- Explorer 1 was the first satellite launched by the U.S. and the superpower's response to Sputnik 1.
- Joyce Neighbors led the team that worked out the flight trajectory of Explorer's Jupiter-C rocket, calculations which weren’t standardized in those days.
- Despite her pioneering calculations, Neighbors never received the acclaim she deserved.
Once [World War II] ended, everyone scrambled to get their hands on German rocket technology and the scientists who worked on it. The Americans and the Russians divided up most of the spoils. The German rocket manufacturing and missile launching facilities helped lay the groundwork for the Soviet space program. Meanwhile, the Americans rushed to adapt the V-2 rockets for space launch testing at White Sands. Almost overnight, the Russians moved more than 2,000 German scientists and technicians to work in the Soviet Union. The Americans took another 1,600. Among them was Wernher von Braun.
Although von Braun told his U.S. captors that he’d unwillingly joined the Nazi Party in 1939 to avoid having to abandon his work, he had become a member in 1937. He also claimed he was not politically active in the party, despite being the very active head of the German rocketry and missile program. When Heinrich Himmler offered him the rank of lieutenant in the SS, von Braun also claimed he had no option but to accept.
The German V-2 missiles he designed and put into production brought death not only to Londoners but also to thousands of inmates from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp who were used as slave labor to build the missiles. Prisoners said that von Braun was a frequent visitor at the camp, which he also later denied. He admitted to knowing about the brutal treatment of prisoners but said he felt helpless to intervene.
Whether or not he was a willing Nazi, his rocket wizardry shielded him from repercussions after the war. He and his team were sent to an Army base in Texas less than 100 kilometers from the White Sands testing range. There, they trained U.S. personnel in rocket and missile technology and helped assemble and adapt the V-2s for space launches. The first V-2 was test launched from White Sands in 1946. Life magazine covered the next one in a five-page spread. In 1947, a U.S. V-2 carried the first animals into space. They were New Mexican fruit flies.
Liftoff at last
Wernher von Braun became more and more central to the program that could perhaps lead Americans to the stars. In 1950, he and his team were moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he continued designing new and improved rockets for space flight.
Meanwhile, the Soviets were aiming for liftoff too, but not as publicly as their U.S. counterparts. On October 4, 1957, Americans were shocked when they woke to the news that the Russians had launched the first satellite into orbit. Sputnik 1 was a wonderfully strange-looking four-armed metal sphere, powered into space by rockets burning oxygen and kerosene. It couldn’t do much more than emit beeps, but those beeps were heard all over the world. The Cold War heated up, Sputnik soared, and American pride tanked. The next blow landed a month later when Sputnik 2 carried a dog named Laika around the planet and into the history books. It was much more impressive than fruit flies, although the fruit flies had survived, while Laika never made it home.
The year before Sputnik launched, Alice Joyce Kerr Neighbors joined von Braun’s team in Alabama. She was an Alabama native, one of eight siblings born and raised on a farm in Randolph County. The family was poor, but there was no question of the kids dropping out of school — their mother wouldn’t have it. When Joyce was in the fifth grade, she solved a math problem that stumped her teacher. That’s when she knew she had a gift.
After finishing high school in 1948, she worked for a while to earn enough money to afford college. In 1950, she enrolled at Auburn University, graduating with a math degree as well as a physics minor. She continued with graduate studies in physics before she and her husband, Bill, moved to Huntsville. Bill started an important but hush-hush career in intelligence during the Cold War, while Joyce joined the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) in 1956. She became the first woman scientist to work in von Braun’s team there.
The Huntsville rocket team had been tasked with designing a launch system to put a satellite in orbit. The fastest approach was to modify an existing Redstone missile. They lengthened the rocket and optimized the engines to provide the necessary boost to lift the satellite out of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the satellite payload and the secondary stages of the rocket were being built by the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in California. There, a team of women computers led by Macie Roberts performed the mathematical calculations to design the mission parameters.
But President Eisenhower eventually gave the green light instead to Project Vanguard, a Navy satellite mission, and canceled the Army project. Then, before Vanguard could launch, Sputnik 1 made headlines in October 1957, followed by Sputnik 2 and Laika’s trip to space in November. In December, the Vanguard rocket exploded on the launchpad. The Army’s mission, dubbed Explorer 1, was on again.
Joyce Neighbors led a team tasked with working out the exact flight path of Explorer and determining the highest point in the flight. That’s when the second stage engines would ignite and put the satellite in orbit. If the engines fired at the wrong time, all would be lost. The calculation was extremely tricky: It depended on the weight and burn rate of the rocket fuel and on the performance of the engines, none of which was standardized in those early days of spaceflight. Despite the challenges, Neighbors felt that her team was up to the job. Their calculations helped to finalize the flight path, and on January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 lifted off.
It’s wonderful to imagine what it must have felt like for Neighbors to watch that first rocket soar. When she was asked about the moment years later, she merely said, “It was very successful.” The orbit was a bit higher than expected, but the satellite not only successfully orbited the planet; it even fulfilled its main scientific goal: to detect zones of charged particles around the Earth. These came to be called the Van Allen radiation belts after James van Allen, the chief scientist of the Explorer 1 mission.
The success of Explorer 1 helped America to recover somewhat from the Sputnik shock. Newsreels giddily reported the news of the first U.S. satellite in space. Photographs of von Braun, van Allen, and William Pickering, the head of the JPL, were splashed in newspapers and magazines, and they became national celebrities. Joyce Neighbors and the team of women computers at JPL never hit the headlines.
But Neighbors’ work was deemed so crucial that she was given the singular honor of signing her name on the mission chart next to the signatures of Wernher von Braun and Ernst Stuhlinger, another leading German scientist on the team. Only her first initials and her last name, though. A woman’s name would undermine the credibility of the chart. Names of former Nazis, however, were no problem.