Carl Raggio still remembers how tense he felt exactly 50 years ago, on the night America entered the Space Age.
He and his fellow engineers were playing gin rummy at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. - but their minds weren't fully on the game. They were waiting for the beep-beep-beep that would tell them the satellite they had slaved over for months had actually reached orbit. "That's an anxious time," he told me this week. "That's the gut time."
Then the definitive signal came. It came later than expected, but nevertheless it came, at 9:45 p.m. PT on Jan. 31, 1958. Explorer 1 was circling Earth for the first time - and proving that America could match the Soviets on the Cold War's orbital frontier.
At a Washington news conference, the rocket pioneer who came to America from Nazi Germany rejoiced. "We have firmly established our foothold in space," Wernher von Braun declared. "We will never give it up again."
Meanwhile, back in Pasadena, Raggio could finally tell his wife about the project he had to keep secret. "I called her up at about 11 o'clock at night and asked her, 'Guess what we're doing?'" he recalled.
What Raggio and his co-workers were doing was getting America into the space game.
The achievement is being celebrated this week with special vigor at JPL at Pasadena - as well as at Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the rocket was launched, and in Huntsville, Ala., where von Braun and his cadre of German engineers were based.
Fifty years ago, the operations in Pasadena, Huntsville and Cape Canaveral were mostly military in nature. Long before 1958, several U.S. teams were working to develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to another continent - just as the Soviets were.
In fact, the traditional wisdom is that von Braun's Army-led effort could have put a satellite in space in 1956, but higher-ups worried that an Army launch might send too warlike a signal to Moscow. Instead, President Eisenhower favored the Navy's Project Vanguard, which had more civilian participation.
Then came Sputnik's history-making launch in October 1957, followed less than a month later by Sputnik 2 and the first dog in orbit. Eisenhower pressed his rocketeers to come up with an answering volley within 90 days.
The Vanguard rocket failed spectacularly in December, earning the nickname "Flopnik." Then it was the Army's turn. Von Braun's team readied the Army's Juno 1 rocket, a modified Redstone ballistic missile. JPL built the satellite, which would carry scientific experiments designed under the direction of the University of Iowa's James Van Allen.
Raggio, now 79, said there were long days at the lab, working on the spacecraft's design. There were also long stretches of tedium as the designers waited for the launch. "We played cards, and that was mostly gin," he said. "Gin was a short game."
Cards loomed large in the Explorer 1 team's mind-set. JPL's project manager for the satellite, Jack Froehlich, saw the effort as an opportunity for America to deal itself into the space game after Sputnik's winning hand. He was quoted as saying: "When a big pot is won, the winner sits around and cracks bad jokes, and the loser cries, 'Deal!'"
Froehlich even had decks of cards printed up and passed them out to team members, Raggio recalled. "I happened to have the joker," he said.
Up until the night of the launch, JPL's engineers called the satellite "Project Deal" - but in the end, Eisenhower decided on a different name. "We didn't know until we heard it come over the radio that it was named 'Explorer,'" Raggio said.
Explorer 1 gave America a chance to recover some of its confidence and prestige after the Sputnik shock, but there was a scientific payoff as well: The data returned by the satellite showed that Earth was not surrounded by a swarm of killer pebbles, as some scientists had feared. However, the cosmic-ray readings hinted at the existence of bands of radiation surrounding the planet - an unexpected result that led to the discovery of the Van Allen Belts.
"It established the first scientific discovery of the Space Age," JPL historian Erik Conway said.
The rise of space science in 1958 also established a new Space Age role for JPL: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded that October, and just a couple of months afterward, JPL was taken from the Army and put under NASA's wing.
Soon von Braun and the other top rocketeers from Huntsville and Cape Canaveral joined JPL's engineers on the civilian space effort. And the rest is history.
Robots vs. humans
Even then, there was a split between robotic and human space exploration. "Eisenhower was not keen on spending a lot of money on 'Man in Space,' precisely because he viewed it as nothing more than a stunt," Conway said. "Kennedy reversed all that."
A lot of that was also von Braun's doing, he said.
"Von Braun was never interested in the possibilities sparked by robots," Conway told me. "That colored everything he did. He didn't foresee what you could do with robotics. The only people who really did were the space scientists of the '50s who were advising Eisenhower."
JPL helped set the stage for lunar exploration with the robotic Ranger and Surveyor missions, but the astronauts were the stars of the show. Explorer 1, meanwhile, fell out of orbit and burned up over the Pacific Ocean in 1970 amid little fanfare.
Maybe that's as it should be. After all, no one ever threw a ticker-tape parade for a robot. But when it comes to exploration beyond the moon, the robotic probes - Mariner, Pioneer, Mars Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Hubble, Mars Pathfinder, Cassini, the Mars rovers and more - have been and still are the only deal in town, in the solar system and beyond. And there's something to be said for that as well.
Raggio, who retired in 1990, stays active and serves on a variety of community boards, but he still looks upon his 39 years at JPL as the best years of his life.
"What could be better?" he asked. "You get to take a picture of the Maker, and you realize how profound this universe is. Well, you can tell that I'm still turned on. Just going through the gates every day was a turn-on for me."
Conway said that all started with Explorer 1, exactly 50 years ago.
"The big scientific legacy of Explorer 1 was the discovery of the unexpected," he told me. "We did not expect to find belts of radiation surrounding the earth. A lot of scientists always have some idea of what they're looking for, and instead they're often very wrong. We've found some strange things as we've gone out into the solar system. And I expect that will continue."
Check out these retrospectives from JPL, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. You can find a list of resources about Wernher von Braun online, courtesy of Marshall Space Flight Center's History Office. This online book is a biography of William Pickering, the JPL director behind Explorer 1. Here's an online autobiography of space scientist James Van Allen. CollectSpace's Robert Pearlman has an interesting tale about Explorer 1 souvenirs. Finally, feel free to add your comments reflecting on the 50th anniversary of America's space age.