Geeky History


Project SCORE: first communication satellite

SCOREWith 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.


Luna 1

Luna 1With the international race for space technology supremacy heats up, the Soviet Union scores a first: the unmanned Luna 1 is the first human-made object to completely escape Earth’s gravity. Luna 1 is meant to impact the mon, but the nearly-800-pound space probe barely comes within 4,000 miles of the lunar surface. Luna 1 later becomes the first artificial object to orbit the sun, after running out of power at a point in deep space between the orbits of Earth and Mars. The state-run Soviet press agency gives Luna 1 a new name, Mechta, and tries to declare the wayward moonship a “new planet.”

Pioneer 4

Pioneer 4NASA’s Pioneer 4 space probe is launched toward the moon atop a Juno II booster. For the first time in the Pioneer program, the target is reached, with Pioneer 4 passing the moon at a distance of 37,000 miles. The television camera designed to activate just in time to catch the first glimpse of the lunar far side fails to deploy, thanks to a light sensor that isn’t tripped by the light reflected from the moon. Measurements of radiation near the moon are taken and transmitted back to Earth before Pioneer 4 slides into an orbit around the sun.

Weather radar, pre-Doppler

WRS-57 consoleThe U.S. Weather Bureau installs the first WSR-57 weather radar in what in intended to eventually be a network of weather radars spanning the entire country. Derived from World War II radars, the WSR-57 is first installed at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, where it offers as much as two days’ advance notice of storms approaching the Florida coast in the years before weather satellites. This radar remains in service until 1992, when it is literally ripped off the NHC’s roof by the winds of Hurricane Andrew. It is later replaced by a WSR-88 NEXRAD radar, though by that time satellite imagery has become the primary means of remotely detecting major tropical weather events.

Explorer 6

Explorer 6NASA launches the Earth-orbiting satellite Explorer 6 atop a Thor-Able rocket, intended to study various space and upper atmospheric phenomena, as well as to take photos of Earth with an experimental camera system designed to refine engineering concepts for monitoring weather from orbit. Explorer 6 does indeed capture the first (admittedly less than ideal) photo of Earth taken from orbit, from a vantage point of 17,000 miles above Mexico in its elliptical orbit. Explorer 6 will remain in orbit for just under two years.

Luna 2

Luna 2Soviet space scientists and engineers score another first, launching Luna 2 toward the moon with the intention of a successful crash landing, with the unmanned vehicle sending back data until it is destroyed in the impact. With no engines of its own, Luna 2 is at the mercy of whatever trajectory is imparted to it by its booster rocket, ultimately taking a day and a half to slam into the lunar dust near the flat plain known as Mare Imbrium. A small metal sphere aboard Luna 2 bears the year and country of origin; a replica of that sphere is later presented to American President Eisenhower by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Luna 3: first look at the moon’s far side

Luna 3The Soviet Union’s Luna 3 unmanned probe is launched toward the moon, where it transmits the first images of the moon’s far side back to Earth – a sight that has never been seen by humans before since the moon’s near side is tidally locked toward Earth. Luna 3’s closest pass to moon brings it to within 4,000 miles of the lunar surface, and despite low signal strength and data errors during transmission, nearly 20 images of the moon’s far side are sent back to Soviet scientists via a process not unlike sending a fax.

Twilight Zone: Mr. Denton On Doomsday

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the third episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Dan Duryea and Martin Landau (Space: 1999) star in a script written by Serling.

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Twilight Zone: Walking Distance

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the fifth episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Gig Young stars (and a very young Ron Howard guest stars) in a script written by Serling.

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Twilight Zone: The Lonely

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the seventh episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Jack Warden (Being There) and Jean Marsh (Doctor Who, Willow) star in a script written by Serling.

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Twilight Zone: Time Enough At Last

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the eighth episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Burgess Meredith (Batman, Rocky) stars in a script written by Serling, adapted from a short story by Lynn Venable. This episode will later be considered, by both fans of the show and critics of television and drama in general, to be one of The Twilight Zone’s all-time classic episodes.

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Twilight Zone: Perchance To Dream

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the ninth episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Richard Conte stars in a script written by Charles Beaumont. This is the first episode of the series not to be scripted by Serling.

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Twilight Zone: Judgment Night

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the tenth episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Nehemiah Persoff and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers) star in a script written by Serling.

