BEN BOVA: October 2, 2011 ... Mixed emotions on 54th anniversary of the Space Age

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Fifty-four years ago, come Tuesday, Soviet Russia launched the first artificial satellite of Earth: Sputnik 1.

I was thrilled at the achievement: the first man-made object to orbit the Earth, humankind’s first step into space.

I was also tremendously disappointed. You see, I was working on the Vanguard program, America’s first satellite project. Everybody assumed we would be the first into space. Everybody except the Russians.

We had the technology. We had the scientists and engineers. Unfortunately, we also had Washington politics.

World War II had seen the advent of the ballistic missile in Nazi German’s V-2 rocket. And the atomic bomb. What if you put nuclear bombs atop ballistic missiles?

The U.S. government commissioned a committee of scientists to study the possibilities. Chaired by the distinguished Vannevar Bush of MIT, the committee reasoned that nuclear weapons were too heavy to be lofted by rockets, and rockets weren’t very accurate anyway.

“We can put that out of our thinking,” Bush told President Harry Truman.

In Soviet Russia, a similar committee of scientists gave the same conclusion to dictator Josef Stalin. Stalin told them to go out and build bigger, better rockets. That would be the way “to put that noisy shopkeeper Truman in his place.”

So the Russians started to build big, accurate rockets.

Comes the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. The United States offers to try to launch artificial satellites help the scientists study the Earth and sun. The Soviet Union announces it will do the same, but nobody pays much attention to them.

The Eisenhower administration decides that since the IGY is a peaceful endeavor, the U.S. will not use military rockets to launch our scientific satellites.

The Air Force was developing the Atlas and Titan ICBMs, but they were in testing stage. The Army had the Redstone missile, and under the leadership of Wernher von Braun, was ready to launch satellites.

No, said Washington. Redstone is a military missile.

So instead Washington gave the task to the Office of Naval Research (ironically, a military organization), which in turn contracted the Martin Aircraft Co. (now Lockheed Martin) to produce a peaceful rocket launcher. Somehow the contract specified that the first-stage rocket engine for the Vanguard launcher would be General Electric Corp.’s X-204.

The Vanguard satellite was to weigh 20 pounds. The X-204 generated 27,000 pounds of thrust, barely enough to loft the satellite into orbit — in theory.

Well, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Russians put Sputnik 1 in orbit. The satellite weighed some 200 pounds. The launching rocket was a modified ballistic missile.

Pandemonium in the world’s news media. “Pearl Harbor in space!” screamed headlines.

The Navy, however, would not be panicked. “We’re not in a race,” said ONR.

Then von Braun offered to launch a satellite before the end of the year. The Navy panicked. Von Braun worked for the U.S. Army!

The Navy pushed Martin to launch a Vanguard satellite before the Army could launch theirs. On Dec. 6, 1957, the first Vanguard launch ended a few feet above the pad, when that unreliable GE engine exploded.

I was working for Martin at the time as a technical editor. Like the rest of my colleagues, I felt terribly depressed. And betrayed by a government that didn’t understand bubkes about space science.

Nikita Khrushchev showed the world that Soviet Russia was the leader in rocketry. When Hungary rebelled against Soviet domination, Moscow invaded Hungary and brutally stamped out the uprising.

Nobody lifted a finger to help the Hungarians, in part because Khrushchev warned all the nations of Europe, “We have rockets that can hit your cities.”

President Dwight Eisenhower had promised, in his 1956 re-election campaign, to “free the captive peoples of Europe.” The Hungarians waited for us to come to their rescue. In vain.

President John Kennedy set the goal of sending Americans to the moon, mainly as a political gesture to upstage the Russians. Once we beat them in that race, we stopped moving ahead in space.

So Tuesday’s anniversary brings mixed emotions to me. I’m afraid we still don’t have political leaders who understand bubkes about space. Ask yourself where this nation would be if we hadn’t explored and developed our Western frontier. Ask yourself where we’ll be in future years if we don’t develop our space frontier.

Bova’s latest futuristic novel is “Leviathans of Jupiter.” His website address is www.benbova.com.

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