America SCORES! (12-22-1958)

Unless the Soviets can pull a rabbit out of their hat, it looks like the United States will come out the winner in the Space Race for 1958.

It was only a matter of time before we finally used our Atlas rocket, the nation’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), to launch a satellite.  With the Atlas, we can finally throw up payloads of similar weights to those launched by the Soviets with their ICBM.

The first Atlas mission, Project SCORE, was launched on December 18, 1958.  It is the heaviest payload ever to be launched by the United States into orbit—a whopping 8000 pounds’ worth!  That compares favorably to the 9000 pound payload launched by the Soviet Union in May (Sputnik III).  Of course, those figures are a little less impressive when one realizes that the vast bulk of that weight actually comprises the last stage of the rocket.  Moreover, Sputnik III carried over a ton of instrumentation.  SCORE carries a bare 150 pounds of payload.

What SCORE does, however, is unprecedented.  Quite simply, it is the world’s first communication’s satellite.

Currently, if one wishes to send a message across the country or the world, one must either use archaic transoceanic cables or, more frequently, send the signal via some sort of radio.  The former method puts strong limits on destination (messages can only go where the cables are strung), and the latter is only as reliable as the atmosphere will allow.  Reception at remote locations is virtually impossible.  But with a satellite, one truly has the high ground.  Messages can be beamed anywhere along the satellite’s line of sight, which is essentially limitless. 

Developed jointly by the Air Force and veteran communications company, RCA, SCORE has the ability both to broadcast messages as they are beamed to it from ground stations and to store received messages and transmit them later.  Seeing how it was an Air Force mission, there were probably plenty of classified messages sent and re-transmitted, but the one everybody got to know about was this one, recorded by President Eisenhower the day after launch:

“This is the President of the United States speaking.  Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space.  My message is a simple one: Through this unique means I convey to you and to all mankind, America’s wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men everywhere.”

Once again, science fiction has become fact.  Arthur C. Clarke predicted communications satellites in the ’40s, and here we are at the dawn of a new era. 

If that era comes.  It must be cynically pointed out that this launch had a second purpose—to show the Soviets that we, too, have the ability to send a nuclear bomb 6,000 miles across the globe.  While this represents a technological achievement and another example of science fiction become fact, I somehow can’t be as excited about this development.  It is yet another reminder that, thus far, the exploration of space has been primarily a military endeavor, and our plowshares are barely modified swords.

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