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Sputnik

Excerpts from Mike Gruntman's Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry , AIAA, Reston, Va., 2004 (Winner of 2006 Award from the International Academy of Astronautics IAA), Chapter 15 "Breakthrough."
(Book detailed table of contents; list of figures; reviews)

Korolev's memo to the Council of Ministers requesting the permission to launch an artificial satellitep. 333  –  Korolev's memo to the Council of Ministers requesting the permission to launch an artificial satellite
Sputnik performance characteristicsp. 334  –  Sputnik performance characteristics
rivalry in the Soviet ballistic missile and space establishment; secrecyp. 338  –  rivalry in the Soviet ballistic missile and space establishment; secrecy
comparative sizes of first Soviet and American space launchersp. 345  –  comparative sizes of first Soviet and American space launchers
comparative sizes and masses of Sputnik 1, Explorer 1, and Vanguard 1 p. 375  –  comparative sizes and masses of Sputnik 1, Explorer 1, and Vanguard 1
timeline of major developments on the road to the ICBM and first satellitesp. 376  –  timeline of major developments on the road to the ICBM and first satellites
Tyuratam Baikonur Missile Test RangeTyuratam (Baikonur) Missile Test Range

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Chapter 15. The Breakthrough (60 pages with 35 photos and figures; figures not shown in the web version); from Blazing the Trail

Chapter 15 – contents:

Origins of Soviet ICBM. Mikhail Tikhonravov. Rocket packet. R-7 ICBM. Engines of Valentin Glushko. Vassilii Mishin and rocket suspension. Sergei Korolev. R-7 and Atlas. Difficult launches. Disintegrated warhead. Grigorii Kisunko. R-7 (SS-6) deployed. Artificial satellite. International Geophysical Year (IGY). Object D. “We are asking for permission …” Simplest satellite PS. Launch on 4 October 1957. Sputnik in orbit. Korolev under his real name. Two new stars. Chief designers of space systems. Unexpected Sputnik's radio frequencies. Crowning achievement. Rivalry in rocket and space establishment. Glushko's Energia-Buran. Veil of secrecy. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev and Chief Theoretician Mstislav Keldysh. Beginning of the R-7 Semyorka. Loadstar speaking for socialism. American reaction to Sputnik. Poor state of science education. Space Pearl Harbor. Soviet and American education and science. Chose to remain uninformed. Sputnik impact underestimated. Lack of priority. Chosen to be beaten. Object D launched. American rockets close the gap. Manned spaceflight. Soviet Vostok program. First man in space - Yurii Gagarin. Tireless care of Communist Party. Explorer and Vanguard. IGY. Project Orbiter. NRL proposal. Killian Report. President’s announcement and Soviet response. Stewart Committee. Selection of Vanguard and termination of Orbiter. NRL and Martin teams. New launch vehicle. Power plant. Comprehensive program. Minitrack. Worldwide network. Predecessor of STDN. Optical tracking system. Precise time. Computers for satellite tracking. Scientific instruments. Success of TV-0 and TV-1. Baby satellite. Solar cells. Attention focuses on Vanguard. Jupiter C. Hydyne. 20 September 1956. “Missed the boat in 1956.” TV-3 explodes. Army leaders at Redstone. Medaris charges ahead. Microlock. Discovery of radiation belts. Micrometeorite sensors. Passive thermal control. Spacecraft spin. Explorer 1 in orbit. Evolution of Explorer 1 spin axis. Dancing in the streets of Huntsville. Vanguard 1 in orbit. The oldest man-made object in orbit. Birth of NASA. Freedom of space accepted. National space effort. Presidential science advisor. National debate. Scientific-technological elite. National Aeronautics and Space Act. T. Keith Glennan. NACA centers. Transfer o f JPL. Marshall Space Flight Center. Beltsville Space Center. Science and applications. Communication satellites. Echo satellites. Manned Spacecraft Center. Seven Mercury astronauts. Space report card for 1960. Kennedy challenges the nation. “I believe we should go to the Moon.”

