Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thirty Pounds of Science

Previously on Citizen O'Kane, I wrote about how the Soviets beat the United States into orbit because President Eisenhower didn't want to win the Space Race on the shoulders of a reconstituted Nazi V-2 missile. The von Braun team, based in Huntsville at the Redstone Arsenal, were forced to cripple their experimental rockets with payloads of sand instead of propellant, just to make sure a competing Navy Vanguard program would get dibs on the first orbital mission.

After the October 4th, 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, all bets were off. Vanguard was nowhere near ready to be launched, and the Department of Defense gave the go-ahead to von Braun's rocket men to gear up for a launch as soon as possible. No more sand-bagged fourth stages, no more launch azimuths ending in the South Atlantic - - this time, the destination was Earth orbit.

The back half was just a rocket motor that wasn't jettisoned,
out of concern it might bang into the payload in orbit.

The folks on the von Braun team also wanted to make the payload more than just a beeping radio transmitter. The goal needed to be science related to make the project more than just a stunt. Fortunately, a payload group at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Lab (under the direction of Dr. William Pickering) had been working on a satellite design for several years. The 30-lb satellite, powered by an experimental mercury battery and built with some of the first transistors ever manufactured, would carry out several experiments once in orbit.

Some of the more intricate experiments were designed by Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa. Dr. Van Allen incorporated a cosmic ray counter and a geiger counter to track the elusive celestial energy particles that were rarely detectible at sea level. Due to the lack of space on the satellite, Dr. Van Allen omitted a data recorder, which eliminated continuous observations except when the satellite passed over a receiving station. The results from these observations were erratic and unexplained, until Dr. Van Allen made the remarkable discovery that massive magnetic bands emanating from the poles seemed to deflect most of the rays. The bands, now called the Van Allen Belts, are probably the greatest discovery of the early Space Age. The Belts reshaped our basic understanding of how Earth's magnetic field  - - they're why life can continue on the planet without being destroyed by celestial radiation.

All that previously unknown information became possible 55 years ago this evening, when von Braun's Juno booster hoisted Pickering's satellite with Van Allen's experiments into their first orbital mission. And we haven't stopped exploring since that evening.

Pickering, Van Allen, and von Braun, hoisting a backup version of their Explorer I spacecraft
at a press conference after their successful launch, Feb 1, 1958.