Remembering Sputnik: Ernst Stuhlinger

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Born in Niederrimbach, Germany, in 1913, Ernst Stuhlinger earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tübingen at age 23. As an assistant professor at the Berlin Institute of Technology, he performed research in cosmic rays and nuclear physics and participated in the German atomic energy program. In 1943, after a stint in the German army on the Russian front, he joined Wernher von Braun's team at the German village of Peenemuende, where he served in the field of guidance and control systems for military rockets. At the end of World War II, Stuhlinger joined the other members of von Braun's group of 126 scientists and engineers in the United States to work on civilian uses for advanced rockets (a program known as Operation Paperclip in intelligence circles). Eventually settling in the town of Huntsville, Alabama, at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency's Redstone Arsenal, Stuhlinger and his family won permanent U.S. citizenship in 1955.

At the Redstone Arsenal in the 1950s, Stuhlinger served as a senior research director on the civilian Project Orbiter campaign. That led to the first successful U.S. spaceflight, the launch of the Explorer 1 satellite powered by a modified Army Jupiter-C rocket on 31 January 1958, 16 weeks after the launch of Sputnik.

At the time, Stuhlinger also developed designs for solar-powered spacecraft. The most popular design relied on ion stream vapor emitted by cesium atoms accelerated by negatively charged electrodes that would push the ion stream through a propulsion channel. The mechanism would be powered by the 1 kilowatt of radiant energy that falls on each square meter of surface from the sun. He referred to the craft as a sunship.

Stuhlinger was director of the Space Science Laboratory at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, from 1960 to 1968. He then served as its associate director for science from 1968 to 1975, when he left and became an adjunct professor and senior research scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Now retired, he still lives in the area with his wife of many years.

IEEE Spectrum’s Kieron Murphy talked with Stuhlinger last month.

SPECTRUM: What were you working on in 1957?

STUHLINGER: I had for many years been a member of the von Braun team, which was working on rockets for the Army at that time. As a side activity, von Braun and his people were thinking about the possibilities of building rockets for outer space and putting satellites around the earth. This was very important to him.

SPECTRUM: Where did you hear the news about Sputnik?

STUHLINGER: In the fall of 1957, there was a meeting in Barcelona of the International Astronautical Federation [IAF], and people from various countries interested in astronautics—the United States, Russia, and others—were convening there for a couple of days to talk about space projects. I was to participate. So I was on my way. I flew first from Huntsville to New York, which was not simple at that time. I spent the night there, and the next morning I took a cab to the airport. The taxi driver turned on the radio in the cab, and I heard the news that the Russians had launched a satellite.

SPECTRUM: What was your reaction to the news?

STUHLINGER: There were many compelling reactions. First, I said to myself silently, ”I told you so,” because I had been following a number of recent remarks by Russian dignitaries in their news service, Tass, concerning their plans to launch a satellite. To us young scientists, our experience was that the Russians were very careful in announcing future projects. If they did, we knew that they had something big coming. So I had become convinced that summer that the Russians were going to launch soon. I made some remarks to my superiors, to the Army, about this; but I was told that there’s no hurry, that the Russians could not do it, let’s not get excited about it. And furthermore, there already was an American satellite project underway, Vanguard, that the Navy was developing with a nonmilitary rocket, which was still in planning, that President Eisenhower wanted to use.

My second reaction, still in the cab, was that I was on my way to Barcelona, and I would meet many Russians there. Among others, the chief space scientist for the Russian projects would be there, Professor [Leonid] Sedov [IAF president from 1959 to 1961]. Sedov and I had met before, and a kind of friendship based on mutual respect had developed between us. So I said to myself, ”The first thing I will do is to congratulate Sedov on their success.”

The third thought in the taxi was: I hope that this will be a wake-up call for us Americans that the Russians are not those dummies some people thought they were, but that they could accomplish a project of this kind. I hoped it would serve to remind Americans that we were not so superior in every respect to the Russians. And I hoped that this wake-up call would result in permission for the von Braun team to continue our satellite project, Explorer, which we were not officially allowed to pursue at that time.

There was another feeling that became stronger and stronger, even up to this very day. It was a feeling of gratitude to the Russians for teaching us that we should be realistic about the things we could accomplish and that we should do something to promote our own projects to ensure the good name of our country and our place at the forefront of modern life.

