Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the US entry into the space race. Explorer 1, the first satellite, was successfully launched into orbit on January 31 1958. The Explorer satellite was launched atop a Juniper C rocket and carried a cosmic ray detector to measure radiation levels in orbit. The cosmic ray detector, provided by Dr. James Van Allen, showed much lower radiation levels then expected. Dr. Van Allen theorized that the detector was saturated by very strong radiation from a belt of charged particles. A second satellite launch two months later revealed this to be true. This charged belt of particles trapped in space by the Earth’s magnetic field became known as the Van Allen Belts.
Explorer 1 only transmitted for a few months. Its last transmission was May 23 1958. It finally burned up in the Earths atmosphere in March 1970. It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago people were gathered around their TV sets to anxiously watch the launch of Explorer 1, a lowly satellite. Explorer 1 was the beginning of our love affair with space. In those days you truly loved NASA. Sigh. When was the last time you were excited about watching a space launch?