- Published: 07 May 2008
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Kenneth Stasiak, age 9, of New Brunswick, New Jersey, for his question:
What was the first U. S. satellite to orbit the earth?
This eye popping event takes us back to the very dawn of our wonderous Space Age.
The first satellite we launched was a flop. It failed to lift after two seconds, fell back and burned on its pad. Naturally, our space experts did not give up because of one failure. Instead they tried harder. And 56 days later the next U. S. satellite was launched and boosted aloft into orbit around the earth. It was the U. S. Army's satellite Explorer 1, the first model of this kind to be tested. And the first American man made satellite to orbit the earth successfully. The great day of its launching was January 31, 1958, and once in orbit, it was expected to stay there for about six years.
The year 1958 was popping with exciting satellite news. America launched 16. Four of them took off successfully and went into orbit around the earth. The other 12 were failures that never got up there. Our 1958 satellites were five different models tested by the United States Army, Navy or Air Force. The number one successful Explorer was an Army satellite and two other successful launches also were Explorer models. In 1958, the U. S. Navy had one successful launching of their Vanguard model and five failures. The Air Force failed to launch three of its Pioneer models and the Army had two other'failures.
The Army's Explorer proved itself to be the best American satellite of those far off days in the early Space Age. Yet compared with our great modern spacecraft, the Explorer was a fragile little model. It was a slim rocket six inches around and about 6 1/2 feet long. It was designed to gather information about radiation high above the earth and to count micrometeors, those tiny specks that swoop down as the sparks we call falling stars. Explorer could relay its information down to the earth, along with reports of its own pressure and temperature. Explorer 1, our first spacecraft hero, sprouted a pair of five inch antenna whips. Later Explorer models had improved antennas and carried fancier equipment.
The orbit of Explorer 1 looped around the earth from 224 to 1,573 miles above the ground. The little satellite relayed its reports on two wave lengths. After several sputters, one system petered out after a month. The other went on transmitting for four months and faded out on May 23. Then the little hero continued to orbit the earth in silence.
Some of Explorer 1's reports on high level radiation were puzzling, so finer instruments were designed to check them. They were carried by Explorer 11 which was launched March 5, 1958, and promptly dived into the sea. Three weeks later, Explorer 111 successfully carried the improved equipment into orbit. The relayed information showed that radiation far above the earth was at least 1,000 times greater than space scientists had figured. Our triumphant little Explorer satellites had discovered the Van Allen radiation belt and the world of 1958 was astounded.