The Soviet breakthrough into space can be directly traced back to the government decision on 4 December 1950, authorizing a feasibility study of intercontinental missiles “with the range 5000–10000 km [3100–6200 miles] and warhead mass 1–10 tonne” (Semenov 1996, 73). Deputy Prime Minister Vyacheslav A. Malyshev narrowed the target technical specifications in October 1953, requiring delivery of a nuclear charge with a mass 3000 kg (6600 lb) and a total warhead mass of 5500 kg (12,200 lb).

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Blazing the Trail by Mike GruntmanThe design bureau of Sergei Korolev advocated this initiative to develop an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to any area in the world and especially to the territory of the main adversary. (The Soviet vernacular reserved the term “the main adversary” for the United States.) Leading Soviet specialists and their vast design bureaus, research institutions, and manufacturing facilities would contribute to the program concentrating on propulsion, guidance, navigation, control, communications, telemetry, and other key rocket systems. The government decree of 20 May 1954 made the ICBM program a top national priority.

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From Astronautics to Cosmonautics by Mike GruntmanThe new intercontinental ballistic missile, designated R-7 (SS-6 Sapwood), had one central stage and four side sections attached to the central core. Each section was equipped with its own engine. A veteran Soviet rocketeer Mikhail K. Tikhonravov, who was one of the GIRD's team leaders in 1930s, described a concept of several mechanically joined rockets in a “packet” or “package” (paket in Russian) in July 1948. (Tikhonravov advanced Tsiolkovsky's thoughts on this issue dating back to 1934.) In a technical report three years later, Korolev proposed a package of rockets of different sizes, in contrast to the identical rockets of the original concept. Starting in the late 1940s, Tikhonravov has worked in a military missile research institute, NII-4, where his group laid theoretical foundations for the practical work that would follow on the first space launcher and the first artificial satellite. Tikhonravov joined Korolev's OKB-1 in 1956. There, he significantly contributed to the design of the first satellite, first manned spaceship, and first Soviet space reconnaissance system. It was reportedly Tikhonravov who argued for using the word kosmonavt, or cosmonaut, in Russian instead of the American astronaut (astronavt in Russian). Tikhonravov retired in 1960.

All five rocket engines of the R-7 were started simultaneously. The central sustainer section was designed to burn for 283 s while the firing time of the four side sections was 115 s. All of the side sections separated at the same time after their cutoff. The R-7 was customarily called a two-stage rocket; it was similar, however, to the “one-and-one-half-stage” configuration of the American Atlas.

Valentin P. Glushko's OKB-456 designed and built liquid-oxygen-kerosene engines for the R-7. The engines produced 80–90 tonnes of thrust each and achieved specific impulse 250 s at sea level. The fully fueled rocket weighed 280 tonnes at launch, with the dry weight 27 tonnes. The warhead section, the “payload,” accounted for about 5000 kg. The projected rocket range was 8000 km (5000 miles) with the impact accuracy ±10 km (±6 miles). Following the idea of Korolev's deputy Vassilii P. Mishin, the R-7 was suspended on the launching pad from the four side masts that held the rocket body at a point somewhat higher than its center of gravity. This clever suspension method decreased loads acting at the base of the fully fueled rocket standing on a pad and consequently allowed reduction of the structural weight of the rocket body.


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The R-7 was significantly heavier and taller than the Atlas ICBM. When the Atlas program was restarted as the MX-1593 in January 1951, it called for delivery of a 8000-lb (3600-kg) warhead by a rocket 160 ft (49 m) tall with a launch mass 670,000 lb (304,000 kg) and powered by one central (sustainer) and four or six side (booster) engines. In the spring of 1953, the Atlas had “become,” on paper, smaller as a result of the projected reduction of the warhead mass and improved engine performance, the latter because of a more efficient kerosene-oxygen-propellant combination. The then-envisioned rocket had height 110 ft (33.5 m), mass 440,000 lb (200,000 kg), one central sustainer, and four jettisonable side engines. This variant of the American missile was strikingly similar to the configuration and the height of the R-7, though the Atlas was somewhat lighter. As the nuclear weapons technology advanced further, the mass of the American warheads became smaller, and their higher yields led to relaxation of the missile accuracy requirement, the circular error probable (CEP), to 1 mile (1.6 km) from the original 1500 ft (460 m). These improvements in warheads allowed reduction of the number of Atlas's side engines to two and consequently made the American ICBM significantly smaller and lighter than the Soviet R-7.

first space launchers

Figure 15.9 (from: M. Gruntman, Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry, AIAA, Reston, Va., 2004). The first Soviet ICBM R-7 was significantly larger and heavier than the first American ICBM Atlas. The modified R-7 deployed the first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik and later launched the first cosmonaut Yurii Gagarin. The first American satellite Explorer I was put into orbit by the Juno-1, a variant of the Jupiter C modified for satellite launch. By the end of 1958, all three shown American rockets, Juno-1, Vanguard, and modified Atlas, launched satellites into Earth orbit. Figure courtesy of Mike Gruntman.

