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Marking a quarter-century of US satellites in space

By Robert C. CowenNatural science editor of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1983

By today's standards, it was an unpretentious little satellite - 80.75 inches long, 6 inches in diameter, with a mass of 31 pounds. Most of this was the burned-out fourth stage of the Juno 1 launching rocket. The 18.13-pound payload was equipped to measure temperatures, micrometeoroid impacts, and cosmic rays. The designers, who produced this modest contraption in just under three months, would have considered a modern pocket calculator a marvel from another world.

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Yet when Explorer 1 - the first US Earth satellite - went into orbit 25 years ago, it helped restore the confidence of a nation.

A few months earlier, the Soviet Union had electrified the world with the launch of two Sputniks, the second of which carried the dog Laika. Then the US Vanguard satellite earned the nickname ''Dudnik'' when its first rocket blew up on launching Dec. 6, l957. As though to rub in the failure, the Vanguard satellite itself, having been thrown clear, rolled across the ground with its radio beacon plaintively beeping its location.

There were humiliation, confusion, and self-doubt throughout the United States.

Then, at 10:45 p.m. Eastern standard time on Jan. 31, 1958, Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers did what they had for years been saying they could do. Adding an extra stage to an Army rocket, they launched a satellite into orbit. A decade and a half earlier, with their V-2 ''vengeance weapons'' pounding London, these men had been ''the enemy.'' Now they were national heroes.

There was wild celebration in the military and civilian communication centers that monitored the launching. Army Secretary Wilbur Brucker, in a giddy moment, established the Concatenated Fraternity of Master Missileers, Circa 1958, Pentagon Chapter. All involved received personalized, signed certificates of that order. Within a year, Dr. von Braun had also received the highest civil-service award, the Distinguished Federal Service Medal.

Thus, Explorer 1 was more than a technological triumph. It symbolized the emergence of a new determination in a country that, having been knocked off its feet, was picking itself up, preparing to run what it perceived to be a long-term race.

The US scientific and technological enterprise, suffering from neglect and niggardly funding, was about to undergo a renaissance. There was sudden recognition that poor high-school science and mathematics education undercut the fundamental strength of that enterprise. Here, too, vigorous remedial action would soon be taken at both the national and local levels.

In short, the US faced the fact that it had not been upstaged by ''superior'' Soviet technology so much as it had let itself down. With that recognition came the effort which later made the country preeminent in space.

The US had indeed been caught napping when the Soviet Sputnik 1 went into orbit Oct. 4, 1957. In spite of clear warnings, most government officials, much of the press, and almost all of the general public were genuinely astounded to learn that what they had ignorantly considered a technologically backward adversary had propelled the world into the space age.

Von Braun and his associates were neither astounded nor depressed. They were disappointed that the US was not the first into space, as they knew it could have been. Yet they recognized the event for what it was - the opening of a new dimension for human achievement. ''Today, man has taken his first step toward Mars,'' von Braun observed.