The last thought that came to my mind at that time was: You Russians won this round. You may even win the next round, too, putting a man in space. However, we Americans have a good chance to win the next big round, to put a man on the moon. It was something I saw in the future. And it kind of went that way.

SPECTRUM: When you got to Barcelona, what was the mood like among the delegates, who had heard the news?

STUHLINGER: Everybody congratulated the Russians. And the Russians were beaming with pride, understandably. I met with Sedov, as planned, and congratulated him. And we had a very nice personal talk. He said, ”Why in the world did you not launch your von Braun satellite? You had all the things you needed. You had the Redstone, which had been proven. You had the plans. You knew what you were doing. Why did you not launch it? We in Russia were waiting almost from day to day for you to launch your proposed satellite. But you didn’t. Why didn’t you?” That was a good question, of course.

It was a person-to-person talk. But I could not respond much to him, because he was absolutely right.

The reason was that some people, mainly in the Army, just did not want us to do that.

SPECTRUM: Did you and the other Barcelona attendees, such as Arthur Clarke, think the Russian technology was cutting-edge?

STUHLINGER: Well, of course, everybody who was aware of satellites immediately thought the Russians really knew what they were doing. They were good engineers. And the success of this project was unquestionable.

SPECTRUM: When you got back from Barcelona, did you find a different mood in the United States?

STUHLINGER: I would say, quite generally, Sputnik was a shock to America. I remember some of the newspaper people were relentless in criticizing those who had made the wrong decisions. They wondered where our highly qualified engineers and scientists were. And they criticized the politicians for letting it happen.

SPECTRUM: The news of Sputnik caused a worldwide media sensation. Were you surprised by the frenzy of publicity?

STUHLINGER: Yes. I was prepared for something like that. In fact, in my attempts to get our project advanced, one of my arguments was that we should not run the risk of shock to Americans and criticism of our colleagues by letting the Russians be the first. But the shock was actually greater, the criticism in the newspapers was harsher and stronger than I had expected.

SPECTRUM: When you got back home, what was von Braun’s reaction to the launch of Sputnik?

STUHLINGER: In fact, he wrote a paper about it, ”The Launch of Sputnik.” It was an excellent analysis of the situation. He tried to answer in a very technical way, a very objective way, where our mistakes were made and what we should do differently in the future. One of the points was that we should not underestimate the capabilities of Russian scientists and engineers.

SPECTRUM: Reportedly, after hearing the news, von Braun told the U.S. government that Huntsville had a military Jupiter rocket that could be adapted to launch a satellite into orbit within three months.

STUHLINGER: I believe he said we could do it in two months, but General [John B.] Medaris [commanding officer of the ABMA], sitting next to him, said, ”Wernher, let’s make that three months.” He was right, of course, because we were given permission to launch a satellite in November, and it was launched at the end of January.

SPECTRUM: How did the successful Explorer 1 evolve, and why did it come together so quickly?

STUHLINGER: On top of the Redstone, which was a one-stage liquid chemical rocket, in place of the heavy warhead we would place an assembly of three more stages of small solid-propellant rockets. We would launch the rocket with this assembly on the front end—which we put together in a spinning tub. On the way up, after cutoff, we could turn the front end in a certain direction, so that at the top of its vertical trajectory it would be positioned horizontally. Then we would build an apex predictor, which would tell us when the front end arrived at this horizontal position. When we got the signal that the vehicle had reached its apex, we started the ignition sequence of the solid-propellant rockets. They ignited in quick succession, three seconds each stage, and placed the satellite in its trajectory around the earth.

SPECTRUM: Could you summarize your experience of working with von Braun?

STUHLINGER: Ah, that would be difficult. Let’s just say he was the most impressive person I ever met in my life. I wrote a book about him, called Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space [Krieger Publishing Co., 1996].

SPECTRUM: What is your personal reaction on looking back on the impact of Sputnik, 50 years later?

STUHLINGER: I think it was one of the most important events in the history of spaceflight. It was an achievement which showed that our dreams could become reality. May I quote General Medaris? He supported our unofficial efforts to launch a satellite, but he was under orders not to proceed with this effort. He told me after Sputnik went up, ”Those darn bastards,” the Russians. Three weeks later, though, he said, ”If I could get a hold of that thing, I would kiss it on both cheeks,” because Sputnik had done so much to open doors and change opinions that it helped us become a space-faring nation.

Interviewed by Kieron Murphy for IEEE Spectrum

To see all of Spectrum's special report Remembering Sputnik, 50 Years Later, go to /sputnik.

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