AUDIO: At 10:48 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, on January 31st, 1958, the attention of the American people was focused on Cape Canaveral, Florida, as a giant rocket was catapulted toward outer space. Few events in American history have been so awaited, prayed for, worked for, as the Army's successful launching of Explorer 1.
This Army film may have overstated the case a bit, but there's no doubt that after the Soviet Union had launched not one, but two Sputniks, Americans clamored for action. NASA didn't exist yet, so the job of placing a satellite in orbit fell to the military. The Navy tried first, but its Vanguard missile exploded on the launch pad. The Army tried next, with a team led by Wernher von Braun, who had supervised the design and construction of Nazi Germany's V-2 terror weapons. 50 years ago tonight, all was ready.
AUDIO: Time: late evening, Friday, January 31st, 1958, in a blockhouse at Canaveral. The countdown to Explorer 1...45 seconds, rudder drive armed, destruct armed...all right, give me range safety. [countdown sounds stay in background]..I don't have it yet ....20 seconds...15 seconds...10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3,
Explorer 1 weighed just 30 pounds, yet it made the first important scientific discovery of the Space Age. It found that Earth is encircled by radiation belts -- charged particles from the Sun that are caught in Earth's magnetic field. The belts were named for James Van Allen, the scientist who designed the instrument that found them.
AUDIO: ...2, 1, firing command, firing command! [rocket sound]
Explorer 1 got the United States into the space race -- and began a legacy of scientific discovery beyond our own planet.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2007
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