Nearly 100 feet tall and weighing over 100 tons, the Soviet Union's R-7 rocket was an impressive piece of machinery. On Oct. 4, 1957, its great engines roared to life, pushing the rocket skyward. The first American to detect the product of this historic flight was an airman named Bradford Whipple who was manning a radio observation station. That night, he heard a strange sound: beep, beep ... beep, beep. That sound, Whipple would learn later, came from a basketball-sized object that had been shoved into orbit by the powerful Soviet rocket. The object was called Sputnik, Russian for "satellite." It was the first man-made body to orbit the planet.
Sputnik caused quite a stir in the earthly realm beneath it, especially in Washington, D.C. It was, Sen. Lyndon Johnson recalled later, a "profound shock that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technical superiority over this great country of ours." Furthermore, the Cold War was on, and it was easy to imagine that satellites could be used to rain atomic bombs on an enemy. It was unthinkable that the Soviet Union would be allowed to dominate space. America had to respond. The great race for space was under way.
Those early days after Sputnik were heady times, writes Michael D'Antonio in his smoothly written and detailed history of America's response to Sputnik. Huntsville, Ala., and the towns around Cape Canaveral, Fla., were the center of the action. And they were booming. I worked at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville shortly after Sputnik went up, and the town had a raw red-clay look about it as new developments rose from the pine woods to accommodate the flood of scientists, engineers and technicians who were arriving to help America win the space race.
Space was the ultimate frontier, so a frontier-town mentality developed in those centers. And like other frontier towns, they attracted unusual characters. Wernher von Braun, for instance, ran missile operations at Redstone Arsenal. He was a handsome, politically savvy former SS officer with a shady past.
At a Cape Canaveral trailer park, the young and handsome Roger Dobson experienced firsthand the benefits from the influx of adventurous types who poured into the region. It happened to him more than once, he recalled. A friendly young woman would invite him inside. "A chat. A cold drink. A certain look. In minutes, he was having sex with a woman he barely knew." This was happening in Bible-belt Florida, formerly dominated by churches and mosquitoes.
D'Antonio nicely captures the sweaty, smoky minutes in a control room just before a launch -- and the bitter disappointment that often followed. This was a time when most launches failed. Some rockets went off course and had to be destroyed. Others never made it off the launching pad.
The Vanguard experience was typical. Vanguard was the most advanced rocket of its time. Tall and slender, it represented the future, the rocket that would match Soviet Union's massive R-7. A frantic effort got the Vanguard ready to fly in December 1957, two months after Sputnik. After several scrubs and delays in the countdown, Paul Karpiscak hit the firing switch. Huge plumes of smoke and dust enveloped the rocket then it lifted up on "beautiful stiletto flames." Then, a witness recalled, it "agonizingly hesitated for a moment, quivered again, and in front of our unbelieving shocked eyes began to topple." In the control room, team members shook off their disappointment. "OK," said team leader Dan Mazur, "clean up. Let's get the next rocket ready."
This can-do attitude was pervasive at Canaveral and Huntsville, and it would soon pay off. The United States put its first satellite, Explorer I, in orbit on Jan. 31, 1958, four months after Sputnik. The Soviets put a dog in space; the United States countered with a monkey. Slowly, the United States began to catch up and pass the Soviet Union in technology and results. America claimed victory a little over 11 years later when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.
In the all-out push, safety took a back seat to getting the job done. D'Antonio closes the book with a spectacular example of the risks managers of the space program were willing to take.
As 1958 came to a close, technicians were ordered to ready an Atlas missile for a test flight. Most of the workers preparing the missile had no idea what the mission was. Two days before the missile's Dec. 18 launch date, its nose cone was removed and replaced with a new one, the contents of which were a secret to all but a few.
Then, the night before launch, officials discovered that the added weight of the new nose cone made the missile too heavy to reach orbital speed. For the first time, local technicians realized that the secret nose cone contained a satellite that the Atlas was to lift into orbit. The officials in charge of the launch tried to lighten the load by removing every nonessential nut and bolt from the missile. Still, it was too heavy.
Finally, they tried the unthinkable. They lightened the missile by removing its self-destruct mechanism. If the missile veered off course toward one the communities surrounding the Cape, there was nothing anyone could do. "The Atlas would strike with all its weight, including whatever fuel was left in its tanks," writes D'Antonio.
Despite the danger, the Atlas was launched -- fortunately without a hitch. The supersecret nose cone, it turned out, contained communication equipment that enabled the satellite to receive and transmit voice messages. What was the message worth risking the lives of innocent civilians? It was a Christmas message from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But the broadcast from a satellite was an important first, giving Ike's gentle Christmas message a powerful subtext: The space race was on, and America intended to win it.