The United States succeeds in launching its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, atop a Juno 1 rocket. Instruments developed by Dr. James Van Allen reveal the existence of radiation surrounding the Earth, and the areas of radiation are subsequently named the Van Allen radiation belts. The satellite itself is designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and remains in orbit until 1970 – just the first hint of JPL’s knack for making spacecraft that last longer than their rated lifespans.
Under the direction of President Eisenhower, the U.S. Department of Defense establishes a high-tech think tank, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), to conduct scientific and technological research with both national security implications and purely for technological advancement. The formation of ARPA is a direct response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, and in the years ahead ARPA will lay the cornerstone of what will later become known as the Internet, as well as making significant strides in space science, though the space-related part of ARPA’s initial charter will later be transferred to a new agency called NASA. As the Cold War heats up, ARPA will be renamed DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and its slate of R&D projects will become almost entirely military-oriented.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, in order to meet its producers’ requests for more unusual sound effects and music than is presently held in its sound library, establishes the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in room 13 of the BBC’s Maida Vale recording studios. Concentrating on tape manipulation and found sounds altered with analog effects (and only later delving into the earliest waves of analog synthesizers), the Workshop produces music for such legendary BBC productions as The Quatermass Experiment and the theme music for Doctor Who. Founding members include Desmond Briscoe, Daphne Oram and Dick Mills.
The U.S. Weather Bureau uses a mobile Doppler radar transmitting and receiving in the 3cm bandwidth to measure wind speeds in a tornado striking El Dorado, Kansas, which kills 13 people living in that city. With Doppler radar’s ability to detect and measure the velocity of wind and rain moving toward and away from the radar itself, it is ideally suited for tornado observations and detection. This mobile radar is later given to the Bureau’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in the 1960s, and is the beginning of a lengthy research program that culminates in the nationwide rollout of Doppler-based NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar) in the 1990s.
Also referred to as “Pioneer 0”, the Pioneer space probe is launched by the US Air Force, with the intention of sending it to the moon. Just over a minute after Pioneer’s Thor-Able booster lifts off, the first stage explodes, and Pioneer’s short flight ends in the Atlantic Ocean. The next Pioneer space probe will be handled by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration later in 1958.
Implementing a revolutionary new take on an idea that has existed on paper since the 1940s, recently-hired Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby demonstrates the first fully-functional integrated circuit, with all of the electronic components encased in germanium. While the U.S. Air Force immediately places an order for TI’s new integrated circuits, other engineers continue to refine Kilby’s invention, with Fairchild Semiconductor producing ICs encased in silicon. The move to silicon for ICs leads to smaller electronic devices and the development of microcomputer technology.
Less than a year after launching the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, the Soviet Union makes its first attempt to launch an unmanned space vehicle toward the moon. The flight of Luna E-1 #1 lasts a mere 92 seconds before its launch vehicle explodes in mid-air. Further attempts will be made by Sergei Korolev’s team of engineers to launch a lunar spacecraft, giving the escalating international space race a new (if somewhat obvious) target for both unmanned and crewed space flights over the next decade.
The newly-formed NASA reveals a bold plan: Project Mercury will be an extensive program to create a vehicle capable of safely sending men into Earth orbit and returning them in one piece. The rigorous selection process to find the country’s first space pilots – astronauts – begins, focusing on combat pilots and especially test pilots with experience in flying unproven experimental aircraft (the Mercury spacecraft will definitely qualify for this description).
The newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration launches its first space probe, Pioneer 1, atop a Thor-Able booster. Intended to image the moon at the infrared end of the spectrum from close range, Pioneer 1 is the victim of a technical error which instead sends it into an 80,000 mile arc which eventually brings it back into Earth’s atmosphere. Its flight lasts just 43 hours, but it does yield some information about the radiation belts surrounding Earth, as well as the first experiment to measure the density of micrometeor impacts registered by an onboard sensor.
NASA launches Pioneer 2, a near-identical twin to the failed lunar probe Pioneer 1 it launched a month earlier. Again, technical errors prevent the probe from entering lunar orbit or, for that matter, even reaching the moon – Pioneer 2 limps into a looping arc, barely a thousand miles from Earth, and returns home to burn up in the atmosphere.
After months of lobbying the U.S. Air Force and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) for help in funding a large-aperture radar/radio telescope dish for studies of Earth’s ionosphere and the space that lies beyond, Cornell University’s Bill Gordon publishes a report in the journal of the School of Electrical Engineering. Gordon’s report, setting out the basic parameters for the project, includes a reflector dish diameter of one thousand feet – a daunting prospect from a structural engineering perspective. Sites in Texas and upstate New York are considered before a natural limestone “bowl” south of the city of Arecibo, Puerto Rico emerges as a promising candidate site.
NASA launches the Pioneer 3 space probe, intended – like its predecessors – to visit the vicinity of the moon. Designed to activate a television camera to get the first look at the moon’s far side, Pioneer 3 never reaches its target, only covering a third of the distance between Earth and the moon before it loops back toward Earth and burns up in the atmosphere a day later. Its near-identical twin, Pioneer 4, will be launched in 1959.
With engineers and ground controllers working under absolute secrecy, the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency launches the Atlas rocket-based SCORE satellite, an experimental communications satellite capable of recording four-minute audio messages from the ground for later playback to another part of the world. Though the first communication transmitted to Earth by SCORE is a message from President Eisenhower wishing listeners a peaceful Christmas, there’s little doubt that it’s a thinly-veiled military hardware demonstration. SCORE remains in orbit for only a few weeks before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.