Korolev rushed the development of the R-7. The first nonflight model of the missile arrived to the Tyuratam test site for training of the ground crews in December 1956. The first flight model followed on 3 March 1957. Everything was now ready for the ICBM test launch on a full range. The target impact area was instrumented 6314 km (3924 miles) away at the Kamchatka Peninsula. Fifteen tracking and observation stations with radars and optical equipment spanned a huge distance across the Soviet Central Asia and Siberia to monitor the flight.

The first launch of the R-7 was attempted on 15 May 1957. The service crews did not have experience in handling such a large and complex rocket and prelaunch ground testing lasted almost ten days. Tests of the electrical systems alone took more than 110 hours. The ambitious first test flight was nominal during the first 70 s. The later report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR stated that

beginning with the 97th second [of flight], large angular deviations of the rocket [orientation] appeared because of the loss of control due to fire in the tail section of one of the side engines which had begun from the moment of the launch. Because of this development, the engines were automatically shut down ... at the 103th second of flight. (Derevyashkin and Baichurin 2000, 68)

The rocket fell 400 km (250 miles) downrange. The cause of the fire was traced down to a leak in a kerosene fuel pipe. The evaluation of the rocket failure involved examination of the telemetry recorded on oscilloscope photographic films 20 km long.

The second R-7 test launch was scheduled for 11 June 1957, and was tried, unsuccessfully, three times. Frozen liquid-oxygen valves aborted the first two attempts. Then, the incorrectly mounted valve for nitrogen purge of liquid-oxygen pipes led to failure. The rocket was safely removed from the launching pad and returned to the assembly building.

The third launch was attempted on 12 July. The liftoff was again successful, but the rocket was destroyed after 33 s because of uncontrollable spin caused by the failure of control electronics.

Finally, the fourth launch on 21 August 1957 succeeded, and the R-7 reached its target area at the Kamchatka Peninsula. The simulated warhead did not impact the ground, however, and disintegrated in the atmosphere, although the warhead heat shields were believed to be highly reliable. (Soviet scientist Vsevolod S. Avduevsky directed development of heat shields protecting warheads during atmospheric reentry.) The failure was attributed to a likely collision of the warhead with the rocket second stage after the warhead separated with a too small velocity.

The next successful full-range rocket flight followed on 7 September 1957, but the warhead again disintegrated. The problem was corrected during the next several months by modifying the warhead design and improving the separation system, which included an increase in the delay between the main engine cutoff and warhead separation from 6 to 10 s. The first completely successful ICBM flight was finally accomplished on 29 March 1958.

Six days after the first full-range flight of the R-7 on 21 August 1957, the official Soviet news agency, TASS, declared to the world that the USSR had demonstrated the ICBM. Simultaneously, the successful recent nuclear tests were also announced. The Soviet Union had thus realized the nuclear-tipped ICBM. The first unit armed with the R-7 ICBMs, called SS-6 in the West, was declared operational in December 1959. At the same time, a new branch of the Soviet armed forces, the Strategic Rocket Forces, was activated. On 20 January 1960, the Soviet Army formally accepted the R-7 for deployment and combat duty.

While concentrating on the development of the R-7 ICBM, Korolev continued to advocate launching an artificial Earth-orbiting satellite. Tikhonravov, whose group worked on the satellite since 1948 and who later would become a scientific advisor to the satellite design program, aided Korolev with the “scientific ammunition” for lobbying on behalf of this idea. In 1954 Korolev forwarded Tikhonravov's report “About Artificial Earth Satellite” to the government requesting the permission to establish a special research department in his design bureau focused on the satellite problem.

