26 Jul 2016

When Von Braun almost beat Sputnik

Here’s an interesting bit of Space Race trivia that I’d never heard before, from Herbert F. York’s book “Race to Oblivion” (mentioned previously):

The third pre-Sputnik satellite program was bootlegged by the Army. The Von Braun group had earlier submitted a proposal for a rocket for launching the IGY satellite to the committee duly charged with launcher selection. In what I understand to have been a fair competition, the winner was the Navy’s Vanguard proposal. However, the Medaris-Von Braun group was not one to be stopped by a mere decision of higher authority, and they went ahead and designed a new satellite launcher which they named the Jupiter C. […]

This Jupiter C was not really a Jupiter; rather, it was a Redstone plus upper stages consisting of clusters of small solid rockets. Its ostensible purpose was testing nose-cone materials for Jupiter, but the actual velocity attained (and not accidentally) was more nearly that of an Atlas, the development of which was the sole responsibility of the Air Force. Even on its very first launch, it carried an additional dummy stage, “filled with sand instead of power,” which if properly filled and fired could have been used to send it into orbit well in advance of Sputnik and the IGY.

I’d never heard this before, and it was surprising to learn that Von Braun and Co. could have, if they had been allowed to go full-tilt, beaten the Soviet Sputnik program. It is interesting to imagine what the ensuing decades would have been like had that occurred, and whether the US space program would have received the degree of investments that it did as a result of being perceived as behind the Soviets.

York references a book called “Countdown for Decision” by John B. Medaris, which is not available online – a used copy is now on its way to me, however. Seems like an interesting read.

Also, I think that perhaps York means “bootstrapped” rather than “bootlegged” in the first quoted sentence. Hard to tell, though, and I don’t imagine that the former term was in anything like the common usage (dictated by its usage in the IT field) it is in today, when the book was written in the 70s.

This entry was converted from an older version of the site; if desired, it can be viewed in its original format.