October 7, 2017 | Henry Richter

Rocket Scientist Recalls Sputnik 60 Years Ago

Dr Henry Richter, a writer for CEH and NASA VIP, shares his recollections of the space race that began in earnest with Sputnik 60 years ago.

Sixty years ago today, Sputnik 1 (launched October 4, 1957), was in orbit, changing the world below. For your weekend enjoyment, we’re going to print excerpts from two books by Dr Henry Richter, at age 90 (and still going strong) the last surviving manager of Explorer 1—America’s answer to Sputnik that was successfully launched on January 31, 1958. Dr Richter oversaw the instrumentation package for the Explorer series of satellites that helped the US catch up in the space race and, as an unexpected bonus, discovered the Van Allen radiation belts. He also designed the communications link for the satellites, and later helped design the Deep Space Network that still communicates with American spacecraft. Before leaving JPL, Dr Richter also worked on instrumentation for the Ranger and Surveyor programs which provided essential data about the moon leading up to the Apollo moon landings.

America’s Leap Into Space: My Time at JPL and the First Explorer Satellites

In this book published in 2015, Dr Richter details the history of the early space program from the viewpoints of the Russians, the Germans, and the Americans. This excerpt from chapter 2 (pages 15-16) describes what the Russians were up to during the tense days of the Cold War, and how Dr Richter traveled to Russia the year after Sputnik 1 (where, incidentally, he delivered an address to the CSAGI meeting in Russian).

By September 1956, the Russians were concerned that the Americans might launch a satellite first, and [Sergey] Korolev spared no effort to get ready. He knew how to use international political prestige as an incentive to get additional resources from Russian management, and played the game well. The competition with the West was in the mind of the Russian leaders, and Korolev had personal ambitions of using a Russian first-in-space triumph to further his desire to develop a real space flight legacy.

As the Object D satellite fell further behind schedule, Tikhonoravov developed a fallback strategy with a much smaller satellite that could be launched at an early date to beat the Americans. Korolev agreed, and they began work on a small twenty-inch spherical satellite named PS-1, which became Sputnik 1. Korolev used his technical and political skills to persuade his management that the smaller spacecraft was the expedient way to go, and he won permission to follow this route as a parallel endeavor. His personal drive and determination helped him pull off both programs, leading to a successful launch of both versions of spacecraft.

To formalize the effort, on January 5, 1957, Korolev petitioned the Soviet Council of Ministers to quickly develop a smaller satellite, on the order of 90 to 130 pounds. This was specifically to beat the American launch, which might establish superiority in space. He suggested the satellite be launched sometime between April and June: approval was granted.

However, the availability of the R-7 [rocket] put delays in the effort. They experienced several launch failures, and the satellite date was pushed back. In fact, Korolev was ordered to put the project on hold, directly from the Kremlin. With fierce determination, he pushed forward and an almost perfect R-7 launch took place on August 21. He was then allowed to resume work on PS-1, which was nearly ready.

Explorer 1 model with Sputnik 1 behind, California Science Center. Photo by David Coppedge

The satellite design team was headed by Mikhail Khomyakov, who later bragged that “we made it in one month for only one reason: to beat the Americans into space.” Many pictures of Sputnik 1 have been published, and models exhibited in a number of places. The satellite was a highly polished sphere twenty-inches in diameter with four antenna rods swept back. Two were 94.5 inches long, and the other two 114 inches. Contrary to the specifications issued by the IGY [International Geophysical Year], Sputnik 1 used the two radio transmission frequencies of 20 MHz and 40 MHz with the thought that tracking by radio amateurs and the public would be easier than the official IGY 108 MHz would be.

I saw the model on display in the Science Hall at the Museum of Science and Industry in Moscow while at the CSAGI meetings in August 1958. I also saw models of Sputniks 1 and 3 at the World’s Fair in Brussels when returning from the CSAGI meeting. I took a number of photographs of them, which were of great interest when I arrived at JPL after the trip.

