61 years ago. I can’t believe it. Who, amongst people I know, has any memory of something in 1958? Well I guess if you’re from the high school class of ’64, there are a lot of things which you remember. This weekend was one which is so full of a myriad of memory slices of what my life was in that year. I was in the 6th grade, that October night – Yom Kippur 1957 in a moment that remains crystal clear in my memory, coming home from temple in my dad’s fin-laden ’57 DeSoto, and on the radio we heard that the Russians had launched Sputnik 1, the first earth satellite. It was at once exciting and frightening. We definitely felt as if there was some kind of new age dawning, and for an 11 year old kid, the mere concept of ‘new age’ was challenging enough. A month after that, at Jack’s Barber Shop on Highland Drive (I could go there after school on my bike, no one needed to drop me off…) and the launch of Sputnik 2 with Laika the Soviet dog, the first animal to orbit the earth, a new wave of thinking started to emerge from my down-to-earth neighbors, for whom the barber shop was, as it can be now, a place to exchange views and talk about the problems of the day. I was sitting in the chair on the 1×8″ board he used for kids, Jack Passwater himself was snipping away at my locks, when one of the men said “well, if they can launch Pupnick up there, they can certainly send missiles over here…” It was one of those moments, like the panic associated with “Marines in Lebanon” in ’58, and “Missiles in Cuba” in ’62, that seemed to carry unimaginably great consequences. We were still in the era of “duck and cover,” and our grade school teachers more than once led the whole of the class to the westward facing windows to see if, at the appointed hour that afternoon, we’d see a lightning style flash of the latest H-bomb tests from the Nevada test site. We never saw that flash, but there was no question that by then we were living under a nuclear umbrella. We probably would have had a hard time explaining what the umbrella protected us from, but umbrella we did have.
Having been a model airplane kid from age 8 or 9, I knew not only every plane ever built by the US, but was starting to understand rockets and missiles. My 9th grade science project was about the US missile arsenal. But back to St Patrick’s day 1958. As part of the program by which the Russians outsmarted the US, there was meant to be to an 18 month international program called IGY – the International Geophysical Year, during which the US would cooperate with other nations to launch rockets into space, and eventually, with some luck, an actual satellite. For reasons only some 105 year old Pentagon veteran can explain, the US Navy was given the task of creating a rocket, the slim and elegant Vanguard, which would launch the American IGY contributions into space. It was the fumbling around with the Vanguard program, and failure to utilize all that great German know-how from the scientists we captured at the end of WW2, that led to America simply watching with gasps on our faces, as I did that Yom Kippur night, as the Russians jolted the world with Sputnik 1, not exactly waiting for any cooperation with the west. Many of the more knowledgeable German rocket experts had made a conscious decision to head west in the waning days of the war, so they would be captured by American allies, and not the Russians. Werner Von Braun was chief amongst that group, though once he made it to the US, he and his cohorts were shuffled off to White Sands to busy themselves with the post V-2 generation of rockets (leading to the Redstone ballistic missile.)
Following the shock of Sputnik, the Navy tried launching Vanguard, and I still remember the Newsweek headline showing the crumbling rocket exploding in a quite spectacular fashion on the launch pad after achieving an elevation of at least four feet – they called it the ‘ill-fated Vanguard.’ I may not have intrinsically known the meaning of “ill-fated” but I figured it out pretty quickly. (see that explosion here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVeFkakURXM ) In those dark days of November/December 1957, in an moment of desperation, the Army was given 90 days to convert one of the Redstones to a satellite launcher. Bless those German scientists. I think they must have been chewing on the bit, for 88 days later, on January 31, 1958 they launched Explorer 1, and in a sense, caught the US up with the Russians in one fell swoop. But I had put my time in studying Vanguard, and could even pronounce the names of the hypergolic fuels which powered the 2nd stage (hyper golic means they explode automatically when mixed, no other flame needed. And they were the following: “fuming red nitric acid” and “unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine…”) So when it came that St. Patricks day morning, dressing for school, and making sure to wear something green, because, God forbid, Karen Tedrow or the Harrison twins would pinch me, I had my usual 730 am radio broadcast on the Frank Hemingway news feed. He was the dulcet toned author of “when I say coffee…. I mean FOLGERS!” The lead item that morning was that the US Navy had successfully fired a “grapefruit” sized satellite – 4 pounds and 7″ across, with solar panels to power its radio – into orbit. I was overjoyed. I ran into the kitchen, with tears streaming down my face, and I’m sure Mom wondered what was wrong. “The Vanguard was successful, they launched a satellite this morning….” I repeated. I’m not sure that I was ever quite this excited in all my years of grammar school. It was a singular moment of shared success and joy. And probably one of the reasons I spent the next 8 years studying math & physics, wanting to be part of the American space program. My vision was smothered sophomore year of college by a combination of my newly found love of photography, and a calculus professor who mumbled. And while I have never wavered from wanting to be a photographer, every St Patrick’s day I remember the glee which overcame me that morning. I only wish I had become friends with some of the engineers who made it all happen. The fact that spectacular failures didn’t cause the to lose heart is quite amazing. And to think a mere 12 years later, the US would launch men to land on the moon. These moments, fragmented as they were, and each living on a more elevated pedestal of time, unthreatened by the drowning cascade of the 24 hour news cycle, and social media which finds a new hot topic in every breath, will stay with me forever. We’re just sayin’.. David