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Twilight Zone: And When The Sky Was Opened

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the 11th episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Rod Taylor stars in a Charles Beaumont adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story.

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RangerNASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech begin developing a set of guidelines for what is projected to be a series of five lunar missions, involving vehicles that will photograph the moon from approach to impact, transmitting the images back to Earth live. These guidelines are the beginning of the Ranger program, though technical difficulties will eventually result in nearly twice the number of Ranger unmanned vehicles than originally anticipated.

Twilight Zone: What You Need

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the 12th episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Serling himself adapts the darkly humorous (but not specifically Christmas-themed) script from a Lewis Padgett short story.

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Twilight Zone: The Four Of Us Are Dying

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the 13th episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Philip Pine and Beverly Garland star in Serling’s adaptation of a story by George Clayton Johnson (Logan’s Run), featuring music by a young Jerry Goldsmith.

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Twilight Zone: Third From The Sun

Twilight ZoneCBS airs the 14th episode of Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone. Fritz Weaver stars in Serling’s adaptation of a story by Richard Matheson.

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Chris Barrie, Red Dwarf actor, born

Chris Barrie as RimmerFuture Red Dwarf cast member Chris Barrie is born in West Germany to British parents. Developing a knack for vocal impersonations at an early age, Barrie aims for a comedy career after dropping out of college and quickly becomes a frequent guest actor on television (The Young Ones, Blackadder). He also provides vocal impersonations and spoken word soundbytes on songs by Art of Noise and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. After appearing in a radio sketch called “Dave Hollins, Space Cadet” written by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor, he lands the role of Arnold Rimmer in Red Dwarf – a science fiction sitcom created by Grant & Naylor, whose inspiration can be traced back to that radio sketch.


Tiros-1The very first weather satellite, TIROS-1, is launched by the United States. Built under contract by RCA, the nearly-300-pound satellite’s black & white cameras offer the first view of Earth’s cloud systems and weather patterns from orbit. Tiros-1 remains operational for just 78 days, but proves the viability of relying on satellites for weather observation and forceasting.

Fire the laser!

Ted MaimanAt the Hughes Research Laboratory in California, physicist Ted Maiman conducts the first completely successful laser demonstration, resulting in a brief pulse fired through a ruby. Though the concept of lasers had been published in the 1950s, Maiman is the first to develop a fully working test article. Within a few years, similar ruby lasers are used for numerous military applications, as well as early holography. Maiman’s test laser, when demonstrated again at a conference in 2010, is still operational.

Building Arecibo

AreciboProposed and designed by Cornell University, and funded by the Adavanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the Arecibo Ionospheric Research Center – a thousand-foot radar and radio telescope dish – begins construction in a natural limestone bowl south of Barrio Esparanza, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Construction will take over three years, at a cost of nearly $10,000,000, with a steel feed receiver structure supported in mid-air over the parabolic dish by some five miles of steel cables. Facilities are constructed for scientists visiting the eventual facility, and additional facilities are constructed to shape aluminum into the mesh structure of the telescope dish on-site, a more economical approach than having those parts of the telescope shipped in from outside. Though conceived and pitched as a means of studying the ionosphere, with possible defense applications such as missile detection, the Arecibo facility will makes its best known contributions to astronomy after it opens.


SurveyorNASA begins soliciting studies from contractors for an unmanned robotic spacecraft to land on the moon. Intended to carry scientific instruments and television cameras to examine the moon from ground-level, the Surveyor landers are intended to reap their own benefit in the form of scientific data, but they will also serve as advanced scouting support missions for possible later manned landings on the moon.

Echo 1

ECHO!!!The experimental communications relay satellite Echo 1 is launched into orbit by NASA. A 100-foot metalized Mylar balloon, Echo 1 is a demonstration of passive signal relay, carrying no powered transmitters of its own; its reflective surface simply bounces signals back to Earth. Microwave signals, radio, telephone and TV signals are all successfully relayed via Echo 1; it remains in orbit for four months.

Courier 1B

Courier 1BThe U.S. Air Force launches the first active-relay communications satellite into orbit, Courier 1B (the original Courier 1 having been lost to a faulty launch vehicle earlier). Unlike the reflective Echo 1 satellite, Courier 1B uses power from the solar cells covering its spherical casing to reboost and retransmit the signals it receives from Earth. Once again, a message from President Eisenhower is transmitted, this time to be received by the United Nations. Clourier 1B remains functional for just over two weeks before a glitch renders it useless.

