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The Early Satellites
A thermometer, a battery, and a radio inside of a metal ball.

It may sound like a high school science experiment, but in 1957, it captured the attention of the world. That metal ball was Sputnik 1, and its launch marked the beginning of the age of space exploration.

Satellites have undergone a major evolution since those challenging first days, but the world we live in now - where information about our planet is gathered from space and sent around the globe in the blink of an eye - wouldn't be possible without the earliest hardware to orbit the Earth.

Dr. William Pickering, Dr. James Van Allen and Dr. Wernher Von Braun hold a model of Explorer 1 above their heads. + First U.S. satellite - Explorer 1

Did you know the United States began working on rockets decades before NASA was even created? America's space program was originally run by the military, with the Army, Navy and Air Force all working on their own space projects. On Jan. 31, 1958, the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency successfully launched the first American satellite, Explorer 1. The spacecraft was designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the same organization behind the Mars Exploration Rovers of today. The primary instrument on Explorer 1 was a cosmic ray detector designed to measure the level of radiation in Earth orbit.

Image to right: Dr. William Pickering, Dr. James Van Allen, and Dr. Wernher Von Braun hold a model of the Explorer 1 vehicle above their heads. The three were key figures in getting America into space. Credit: NASA.

NASA's Echo 1 satellite with employees standing in the foreground. + First NASA communications satellite - Echo 1

The idea behind a communications satellite is simple: send a signal into space, and send it back down to another spot on the globe. NASA engineers soon discovered the easiest way to accomplish this: bounce signals off a giant metal balloon floating in orbit. The concept was developed into the aptly-named Echo program, and Echo 1 became the first successful launch of the project on Aug. 12, 1960. The balloon enabled voice communication of "good quality" between scientists at Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, and a NASA facility in Goldstone, California.

Image above: Echo 1 sits fully inflated at a Navy hangar in Weeksville, North Carolina. The spacecraft measured 100 feet across when deployed, and was nicknamed a 'satelloon' by those involved in the project. Credit: NASA.

+ First NASA meteorological satellite - TIROS 1

Want to find out how long it will take for that thunderstorm to reach your town? Turning on your local weather report and seeing an image of the globe from space is something we often take for granted, but 50 years ago meteorologists had no way to get "the big picture." NASA's first true meteorological satellite was TIROS 1, designed to test whether or not it was even practical to look at weather from space. The spacecraft launched on April 1, 1960, and took over 22,000 photographs of cloud cover before it was shut down in June of the same year.

John Glenn boards Friendship 7 prior to launch. + First NASA manned satellite - Friendship 7

NASA's Project Mercury had specific goals, and the first of those was very clear: to orbit a manned spacecraft around the Earth. On Feb. 20, 1962, that goal was accomplished, as John Glenn sped around the globe three times inside the capsule nicknamed "Friendship 7." The mission lasted only five hours, but NASA's "manned satellite" program is now in operation 24 hours a day: It's known as the International Space Station.

Image to right: Mercury astronaut John Glenn enters the Friendship 7 capsule before launch. 36 years later, Glenn would fly aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-95. Credit: NASA.

Matthew Cavagnaro
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center