Fifty years ago today, the USSR launched Sputnik I into orbit. The USSR and the USA had, as part of the International Geophysical Year, been working on putting satellites into orbit. The USA’s efforts had been pulled in several directions: Werner von Braun and the newly-minted Army Ballistic Missile Agency had proposed Project Orbiter, a joint Army-Navy effort, but the Stewart Commission chose the Navy’s Project Vanguard instead. To a large extent that was because Eisenhower wanted to minimize military involvement in space efforts, and Project Vanguard’s Viking rocket had been used for scientific efforts and not military ones like Project Orbiter’s Redstone missile.
When Sputnik launched, all of that changed. The USSR launched Sputnik II, with Laika the dog on board, one month later. Desperate to show that it, too, could hurl metal globes into space, the US attempted a Project Viking launch. The rocket went up four feet, lost power, fell back, and exploded.
Von Braun and the ABMA just happened to have been working on rockets that could be either an ICBM or a satellite-launching rocket. Von Braun’s team was given the go-ahead, and on February 1, 1958, they successfully launched Explorer I into orbit.
The US Space and Rocket Center has many of those old rockets on display. I’ve wandered past them, watching them get taller and taller, until I reached the Saturn V rocket. It’s amazing what a cold war and a large amount of government spending will buy you.