Space Race

Items of Interest

From 1957 ~ 1960


From our current prospective 50+ years later, it is difficult to recapture the Cold War enhanced urgency and national focus of the early days of the “Great Space Race” between USA and USSR.  The creative and scientific genius exhibited on both sides was remarkable in both scope and speed of execution.  Many books have been written on the early years of the Space Race.  To appreciate the significance of Able IV as the “World’s First Space Engine”, it is useful to understand the era in which it was created.  To get the flavor of the times, consider these few interesting items.


A.  There was truly a “race” between the superpowers.  The time difference between winning a “First” or not, was often a matter of weeks or months.

-As the First Man in Space, Yuri Gagarin (April 12, 1961) beat Alan Shepard (May 5, 1961) by a mere 23 days.

-As first to reach escape velocity and lunar flyby, Luna 1 (Jan 2, 1959) beat the US’s Pioneer 4 (March 3, 1959) by only 2 months.


B.  Launch dates were sometimes rigidly set for maximum Cold War political advantage.

For example with Sputnik 3, (April 6, 1960 ) “prior to launch, there was reportedly some doubt about the functioning capabilities of the Tral-D data recorder but Korolev, under pressure from Khrushchev to launch the satellite in time to show support for the Italian Communist Party in the Italian elections, opted to launch without verifying the operation of the device in question.  During the flight, ground controllers discovered that the data recorder did indeed fail, thus depriving scientists of information during periods when the satellite was not within communications view of ground stations.” 1


C.  The Russians had a significant early advantage in that their military ICBM launch vehicles were more powerful, with a much greater payload capacity.  In the Cold War context, the space launches allowed the USSR to demonstrate their impressive military missile muscle.

-Sputnik 1 (Oct 4, 1957) payload was 83.6 kg (184 lbs).

-Explorer 1, Feb 1, 1958) US’s first successful earth orbiter was only 14 kg (31lbs).

-USSR’s heaviest payload was 4600 kg (10,143 lbs) Korabl Sputnik 2, Aug 19 1960).

-Able IV was USA’s heaviest to date (Nov 26, 1959) with a 169 kg (373 lbs) payload.


D.  The lightest & longest lived satellite was the US Vanguard 1 (TV-4)

  • Launch date March 17, 1958
  • Payload 1.8 kg (4 lbs), 15 cm (6 inch) diameter
  • Still in orbit; estimated life is 240 yrs.
  • First to use solar panels to power satellite instruments.  Vanguard 1 broadcast scientific data for 6 years.
  • Approximately 50% larger than a softball, Khrushchev derided Vanguard 1 as the “grapefruit satellite”.2


E.  In the competitive environment of the Cold War Space Race, some space projects were a mere 6 months from funding approval to launch.  Most were under a year.  In early 1959, the first hardware development task assigned to STL’s newly formed Propulsion Laboratory was the “design and development of a monopropellant hydrazine propulsion system for use in the Able 4 spacecraft.  Starting with no test facilities or trained propulsion test technicians, this propulsion system successfully completed qualification and type testing within six months following initiation of development.” 3


F.  The overall urgency was such that there was no standardized naming protocol for either US or USSR space missions.4  Almost all the spacecraft names we refer to today were assigned retroactively, well after the actual event.  Names were assigned sometimes by the military, sometimes by a government agency, sometimes by the contractors, and even sometimes by the press.  Often more than one of the preceding list assigned a name to all or part of a mission.  Sometimes the project name was used for everything from launch vehicle to payload.  Sometimes each rocket stage, payload and mission had a separate name. For example, Able IV, which derived its name from the second stage launch rocket, is also referred to as Pioneer P-3, Pionx, or Atlas – Able IV.  Also the numeral can be either “IV” or "4". The many alternate and overlapping names put a burden on today’s researcher.


