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"Live from Cape Canaveral"
Covering the Space Race, from Sputnik to Today
344 pages; ISBN 9780061494178
In 1957, Cape Canaveral was the most vital and most intensely exciting place in the country. It offered cutting-edge technology in a time of nineteen-cent-a-gallon gasoline, nickel Cokes, two-bit drive-in movies, and the hit of the television season Leave It To Beaver. It was a time when doors went unlocked, when virgins married, when divorce ruined your social standing, and when folks spent their lives working for the same company with the promise of lifelong retirement checks.
In 1957 few that walked this planet reflected on the fact they were actually inhabitants of a mortal spaceship eight thousand miles in diameter, circling one of the universe's 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (ten to the twenty-fourth) stars at 67,062 miles per hour.
However, two groups of men and women—given the era, it was mostly men—were actually consumed, day and night, by the realities that we were all astronauts living on spaceship Earth. One group worked in the United States at Alabama's Redstone arsenal; the other busied itself in a Soviet hamlet called Baikonur on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Like the American group, the Russians developed and worked on machines to lift nuclear warheads and stuff off our planet, and on the evening of October 4, 1957, one of their creations, a large white rocket called R7, was being fueled for what some would call the single most important event of the twentieth century. Nearby, inside a steel-lined concrete bunker, an intense middle-aged man named Sergei Korolev was at work. His job, as the chief rocket engineer for the USSR, was to orchestrate the stop-and-go countdown. But unlike his American counterpart, Wernher von Braun, Korolev had the full blessing and support of his country's communist government.
While Korolev had been chasing the goal of space flight at breakneck speed, Dr. von Braun had been pleading with President Dwight David Eisenhower to let him launch an Earth satellite. Only the year before, von Braun had moved his rocket and satellite to its launch pad without permission. He was going to launch it anyway, pretending that the satellite accidentally went into orbit. But Lieutenant Colonel Asa Gibbs, Cape Canaveral's commander, ordered the satellite launcher returned to its hangar. Colonel Gibbs cared more about his ass and making full colonel than he did history.
Now, with von Braun's rocket in storage, Sergei Korolev's R7 was fueled, and his launch team was ready to send a satellite into orbit and send Russia into the history books.
"Gotovnosty dyesyat minut."
Steel braces that held the rocket in place were folded down, and the last power cables between Earth and the rocket fell away.
"Tri . . .
"Dva . . .
"Odin . . ."
Flame created a monstrous sea of fire. It ripped into steel and concrete and blew away the night. It sent orange daylight rolling across the steppes of Kazakhstan, quickly followed by a thunderous train of sound that shook all that stood within its path.
R7 climbed from its self-created daylight on legs of flaming thrust and soon appeared as if it were an elongated star racing across a black sky. It fled from view and left darkness to once again swallow its launch pad as it became just another distant star over the Aral Sea.
While others strained to see the final flicker of the rocket, Korolev was interested only in the readouts. He sat transfixed by the tracking information streaming into the control room. The data were perfect. He was intently interested in each engine's shutdown. Separation of each stage had to be clean. And when the world's first man-made satellite slipped into Earth orbit, he permitted himself to rejoice with the others.
It would be called Sputnik (fellow traveler), and ninety-six minutes later, it completed its first trip around our planet, streaking over its still-steaming launch pad, broadcasting a lusty beep-beep-beep.
A dream had been realized.
Wild celebrations exploded across the Soviet Union.
In the NBC newsroom in New York, editor Bill Fitzgerald had just finished writing his next scheduled newscast when the wire-service machines began clanging. The persistent noise rattled most everything. Fitzgerald ran to the main Associated Press wire and began reading.
London, October 4th (AP)
Moscow radio said tonight that the Soviet Union has launched an Earth satellite.
The satellite, silver in color, weighs 184 pounds and is reported to be the size of a basketball.
Moscow radio said it is circling the globe every 96 minutes, reaching as far out as 569 miles as it zips along at more than 17,000 miles per hour.
Fitzgerald froze. He didn't want to believe his fully written newscast had just been flushed down the toilet.
"Damn!" he cursed in protest before hurrying across the newsroom and bursting into Morgan Beatty's office. "Mo, we've gotta update," he shouted. "One of the damn Russian missiles got away from them, and they lost a basketball or something in space."
Beatty, a World War II correspondent, never came unglued in battles and he wasn't about to be upset by an agitated editor. "Give me that," he demanded, snatching the wire copy from Fitzgerald's hand.
Beatty's eyes widened as he read. "Jesus Christ, Bill, you know what this is? The Russians have put a satellite in Earth orbit! They've been talking about it, and damn it, they've really done it!"
Fitzgerald took a deep breath. "Okay, what do we do, Mo?"
The veteran newscaster didn't hesitate. "We've got to get this on the air, now!"
Sputnik came around the world, streaking northeast over the Gulf of Mexico and Alabama. Its current orbit took it south of Huntsville, where the U.S. Army's rocket team at the Redstone Arsenal was enjoying dinner and cocktails with some high-powered brass from Washington. One of the guests was Neil H. McElroy, who was soon to be the secretary of defense. Wernher von Braun was delighted. He judged McElroy as a man of action and when he replaced the current defense secretary, Charles E. Wilson, action would be . . .
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