Wernher von Braun grew increasingly nervous as the clock struck 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, 1958. Over an hour earlier, an upgraded Redstone rocket he had built launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, into space. Or had it? Von Braun wouldn't know until tracking stations in California picked up the spacecraft's signal. And that should happen right now.
Half past midnight came and went with no signal. Minutes passed like hours as von Braun and his colleagues -- William Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and scientist James Van Allen -- awaited word in a Pentagon office.
Five minutes went by, and then 10. It was all but certain now. Explorer 1 had burned up in the atmosphere. Von Braun and his colleagues were miserable, crestfallen. They had failed.
Then, at 12:42 a.m., word came from a tracking station near San Diego. It had acquired the signal! Explorer 1 was in orbit! The men cheered. They had made history. And America had caught up to the Soviets in the space race.
Von Braun would soon discover the reason for the delay. The rocket had performed better than expected, sending the satellite into a higher orbit than planned. Explorer 1 had simply taken longer to orbit the Earth than expected.
The success was a triumph for von Braun and the Army team that had developed the Redstone rocket, which was America's first ballistic missile. A direct descendent of the V-2 rocket that von Braun built during World War II, it was a short-range surface-to-surface missile that was deployed in Europe beginning in 1958. The booster was named after the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., where the rocket was developed.
Von Braun had proposed using a modified Redstone to launch America's first satellite. Von Braun believed they could have put a spacecraft in orbit as early as 1956 if he had been given the go-ahead.
However, they were turned down in favor of the U.S. Navy's Vanguard rocket. That effort got delayed; in the meantime, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957. The first Vanguard launch attempt exploded two months later, leaving von Braun and his team to rescue America's honor with the successful Explorer 1 launch.
The actual booster that launched Explorer 1 was known as the Juno 1, an upgraded version of the Redstone with longer fuel tanks and a fourth stage that gave it enough power to send spacecraft into orbit.
Von Braun and his team subsequently upgraded the Redstone rocket for NASA's Mercury program. The Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle put the first American, Alan Shepard, into space, on May 5, 1961. Shepard's suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7 lasted only 16 minutes, but it got America back into the race with the Soviets.
On July 21, 1961, Gus Grissom flew a repeat of Shepard's flight aboard his Liberty Bell spacecraft. The Redstone rocket flew perfectly, but Grissom nearly drowned the explosive hatch on his Mercury capsule when it blew prematurely.
Grissom's mission was the final manned flight of the Redstone rocket. The Mercury program moved on to the more powerful Atlas rockets, which were capable of putting the spacecraft into orbit.
About the Redstone rocket