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Our world changed 50 years ago today

Explorer 1
Explorer 1

Echoes of the Cold War are sounding today as American scientists celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Explorer 1, the nation’s first successful satellite.

With a sky full of space hardware in 2008, it may be difficult for a new generation to imagine the immense relief Americans expressed as the bullet-shaped craft settled into orbit.

The Russians had shattered confidence in U.S. leadership with their launch of the Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. A month later came Sputnik 2, carrying a dog named Laika.

The starting gun had sounded on the space race, and the United States stumbled in its first strides. In December 1957, the United States’ Vanguard satellite rose about four feet, then lost engine thrust, fell back upon the launch pad and exploded into flames.

William Garrard remembers being “scared to death” as a high school student in Austin, Texas.

“Everybody was so rightly frightened,” Garrard said. “All over the world people said it looks like the United States is history. Russia is leading in technology.”

Now Garrard heads the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium and also works as a professor of aeronautical engineering at the University of Minnesota.

With a half century of hindsight, Garrard said Wednesday that the United States wasn’t truly trailing the Soviet Union in science and technology.

Russia’s superior rocketry
To be sure, the Russians demonstrated superior rocketry for the time. 

Explorer 1 weighed just over 30 pounds with 18 pounds of payload when it soared into space in Jan. 31, 1958, from a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  By comparison, Sputnik 1 weighed 184 pounds, and Sputnik 2 was a whopping 1,120 pounds.

What the public couldn’t see initially, though, was the superior quality of the scientific instruments aboard Explorer 1.  

An onboard experiment designed by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa included Geiger counters to measure radiation in space and transmitters to broadcast data from the instruments. At first, trackers on the ground worried the instruments might have malfunctioned because the Geiger counters seemed to stop working every so often then come back on again.

Eventually scientists learned that the instruments had been periodically saturated as Explorer 1 passed through two intense bands of radiation encircling planet Earth. It was to become recognized as the first major scientific discovery of the space age, and scientists in Minnesota and elsewhere continue to study and learn from it.

“It actually accomplished quite a bit in terms of science,” Garrard said.

The bands now are known as the Van Allen radiation belt. Scientists have learned that the Earth’s magnetic field had trapped radiation in these bands, Garrard said. They also have learned to shield instruments and human space travelers from them. The intense radiation can wreck equipment, and long-time exposure also could be a hazard to humans.

Space clutter
Of course, a satellite launch isn’t even news today. We take it for granted that orbiters will help predict our weather, guide us to appointments through the GPS system, relay our communications and enhance our maps.

Indeed, the clutter of space hardware has become a worry. The government is tracking more than 12,000 man-made objects in Earth orbit, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

The greatest legacy, though, may be the jump start those competitive first satellites gave to science education. A generation of scientists worldwide got their inspiration from those first orbits and their financial support from programs that were funded in the aftermath.

As a student during the dawn of the space age, Garrard’s graduate education was funded in part by NASA, he said. Now the Minnesota program he directs helps support a new generation of science students.  

For that, the Sputniks still could claim a good share of credit because of the fierce competitive spirit they sparked in the United States.

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