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A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey tells the remarkable story of America's first efforts to succeed in space, a time of exploding rockets, national space mania, Florida boomtowns, and interservice rivalries so fierce that President Dwight Eisenhower had to referee them.
When the Soviet Union launched the first orbital satellite, Sputnik I, Americans panicked. The Soviets had nuclear weapons, the Cold War was underway, and now the USSR had taken the lead in the space race. Members of Congress and the press called for an all-out effort to launch a satellite into orbit. With dire warnings about national security in the news almost every day, the armed services saw space as the new military frontier. But President Eisenhower insisted that the space effort, which relied on military technology, be supervised by civilians so that the space race would be peaceful. The Navy's Vanguard program flopped, and the Army, led by ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and a martinet general named J. Bruce Medaris (whom Eisenhower disliked), took over. Meanwhile, the Soviets put a dog inside the next Sputnik, and Americans grew more worried as the first animal in space whirled around the Earth.
Throughout 1958 America went space crazy. UFO sightings spiked. Boys from Brooklyn to Burbank shot model rockets into the air. Space-themed beauty pageants became a national phenomenon. The news media flocked to the launchpads on the swampy Florida coast, and reporters reinvented themselves as space correspondents. And finally the Army's rocket program succeeded. Determined not to be outdone by the Russians, America's space scientists launched the first primate into space, a small monkey they nicknamed Old Reliable for his calm demeanor. And then at Christmastime, Eisenhower authorized the launch of a secret satellite with a surprise aboard.
A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey memorably recalls the infancy of the space race, a time when new technologies brought ominous danger but also gave us the ability to realize our dreams and reach for the stars.
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Michael D'Antonio is the author of many acclaimed books, including Atomic Harvest, Fall from Grace, Tin Cup Dreams, Mosquito, and The State Boys Rebellion. His work has also appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Discover, and many other publications. Among his many awards is the Pulitzer Prize, which he shared with a team of reporters for Newsday.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Those Damn Bastards!
On October 4, 1957, the USS Glacier, stubby and wide-beamed, chugged westward in the Pacific Ocean, tracing a course a few hundred miles north of the Galápagos Islands. Shaped like a watermelon cut lengthwise, the ship was designed to crush through polar ice. Her engines were powerful and her steel skin was thick enough to survive even high-speed collisions with growlers, small bergs that sounded like angry dogs as they scraped along the hull. On her maiden voyage in 1955 -- called Operation Deep Freeze -- the Glacier had cut through 400 miles of frozen ocean that would have stopped any other American ship.
But as sturdy as she was, in the open sea the Glacier was a bit tipsy, rolling with almost every wave, which complicated matters for civilian physicist James Van Allen, his student Larry Cahill, and the members of the crew who gathered early in the morning to help launch a strange contraption called a "rockoon." First they hauled a huge, clear plastic balloon -- source of the "oon" part of rockoon -- out of the ship's hold and onto the quarterdeck, which was otherwise used as a helipad. Next came bottles of helium, which were tapped to fill the balloon with 26,000 pounds of gas. As it grew larger, and was subject to the breeze, the balloon flopped around like a fish on the deck.
As the crew continued the task of inflating the balloon, Van Allen turned to a long, narrow wooden crate that was propped on sawhorses. Inside was an Aerobee rocket -- the "rock" in rockoon -- that was roughly six feet long and not much bigger around than a rolling pin. First developed in the late 1940s, various generations of the Aerobee would serve for decades as reliable rockets for exploring the atmosphere and near space. As he turned to this particular rocket, Van Allen summoned some helpers and began to review what they had to do to make it airworthy.
A slightly built man of forty-three, with sloping shoulders and a soft, boyish face, Professor Van Allen hardly looked like a commanding figure. But he had spent more time at sea than most of the crew, and he directed them with a combination of certainty and respect that inspired cooperation. With help from Cahill he got the rocket out of its box. They tested its radio transmitter and attached a rope that would connect it to the balloon for a journey aloft.
The rocket was the tricky part. One had recently fired, accidentally, while it was being readied for use on the deck of another ship. Ignited by a signal from its own radio transmitter, the thing took off horizontally. The flame from its tail burned a ship's officer who stood nearby and blew the coat right off one of Van Allen's students from the University of Iowa Physics Department. It then smashed through a pair of sawhorses and headed straight for a sailor who was talking to the bridge via a deck phone. The rocket sliced through the cord on the phone, leaving the shocked crewman unscathed as he held the suddenly un-tethered receiver in his hand. The rocket finally crashed into a stack of helium canisters that were, to the relief of everyone on board, empty and not pressurized. Burning fuel and pieces of metal flew all over the deck.
Although the injuries from that accident included just the burns suffered by the officer and damage to the student's eardrums, it reminded every scientist, officer, and enlisted man involved with the rockoons that while they looked like mere gas bags trailing fireworks, they were potentially lethal.
Aboard the Glacier, as the moment for the October 4 launch approached, Lieutenant Stephen Wilson picked up a phone on the deck and contacted the ship's bridge. The balloon could be released only when the ship was traveling with the prevailing breeze, at exactly the same speed as the wind, so that the entire contraption would clear the Glacier's smokestack, antennae, and mast. To get the course and speed right, Wilson barked a stream of orders to a helmsman, who made adjustments. "If anyone looked at your ship's track when we were doing this," he would one day recall, "they would be convinced there was some drunk at the helm."
