Science & Technology

JPL and the Space Age: Explorer 1 (NASA Documentary)

A vintage JPL graphic celebrating the Explorer 1 satellite. America joined the space race with the launch of this small, but important spacecraft. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

Many of the strategies surrounding the Cold War revolved around two things: nuclear weapons and rockets. And in the United States, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, under the supervision of Caltech, was charged with building America’s first tactical nuclear rockets: the Corporal and Sergeant missiles.

At this same time the United States and the Soviet Union were nearing the ability to launch a satellite into Earth orbit. JPL, working in collaboration with Wernher von Braun’s rocket efforts for the U.S. Army, believed they were fully capable of the feat, if only given the chance. That opportunity vanished in October 1957 when the Soviet Union shocked the world with the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. The Space Age was underway. The first U.S. response exploded on the launch pad. Only after that embarrassment were JPL and von Braun’s group given the green light. The success of Explorer 1, a satellite built by JPL, provided the world with the first space science discovery.

Explorer 1 traces the story of the role JPL played before the creation of NASA and how the lab was given a vital role as part of this new organization: to explore the cosmos.

“Explorer One” is Episode 2 in the documentary series “JPL and the Space Age.”

Explorer 1 was the first American satellite. It was launched on January 31, 1958 by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The satellite was part of the United States’ efforts during the Cold War to match the Soviet Union’s early successes in space exploration. The satellite’s mission was to measure radiation levels in Earth’s upper atmosphere, and it discovered the Van Allen radiation belts. JPL was the laboratory that built and operated the spacecraft.

JPL and the Space Age Video Series

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