Sometimes it's not who gets ahead first, it's who wins.
With all this talk about Sputnik, it's important
to remember a few facts about the early space race:
Sputnik launched in October 1957. (Its regularly emitted
beeps enabled Soviet scientists to study upper atmosphere friction.)
It honked and died. It fell back to Earth in January.
How many days did it take the Army to build
and launch America's first satellite,
Explorer 1? 84 days.
While the Army undoubtedly did tolerably fair work, Eisenhower,
being a wise man, turned space exploration
over to the Navy, because, hey, there's no
difference between the oceans and outer space.
Vanguard 1, America's second satellite,
blasted off in March 1958.
(Space ships used to 'blast off' before the phrase became
an early victim of political correctness.)
I know a little about Project Vanguard because
my father was a Navy Commander who served
in some capacity on the project.
(It was secret, so he never said nothing about it, even
when I tortured him during my teenage years.)
Vanguard's space age transistor technology.
Not only is Vanguard I still in orbit,
it achieved the following goals:
It was the first solar-powered satellite,
and for six years, thanks to its solar cells,
it radioed to Earth data about
our planet's size and shape, the effects of
micrometeorites, and upper air density and temperatures.
"It goes without saying that, in the eyes of the public,
the members of the Army team remained the heroes
of the space age; it was they who had put up
America's first satellite," according to an NASA history of the project.
"But the Project Vanguard people had the satisfaction
of knowing that in record time—only two years,
six months, and eight days—they had developed from
scratch a complete high-performance three-stage
launching vehicle, a highly accurate worldwide
satellite-tracking system, and an adequate launching
facility and range instrumentation; more to the point,
they had accomplished their mission, which was to put
one satellite in orbit during the International Geophysical Year."