Explorer 1 (1958 Alpha 1) was the first Earth satellite of the United States, launched as part of its participation in the International Geophysical Year. The mission followed the first two Earth satellites the previous year, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 and 2, beginning the Cold War Space Race between the two nations.
Explorer 1 was launched on January 31, 1958 at 22:48 Eastern Time atop the first Juno booster from LC-26 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Annex, Florida. It was the first spacecraft to detect the Van Allen radiation belt, returning data until its batteries were exhausted after nearly four months. It remained in orbit until 1970, and has been followed by more than 90 scientific spacecraft in the Explorer series.
The U.S. Earth satellite program began in 1954 as a joint U.S. Army and U.S. Navy proposal, called Project Orbiter, to put a scientific satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year. The proposal, using a military Redstone missile, was rejected in 1955 by the Eisenhower administration in favor of the Navy’s Project Vanguard, using a booster produced for civilian space launches. Following the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the initial Project Orbiter program was revived as the Explorer program to catch up with the Soviet Union.
Explorer 1 was designed and built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), while a Jupiter-C rocket was modified by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) to accommodate a satellite payload; the resulting rocket known as the Juno I. The Jupiter-C design used for the launch had already been flight-tested in nose cone reentry tests for the Jupiter IRBM, and was modified into Juno I. Working closely together, ABMA and JPL completed the job of modifying the Jupiter-C and building Explorer 1 in 84 days. However, before work was completed, the Soviet Union launched a second satellite, Sputnik 2, on November 3, 1957. The U.S. Navy’s attempt to put the first U.S. satellite into orbit failed with the launch of the Vanguard TV3 on December 6, 1957