The Space Race

In 1947, von Braun briefly returned to Germany to marry Maria Louise von Quinstorp, his cousin. Then, in 1950, he and his new family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, along with his team of scientists. They went to work there for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal. At Redstone, Von Braun worked on the Redstone, Jupiter, and Jupiter-C rockets. In 1952, von Braun published his first book, titled The Mars Project, initially through a German publisher and then in 1953 through an American publisher. In The Mars Project, he outlined his plans for space travel and planetary exploration.

The United States, however, was not the only nation developing rockets. Despite all the efforts of the U.S. government to be the first to send a satellite into space, on October 4, 1957, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) R-7 rocket, developed by Sergei Korolyov (1907-66), carried a 184-pound (83-kg) satellite the size of a basketball into orbit. The name of this historic satellite is Sputnik. The news that the Soviets preceded the United States into space was devastating, and the worst was yet to come. One month later, the USSR launched a second R-7 carrying Sputnik 2, a huge satellite weighing 1,120 pounds (508 kg), along with a dog named Laika, which survived for only one day because of capsule overheating. The damage was done. The Soviets became the first to prove they could put a living being into orbit, though they had not yet developed a way to bring it back.

The U.S. response to the Soviet success was a dismal failure. Instead of going with von Braun's tried and tested Redstone rocket, President Eisenhower chose to go with a navy-developed rocket called the Vanguard, which had never been developed beyond the drawing board. Von Braun was deeply frustrated, claiming the navy rocket was untested and therefore invited failure. His team, he said, could have had the satellite in space within 60 days. True to von Braun's doubts, the Vanguard, carrying a tiny four-pound (1.81 kg) satellite, exploded on the launch pad.

Naturally, the next attempt went to the Redstone team, and on January 31, 1958, von Braun's Jupiter-C rocket carried Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, into orbit. In the same year, the missions of Pioneers 1-3 failed to bring back photos of the Moon, yet they succeeded in providing new information on the area between the Earth and the Moon, including data on the Van Allen radiation belts. Then on March 3, 1959, von Braun's team launched the Pioneer 4 Moon probe, which missed the Moon but became the first spacecraft to orbit the Sun. In 1960, Pioneer 5 studied space between Venus and the Earth.

Despite the success of Explorer 1 and the partial successes of early Pioneer probes, the rocket technology of the United States was still inferior to Soviet rocket technology. The race for space was in full motion.

In 1958, President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and talks began on how to proceed with a piloted lunar landing conducted by the United States. Toward this goal, the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center was established in Huntsville, Alabama, next door to the Redstone Arsenal. In 1960, von Braun was appointed as its first director. He and his team quit work for the army and began work for NASA, moving their operations to the nearby Marshall Space Flight Center.

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