Fellow Traveler

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik 1, the world's first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite. Shocked into action, the U.S. ramped up its space program—and its science education.

All those initiatives and agencies funneled the best American students into science, math, and engineering. The government got a lot of bang for its buck; graduate students in those fields, come wartime, got draft deferments; and the concept of federal funding for education got validated.

But some kind of satellite, built by any means necessary, had to be launched a.s.a.p. Luckily, during the closing weeks and immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the U.S. had acquired a worthy challenger to Sergei Korolev: the German engineer and physicist Wernher von Braun, former leader of the team that had developed the terrifying V-2 ballistic missile for the Nazis. We also acquired more than a hundred members of his team.

Instead of being put on trial at Nuremburg for war crimes, von Braun became America's savior, the progenitor and public face of the U.S. space program. His first high-profile task was to provide the first rocket for the first successful launch of America's first satellite. On January 31, 1958--less than four months after Sputnik 1's round-the-world tour--he and his rocketeers got the thirty-pound Explorer 1, plus its eighteen pounds of scientific instrumentation, into orbit.

If you want to reach orbital speeds (about 18,000 miles an hour), you'd better not burden your rocket with dead weight on the way up. Rocket motors are heavy, fuel tanks are heavy, fuel itself is heavy, and every kilogram of unnecessary mass schlepped into space wastes thousands of kilograms of fuel. The solution to dead weight is the multistage rocket. Use up the fuel in the first-stage fuel tank; throw it away. Use up the fuel in the next stage; throw that away too.

The rocket that launched Explorer 1—the Jupiter-C—was multistage. At takeoff, the loaded Jupiter-C weighed 64,000 pounds. The final stage weighed eighty.

Like the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik 1, the Jupiter-C was a modified weapon. The science was a secondary, even tertiary, outgrowth of military R&D. Cold warriors wanted bigger and more lethal ballistic missiles, with nuclear warheads crammed into the nose cones.

High ground is the military's best friend, and what ground could be higher than a satellite orbiting no more than forty-five minutes away from a possible target? Thanks to Sputnik 1 and its successors, the U.S.S.R. held that high ground until 1969, when, courtesy of von Braun and his colleagues, America's Saturn V rocket took the Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon.

Today, whether Americans know it or not, a new space race is under way. This time, America faces not only Russia but also China, the European Union, and India. Maybe this time the race will be one between fellow travelers rather than potential adversaries—more about fostering innovations in science and technology than about struggling to rule the high ground.