CAPE CANAVERAL — Fifty years ago today, missile pioneers here thrust the United States into a space race with the Soviet Union, launching America's first "man-made moon."
Ike Rigell and Terry Greenfield peered through tinted green bulletproof glass in a blockhouse at Launch Complex 26 as an Army rocket lit up night skies over the Atlantic coast.
Kelly Fiorentino stood in a Quonset hut on an island in the Bahamas, ready to transmit a second-stage ignition signal — a precisely-timed switch-flip critical to propelling the Explorer 1 satellite into orbit.
And on that frigid Friday night in Huntsville, Ala., Norm Perry and dozens of Army Ballistic Missile Agency workers shivered beneath loudspeakers in a downtown square.
A telltale beep-beep finally blared out about an hour and 45 minutes after launch, signaling mission success. The crowd erupted in cheers.
"We had no idea it was in orbit until it had completely gone around Earth," said Perry, 74, of Titusville. "As soon as it came across, the whole square heard (the beep). We heard it, and we went wild."
With good reason, too.
Four months earlier, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, a 184-pound sphere the size of a medicine ball.
Then less than a month later, on Nov. 3, the Soviets sent up a half-ton orbiter with a living, breathing creature, a dog named Laika.
The American public panicked. The back-to-back Sputniks created hysteria. Fearful people realized Soviet rockets were powerful enough to rain nuclear bombs on U.S. soil. Anytime. Anywhere.
Duck-and-cover drills were stepped up in local schools. The neighbors started building backyard fallout shelters. There was a coast-to-coast crisis in confidence. America was losing, and losing badly, a Cold War battle for technological and ideological supremacy.
"You know, Oct. 4, 1957, was a pretty black day for America," said Rigell, 85, of Titusville. "The whole nation had been humiliated."
The U.S. had been enjoying a post-World War II boom. It was a time of peace and prosperity. The country considered itself the greatest nation on Earth.
"And the Soviets — the communists — had an artificial moon up there, and we were still on the ground," Rigell said.
Sputnik was an alarming wake-up call. America's initial response was an explosive failure.
In a hurry-up bid to restore confidence at home and prestige abroad, the administration of then-President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the U.S. would launch a satellite by year's end.
Then on Dec. 6, 1957, a Navy rocket topped with a grapefruit-sized spacecraft rose four feet off its launch pad before its engine lost thrust. The Vanguard sank back onto the pad, its fuel tanks ruptured and the rocket was engulfed in a spectacular, nationally televised explosion.
"There's ignition. We can see the flames. Vanguard's engine is lit and it's burning," NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree, now 73, of Merritt Island, said during a live TV broadcast.
"But wait, wait a moment, there's, there's no liftoff! It appears to be crumbling in its own fire. It's burning on the pad! Vanguard has crumbled into flames. It failed, ladies and gentlemen. Vanguard has failed!"
The public was disgraced, dismayed. Derisively dubbed "Flopnik" in newspaper headlines the next day, the failure was assailed as yet another devastating blow to national prestige.
"It was horrible," said Fiorentino, 77, or Merritt Island. "It was a horrible sight to see."
As fate would have it, Plan B already was well under way.
Five days after the second Sputnik launch, the Eisenhower administration quietly hedged its bets by giving the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency a green light to proceed with preparations to launch a satellite.
Working outside the media spotlight with German scientist Wernher von Braun, Maj. Gen. John Medaris led a push to launch a four-stage rocket based on the Army's proven Redstone ballistic missile.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was enlisted to scramble up three solid-fuel upper stages as well as a science satellite.
Medaris promised to get the job done within 90 days.
What followed was a 24/7 effort that was cloaked in secrecy.
"Medaris put the Army-JPL project strictly under wraps," JPL author Franklin O'Donnell wrote in an Explorer 1 retrospective.
"Movements of the project's key personnel were worked out according to elaborate decoy plans. Work at the launch site at Cape Canaveral — visible from public beaches — was hidden with scaffolding and canvas tarps."
Surreptitiously shipped as "Missile 29," the first-stage of the rocket arrived at Cape Canaveral in late December and was hidden away in a hangar. Erected at pad 26A on Jan. 16, its upper stages and the Explorer 1 satellite were added as a scheduled Jan. 29 launch date approached.
Launch preparations reached a feverish pitch, but the northern hemisphere's jet stream dipped down to Florida, producing 180 mph winds aloft.
Medaris was eager to get the launch off on schedule, but Launch Weather Officer John Meisenheimer issued a "no-go" forecast.
"General Medaris was not pleased with the forecast, but I couldn't do anything about that," said Meisenheimer, 74, of Orlando. "In fact, he was really, really not pleased."
Under significant pressure to reverse his call, Meisenheimer knew the strong high-altitude winds and an associated shear could blow the rocket off course or rip it apart.
Then Maj. Gen. Donald Yates, commander of the Air Force Missile Test Center and a master meteorologist, "called me up and said, 'Lieutenant, give them the forecast that you see,'" Meisenheimer recalled. "Don't let any pressure get to you on your forecast.'"
The young weather officer stood firm. The launch was scrubbed on Jan. 29 and again on Jan. 30.
Then the Jupiter C rocket finally blasted off at 10:48 p.m. Jan. 31, propelling America on course to catch and ultimately surpass the Soviets in a race to the moon.
For Rigell and others involved, it was a sight and a night to savor.
"You couldn't get tired of hearing the breaking news," he said. "We had a satellite in orbit."
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