Explorer 1, like Sputnik, was certainly a product of its age -- driven by Cold War rivalries, launched by a missile based on the Nazi's V-2, executed by guys who wore ties and used slide rules -- but it also ushered in a new age. People often comment on the economic benefits of space -- the buck for the bang -- but at least equally important are the conceptual benefits. Not just the other planets but also our own planet would have remained a cipher without the vantage point of space. The very idea of talking about our planet as a planet is a product of this. When so much of culture consists of dressing up old ideas in new packages, the scientific discoveries and human boundary-pushing of the Space Age inject some genuine novelty into our lives.
One of my favorite parts of the Explorer 1 mission is the rocket itself. The upper stages were mounted on bearings so that they could spin like a drill bit as they rose, stabilizing them. The satellite was simply the upper stage, and it reached orbit without any precise control. In fact, the engineers weren't sure exactly what its orbit was until they heard its signal by ham radio.
Our podcast this week has an interview with one of the engineers who worked on the project. Several good stories on Explorer 1 have appeared over the last few days,, especially in the LA Times. Last October, I wrote an article on the anniversary of Sputnik with more thoughts on the benefits of the Space Age and prospects for the future.
Although Explorer 1 burned up in the atmosphere in 1970, the Vanguard 1 satellite launched in March 1958 still buzzes over our heads. With patience and a good backyard telescope, you can see it for yourself. The orbital data are here and general advice about looking for satellites is here.