In 1957, Cape Canaveral was the most vital and most intensely exciting place in the country. It offered cutting-edge technology in a time of nineteen-cent-a-gallon gasoline, nickel Cokes, two-bit drive-in movies, and the hit of the television season Leave It To Beaver. It was a time when doors went unlocked, when virgins married, when divorce ruined your social standing, and when folks spent their lives working for the same company with the promise of lifelong retirement checks.
In 1957 few that walked this planet reflected on the fact they were actually inhabitants of a mortal spaceship eight thousand miles in diameter, circling one of the universe’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (ten to the twenty-fourth) stars at 67,062 miles per hour.
However, two groups of men and women—given the era, it was mostly men—were actually consumed, day and night, by the realities that we were all astronauts living on spaceship Earth. One group worked in the United States at Alabama’s Redstone arsenal; the other busied itself in a Soviet hamlet called Baikonur on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Like the American group, the Russians developed and worked on machines to lift nuclear warheads and stuff off our planet, and on the evening of October 4, 1957, one of their creations, a large white rocket called R–7, was being fueled for what some would call the single most important event of the twentieth century. Nearby, inside a steel-lined concrete bunker, an intense middle-aged man named Sergei Korolev was at work. His job, as the chief rocket engineer for the USSR, was to orchestrate the stop-and-go countdown. But unlike his American counterpart, Wernher von Braun, Korolev had the full blessing and support of his country’s communist government.
Cape Canaveral. In the 1950s and 1960s, dozens of rockets and missiles were launched from this real Disney World. (NASA).
While Korolev had been chasing the goal of space flight at breakneck speed, Dr. von Braun had been pleading with President Dwight David Eisenhower to let him launch an Earth satellite. Only the year before, von Braun had moved his rocket and satellite to its launch pad without permission. He was going to launch it anyway, pretending that the satellite accidentally went into orbit. But Lieutenant Colonel Asa Gibbs, Cape Canaveral’s commander, ordered the satellite launcher returned to its hangar. Colonel Gibbs cared more about his ass and making full colonel than he did history.
Now, with von Braun’s rocket in storage, Sergei Korolev’s R–7 was fueled, and his launch team was ready to send a satellite into orbit and send Russia into the history books.
“Gotovnosty dyesyat minut.”
Steel braces that held the rocket in place were folded down, and the last power cables between Earth and the rocket fell away.
Flame created a monstrous sea of fire. It ripped into steel and concrete and blew away the night. It sent orange daylight rolling across the steppes of Kazakhstan, quickly followed by a thunderous train of sound that shook all that stood within its path.
Sputnik, Earth’s first artificial satellite, was sent into orbit on October 4, 1957. (NASA).
R–7 climbed from its self-created daylight on legs of flaming thrust and soon appeared as if it were an elongated star racing across a black sky. It fled from view and left darkness to once again swallow its launch pad as it became just another distant star over the Aral Sea.
While others strained to see the final flicker of the rocket, Korolev was interested only in the readouts. He sat transfixed by the tracking information streaming into the control room. The data were perfect. He was intently interested in each engine’s shutdown. Separation of each stage had to be clean. And when the world’s first man-made satellite slipped into Earth orbit, he permitted himself to rejoice with the others.
It would be called Sputnik (fellow traveler), and ninety-six minutes later, it completed its first trip around our planet, streaking over its still-steaming launch pad, broadcasting a lusty beep-beep-beep.
A dream had been realized.
Wild celebrations exploded across the Soviet Union.
In the NBC newsroom in New York, editor Bill Fitzgerald had just finished writing his next scheduled newscast when the wire-service machines began clanging. The persistent noise rattled most everything. Fitzgerald ran to the main Associated Press wire and began reading.
London, October 4th (AP)
Moscow radio said tonight that the Soviet Union has launched an Earth satellite.
The satellite, silver in color, weighs 184 pounds and is reported to be the size of a basketball.
Moscow radio said it is circling the globe every 96 minutes, reaching as far out as 569 miles as it zips along at more than 17,000 miles per hour.
Fitzgerald froze. He didn’t want to believe his fully written newscast had just been flushed down the toilet.
“Damn!” he cursed in protest before hurrying across the newsroom and bursting into Morgan Beatty’s office. “Mo, we’ve gotta update,” he shouted. “One of the damn Russian missiles got away from them, and they lost a basketball or something in space.”