The Soviet military were not particularly thrilled by the satellite and understandably worried that it might distract Korolev's resources from achieving the ICBM. In July and August of 1955, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced their plans to launch scientific satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) scheduled for an 18-month period from July 1957 to December 1958. After these announcements, Soviet officials periodically confirmed the plans to launch a satellite. The Soviet government decree of 30 January 1956 put the Korolev's program in high gear by directing him to design, build, and launch an artificial satellite using a modified R-7 rocket.

The Korolev's satellite, called Object D, was designed to have a total mass 1000–1400 kg (2200–3090 lb), including 200–300 kg (440–660 lb) of scientific payload, and be powered by body-mounted solar cells. The initial launch plans were soon in danger, however, because the R-7's engines demonstrated specific impulse only 304 s in vacuum instead of the projected 309 s. In addition, the development of the scientific payload quickly fell behind the schedule. The new launch date was fixed for the spring 1958.

Knowing about the announced American program to launch a satellite during the International Geophysical Year, Korolev's OKB-1 proposed to quickly launch — in order to beat the American competition — a much simpler and much lighter satellite. On 5 January 1957, Korolev wrote to the USSR Council of Ministers asking for the permission to launch such a satellite. To obtain a positive decision on his request, Korolev was pushing all the “hot buttons” in the Kremlin, emphasizing the progress of the rival American program. The Soviet government acted promptly and approved the OKB-1's proposal on 15 February 1957. The new satellite was called Object PS, (Prosteishii Sputnik), or the simplest satellite. (In Russian, sputnik literally means a fellow traveler or a travel companion.) The development of the originally planned Object D also continued, and it would ultimately be launched on 15 May 1958, as Sputnik 3, with mass 1327 kg (2924 lb) and operated for 692 days.

The new PS-1 was built as a hermetically sealed sphere with a diameter 58 cm (22.8 in.) and pressurized by dry nitrogen at 1.3 atm (19 psi). Two pairs of antennas were 2.4 m (7.9 ft) and 2.9 m (9.5 ft) long. The radio-system transmitter had 1 W of power and sent signals with the duration 0.4 s alternatively at 7.5-m and 15-m wavelengths (approximately 40 and 20 MHz). Three silver-zinc batteries provided power for the satellite and were expected to last for two weeks.

The top-level breakdown of the satellite total mass of 83.6 kg (184.3 lb) was as follows: structure — 13.9 kg (30.6 lb), antennas — 8.4 kg (18.5 lb), and payload — 58.4 kg (128.7 lb). The spacecraft power unit, with mass 51.0 kg (112.4 lb), accounted for 87% of the payload mass.

Launched from Tyuratam on 4 October 1957, the SP-1 has reached the orbit together with the sustainer stage of the rocket. The side sections of the modified R-7 separated from the sustainer on the 116th second of the flight. The main engine of the sustainer, or the second stage, was cut off at an altitude 228.6 km (142.1 miles). The satellite separated from the rocket 20 s later on the 315th second after launch. In addition to 2.73-m/s (9-ft/s) separation velocity, the rocket body was slowed down a little by venting gas remaining in the oxidizer tanks through valves opened in the forward direction.

The Sputnik launch direction followed the trajectory of the ICBM test flights toward Klyuchi at the Kamchatka Peninsula, resulting in an orbit with inclination 65 deg. It was the fifth launch of the R-7 and the first space launch. The first artificial satellite of the Earth, SP-1 or Sputnik 1, had thus been born, and the Russian word “sputnik” entered many languages.

Sputnik orbital parameters        Planned               Achieved
Perigee altitude, km (mile)        228 (142)             228 (142)
Apogee altitude, km (mile)        1450 (901)             947 (589)
Period, minute                     101.5                  96.2

The year 1957 was the year of solar maximum of the 11-year solar cycle. Solar activity reaches maximum during this phase of the cycle, and the enhanced solar output in the X-ray and extreme ultraviolet spectral ranges heats the upper atmosphere and ionosphere to the highest temperatures during the 11-year period. As a result, the atmosphere expands outwards, increasing aerodynamic drag on satellites in low-Earth orbit and consequently reducing their lifetime.

first satellites Sputnik, Explorer, Vanguard

Fig. 15.30 (from: M. Gruntman, Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry, AIAA, Reston, Va., 2004). Comparative sizes and masses of the first three Earth satellites, Sputnik 1, Explorer I, and Vanguard I. Figure courtesy of Mike Gruntman.

