Happy Monday and welcome to another edition of Beyond The Forecast!
Ever since the days when people first saw the stars and wondered what they were, the urge for space has burned in the hearts of explorers.
With the great leap in technology that followed the Industrial Revolution, things came within our reach that never seemed possible in all of history. Ships could sail around the world at record speeds. Trains connected the disparate shores of the United States and Russia. Everyday life became easier thanks to new levels of automation.
As the blank spots on the map filled in, people were still dreaming of what else we might find in our universe.
Some imagined fabled lost continents or what wonders lay beneath the ocean, like Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Other writers gazed up at the night sky and envisioned both wonder and terror. Ultra-advanced invaders shook the planet in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but with a more positive view of exploration, George Méliès’ 1902 film A Journey to the Moon transported audiences to an imaginary version of our maverick natural satellite.
Less than 70 years later, people took their first steps on this very rock.
The Wright Brothers’ flight from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 ushered in a new industrial age. Airplanes have changed the way people and goods travel across the planet, but an airplane requires air to generate lift, which is sorely lacking in space.
The Wright Brothers’ space travel analogue is Dr. Robert H Goddard. As early as 1907, during his student days, Goddard launched primitive rockets. By 1914 he held patents for rockets that could operate on liquid fuel and in stages. Goddard laid the foundation for rocket science in the 20th century with his first liquid-fuel rocket launch in 1926. By using gyroscopes and rotary vanes on the missiles themselves, Goddard pioneered the ability to control where missiles land.
Goddard’s research into missile guidance had to wait a long time before anyone could aim at the stars.
At the end of the 1920s, German scientists took up the groundbreaking research. One of the leading minds in this new field, Dr. Wernher von Braun, brought his talents into the German army in 1932.
Von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party before and during World War II, and led the team that developed the devastating V-2 rocket. Built by slave laborers in concentration camps, the V-2 could hit England, Belgium and France at ranges of up to 200 miles. Even with primitive guidance technology that didn’t make them accurate enough, the V-2 killed thousands of people.
The Allied advance into the heart of Germany gave the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union the opportunity to capture materials and documents which these nations used to manufacture their own missiles in the post-war period.
The United States brought von Braun and other German scientists back from Europe in Project Paperclip and tasked them with further developing ballistic missiles.
The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the strongest world powers after the war, and to ensure that neither country could outright defeat the other, both nations developed ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons across the planet. America had a head start in those early days of the space race thanks to the knowledge of German scientists, but the Soviets made the first leap into the stars on October 4, 1957.
Sputnik, a 23-inch sphere, was the first man-made object to orbit the earth. The Soviets managed to launch not only Sputnik 1 but also Sputnik 2 in less than a month. The second satellite was much heavier and loomed like a vulture in the minds of mid-century leaders. If the Soviets can already send scientific payloads into orbit, how long before they can send nuclear devices?
Such a grim possibility kicked the American space program into high gear.
Soviet missiles were larger, could fly farther, and didn’t have the awkward habit of American missiles detonating on the launch pad.
Von Braun’s team, working with the Army at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, was ready for a tentative launch in late 1957, and by January of the next year Explorer 1 reached above the atmosphere as America’s entry into the space race.
1958 brought together several government groups with Army and Navy projects under one roof: the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. NASA orchestrated the US effort to get into space, but there was still a long way to go before a human reached the moon, be it Soviet or American.
Keep an eye out for Beyond the Forecast next week to learn how scientists have adapted technology from launching nuclear weapons to launching humans into space en route to the moon.
If you’re a fan of stargazing, this is a great week to get out the telescope. You can download our weather app to see which nights are the clearest and get the latest updates online from meteorologist Chris Michaels.
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– Marshall Downing
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