Beatty, a World War II correspondent, never came unglued in battles and he wasn’t about to be upset by an agitated editor. “Give me that,” he demanded, snatching the wire copy from Fitzgerald’s hand.
Beatty’s eyes widened as he read. “Jesus Christ, Bill, you know what this is? The Russians have put a satellite in Earth orbit! They’ve been talking about it, and damn it, they’ve really done it!”
Fitzgerald took a deep breath. “Okay, what do we do, Mo?”
The veteran newscaster didn’t hesitate. “We’ve got to get this on the air, now!”
Sputnik came around the world, streaking northeast over the Gulf of Mexico and Alabama. Its current orbit took it south of Huntsville, where the U.S. Army’s rocket team at the Redstone Arsenal was enjoying dinner and cocktails with some high-powered brass from Washington. One of the guests was Neil H. McElroy, who was soon to be the secretary of defense. Wernher von Braun was delighted. He judged McElroy as a man of action and when he replaced the current defense secretary, Charles E. Wilson, action would be what the army’s rocket team would get. Dr. von Braun and his crew had been trying to punch a satellite into Earth orbit for months, but Wilson and President Eisenhower thought it was just so much nonsense and von Braun and his team had been left outside with their dreams.
But von Braun was as much a charmer as he was a genius in rocketry. He was tall, blond, and square-jawed, and that evening he had come with charts and slides and reams of data to brief McElroy on the potential of the army’s rockets to bring American space flight to reality. McElroy listened with interest and understanding. Dr. von Braun was jubilant; he felt he was getting through. He was not aware Sputnik was about to wreck his carefully planned sales job.
“Dr. von Braun!”
Von Braun sprung about, to see his public affairs director running into the room.
“They’ve done it!” shouted Gordon Harris.
“They’ve done what?”
“The Russians…” Harris ran up to join the group. “They just announced over the radio that they have successfully put up a satellite!”
“What radio?” demanded von Braun.
“NBC.” Harris sucked in air. “NBC was just on with a bulletin from Moscow radio. They’ve got the sounds from the satellite. The BBC has also—”
“What sounds?” von Braun interrupted.
“Beeps,” Harris told him. “Just beeps. That’s all. Beeps.”
Von Braun turned and stared at McElroy. “We knew they were going to do it,” he said with disgust. “They kept telling us, and we knew it, and I’ll tell you something else, Mr. Secretary.” A tremor of suppressed fury wrapped his words. “You know we’re counting on Vanguard. The president counts on Vanguard. I’m telling you right now Vanguard is months away from making it.”
A panel of scientists had recommended the development of a new rocket called Vanguard, arguing that a booster with nonmilitary applications, even though it was a product of the navy, would lend more dignity to a scientific project. Eisenhower went with it, ignoring the fact von Braun’s army team was the only group in America with the experience and ability to launch a satellite, and McElroy gestured in protest. “Doctor, I’m not yet the new Secretary. I don’t have the authority to—”
“But you will,” von Braun broke in, his words raw with emotion. “You will be, and when you have the authority,” he said sternly, “for God’s sake turn us loose!”
The night of Sputnik, I was working for WALB radio and television in Albany, Georgia, where I was more interested in a Marilyn Monroe look-alike named Ann Summerford than in the world’s first artificial satellite. My best friend and coworker, Gene McCall, was dating Ann’s sister, Leslie, and neither of us had the slightest hint what role Sputnik would play in our lives.
Gene, who would grow up to be a Princeton physicist and work on nuclear weapons as a senior scientist for the Los Alamos National Laboratory before becoming chief scientist of the Air Force Space Command, figured out Sputnik’s high five-hundred-mile-plus orbit would keep it and its trailing booster rocket lit by the sun as they passed over a dark Georgia. Theoretically, if we focused on the southwest sky at the precise moment, we just might see the tumbling booster. Of course the basketball-size Sputnik was too small to see, but we decided to take our chances with the booster, and we drove to a dark spot out of town and waited.