This next excerpt from Chapter 11, “Sputnik, the Shock of the Century!” describes the American response. Notice Dr Richter’s personal involvement with the events, which provide a valuable first-person history of those crucial days that changed the world.

Sputnik, the Shock of the Century! This is the title of a fine book by Paul Dickson, which was most helpful to me to look back into that window of time to refresh my mind as to those events, and, to get a further appreciation of all that happened then. As I said earlier, the timely launching of the first two Sputnik spacecraft was the greatest favor that could have been handed to the American people, as it really provided the impetus for the serious start of the American space program. The fact of being one-upped by the Russians, followed by the public viewing of the unfortunate Vanguard explosion, shocked the public and our Washington leaders into increasing our fledgling space program. It gave it a massive jumpstart by authorizing the Army to proceed with the launch vehicle and spacecraft that we had been preparing for three years.

5th Anniversary of Explorer 1 at JPL (1963): L to R, James Van Allen, Henry Richter, Bill Pickering, Al Hibbs, John Small, Homer Joe Stewart, Bob Stevens, Walt Downhower, Casey Mohl, and Carl Linnes.

Sputnik was ushered in to my life by a telephone call from Dr. [William] Pickering [JPL Director], who happened to be at an IGY reception in the Russian embassy in Washington when the news of the launch broke. This initiated a flurry of actions, the foremost of which was to try to receive the radio signals from the spacecraft. Dr. Pickering told me that the Sputnik was using the frequencies of 20 MHz and 40 MHz. We had some general coverage radio receivers in our lab, which we connected to a hastily strung antenna outside the laboratory, but all we could get was a loud buzz from the high-tension power lines on the hill behind JPL.

Richter’s radio ID (note: home address no longer current)

I called Bob Legg, who was active in the San Gabriel Valley Radio Club, who headed the satellite tracking team. I advised him what had happened, and he said he would try to pick up the signal with his home ham station equipment. He called me back a few minutes later, and in the background on the phone I heard the “beep-beep-beep-beep” that would be come such a familiar sound in the weeks to come.

It was clear that we would not be able to receive any Sputnik signals at the radio-noisy location at JPL, so we set up a receiving and recording arrangement in a semi-trailer, and had it hauled to the Temple City Sheriff’s Station where the amateur Microlock station was located, about ten miles away. There was electrical power in the parking lot. We erected a couple antennas on the trailer and settled down to record the radio signals from Sputnik. Meanwhile, the club hams had also set up to monitor and recorded the signals. They had a professional quality magnetic tape recorder, plus a strip-chart paper recorder, and these were pressed into service.

The JPL staff spent several days recording the signals in the trailer, but we did not learn much from our effort, except that there was truly a spacecraft passing overhead a few times a day. We analyzed the signals for any hint of telemetry data, but the beep-beep-beep-beep seemed to be steady and unchanging, and, therefore, just a means of tracking the spacecraft. We recalled the JPL equipment and left the tracking to the ham club, which they accepted enthusiastically. The club station, located in the west side of Temple City, because a place of high interest for the local press, who were frequently there with reporters and live TV camera crews. Having the station in the secure sheriff’s facility was a great advantage in allowing us to control the flow of outsiders.

The CalTech faculty also made frequent visits to the club station to watch the arrival and recording of signals from the first Sputnik 1, and then Sputnik 2. One amusing thing that happened was during a visit by Professor Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winner. While listening to the beep-beep-beep-beep, Feynman heard something that piqued his interest. He asked Bob Legg about the sound and Bob said, “that’s the Doppler Shift.” Feynman said, “no, what’s that,” hearing something in one of the loudspeakers. Bob, bless his heart, said “That is the Doppler shift, you know if you have ever heard an approaching train whistle that changes pitch…”. Feynman quickly said, “Yeah, yeah, I know about that.” Bob was chagrined when he found out he was trying to explain the Doppler Shift to a famous CalTech physicist!

