• Home
  • The State of Rocket Science in the Mid-1950's

The State of Rocket Science in the Mid-1950's

I now wish to comment briefly about the state of rocket science in the mid-1950's. It will be recalled that in the last year of World War II the city of London was subjected to bombardment from jet and rocket vehicles launched by the Nazis from coast areas of France. After the war some of their rocket scientists, headed by Werner von Braun, were taken to the U.S. where they were encouraged to continue their research. A large rocket named the Juno was developed capable of producing earth-orbital flight, but its launching was delayed, primarily because of political reasons. Meanwhile the Soviets with their own cadre of interned rocket scientists developed a vehicle with similar ability, which they successfully launched into orbit on October 4, 1957; the implications of this event caused great consternation in the U.S., not to mention loss of pride. I recall that at K.U. Dr. Storer and I arranged for a number of faculty members, students and interested citizens to meet on top Lindley Hall to view the Soviet Sputnik at an appropriate day and time in the evening as it hautily passed a few hundred kilometers above Lawrence, Kansas. It was very bright (the rocket that is; the satellite was actually faint) and easily seen visually by all of us due to the reflected sunlight; furthermore, since we could see it so easily, so could many others even in foreign lands.

The propaganda effect, though considerable, incited the U.S. to accelerate its space program, and after the initial failures of the Vanguard project, the Juno was brought out of its storage and Explorer I was sent successfully into orbit. Dr.C.Lundquist, who at that time was a member of the launch team and witnessed the first orbit, later told me that it arrived several minutes later than predicted over its return check point, which caused some anxiety; apparently it was placed into a higher orbit than was expected, but the reason for this was not known for certain. Later on the satellite spiraled into the earth due to atmospheric friction, and in the process its speed increased, which surprised the non-astronomers.