Minutes passed and as Gene had calculated, we saw a star moving. It raced over our heads and disappeared below the star-filled horizon. Its flight path appeared to change as it moved across the sky. But it didn’t. It was Earth that moved. Like Sputnikitself, the booster rocket was in its own independent orbit, moving around the planet every ninety-six minutes on a firm track fixed by gravity. Earth was rotating beneath it at the rate of about eight hundred miles each hour at Albany’s latitude. We knew we were seeing the future.
I did a report on Sputnik and began to imagine ways I might move to Cape Canaveral and cover the impending space race. I had no idea then that I would spend more than fifty years covering every space flight by astronauts and amassing the most detailed files of known and unknown facts of space history. I built sources and contacts not only in America but in Russia as well, and in the autumn of my career I would write this book—my lifetime’s most important story. Besides, I had had a run-in with Albany’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which made relocating seem even more attractive. I wouldn’t say I was run out of town but I sure as hell was out in front, leading the parade.
Only a month after Sputnik 1, the Russians did it again. Sputnik 2 weighed 1,120 pounds, and it soared more than a thousand miles above Earth. The numbers were unbelievable to an American public struggling to understand what was going on. Where were our rockets? Where were our satellites? And what the hell was inside this thing? A dog?
Sputnik 2 raced through orbit with Laika, seen here before being placed in the satellite. (Caidin Collection).
Americans were livid. Was Washington burning and President Nero fiddling? Eisenhower got the message and he acted. Prematurely, but he acted, and a civilian team working on Vanguard rushed the unproven rocket to its launch pad. On top was a grapefruit-size satellite that weighed a laughable three pounds.
Dr. von Braun had warned that Vanguard wasn’t ready and had reminded Washington that his Jupiter-C was. But, again, he was ordered to keep his rocket in the hangar. No military launch. Civilian only, if you please. But you say the Vanguard is a navy rocket? Hush! Shut your mouth!
They may have wanted a civilian rocket, but they didn’t want a civilian press. I was among the reporters and photographers pounding on the gates of Cape Canaveral. The military wouldn’t budge. The media were kept outside on sand dunes nicknamed bird-watch hills, in boats, on any spot with a view of the slender rocket. For some of us, telephones were more important than great views, and no nearby phones went unused. Housewives rented theirs for extra cash. I found mine in a row of phone booths at the south gate of the Cape.
The day was December 6, 1957, and as the launch neared, an anxious hush fell over a hopeful America.
“T-minus ten seconds and counting,” the short-wave broadcast reported to the nearby Coast Guard.
“Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…”
I was on the line with WALB, and when the countdown reached zero, my report began…
“There’s ignition. We can see the flames…Vanguard’s engine is lit and it’s burning…but wait…wait a moment…there’s…no wait…there’s no liftoff! It appears to be crumbling in its own fire…It’s burning on its pad…Vanguard has crumbled into flames. It failed, ladies and gentlemen, Vanguard has failed.”
It had risen only four feet off its pad, and four feet didn’t count when you were reaching for orbit.
In 1957, the news media was not permitted on the air force’s Cape Canaveral launch facility. These cameras were waiting for the first Vanguard satellite launch attempt. (Barbree Collection).
Out on the beach, a young CBS correspondent named Harry Reasoner and his producer, Charles von Fremd, had gained an advantage in the race to be first on the air. They had rented an oceanfront cottage with a view of the Vanguard launch pad. While cameraman Paul Rubenstein took his post on the beach, where the sightlines were better, Reasoner stood on the porch and peered through binoculars. Inside the little house, von Fremd’s wife, Virginia, held a phone that was connected to the CBS newsroom in New York. Reasoner later wrote:
At t-minus zero, the first Vanguard rocket with satellite lifts four feet off the ground before crumbling back on its pad, consumed by its own fires. (Neilon Collection).
…I saw an unmistakable flash of flame and the pencil-thin white rocket began to move. “There she goes!” I shouted. “There she goes!” shouted Virginia into the phone. “There she goes!” shouted the CBS executive in New York, hanging up the phone and charging off to get the bulletin on the air.
We beat ABC and NBC certainly. There was only one problem. A tenth of a second after I shouted, “There she goes!” I shouted, “Hold it!”…
The tiny satellite was blasted off the top of the exploding rocket and bounced into hiding in the Cape’s wilderness. Its small transmitter broadcast its lonely distress. To those listening, it was mournful—a string of unbroken beeps. Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen asked the most appropriate question on CBS’s What’s My Line: “Why doesn’t someone go out there, find it, and kill it?”
