January 31, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Explorer 1 Chief Discovers Design

On this day 50 years ago, America entered the space race.  On January 31, 1958, America gave its answer to Sputnik: a civilian satellite named Explorer 1.  Within a few hours of the time of day these words are being written, von Braun’s Jupiter-C rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, successfully launched a JPL satellite into the night sky.  An eager team of JPL ham radio operators picked up the signal in Pasadena, California, confirming that the satellite had reached orbit.  Many are familiar with the iconic photograph of William Pickering, James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun hoisting a replica of the satellite in a victory press conference in Washington DC in the middle of the night as soon as the signal was verified (see image at JPL ).

Explorer 1 is a great American success story.  It produced the first scientific discovery in space (the Van Allen radiation belts), prompted the formation of NASA, and marked the beginning of JPL’s epic exploration of the solar system.  Details on Explorer 1 can be found at a special feature at JPL.  A documentary film produced by the lab is being premiered today on HD Discovery Theater and PBS: for show times, see: JPL.1

Henry Richter speaking in JPL Library for “JPL Stories” event about Explorer 1. Behind him are rare photographs from his research research into the history of the mission.

On the eve of the anniversary, Dr. Henry L. Richter, Jr. (PhD, Caltech), a design manager for Explorer 1, spoke to employees in the JPL Library about the mission.  Richter, the Group Supervisor of Explorer Design and Development, was responsible for the team that designed the satellite, its instruments and communications.  He also was among those who verified with ham radios that it had reached orbit.  Now 80 years old, his mind still sharp as a tack, he recounted details from the 1950s like it all happened yesterday.  With scientific acumen and engaging personal insights, he told the story of a fascinating time: how JPL had prepared a satellite before getting approval from President Eisenhower “just in case”, how he selected the instruments, how his team invented things that didn’t yet exist, how they tested delicate parts with shake tables and sun lamps for a space environment no one had yet experienced, how they tested the radio microlink relays in the desert, how they eavesdropped on the transmissions from Sputnik and Explorer with ham radio equipment, how he learned Russian in three weeks so that he could deliver a lecture in Russian about the mission to the International Geophysical Year convention in Moscow, and much more that made for a great story.

As his talk was winding down, Dr. Richter turned to a bigger subject.  “So in conclusion,” he continued without breaking stride, “I’d just like to make one comment, that having been involved in all this, and somewhat of a scientific background, I’ve come to the conclusion that the earth and the universe are no accident of nature.  The way they’re put together is very specific to allow human life to exist on this earth – whether it’s the distance of the sun to the earth, it’s all the way it is to allow human life to exist.  And it’s according to a design, as far as I’m concerned.  And a design demands a Design-er.  And so someplace there’s a cosmic Designer that put it all together and made it work—call it God if you want.  And I decided I needed a relationship with that Designer.  I developed one late in life and my life has been drastically changed since then, and it’s been glorious.”

The Van Allen radiation belts discovered by Explorer 1 were found to be essential for life on earth.  They capture deadly radiation from space and provide shielding for the inhabitants below.  Subsequent missions revealed that Mars lacks this protection (see 09/23/2006).

Dr Richter with wife Beverly speaking with Mars mission operations mgr Rob Manning at the Explorer 1 50th Anniversary celebration at JPL, Jan 31, 2008.

Today at JPL, the 50th anniversary was celebrated outdoors, with the entire lab mingling over lunch with septegenarian and octogenarian veterans of the Explorer 1 days.  Dr. Richter was present sharing the limelight with a remarkable group of American heroes who laid the foundation for the peaceful exploration of space.


1.  Note: Dr. Richter appears in the film.  He spent many hours researching the timeline and details of the mission from almost-forgotten records and his own source material.  JPL’s media department, however, is responsible for the content in the film.  The documentary, while interesting and well done, gives a bad impression of Wernher von Braun.  Viewers should follow up the movie with a re-reading of our biography of the great rocket pioneer.

Word has it that a number of listeners congratulated Dr. Richter on the ending of his speech – and no one criticized it.  This suggests the presence of a silent majority eager to hear credible leaders speak out for creation.  The Darwinists might slink into the shadows if more distinguished scientists stood up and proclaimed the obvious: that our universe is not a cosmic accident, but was designed for life. 

Dr. Henry Richter and David Coppedge, JPL, Jan 30, 2008.

Note May 5, 2017: I am honored to be a friend of Dr. Henry Richter and his wife Beverly. I was with him at JPL at the 50th Anniversary and took these pictures. In 2016, he published an important historical account, America’s Leap Into Space: My Time at JPL and the First Explorer Satellites. Henry turns 90 on Flag Day this year, June 14, 2017, and he is eager to be at JPL next January 31 for the 60th Anniversary of Explorer 1. I have helped him with his new book that should be out this year, Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers. Henry is a great American and an honorable citizen who helped launch America’s first successes in space that led to the Apollo moon landings, space stations, and exploration of all the planets.

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