The initial perigee of the Sputnik orbit was rather low at an altitude 228 km (142 miles), and the atmospheric drag was correspondingly high. To make things worse, solar maximum in 1957 was characterized by an unusually high solar activity, much higher than typically observed during solar maxima. As a result, the satellite stayed in orbit only until 4 January 1958, making 1440 revolutions. The rocket sustainer stage made 882 revolutions and reentered the atmosphere on 2 December 1957.

Two new artificial stars thus appeared in the sky. The substantially larger sustainer was seen as a 100 times brighter object in the night sky, and it was much easier to observe it by the naked eye than the barely visible Sputnik. Apparent visual magnitudes of the R-7 sustainer stage and Sputnik were m = +1 and +6, respectively. (The scale of stellar magnitudes assigns smaller values m to brighter stars. The average unaided eye would see stars with apparent visual magnitudes m = +5 and brighter, i.e., m < + 5, under typical conditions.)

The frequencies of Sputnik's transmitter, 20 and 40 MHz, came as a surprise to scientists and engineers because these frequencies were different from the 108 MHz (wavelength 2.77 m) agreed upon by the IGY's committees. Consequently, the Minitrack tracking stations being prepared and deployed for the American satellite program were not able, initially, to track Sputnik. The engineers and technicians improvised and did their best to quickly design, build, and deploy new antennas and to adjust electronic equipment. By mid-October, several American stations already tracked Sputnik, and the whole Minitrack network was ready when the second Soviet satellite, Sputnik 2, was launched in early November. ...

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Chapter 15.  The Breakthrough – List of figures (significantly abridged captions)

Fig. 15.1. Air Force Colonel Mikhail K. Tikhonravov, ca. 1951.
Fig. 15.2. The first ICBM R-7 at the Tyuratam missile test range in May–June 1957.
Fig. 15.3. Sergei P. Korolev was the main driving force behind the first ICBM, first artificial satellite, first manned spaceflight, and many other first Soviet satellite systems.
Fig. 15.4. The R-7 ICBM being readied for launch at Tyuratam in May–June 1957.
Fig. 15.5. First artificial satellite Sputnik 1.
Fig. 15.6. Chief designers of space systems on 4 October 1957, in Tyuratam, after the launch of the first artificial satellite of the Earth, Sputnik.
Fig.15.7. The Energia–Buran vehicle combination engraved on the tombstone of Valentin P. Glushko.
Fig. 15.8. Monuments to Sergei P. Korolev and Mstislav V. Keldysh in Moscow.
Fig. 15.9. Comparative sizes of R-7, Atlas, Juno-1 (a variant of the Jupiter C) , and Vanguard.
Fig. 15.10.  Vostok rocket that launched the first man into space.
Fig.15.11. First cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin in Tyuratam on 12 June 1963.
Fig. 15.12. Redstone and Jupiter C missiles.
Fig.  15.13. Donald A. Quarles, 1894–1959, being sworn in as Secretary of the Air Force on 15 August 1955.
Fig. 15.14. Director of Project Vanguard Dr. John P. Hagen with the staff members of Project Vanguard.
Fig. 15.15. Project engineer Donald J. Markarian and operations manager N. Elliot Felt, Jr..
Fig. 15.16.  Launch sequence of the three-stage Vanguard rocket.
Fig. 15.17.  Minitrack station near Quito, Ecuador.
Fig. 15.18.  Baby satellite (Vanguard I).
Fig. 15.19. Juno 1, a modified Jupiter C rocket with an elongated Redstone as the first stage ready for launch of the first U.S. satellite Explorer I on 31 January 1958.
Fig. 15.20. Second and third stages of Jupiter C.
Fig. 15.21.  An attempt to launch the Vanguard test vehicle TV-3 ends in failure on 6 December 1957 at Cape Canaveral.
Fig. 15.22. Members of the Army team with a model of Explorer I.
Fig. 15.23. Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory William H. Pickering (1910–2004) holds a prototype of the Army satellite Explorer I, December 1957.
Fig. 15.24. Explorer I satellite with the fourth-stage scaled-down Sergeant rocket, January 1958.
Fig. 15.25.  Juno 1 on a launching pad on 31 January 1958.
Fig. 15.26. A model of Explorer I displayed by jubilant William H. Pickering (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), James A. Van Allen  (State University of Iowa), and Wernher von Braun (Army Ballistic Missile Agency).
Fig. 15.27. Simple model of Explorer I.
Fig. 15.28. This perfect launch from Cape Canaveral on 17 March 1958 deployed the Vanguard I satellite in orbit and demonstrated the new space launch vehicle.
Fig. 15.29. NRL personnel on the top of the gantry crane with the Vanguard I satellite at Cape Canaveral in early 1958.
Fig. 15.30. Comparative sizes and masses of the first three Earth satellites, Sputnik 1, Explorer I, and Vanguard I.
Fig. 15.31. Timeline of major developments on the road to the ICBM and first satellites.
Fig. 15.32. T. Keith Glennan, 1905–1995, became the first NASA administrator in 1958. 
Fig. 15.33. A 100-ft (30.5-m)-diam passive communication satellite Echo I during the inflation test in 1959.
Fig. 15.34. The original seven Mercury astronauts were selected in 1959.
Fig. 15.35. Alan B. Shepard in the Freedom-7 Mercury spacecraft before launch on 5 May 1961.
Fig. 15.36. President John F. Kennedy with Wernher von Braun, 19 May 1963.

