Shortly after the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into low Earth orbit on October 4, 1957, JPL was commissioned to develop America’s response. The lab stepped up to the challenge and delivered Explorer 1 in a shockingly short 84 days. The accelerated delivery was enabled not only by an around-the-clock effort but also by work that JPL and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) had already conducted beginning in 1955 as part of a confidential reentry test vehicle program.
The project was aimed at proving that a heat shield could protect warheads from burning up upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. JPL built the upper stages of the new vehicle for the program, as well as a tracking system, and ABMA provided the rocket booster. In all, the program built nine sets of hardware, but after three tests—the last, on August 8, 1957, being completely successful—everyone was satisfied that the technology worked, and the unused equipment was placed in storage.
When JPL got the go-ahead to begin working on an orbiting satellite, they were able to pull out that technology and hit the ground running.
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Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL/Caltech