It was a black day for a proud country. Space pioneer and storyteller John Neilon, who worked on Vanguard, recalled, “The project was instantly dubbed all sorts of uncomplimentary names like Rearguard, Flopnik, and one newspaper wrote ‘Ill-Fated-Vanguard as if that were the real name of the project.” Neilon can laugh today. He added, “Some of our team with a sense of humor would answer the phone, ‘Ill-Fated-Vanguard Project!’”
The loss of Vanguard wounded our pride and destroyed our confidence, and most of us knew it was time for something to be done. The Russians were kicking us where we sat, and it was time for a stubborn White House to call in the cavalry—to call in the von Braun team.
Eisenhower did, and Redstone missile #29 was hauled out of storage and refitted. More reliable upper-stage rockets were added, and a thirty-one-pound satellite was mounted atop the stack with eighteen pounds of instruments designed to measure space radiation. Eisenhower and his White House crowd didn’t want to be reminded that the rocket was the same damn Redstone that could have placed a satellite in orbit more than a year before Sputnik. The orders came down to change the name of the rocket, and Jupiter-C became Juno 1.
The media were finally invited on the Cape, and after three days of delays caused by high winds, Juno 1 was ready for launch.
On January 31, 1958, at 10:45 P.M., test conductor Robert Moser pushed the launch button. After waiting more than two years to fly, Redstone #29 was suddenly alive and its flames washed over the launch pad. Those lucky enough to be there cheered as broadcasters shouted to be heard above the rocket’s growing roar.
Some around me cried shamelessly as I shouted my on-the-scene report and watched the first rocket with an American satellite climb higher and higher and faster and faster. I knew I was witnessing history. It was surreal with all the shouting, screaming, and joyful crying, and I continued to shout my report and watch the Jupiter-C’s flames grow smaller and smaller. Soon it was a star lost in a black sky filled with many, and I felt my own personal national pride. One of von Braun’s stars, I reminded myself. As a boy, the young rocket master had promised himself he would go to the stars, and this night he was taking his first step on that journey.
The country did not yet have a network of tracking stations in place. Definite confirmation that the satellite was in orbit would have to wait until it had almost completed a trip around Earth as it raced over a tracking station in California. Dr. von Braun had calculated that it would take the satellite 106 minutes to pass over the California station. When it didn’t, he began to pace.
Eight minutes later, an excited voice shouted, “They hear her, Wernher! They hear her!”
The satellite was in a slightly higher orbit than expected, accounting for its delay. Men and women hugged, and Wernher von Braun walked onto the stage of an adjoining auditorium filled with reporters.
“It was one of the great moments of my life,” he said. “I only regret we weren’t permitted to do it earlier.”
A grateful and jubilant America was at von Braun’s feet and his hometown, Huntsville, Alabama, rocked with a wild and furious celebration. Horns blared and cheering thousands danced and hugged each other in the streets. Retired defense secretary Charles E. Wilson, who had single-handedly stopped von Braun’s efforts to reach Earth orbit, was hanged in effigy.
German-born Wernher von Braun became an instant American hero. He was on the front pages of newspapers, on radio networks, on television talk shows and evening newscasts, and even on the prestigious cover of Time. The country’s leading news magazine wrote: “Von Braun, 45, personifies man’s drive to rise above the planet. Von Braun, in fact, has only one interest, the conquest of space, which he calls man’s greatest adventure.” Soon thereafter Eisenhower summoned von Braun to a white-tie dinner at the White House and presented him with the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Award. Charles E. Wilson did not attend.
Wernher von Braun’s satellite was named Explorer 1. It weighed only thirty-one pounds, but despite its size, it made science’s first discovery by a satellite. Dr. James A. Van Allen’s Geiger counter on board Explorer 1 learned that Earth is surrounded by huge bands of high-energy radiation composed of particles trapped in our planet’s magnetic field. Scientists honored Van Allen by naming the belts after him. Today, when astronauts travel in space they avoid these radiation belts discovered by Explorer 1, the little satellite that catapulted America into the space age, and into a fierce competition for national prestige with the Russians.
Just around the corner, the race to the moon was moved to the starting blocks.