Chapter 15 – contents:

Origins of Soviet ICBM. Mikhail Tikhonravov. Rocket packet. R-7 ICBM. Engines of Valentin Glushko. Vassilii Mishin and rocket suspension. Sergei Korolev. R-7 and Atlas. Difficult launches. Disintegrated warhead. Grigorii Kisunko. R-7 (SS-6) deployed. Artificial satellite. International Geophysical Year (IGY). Object D. “We are asking for permission …” Simplest satellite PS. Launch on 4 October 1957. Sputnik in orbit. Korolev under his real name. Two new stars. Chief designers of space systems. Unexpected Sputnik's radio frequencies. Crowning achievement. Rivalry in rocket and space establishment. Glushko's Energia-Buran. Veil of secrecy. Chief Designer Sergei Korolev and Chief Theoretician Mstislav Keldysh. Beginning of the R-7 Semyorka. Loadstar speaking for socialism. American reaction to Sputnik. Poor state of science education. Space Pearl Harbor. Soviet and American education and science. Chose to remain uninformed. Sputnik impact underestimated. Lack of priority. Chosen to be beaten. Object D launched. American rockets close the gap. Manned spaceflight. Soviet Vostok program. First man in space - Yurii Gagarin. Tireless care of Communist Party. Explorer and Vanguard. IGY. Project Orbiter. NRL proposal. Killian Report. President’s announcement and Soviet response. Stewart Committee. Selection of Vanguard and termination of Orbiter. NRL and Martin teams. New launch vehicle. Power plant. Comprehensive program. Minitrack. Worldwide network. Predecessor of STDN. Optical tracking system. Precise time. Computers for satellite tracking. Scientific instruments. Success of TV-0 and TV-1. Baby satellite. Solar cells. Attention focuses on Vanguard. Jupiter C. Hydyne. 20 September 1956. “Missed the boat in 1956.” TV-3 explodes. Army leaders at Redstone. Medaris charges ahead. Microlock. Discovery of radiation belts. Micrometeorite sensors. Passive thermal control. Spacecraft spin. Explorer 1 in orbit. Evolution of Explorer 1 spin axis. Dancing in the streets of Huntsville. Vanguard 1 in orbit. The oldest man-made object in orbit. Birth of NASA. Freedom of space accepted. National space effort. Presidential science advisor. National debate. Scientific-technological elite. National Aeronautics and Space Act. T. Keith Glennan. NACA centers. Transfer o f JPL. Marshall Space Flight Center. Beltsville Space Center. Science and applications. Communication satellites. Echo satellites. Manned Spacecraft Center. Seven Mercury astronauts. Space report card for 1960. Kennedy challenges the nation. “I believe we should go to the Moon.”



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