Encyclopedia Astronautica
Sputnik Plus 50



sputnik1.jpg
Sputnik 1
Credit: © Mark Wade
The real story of the race to space

German Origins

Sputnik 1 began the space age when it was orbited by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957 - but it had a lot of competition. The possibility of an earth satellite was known from the beginning of the 20th Century thanks to the theoretical work by Tsiolkovskiy in the Russian Empire, Oberth in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Goddard in the United States. By the end of World War II the technology necessary to achieve the theory had been developed by Goddard and Malina in the United States, von Braun in the German Third Reich, and Korolev in the Soviet Union. But Hitler had funded rocket development longer, and at a vastly higher level, resulting in the V-2 missile. The V-2 was an incredible technical achievement, but lacked a weapon of mass destruction as a warhead, and came too late in the war to make a difference. Production of the weapon killed more of the slave laborers working on it than victims in Belgium, Holland, France, and Britain.

Von Braun's V-2 rocket team became the spoils of war. The German scientists, designs, and equipment were seized by the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain in a German diaspora. It was immediately understood by the great powers that it was now possible to achieve a satellite in earth orbit within a very few years.

The SS affiliations of von Braun and other members of his team were known to the US intelligence services and the FBI. Their complicity in war crimes committed in developing and producing the V-2 using slave labor under the most brutal of conditions was also documented. But at first von Braun's team purpose was to transfer technology, not engage in the actual development of rockets for the Americans. For that purpose Project Hermes had been set up by the US Army in 1944 under the direction of Richard Porter at a General Electric facility in Malta, New York. Porter's team developed American counterparts of the V-2 and Wasserfall missiles, the Hermes A-3 and Hermes A-1.

1946-1949 - a False Dawn In 1946, ten years before Sputnik, the first designs for satellite launch vehicles were laid out in the United States - but not by von Braun's team. These were the Navy-sponsored NAA HATV, Martin HATV and Douglas HATV, and the Air Force-sponsored Douglas-Rand World Circling Space Ship. Porter's Hermes C-1 was designed at the same time, but not advocated by the Army as a launch vehicle. Lightweight satellites could be orbited by these designs, but the military was more interested in intercontinental-range rockets. The delta-V required for an ICBM or an orbital launch vehicle were nearly the same, but these launch vehicles were not large enough to send the (then) 4 metric ton nuclear warheads into orbit or over intercontinental distances. Work on these programs was ended in 1948.

In the Soviet Union, Early Russian Ballistic Missiles were developed using the skills of a captive German rocket team headed by von Braun's assistant, Helmut Groettrup. This culminated in Korolev's R-3 design of 1948, which had potential as a satellite launcher and an uncanny resemblance to the HATV concepts. But the Soviet government did not believe the R-3 was achievable without further fundamental research in rocket technology. The R-3, like the HATV, was shelved. Stalin was unsure whether to pursue ballistic missile technology beyond copying the German V-2 as the R-1 and R-2. Instead rocket engine technology was first developed in both countries primarily for use in the booster stages of Mach 3 air-breathing missiles, such as the American Navaho, and the Soviet Burya. So the primary adversaries had both turned away from the possibility of an early satellite launcher by 1949.

The Lost Years

The US Army's German team whiled away their time in the desert imagining a family of colossal Von Braun rockets that would take manned expeditions to Mars.

Porter's progress, in the face of shifting Army requirements, was slow. On the other hand, the Army Air Force's Navaho project was rapidly advancing beyond German rocket engine technology in the form of the Rocketdyne XLR-43-NA-1 engine, developed by an American team led by William Bollay, assisted by German engineers led by Walther Riedel (see Riedel Walther).

