That Time the Air Force Literally Shot at Space in Response to Soviet Launch of Sputnik
U.S. struggled to react to sudden development in both the Space Race and the Cold War.
On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union did what no other nation had managed to do: it put a satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit around the Earth.
The U.S. responded to this technological advance sixty one years ago today— by panicking and launching something far more primitive into space.
Not only was U.S. technological and scientific prestige on the line in those early days of the Cold War, but space was seen as the future of warfare — a battleground the U.S. could not afford to cede to the Soviets.
Military officials later complained that they likely could have beaten the Soviet Union to the satellite milestone but had been hamstrung by politicians who preferred civilian-led efforts in space out of worry of a potentially hostile message a military space operation would send.
But that was before Sputnik.
“The launch of Sputnik… changed everything,” retired Air Force Gen. Bernard Schriever wrote in a history of the Air Force in space. “Suddenly, everyone got space-minded. I was flying back and forth from the West Coast to Washington, like a shuttlecock in a badminton game, making presentations to people in the Pentagon and to the Congress. ‘Why can’t we go faster?’ they demanded. ‘Why can’t we do something?’”
NASA wouldn’t be established until the next year, so in the meantime, it fell to the military branches, which all had independent space programs, to “do something.”
In a half-century-old echo of the current controversy over President Trump’s proposed Space Force, the different military branches and civilian sectors were competing over who would take responsibility for space. The Air Force, then a young military organization but already in charge of all things above ground, said that logic would dictate it simply expand its responsibilities beyond the atmosphere. (In 1958 Air Force leaders first began to use the term “aerospace” as a description of “their service’s legitimate role in space, and [the leaders] promoted that claim at every opportunity,” the military history says.)
The military history this column has referenced, called “The U.S. Air Force in Space” and hosted on the Department of Defense’s website, is a 200-plus page exhaustive history of the military branch’s fits and starts among the stars. But all that history curiously leaves out the events of Oct. 16, 1957.
For that, we turn to the NASA history “Aeronautics and Astronautics” which includes a brief, odd entry for the day:
“October 16: USAF successfully launched pellets at a speed faster than 33,000 mph (some 8,000 mph faster than the velocity necessary to escape from the earth) by an Aerobee rocket at a height of 35 miles; the nose section then ascended to a height of 54 miles where shaped charges blasted the pellets into space.”
Days after the Soviets launched a small satellite into orbit, the U.S. responded with pellets.
An article in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine credits astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky with the basic idea, which the article described as a “pop-gun rehearsal for launching real hardware.”
“We first throw something little into the skies, then a shipload of instruments, then ourselves,” Zwicky is quoted as saying.
In Zwicky’s later account of the Oct. 16 launch, he said that when the final explosives detonated in the skies “a very bright green flash was observed by all” as the pellets left Earth and out into the emptiness of space.
He said that since the pellets “possessed almost twice the kinetic energy necessary for escape from the Earth, it is certain that they got away from the gravitational pull of the Earth to become tiny satellites of the sun, describing orbits around the sun, which, except for effects of light pressure and loss of mass by evaporation, must be essentially elliptical.”
Zwicky proudly noted that it was the first time man-made objects had been launched from the Earth, out of the planet’s orbit and out into space, “never to return.” He also noted that the experiment did provide some useful new information about the atmosphere.
Several newspapers heralded the accomplishment. As the Smithsonian magazine wrote, “Americans whose pride had been wounded in early October [by Sputnik’s launch] could even claim that, technically, they’d beaten the Soviets, having sent the first man-made object beyond Earth’s gravitational control.”
But realistically, the pellets-into-space gambit did little to assuage the fears that the U.S. was trailing behind the Soviets in the space race.
That feeling of national embarrassment wouldn’t truly subside until more than a decade later on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first human to ever set foot on the moon.