Explorer 1

One basketball-sized streak across the skies in 1957 set in motion the Space Race. America’s returning shot to both Sputnik missions was a satellite of its own.

In its Starship Gallery, Space Center Houston has a full-scale replica of Explorer 1, the first American satellite sent into orbit. Explorer 1’s launch on Jan. 31, 1958, just months after the sensational flights of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 and 2, marked the official beginning of the Cold War Space Race for the United States and was a definite boost for America as it struggled with the Soviet Union over the conquest of space.

Explorer 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral by a rocket which was designed by German-born rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Though scientists learned from Sputnik’s orbits, Explorer 1 made the first scientific discovery from space.

Designed to study cosmic rays, it detected areas of intense radiation around the Earth using a device created by scientist James Van Allen. These radiation areas trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field became known as the Van Allen belts.

Explorer sits in a vaunted place in the history of the American space program. Von Braun’s rocket design and development were integral in the rapid growth of the space program and culminated with the Saturn series of rockets that launched the Apollo missions to the moon.