By 1952 the German rocket technology had been assimilated, proven, and improved upon in both countries. Short range ballistic missiles were nearing production. The Army had basically given up on Porter's General Electric team and Project Hermes. Von Braun's team had been accepted by some elements in the US Army and developed the Redstone missile, equipped with Rocketdyne's A-6 engine. In the Soviet Union, the R-5, equipped with a horrendous radiological warhead, had been developed by Yangel. The Germans in Russia were being sent home, after being held long enough to ensure that any information they had would be useless to Western intelligence. Reductions in nuclear warhead size allowed development of intercontinental missiles to begin - Karel Bossart's Model 7 Atlas in the United States and Korolev's R-7 in the Soviet Union. Within the next five years it would be possible to launch either a small satellite using either one of the shorter-range missiles with upper stages, or a larger satellite using an ICBM.

1953-1955 Satellite Decisions

It was the height of the Cold War, and knowing what was going on in the Soviet Union was a top priority. The CIA had its U-2 spy plane, and was working on more advanced follow-ons, but it was projected that improvements in Russian antiaircraft missiles would make any aircraft vulnerable to shoot-down by the 1960's. President Eisenhower proposed an 'Open Skies' scheme that would allow both sides to conduct airborne military reconnaissance missions over each other's territory. But Khrushchev was not accepting the scheme.

Meanwhile the Air Force had been funding increasingly refined Rand studies on a reconnaissance satellite since the HATV was wound up in 1948. Advanced study and development of Weapon System WS-117L, the KH-1 Corona and Midas spy satellites, was begun in December 1953, to keep watch on Soviet military activities after the spy planes were obsolete. But it was not clear in international law how high up a nation's 'airspace' extended. Satellites went round and round the earth on fixed ballistic trajectories. As the earth rotated beneath them, they would of necessity pass over all the countries of the earth several times a day. Given this physical reality, would the Soviets consider satellites violating their airspace and subject to shootdown? Or would they be like vessels in international waters, legally free from interference?

Coincidentally, a great scientific endeavor, the International Geophysical Year (IGY), had been announced for 1957-1958. Scientists around the world would coordinate efforts to collect the basic data needed to understand the earth's environment. Virtually nothing was known about space beyond the earth's atmosphere. An instrumented artificial satellite of the earth would be the ideal means to provide a quantum increase in that knowledge. The IGY would coincide with the period when the ICBM's were expected to begin their first test launches.

In the United States, the military services tabled competing proposals to launch a scientific satellite during the IGY.

Von Braun's Army team proposed Project Orbiter, a scheme to use a Redstone with clusters of Loki rockets as the upper stages. This used nothing but existing hardware, and could orbit a satellite using existing facilities, even before the IGY, by 1956. It clearly had the lowest cost and technical risk.

The Navy's Naval Research Laboratory's Milton Rosen (see Rosen Milton), proposed the Vanguard, an essentially new vehicle. This consisted of a stretched version of the defunct NRL-Martin Viking sounding rocket, powered by a General Electric engine from Porter's defunct Hermes program, with a second stage derived from the Aerobee using an Aerojet AJ10-118 engine. This design had been cooked up by Rosen and Porter and sold to the Head of the American IGY Committee, Joseph Kaplan, and the US Academy of Sciences.

The Air Force proposed the World Series vehicle, mating an Atlas A prototype of the ICBM to an Aerobee 150 second stage. But Bernard Schriever, the Atlas program manager, did not want any diversions from the top-priority Atlas ICBM program.

The Eisenhower administration had a political agenda that fundamentally affected the selection. A 'civilian' IGY satellite could establish the legal basis for freedom of space without antagonizing the Soviets with a military mission. Once that was established, the Corona satellites would be free to proceed with espionage. Furthermore, it was made a requirement that whatever solution was selected would not interfere with and produce the slightest delay to high-priority military ballistic missile programs (Atlas, Jupiter, and Thor).

In the best Washington tradition, on 26 May 1955 Eisenhower appointed Homer J Stewart (see Stewart Homer), of the Army's Jet Propulsion Lab, to head a secret committee to select the best course of action. The Stewart Committee, including the chairman, consisted of two representatives nominated by each of the three military services, and two appointed by Assistant Secretary of Defense Quarles. Those two were Joseph Kaplan and Richard Porter. The results were a foregone conclusion.

