was 89 days after the Army was given the go-ahead.

The satellite launched that day discovered the radiation belts around the Earth, called the Van Allen radiation belts after the satellite's inventor, James Van Allen, who worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The night the American satellite was launched, residents flooded the streets of Huntsville to celebrate, including burning in effigy former U.S. Secretary of Defense Charlie Wilson, whom they blamed for not letting the Huntsville group launch the satellite sooner.

Vanguard, which had a number of failures on the launch pad, successfully flew a couple of months later.

After the Explorer I launch, Stuhlinger got a congratulations gift from Leonid Sednov, the chief scientist of the Soviet space program at the time. It was a small model of Sputnik with the October launch date on it.

During the next two years, Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the German rocket team transferred to the new space agency's Marshall Space Flight Center to develop large rockets. The Saturn V developed by that center eventually sent 12 men to walk on the moon.

Earthly influences

In the space race created by that beeping hunk of metal, the lives of people such as Homer Hickam were transformed.

"Without the inspiration of Sputnik and the space race, I would have probably become an English teacher," said Hickam.

After seeing Sputnik cross the night sky when he was teenager, Hickam decided he wanted to be a rocket engineer and began launching model rockets with friends in his hometown of Coalwood, W.Va. The book he wrote on that experience, "Rocket Boys," was a New York Times best-seller and turned into the movie "October Sky." Eventually, he became an engineer with NASA in Huntsville.

Ralph Petroff said he might still be living in Canada if it hadn't been for Sputnik. Instead, he's a Huntsville entrepreneur and member of the local 50th Anniversary of America in Space Committee.

Petroff's father, Peter Petroff, tried to emigrate from Bulgaria to the United States after World War II, but he got only as far as Canada. Petroff said his father was told by U.S. immigration authorities that, with the waiting list at the time, it would be 2007 before he and his family could get into the country.

That changed after Sputnik. His father was an engineer, and the United States was scrambling to find technically trained people. His father got his green card about 18 months after Sputnik launched, Petroff said.

Peter Petroff worked for NASA at Cape Canaveral and later Huntsville during the 1960s. He left NASA but stayed in Huntsville, where he invented the first digital watch and first wireless heart monitor. Peter Petroff died in 2003.

Hunstville and beyond

Sputnik transformed Huntsville. It was a thriving town of about 46,000, driven mostly by Army missile work. But by 1970, the city had 136,000 people. Today it has more than 168,000 people and is home to the world's second-largest research park.

World history, not just Alabama's future, would have been different if the United States had been first to launch a satellite with its Vanguard program, said several who lived through the space race.

"I think there would have been no NASA and no landing on the moon," said Konrad Dannenberg, 94, a member of the German rocket team.

The Soviets' beating Americans in space embarrassed national leaders, who wanted to reclaim supremacy. The space race was on, and it didn't slow until Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Otherwise, Petroff said, the United States might not have been pushed into a race to the moon until 2019, when China says it plans to send men to the moon.

The space program led to major technological advancements. Better computers and satellite radio are two examples.

The race to catch up with the Soviets in the several years after the first Sputnik launch also could have changed the course of politics, Petroff said. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Democrat John Kennedy used the gap between American and Soviet space technology as a major issue on his way to narrowly defeating Republican Richard Nixon. "If Vanguard had been launched (first), that wedge issue disappears," he said.

The Russians probably wouldn't have gone to the moon either, Petroff said. The Russian space program had disastrous launches of its large lift N-1 rockets that could have taken men to the moon during the 1960s, he said.

Hickam said he thinks von Braun would have spent the rest of his life building relatively small rockets for the Army.

"Redstone Arsenal would have remained a small Army post, and Huntsville would have had sluggish growth over the decades," he said.

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Kent Faulk is a staff writer for the Birmingham (Ala.) News. He can be reached at

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