To Mars!

Venera 2The Soviet Union attempts the first-ever launch of an interplanetary space probe bound for the planet Mars. A failure of its rocket booster prevents it from reaching enough thrust to leave Earth orbit; it eventually falls back to Earth and breaks up while reentering the atmosphere. As with many early Soviet space missions, it is not given any meaningful designation due to the failure of the mission.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the second experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-2. Though almost identical to its short-lived predecessor, TIROS-2 is outfitted with a new stabilization system which uses detection of Earth’s magnetic field to properly orient the satellite. TIROS-2 functions successfully for just over one year.


Mercury 2: canned Ham

HamThe first living creature to reach space aboard an American rocket is Ham, a chimpanzee wired with electrodes and sensors to determine the effects of space travel on a higher primate whose body might react similarly to that of a human being. NASA sends Ham on the sixteen-minute suborbital Mercury 2 flight, ending in a splashdown in the Atlantic. Both Ham and his vehicle survive the flight despite numerous equipment glitches in both the Redstone rocket and the Mercury capsule itself (which actually blasts away from the Redstone via its launch abort system), which loses cabin pressure (fortunately, Ham has his own spacesuit to protect him) and then puts its primate pilot through a punishing 17G reentry. For his pioneering feat of spaceflight, Ham receives an apple, an orange, and paid retirement to the National Zoo.

Venera 1

Venera 1The Soviet Union launches Venera 1, the first interplanetary space probe. Bound for Venus, Venera 1 returns measurements and observations taken during its three-month flight, but loses contact with ground controllers just as it makes its closest approach to Venus at a distance of 62,000 miles from the planet. It falls into an orbit around the sun after falling silent.

Sagan: let’s terraform Venus

Carl SaganIn the journal Science, Carl Sagan proposes an audacious scheme to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere of Venus, making it habitable for humans. His plan involves depositing algae colonies into the planet’s clouds to begin converting the planet’s carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen, and the idea is years ahead of its time (and will later prove to be impractical when more direct studies are made of the Venusian atmosphere).

Vostok 1: the first human in space

Vostok 1The Soviet Union scores another technological victory, launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard Vostok 1 into a single orbit of Earth lasting a little over 100 minutes. After that orbit, Gagarin’s Vostok return capsule carries him safely through the atmosphere; he then triggers an ejection seat which punches him out of the capsule, at which point he parachutes to the ground.

Mercury 3: first American in space

Alan ShepardAlan B. Shepard, aboard the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule, becomes the first American in space when he is launched on a fifteen-minute suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. The Mercury spacecraft offers its pilot more maneuverability than the Soviet Vostok vehicle, which is almost entirely controlled from the ground.

Time to take longer strides

John F. KennedyAt a special joint session of Congress called to discuss “urgent national needs,” President John F. Kennedy sets a new goal for NASA (which has only just put a single American astronaut into space): “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Kennedy requests that Congress pass space-related budgets totaling half a billion dollars for 1962 alone (encompassing not only the Apollo program, but nuclear rocket development, weather satellite development, and communication satellites).

Gravitational assist

Mike MinovitchRecent Jet Propulsion Laboratory hire Michael Minovitch submits the first of a series of papers and technical memorandums on the possibility of using carefully-calculated gravitational assist maneuvers to speed transit time between celestial bodies while requiring minimal engine/fuel use. Where most previous scientific thought concentrated on using engine burns (and a lot of fuel) to cancel the effects of a planet’s gravity, Minovitch demonstrated that gravity could be a big help with a carefully calculated trajectory. Though nearly every planetary mission since then has capitalized on Minovitch’s research, it was initially rejected by JPL. Minovitch’s calculations are later revisited by Caltech grad student Gary Flandro, who flags down a particular combination of Minovitch’s pre-computed trajectories for a “grand tour” of the outer solar system, a mission which will eventually be known – in a somewhat scaled-down, less grand form – as Voyager.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the third experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-3. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, but one of the satellite’s two television cameras fails within days of going into service. TIROS-3 proves the future life-saving potential of weather satellites by giving Earthbound meteorologists advance warning of the formation and strengthening of Hurricane Esther well before it makes landfall on the east coast of the United States. TIROS-3 is operational for less than a year.