The Army and Navy representatives voted for their services' proposals. Kaplan was not about to see von Braun's 'arrogant Nazis' get the job, and voted together with Porter for the Navy proposal. The Air Force representatives were inclined to vote with the majority, and certainly did not want either the Army or the Germans to get the job. In August 1955 the Stewart Committee, having duly taken on the Pentagon's desire for the IGY effort not to affect either the Air Force Atlas ICBM or Army Jupiter IRBM programs, selected the Navy's Vanguard as the IGY satellite booster.

Von Braun and his Army supervisor, General Medaris, fought this decision long and hard. But they were not only discouraged, but prohibited from launching a satellite.

In the Soviet Union, studies of a satellite were begun on 26 May 1954 within Korolev's bureau by a team headed by Mikhail Tikhonravov, including the young engineer Konstantin Feoktistov. Korolev's R-7 ICBM was already in development and was the obvious launch vehicle - it could boost over 1500 kg to orbit. But ruling circles in the Soviet Union also wanted to be sure that any satellite program did not interfere with priority missile work. So alternatives were studied.

Korolev considered an R-5 first stage and R-11 Scud second stage. But this would require a new third stage to have orbital capability. Yangel studied use of either the R-5M or the R-12 rockets with various 'off the shelf' missile stages developed for surface-to-air missiles, but found that no such combination could reach orbit. Use of the R-12 in parallel stages was also possible, but the problem of in-flight ignition of a rocket stage was not solved in the Soviet Union until 1959. Solid rockets available in the Soviet Union at that time had too low a specific impulse and too high a mass fraction to be useful as satellite launcher stages. The only solution was a redesign of the R-12 to optimise it for the satellite launch role, and a small, new-design upper stage. But it was made absolutely clear to Yangel that satellites had no priority and that development of his R-14 and R-16 ballistic missiles could not be compromised in any way.

The final conclusion was that only the R-7 could be relied on to accomplish the mission in time for the IGY and without requiring any new rocket development. Korolev obtained Khruschev's grudging agreement to develop a satellite payload for the R-7 as long as "the main task doesn't suffer". Yangel continued to pursue design of an R-12-based light launch vehicle on a limited and desultory basis, since there was no outside support for what would become the Kosmos 63S1 launch vehicle until after Sputnik.

Tikhonravov began detailed design of the first payloads for the R-7 in January 1956 - these were the Zenit spy satellite and the ISZ scientific satellite (which would be launched as Sputnik 3.

1956-1957 The Space Race

On 20 September 1956, von Braun's first Redstone Jupiter C test vehicle was launched. It could have reached orbit, but Medaris' team had been ordered by the Pentagon to put an inert mass in place of the fourth stage. Further successful tests were conducted in May and August 1957.

The Vanguard team encountered numerous difficulties. Not for the first time, 'off the shelf' components turned out to require extensive redesign once the actual engineering began. The cost ballooned from the $12 million sold to the Stewart Committee until it approached $100 million. Medaris was waiting in the wings, saying that von Braun could launch a satellite with a few weeks notice at a cost of under $5 million. Vanguard was on the verge of cancellation. Significantly, it was the CIA that provided bridging funds for the 'civilian' program. It was not vital that the United States be first in space (although the CIA did correctly forecast the immense propaganda benefit to whichever nation came first). It was however essential that Vanguard - or failing that, a Soviet satellite - establish the right of satellite overflight before Corona launches began. On 1 May 1957 a Vanguard test vehicle - with only the first stage live - made a successful test launch.

In the Soviet Union a colossal effort was underway on the R-7. During 1956 construction of the immense launch facilities at Baikonur was in full swing. Factory testing of the R-7's subsystems, static test firings of its stages, and flight test aboard R-5 test vehicles of its components were all completed in the same year. The tracking network was completed and the final design of Sputnik 3 was approved in September 1956. Monthly flight tests were to begin in the spring of 1957. After two successful full-range ICBM tests, Korolev would be allowed to launch his satellite.

