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Remembering Sputnik: Frederick C. Durant III

6 min read

Frederick Durant was a key advisor to the U.S. military, intelligence, and civilian space-flight programs of the 1950s and '60s. He served as president of the American Rocket Society in 1953 and president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) from 1953 to 1956. During the 1950s he worked for several different aerospace organizations, including: Bell Aircraft Corp., Everett Research Lab, the Naval Air Rocket Test Station, and the Maynard Ordnance Test Station. He later became assistant director of astronautics for the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., helping to launch the modern facility millions of visitors tour each year. While at the Smithsonian, he was tapped to serve as the aerospace historian for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Born in Ardmore, Pa., in 1916, Durant graduated from Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1939 with a degree in chemical engineering. He soon took a job with E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. With the outbreak of World War II, Durant enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to a pilot training program. After an in-air accident, he spent the duration of the war as an instructor teaching naval airmen the intricacies of flying from and landing on aircraft carriers. When his enlistment ended, he went to work for Bell Aircraft as a test pilot on the new line of jet aircraft that was being hastily developed. In 1951, during the Korean War, he returned to the service as a Navy test pilot.

As a civilian in the 1950s, he became one of the most respected independent advisors to the U.S. government on aerospace technology. He served on a Central Intelligence Agency panel in 1953 studying the possibility of extraterrestrial spacecraft as a potential threat to national security, co-authoring a report that concluded there was ”no evidence that the phenomena indicate a need for the revision of current scientific concepts.” In 1954, he penned an article for Aviation Week magazine titled ”Space Flight Needs Only Money, Time.” As president of the IAF, he told delegates at its 1954 convention in Innsbruck, Austria, ”The feasibility of space flight is no longer a topic for academic debate but a matter of time, money, and a program.”

That same year, he was recruited to participate in the first civilian-oriented effort to put a satellite into orbit. Led by Wernher von Braun, the team developed a concept called Project Orbiter, which later served as the foundation of the successful Explorer I mission launched on 31 January 1958.

Durant is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, as well as a patron of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation. He has been honored with many prestigious awards in the fields of aerospace and astronautics. He now lives in Raleigh, N.C.

IEEE Spectrum's Kieron Murphy spoke with Durant last month.

SPECTRUM: What were you doing in 1957, the celebrated International Geophysical Year, when the world's scientists were first focused on our planet?

DURANT: I was working for AVCO-Everett Research Laboratory, in Massachusetts, on re-entry physics for ICBMs. Those of us who were activists in professional societies were all set to achieve satellite flight, but there was no program for it, there was no money, and no organization. It had to be built from the grass roots. It was the impetus of Sputnik that got von Braun the backing he needed.

SPECTRUM: Where did you hear the news about Sputnik?

DURANT: I was in Barcelona—coming from Majorca with my wife from a little holiday. It was the annual meeting of the International Astronautical Federation, which is an organization of space-flight societies. Among these at that time was the British Interplanetary Society, and the leader of that group was Arthur C. Clarke, whom I had met years earlier. In '57, we were both in Barcelona for the IAF meeting. When Sputnik went up—I think it was a Friday evening—well, we all met on Saturday, and the news came over the radio about the launching of the satellite. We had a great celebration.

SPECTRUM: What was your initial reaction to the news?

DURANT: Great! It didn't make a damn bit of difference that it was not the United States. We had been fighting for a satellite for so long. Internationally, the people who were attending this meeting were all so excited that, by God, somebody had done it. Somebody had put up the money. That it was the Soviet Union, fine. Not too much of a problem there. We could catch up with them.

SPECTRUM: So all the other scientists were celebrating as well.

DURANT: Absolutely, indeed.

SPECTRUM: What was the reaction you heard afterward from the military and the intelligence communities?

DURANT: Well, I worked in that sphere for some time, so I knew that the orders were to find out how the Soviets had done it. We didn't have information about their launch vehicle. There was no outline, no photos, and so on. Keep in mind that the so-called race into space was about building sufficiently powerful rocket-propelled systems, because both the United States and the Soviet Union wanted to carry thermonuclear or fission warheads at intercontinental ballistic missile distance. So the proof that the Soviets had this was the launching of Sputnik. We knew they were testing, but we didn't know they had attained the velocity that was required.

