Beyond The Forecast: From the Earth to the Moon Part 1

Explorer 1 lifts off carrying the United States' first satellite (NASA Jet Propulsion Center)

Happy Monday and welcome to another edition of Beyond The Forecast!

Since the days when humans first saw the stars and wondered what they were, a drive toward space burned in the hearts of explorers.

In the great leap in technology following the Industrial Revolution things that never seemed possible in all of history were in our grasp. Ships could sail around the world at record speed. Trains linked the disparate coasts of the United States and Russia. Everyday life grew simpler with new levels of automation.

The meeting of the two halves of the Transcontinental Railroad showed that with new technology the limits of exploration were rapidly changing

While the empty spots on the map were filling in, people still dreamed of what else we could find in our universe.

Some imagined fabled Lost Continents or what wonders lay beneath the ocean like Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” Other writers looked to the night sky, imagining both wonders and terrors. Ultra-advanced invaders rocked the planet in H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” but in a more positive look toward exploration, George Méliès’ film “A Trip to the Moon” took audiences in 1902 to an imagined version of our lone natural satellite.

Less than 70 years later, humans took their first steps on that very same rock.

Trip to the Moon took plenty of liberties with space travel, but it helped inspire scientists to find a way to reach the lunar surface

The Wright Brother’s flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903 ushered in a new age of industry. Airplanes changed the way people and goods traveled across the planet, but a plane needs air to generate lift, which is sorely lacking in outer space.

The space-travel analog of the Wright Brothers is Dr. Robert H. Goddard. As early as 1907, Goddard was launching primitive rockets in his days as a student. By 1914, he held patents for rockets that could operate with liquid fuel and in stages. Goddard set the groundwork for rocket science in the 20th century, with his first liquid-fueled rocket launch in 1926. Using gyroscopes and turning vanes on the rockets themselves, Goddard helped pioneer the ability to control where rockets land.

Robert Goddard with his prototype of a liquid-fueled rocket. To this day rockets build on his discoveries.

Goddard’s research into rocketry control had a long time to wait before anyone could aim to the stars.

German scientists picked up on the groundbreaking research in the late 1920s. One of the leaders of this new field, Dr. Wernher von Braun, brought his talents to the German army in 1932.

Von Braun was a member of the Nazi party before and during World War II and led the team that developed the devastating V-2 rocket. Built by slave labor in concentration camps, the V-2 could strike England, Belgium and France from as much as 200 miles away. Even with primitive guidance technology that left it less than accurate, the V-2 killed thousands of people.

The Allied advance into the heart of Germany gave the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union the chance to capture materials and documents those nations used to create their own missiles in the post-war period.

Wernher von Braun stands in front of the massive engines of the Saturn V test vehicle. The Saturn V was the rocket that took the first humans to the moon.

The United States brought Von Braun and other German scientists back from Europe in Project Paperclip and tasked them with the continued development of ballistic missiles.

The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the strongest world powers after the war, and to make sure neither country could outright defeat the other both nations developed ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons across the planet. America had a leg up in these fledgling days of the Space Race thanks to the German scientists’ knowledge, but the Soviets took the first leap into the stars on October 4, 1957.

Sputnik, a 23-inch sphere, was the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. The Soviets managed to launch not only Sputnik 1 but also Sputnik 2 in less than a month. The second satellite was far heavier and loomed like a vulture in the minds of mid-century leaders. If the Soviets can already send scientific payloads into orbit, how long is it before they can send nuclear devices?

Sputnik I made the Soviet Union the defending champion of space travel for the first years of the Space Race

Such a dire possibility kicked the American space program into high gear.

Soviet rockets were bigger, could go further, and did not have the nasty habit that American rockets did of exploding on the launch pad.

Von Braun’s team working with the Army at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama was ready for a preliminary launch in late 1957, and by January of the next year, Explorer 1 reached beyond the atmosphere as America’s entry into the space race.

1958 brought several government groups together with projects from the Army and Navy under one roof: the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. NASA organized the US effort to get into space, but there was still a long way to go before any human reached the moon, either Soviet or American.

The effort to bring America into space was organized under the National Aeronautic and Space Administration on July 29, 1958

Look out for next week’s Beyond the Forecast to learn how scientists adapted technology from launching nuclear weapons to launching people into space on the way to the moon.

If you’re a fan of stargazing, this is a great week to get out the telescope. You can download our weather app to see which nights are the clearest and get Meteorologist Chris Michaels’ latest updates online.

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-- Marshall Downing

About the Author:

Marshall Downing presents the weather Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:00 PM and 11:00 PM, and you can see him during the week at 12:00 PM and 5:30 PM.