The outcry in the American press convinced the Russians to plow ahead with Sputnik 2. It also forced Eisenhower to beef up plans for a U.S. satellite. In addition to the ongoing Vanguard program at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, JPL's Explorer became the understudy in case Vanguard failed—which it did, with flare, on December 6, 1957, rising a few feet from its launch platform before exploding. (A second attempt two months later also ended in flames.)
The scientific community got its wish for a public, civilian science program in space in October 1958, when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was reborn as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA.
As a result, Conway says, U.S. astronomers got their hands on military technology that had long eluded them, such as sophisticated infrared sensors for heat-seeking missiles that could further their efforts to study the solar system.
So it was that the Space Age began. In January 1958, Explorer 1 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Three years later saw the liftoff of the first Saturn rocket, which would serve as the basis for the Apollo spacecraft that would take U.S. astronauts to the moon. Now, Conway says, it was the Soviets' turn to be shocked. "They went, 'uh oh, it wasn't just propaganda. They're really doing it.'"
How the tables do turn on Earth—and in space.