Image: NASA

The catalog entry blandly reads:
Explorer 1 was the first successfully launched U. S. spacecraft. Launched late on 31 January 1958 ... on an adapted Jupiter-C rocket ... Explorer 1 was the first spacecraft to successfully detect the durably trapped radiation in the Earth's magnetosphere
It was a real pleasure to read John Noble Wilford's piece in Tuesday's NYT ("Remembering When U.S. Finally (and Really) Joined the Space Race") on the significance and impact of the Explorer launch. His recap of the events and efforts leading up to the jubilant press-conference picture -- the one in which von Braun, Pickering and Van Allen triumphantly hold up a model of the satellite, and which for some reason the Times didn't run a copy of online -- caught me emotionally off guard.

Like so many of my peers, I've harbored, since childhood, a soft spot for the romance of space exploration. Part of its enduring infectiousness, I suppose, is its seamless blend of ethereal outlandishness and gritty mundanity. This is a heady brew, distilled from reality, promulgated by von Braun and others, and still shaping U.S. space policy (see Alex Roland's quasi-review of Michael Neufeld's Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Knopf, 2007; ISBN: 9780307262929). From time to time, working on projects we cared about, we've all felt something like what Wilford's subjects (the Redstone/Explorer teams) were feeling in the run-up to that launch: all that hard work and those late nights as the team pulled together (and threatened to fly apart) under the pressure of the deadlines and the ambitions and the sheer challenge of what you were trying to do.

And, oh, what they were trying to do ...

These are just two examples of some great space reporting in the Times this past year, both presentist and retrospective. There was also Wilford's treatment of the Sputnik anniversary (25 September 2007) and Christine Woodside's first-siting story (21 October 2007). And, also in the big space issue on 25 September, there was Dennis Overbye's poignant essay "One Giant Leap, Followed by Baby Steps," which did feature another amazing photograph:
There, on a pillar of violence, is your dream of transcendence, of freedom, of escape from killer rocks in the sky, boiling oceans or whatever postmodern plague science comes up with. Of galactic immortality.
There's been alot of retrospective, and hooplah, here in Huntsville during the run-up to this, the 50th anniversary of the U.S. entry into space. People who've lived or visited here know just how closely bound to space and rocketry our sense of place and community identity are. This got a bit easier to explain to outsiders when Shaila Dawan's "When the Germans, and Rockets, Came to Town" ran in the NYT on 31 December 2007. Although I must point out ... peanuts have never been a big crop around here. For 1950, try cotton.

Locally, the Huntsville Times has been reprinting historic, space-related front pages on a daily basis. There's also been some interesting original reporting, like:
The 50th Anniversary website provides plenty more of this sort of thing (remembrances, audio, video, images), and also includes information about the America in Space Technical Symposium going on today and the gala celebration tonight (purportedly to be streamed live at

I think I'll put on my propeller beanie and head down to Pete's. Maybe he's brewing Rocket City Blend today ...