The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

A Rocket Scientist Recalls the First U.S. Spaceflight

A pioneer of the U.S. space program looks back at its first success 50 years ago

7 min read

Fifty years ago, the United States became a space-faring nation. On 31 January 1958, the U.S. Army launched a civilian satellite into Earth’s orbit from a research facility at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. It was broadcast live by international television networks. It was the first time most of the world had ever witnessed a spaceflight. And it set into motion a series of events that history has said led to the greatest accomplishment the human race has ever achieved: the Apollo moon landing. Few of the players in this achievement remain to bear witness to its significance, but those who remember know that they accomplished a practical miracle.

The historic flight of Explorer-I was the result of missed opportunities by the U.S. government to put a scientific satellite into orbit during the first International Geophysical Year of 1957, to study conditions beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The distinction of being first to do so fell to the Soviet Union with the launch of Sputnik I in October of that year. Months prior to Sputnik , U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, acutely aware of international concern over the development of rockets capable of delivering nuclear weapons in the chilly days of the Cold War, insisted to his advisers that America’s initial foray into space be a civilian project.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

Keep Reading ↓Show less