At 1:16 P.M., with Wilson keeping the ship steady, Van Allen signaled the men who held the balloon to let it go. The big clear bubble of gas rose, pulling behind it the rope and rocket and leaving the ship behind. Looking much like a jellyfish with a single tentacle, the balloon moved slowly at first, but as it climbed, and the atmosphere thinned, it picked up speed. Below, Van Allen watched through binoculars as the sunlit blob of plastic flew farther and farther away. Beside him a radioman, Petty Officer David Armbrust, stood wearing earphones and holding a special antenna that was made to track signals from the rocket.
As it approached an altitude of fifteen miles, where the rocket's engine would automatically fire, the men below had one last chance to worry about whether the rig had somehow gotten tangled. A rocket pointing in the wrong direction could race back down to Earth, and hit the ship like a bomb. (This had never happened, but you never know.)
Fortunately, the rockoon performed as planned. At the fifteen-mile mark it fired properly, breaking free from the balloon and climbing skyward to deliver its payload -- nine pounds of scientific instruments and a radio transmitter -- to a final altitude of seventy miles. Below, on the deck of the ship, Van Allen directed Petty Officer Armbrust, who struggled to keep his antenna pointed at the right spot in the sky so he could pick up the rocket's signals.
When it reached its apogee the rocket was beyond the stratosphere and on the edge of outer space. The equipment on board measured the amount of radiation streaming to Earth from various sources in the universe and radioed the data back to the Glacier. With his rockoons Van Allen had already pierced other regions of the sky. His goal was to understand the earth's magnetic field and the quality, quantity, and behavior of cosmic rays throughout the atmosphere. Because these phenomena affected radio signals, this work had some immediate practical applications. But it would also provide vital information about the conditions a rocket, satellite, or human being might one day encounter in space.
Though connected with Van Allen's long-term research, this particular rockoon flight was part of an ongoing, international campaign of exploration that involved 60,000 people in nearly seventy countries and was called the International Geophysical Year. The IGY had been conceived seven years earlier in Van Allen's living room by a group of renowned scientists who fed on his wife's homemade seven-layer cake. It was modeled after two previous "Polar Years" held in 1882 and 1932, which also involved the world's top explorers and scientists in similar efforts to study the Earth's condition, from pole to pole, and then share their findings freely with the world.
For the men of the Glacier, Van Allen and his rockoons provided the main excitement on a voyage that had otherwise been thoroughly routine. As Lieutenant Wilson would recall, Van Allen was at once brilliant, brave, and possessed of a certain Midwest, regular-guy charm. "He was the kind of character," said Wilson, "that most people only read about in The Saturday Evening Post." Wilson was most impressed by Van Allen's patience, whether the professor was answering the lieutenant's endless questions about his work, or directing sailors in very practical matters. No question, or man, was unimportant. Each received Van Allen's full respect and attention.
Although Wilson counted Van Allen as "one of a kind" he actually represented a certain type -- swashbuckling man of science -- that went back, at least, to the naturalists who sailed with European explorers to the New World in the sixteenth century. The modern era of the scientific adventurer had dawned with the publication of Charles Darwin's enormously popular writings about his voyages to roughly the same region -- the Galápagos and surrounding waters -- where the Glacier sailed on that Friday in October. By the start of the twentieth century, the attention of scientific explorers had shifted to the North and South Poles, and the upper atmosphere, which represented the frontier for Earth-bound adventure.
One of the great polar explorers, Thomas Poulter, had been Van Allen's mentor at Iowa Wesleyan College. Chief scientist for Admiral Richard Byrd's second Antarctic expedition, Poulter had a taste for big things and was never shy about pursuing new technologies. For a time he had been famous for it. In the 1930s he designed and built a "Snow Cruiser" that was fifty-six feet long, twenty feet wide, and fifteen feet high and rode on huge custom-made tires. Both bulbous and somehow graceful in design, this tugboat on wheels contained a laboratory, a machine shop, and quarters for four. It carried a small airplane on its roof and enough food and water to last a year.
The Snow Cruiser, which resembled most the future Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, had been a sensation as it toured U.S. cities prior to its deployment in Antarctica from Boston harbor. Poulter's invention was supposed to open a new era in exploration, and help America keep tabs on the Germans, who were prowling around on the pretense of a scientific mission. When it reached its destination and lumbered off the ship, the cruiser nearly tipped over. Poulter gunned the engine and the cruiser lurched forward until its spinning wheels dug four deep ruts in the ice. No amount of effort would free the beast, and it had to be abandoned. A temporary setback became permanent as Congress refused to fund repairs. Sixty-five years later, the lifeless thing remained icebound near the Antarctic outpost of Little America.
As failures go, the Snow Cruiser was spectacular. It was also a perfect illustration of the kind of science that led bookish but ambitious types like Van Allen, who forever retained a sense of awe about Poulter ("one of the most creative people I ever saw") to plunge into esoteric fields like phys...
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