At 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.
Proposed 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.
NASA 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.
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.
The 37th episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone airs on CBS. Bob Cummings and Gene Lyons star in the second season premiere, written by Serling, who appears on-camera as the show’s narrator for the first time.
The 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.
The 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.
NASA 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.
The 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.
The 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.
In 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).
The 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.