G.  The early Space Race years were a very steep learning curve for both USA and USSR, with more failures then success.  The final Able VB launch on December 15, 1960 was the cumulative 96th launch attempt and the 63rd failure. (66% failure rate)


H.  Considering that Sputnik 1 was late in 1957, the immediately succeeding Space Race early years were extremely ambitious and active for both the USSR and USA:

1958 launches: 28

1959 launches: 24

1960 launches: 45

3 year average = 32 global space launches per year.


I.  Note STL’s confidence and certainty of success for the Able IV lunar orbital mission:

“The effects of dispersions introduced by the third stage can, in principle, be completely corrected to the accuracy of the measurements by vernier corrections during the first day.  Therefore, the probability of success is almost one, excluding equipment malfunction.” 5


Apparently, early in their space program, STL had not yet learned the lesson that a successful space mission requires flawless execution as well as sound theory and design.


J.  Seven years later, the execution lesson had been learned.  Consider this quote from Werhner Von Braun:

“Success in space demands perfection.  Many of the brilliant achievements made in this vast, austere environment seem almost miraculous.  Behind each apparent miracle, however, stands the flawless performance of numerous highly complex systems.  All are important.  The failure of only one portion of a launch vehicle or spacecraft may cause failure of an entire mission.  But the first to feel this awesome imperative for perfection are the propulsion systems, especially the engines.  Unless they operate flawlessly first, none of the other systems will get a chance to perform in space.” 6


K. The early reliability problems with the Atlas launch vehicle were understandable, and in hindsight, predictable. “The Atlas comprised some 40,000 parts, including many delicate electronics components that overburdened maintenance and operational crews.” 7

L. In the Soviet Union, all space programs were integrated into a secretive military-industrial bureaucracy.  Launches were not announced in advance, and only the successes were publicized. 8

M.  Even knowing Russia’s strict control of public information regarding their space program, it is remarkable that the Soviets were able to keep the huge 1960 “Nedelin Catastrophe” secret from the world for nearly 30 years.  On October 24, 1960, 126 individuals, including Marshall Nedelin (Strategic Missile Forces Commander-in-Chief), were killed in a spectacular prelaunch explosion at the Baykonur Comodrome.  It wasn’t until Gorbachev’s “Glastnost” policy, that the Soviet prohibition on releasing information on this tragedy was rescinded in 1990. 9

Use this link to see a short video of Nedelin Catastrophe:


N.  The difficulty of achieving close in Lunar orbit with the moon’s weak gravity was initially underestimated.  After the Dec 15, 1960, failed launch of the final Able VB lunar orbital mission, over five years elapsed before USSR’s Luna 10 (March 31, 1966) first achieved lunar orbit.  Five months later, Lunar Orbiter 1 (August 10, 1966) was the first US satellite to achieve lunar orbit.


O.  On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon.  This was just 3 weeks after Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space (May 5, 1961) and only 6 weeks after Yuri Gagarin was the world’s first man in space (April 12, 1961).  At the time of Kennedy’s announcement, America’s total manned space flight experience was Mr. Shepard’s single 15 minute suborbital flight on Freedom 7 (Mercury MR-3).


[2] Oberg, “Satellite turns 50 years old…in orbit!”, MSNBC, March 17, 2008

[3] STL Sentinel, March 5, 1965

[4] “What Does Able Mean?” TRW program file, April 11, 1966.  Approved by R.H. Droz, April 27,1966

[5] STL’s “Development Plan for Able 3 – 4,” pg 69, June 1, 1959

[6] From Foreword to Design of Liquid Propellant Rocket Engines, Huzel and Huang, Rocketdyne Division,  North American Aviation, Inc., NASA SP-125, 1967.

[7] The Development of Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force 1945 – 1960, pg 213

[9] A. Siddiqi, Challenge To Apollo (NASA SP-2000-4408), p. 256-7.

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin 

James Van Allen and Wernher von Braun hold up a model of Explorer 1 

Vanguard 1 Replica,
Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Museum


Able IV Space Engine

Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev

Mikhail Yangel 

Wernher von Braun 

Atlas Able Launch

Nedelin Catastrophe

Lunar Orbiter 1

John F. Kennedy