SPECTRUM: You were privy to some of that information because of your service as an advisor to the CIA on rocketry, right?

DURANT: Let's just say I was aware of it, yes. I had security clearances for that sort of intelligence information. In my travels to these meetings, I kept my ears open and reported when I returned.

SPECTRUM: Were the Soviets at Barcelona?

DURANT: Yes, indeed. Leonid Sedov [IAF president from 1959 to 1961] was there with a contingent from the Soviet Union.

SPECTRUM: Did you and the other Barcelona attendees congratulate them?

DURANT: Oh, of course! My lord, we slapped them on the back and offered our sincerest congratulations. I probably should have been more worried that we hadn't done it first, but I had been fighting for this—we all had—for so long.

SPECTRUM: Did you and your colleagues such as Mr. Clarke think the Russian technology was cutting-edge?

DURANT: Well, let's just say they proved that.

SPECTRUM: What was Wernher von Braun's reaction to Sputnik?

DURANT: Frustration. He was frustrated because we could have launched in the summer of '57. I was part of the program for the so-called Project Orbiter that was basically the same as the system that we put up on 31 January of '58. This was the Huntsville [Ala.] team, mostly former Germans. The point was there was a certain amount of irritation. But, in essence, President Eisenhower wanted to keep our launch vehicle civilian-oriented and nonmilitary. Remember, the United States was developing an ICBM. He wanted to keep the programs separate. That was it. But there was a lot of jealousy between the services. And that was another part.

SPECTRUM: I've heard that, after hearing the news, von Braun told the U.S. government that Huntsville had a Jupiter-C [Redstone-based] rocket that could be adapted to launch a satellite into orbit within three months at a cost of US $1 million.

DURANT: You should speak to Ernst Stuhlinger about that. He was von Braun's director of research. He's still alive, living in Huntsville.

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

DURANT: Well, I was in on it, but the former Germans really put it together, von Braun's team, the Huntsville team. The theoretical work was done by them. They had a Redstone battlefield rocket and, on top of it, they put a rotating tub of rockets that fired in succession. But much of the planning had already been done in Project Orbiter. Anyway, we had two or three meetings about this, technically, after Sputnik, but it was a lot of research done by bootleg, because it was not an approved program. The only comment I'll make on all this was that if the United States had launched a satellite in the summer of '57, we probably would have never gone to the moon. Because it would have not had the impact of Sputnik, which pretty much caught the world by surprise.

SPECTRUM: Were you startled by the media sensation that Sputnik created?

DURANT: Yes. I was called in to testify before the Congress after the news swept the world.

SPECTRUM: It's interesting that you say Sputnik was the impetus for the United States to attempt a mission to the moon. After that, the American space program was dramatically overhauled and NASA was created.

DURANT: Yes, a lot happened very quickly. It was exciting to be part of it.

SPECTRUM: Later in your career, you were involved with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. How did the museum honor the first Sputnik mission?

DURANT: I was the assistant director for astronautics from 1965 until 1980. We had annual recognitions of the accomplishment and invited the international societies to meet for the occasion.

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

DURANT: All I can think of is the excitement of being alive at that time. My enthusiasm bubbled over. I was so caught up in the concept of flight into space. Having been a naval aviator and test pilot, I guess I enjoyed a certain amount of risk, properly prepared for. So I was enthusiastic about the future. And once we had Sputnik, we knew what would follow. We would have communications satellites, which Arthur Clarke had written about. Communications today results from Sputnik. Period.

SPECTRUM: Speaking of Mr. Clarke, what are your memories of his reaction to the news of Sputnik in Barcelona?

DURANT: Well, we were all whooping it up together there, all of the delegates. He was very congratulatory. We had all been fighting for this. Arthur and all the other space enthusiasts wanted to see happen what we all knew could happen when we had a program and money and proper people working on it.

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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