Richter portrait by CMI

Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers

This new book, to be released in November of this year by CMI, describes many of the amazing design evidences that convinced Dr Richter to reject Darwinian evolution and consider seriously the claims of Christianity. His change of heart happened years after his experience at JPL.  Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction, where Dr Richter mentions his experience with Sputnik:

I went to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the mid-1950’s when the space program was just starting. JPL was operated by Caltech, and was a great place to go to work. At the time, it was a guided-missile research and development organization, part of the U.S. Army. It was associated with the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where Dr Wernher von Braun was Director. Although not part of our recognized mission, we developed an earth satellite and a launch vehicle, hoping someday to put a satellite into orbit. Our chance came when in 1957 the Russians launched their Sputniks, and the U.S. government gave us the go-ahead to launch our little 30-pound satellite. It was successful. It carried a Cosmic Ray experiment for Dr James A. Van Allen which discovered the radiation belts around the earth, named the Van Allen belts in his honor. NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was formed shortly afterwards, and JPL became part of NASA with the role of exploring the moon, the planets, and deep space.

So I came to learn quite a bit about this earth on which we reside, the solar system, and the universe in general. Along the way, I realized that we live on a very unique body that could be likened to a spacecraft: Spacecraft Earth.

In the final chapter, Dr Richter explains the IGY and what led to the first contest between the Russians and the Americans (pp 153-154):

About the time that I went to work at JPL, a massive international effort was beginning to cooperatively explore our home planet from a variety of scientific disciplines. A program named the International Geophysical Year (IGY) was in the works, scheduled to coincide with the upcoming solar maximum period of 1957-1958.

Dr Richter speaks at JPL about the Explorer 1 mission, January 30, 2008. Photo by David Coppedge.

In planning for the IGY — which was to involve all of the earth sciences, geophysics and atmospheric physics — there was strong interest in exploring the environment above the atmosphere. Up until then, it was customary to explore the upper atmosphere by means of sounding rockets which would go up several hundred kilometers in altitude, made a few quick measurements and fall back to earth. It appeared technological feasible at that time to fulfill a ‘thought experiment’ by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century: to launch an object which would not come back but would go into earth orbit. For the first time in history, thanks to advances in rocketry, earth satellite capability was now on the visible horizon.

Two countries announced that they would attempt to launch an earth satellite during the IGY – the United States and Russia. These ambitious announcement created what was the beginning of the so-called ‘space race’.

At JPL we were very eager to become the nation’s go-to agency for both satellite development and rocketry. As part of the U.S. Army, we submitted a proposal to take on those roles. Proposals were also submitted by the Navy and the U.S. Air Force, a typical procedure in the Federal Government environment.

To our dismay, the Navy received the award, and they put together a projected earth satellite called Vanguard. Since this was an international scientific effort, they decided to develop all new rocketry and not use any existing military hardware. At JPL we had planned on using existing rocketry with which we were quite familiar and in which we had a great deal of confidence.

Then on October 4, 1957, the world was brought to full attention when it was announced that the Russians had launched an earth satellite called Sputnik. Our national prestige hist a significant low….

That low was cured by the launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1957, beginning America’s steady climb to the lead of the space race. We hope these accounts of the first days of the space program will bring an important turning point in world history to light with the fascination that only an active participant can give. Hopefully they will spur our readers to obtain both these books to get his full account. This coming January 31, we plan to share more of his recollections about the Explorer program.

We are honored to have Dr Henry Richter as a contributing author to Creation-Evolution Headlines.


Dr Henry Richter, a contributing science writer to Creation-Evolution Headlines, was a key player at NASA/JPL in the early days of the American space program. With a PhD in Chemistry, Physics and Electrical Engineering from Caltech), Dr Richter brings a perspective about science with the wisdom of years of personal involvement. His book America’s Leap Into Space: My Time at JPL and the First Explorer Satellites (2015), chronicles the beginnings of the space program based on his own records and careful research into rare NASA documents, providing unequaled glimpses into events and personnel in the early days of rocketry that only an insider can give. His next book, Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers, is due out later in 2017. For more about Dr Richter, see his Author Profile.

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