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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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-- Marshall Downing