But there was a problem. Despite the progress on the enormous and complex rocket, Tikhonravov's satellite was behind schedule. Incredibly, the R-7 might be ready before its payload. Korolev decided to create some very simple substitute satellites on a crash basis, and the plan for production of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 was approved in February 1957.

These were minor distractions to an immense workforce concentrating on the campaign to prove the R-7 as an ICBM. The first R-7 was rolled out to the pad on 5 May 1957 and launched ten days later. It managed 98 seconds of flight before breaking apart. The second test vehicle was pulled from the pad after three launch aborts. The third vehicle lasted 33 seconds before pulling itself apart due to an uncontrolled roll. Finally, on 21 August 1957, the fourth R-7 made a successful full-range flight. The warhead did not survive re-entry and disintegrated over the Kamchatka peninsula, but from the standpoint of proving the rocket, the mission was a success. Tass announced the news to the world five days later, and a second successful ICBM test took place on 7 September. The way was now clear for the first satellite launch attempt.

The Vanguard Minitrack worldwide satellite tracking system became operational on 1 October in preparation for the American team's first orbital launch attempt.

Then, on 4 October 1957, Korolev successfully launched Sputnik 1 into orbit. The space age had begun.

What Came After

The worldwide impact of the Soviet Union launching the first satellite surprised even those who predicted it would have immense propaganda impact. In the world's mind it established a Communist power as preeminent in an advanced technology. It surprised Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership, who had tolerated Korolev's little satellite project only so long as it did not interfere with ICBM development. It surprised both the American and Soviet military establishments, who had not been convinced of the military usefulness of satellites. It greatly surprised the Eisenhower administration, who had also seen it as a mere scientific enterprise. They were aware from intelligence reports that the United States was well ahead of the Soviet Union in rocket technology, and irritated at politicians and pundits who supposed there was a 'missile gap'.

But the purpose of Vanguard - or losing the space race - was achieved. Russia established the acceptability of satellites passing over the territory of other countries without raising territorial issues. The way was clear for Corona to proceed.

Von Braun complained to the press that he had been restrained from making America first in space. Eisenhower, however, still backed Vanguard, which completed a second successful first-stage-only suborbital test on 23 October. There was still no inclination within the administration to let former Nazis launch satellites on the behalf of the United States.

However then Korolev orbited Sputnik 2, with a mass of 508 kg and the dog Laika aboard, on 3 November. On 6 December 1957, the first Vanguard orbital launch attempt, with a tiny 1.6 kg satellite, exploded on the pad. American humiliation was complete. Von Braun was finally authorized to launch a Redstone. Senator Lyndon Johnson began investigations into how and why Vanguard was selected, and who was responsible for losing the space race.

True to their word, the German rocket team launched Explorer A, America's first satellite, on 1 February 1958 (GMT). After another launch failure, Vanguard 1 achieved orbit on 17 March 1958. The Air Force, finally goaded into action, followed with the Atlas B launched Score in December 1958. So in the end, all three of the proposed American launch vehicles launched a satellite during the IGY.

The initial launches of the WS-117L Corona spy satellite ended up being made on Thor-Agena vehicles, rather than Atlas-Agena vehicles. The first Atlas-Agena launch, of an Air Force Midas WS-117L early-warning payload, did not occur until February 1960.

Derivatives of Korolev's R-7 launch vehicle will evidently continue in use well into the 21st Century. A new launch pad is being built for them at Kourou, and it is even possible the booster may have another half century of life in it. The Vanguard was retired by 1959 - however the Vanguard 1 still orbits above the earth, whereas the Sputniks and Explorers have since decayed. President Johnson used the von Braun rocket team to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Thereafter the Nixon administration made sure they were all retired or returned to Germany.

More... - Chronology...

Home - Browse - Contact
© / Conditions for Use