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Cold War Era Satellites


Based upon wartime efforts, the post World War II era witnessed revolutionary advances in science and technology. The Signal Corps, having already proven that it could send messages anywhere in the world, now looked to the heavens for new frontiers in communications.


The first breakthrough came on 10 January 1946 when scientists at the Evans Signal Laboratory succeeded in bouncing a radar signal off the moon. This project, named Diana for the Roman goddess of the moon, proved that humans could communicate electronically through the ionosphere into outer space. To accomplish this feat, the Signal Corps adapted a standard SCR-271 radar to transmit the signal. At almost 240,000 miles, this was certainly a long-distance communication; a new space-age era in signaling had begun.


In spite of this promising start, postwar austerity stunted the initial growth of the space program. To many, including the prominent scientist Vannevar Bush, satellites and space travel still belonged to the realm of science fiction. The Korean War, however, brought increased defense spending, and space-related research benefited.


The Army hoped to put the United States' first satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) to be held from July 1957 to December 1958. The IGY was the latest in the series of international scientific undertakings, in which the Signal Corps had participated, that had begun with the International Polar Years of the 1880s and the 1930s. The interval between events had now been reduced from fifty to twenty-five years, largely due to the accelerated pace of technological progress during and after World War II. The new name reflected the wider scope of activities. In 1954 the Special Committee for the International Geophysical Year, meeting in Rome, recommended that the launching of earth satellites be a major goal of the IGY's research effort. The Army's plan, known as Project Orbiter, had to compete with proposals made by the Navy and the Air Force. Ultimately, a special Department of Defense advisory committee selected the Navy's Vanguard program. The Signal Corps, however, operated the primary tracking and observation stations, one in the United States and five in South America.


But the Soviet Union took command of the heavens first. Its successful launching of Sputnik on 4 October 1957 shocked the nation. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who soon began an inquiry into satellite and missile programs, called the event a "technological Pearl Harbor.“If the Russians could send satellites into space, some argued, then they probably could launch long-range missiles capable of destroying the United States. Many Americans reacted strongly to this perceived threat and wanted to match the Soviets as quickly as possible. As the "space race" began in earnest, the Cold War acquired cosmic complications.





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