A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey tells the remarkable story of America's first efforts to succeed in space, a time of exploding rockets, national space mania, Florida boomtowns, and interservice rivalries so fierce that President Dwight Eisenhower had to referee them.
When the Soviet Union launched the first orbital satellite, Sputnik I, Americans panicked. The Soviets had nuclear weapons, the Cold War was underway, and now the USSR had taken the lead in the space race. Members of Congress and the press called for an all-out effort to launch a satellite into orbit. With dire warnings about national security in the news almost every day, the armed services saw space as the new military frontier. But President Eisenhower insisted that the space effort, which relied on military technology, be supervised by civilians so that the space race would be peaceful. The Navy's Vanguard program flopped, and the Army, led by ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and a martinet general named J. Bruce Medaris (whom Eisenhower disliked), took over. Meanwhile, the Soviets put a dog inside the next Sputnik, and Americans grew more worried as the first animal in space whirled around the Earth.
Throughout 1958 America went space crazy. UFO sightings spiked. Boys from Brooklyn to Burbank shot model rockets into the air. Space-themed beauty pageants became a national phenomenon. The news media flocked to the launchpads on the swampy Florida coast, and reporters reinvented themselves as space correspondents. And finally the Army's rocket program succeeded. Determined not to be outdone by the Russians, America's space scientists launched the first primate into space, a small monkey they nicknamed Old Reliable for his calm demeanor. And then at Christmastime, Eisenhower authorized the launch of a secret satellite with a surprise aboard.
A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey memorably recalls the infancy of the space race, a time when new technologies brought ominous danger but also gave us the ability to realize our dreams and reach for the stars.
The Soviet Union captured the world's attention in November 1957 when it shot a shaggy little mutt named Laika (Barker) into space on Sputnik II, which followed closely after Sputnik I, the first satellite ever launched. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist D'Antonio (The State Boys Rebellion) recounts how Americans, even though frightened by the Soviets' apparent superiority in space, warmed to Russian reports on the pooch. The daily paper in Huntsville, Ala.--where Nazi rocket meister Wernher von Braun was scheming to get his Redstone rockets into space--advertised the local pound with a picture of a refugee from the Soviet space program suspended from a parachute. D'Antonio chronicles the frenzied year of 1958, when the U.S. Army and Air Force hawked their competing rocket designs to a president apparently more interested in his golf game, and an ambitious senator named Lyndon Johnson made political hay out of rockets exploding on the launch pad. American rocketeers wrapped up the year by sending a laid-back monkey named Gordo into orbit. Space buffs will be familiar with most of the details of D'Antonio's story, but his fast-paced narrative incorporates firsthand accounts of everyday citizens caught up in the excitement of America's push into space. 8 pages of photos. (Sept.) Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
November 17, 2008
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Excerpt from A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey by Michael D'Antonio
Those Damn Bastards!
On October 4, 1957, the USS Glacier, stubby and wide-beamed, chugged westward in the Pacific Ocean, tracing a course a few hundred miles north of the Galapagos Islands. Shaped like a watermelon cut lengthwise, the ship was designed to crush through polar ice. Her engines were powerful and her steel skin was thick enough to survive even high-speed collisions with growlers, small bergs that sounded like angry dogs as they scraped along the hull. On her maiden voyage in 1955 -- called Operation Deep Freeze -- the Glacier had cut through 400 miles of frozen ocean that would have stopped any other American ship.
But as sturdy as she was, in the open sea the Glacier was a bit tipsy, rolling with almost every wave, which complicated matters for civilian physicist James Van Allen, his student Larry Cahill, and the members of the crew who gathered early in the morning to help launch a strange contraption called a "rockoon." First they hauled a huge, clear plastic balloon -- source of the "oon" part of rockoon -- out of the ship's hold and onto the quarterdeck, which was otherwise used as a helipad. Next came bottles of helium, which were tapped to fill the balloon with 26,000 pounds of gas. As it grew larger, and was subject to the breeze, the balloon flopped around like a fish on the deck.
As the crew continued the task of inflating the balloon, Van Allen turned to a long, narrow wooden crate that was propped on sawhorses. Inside was an Aerobee rocket -- the "rock" in rockoon -- that was roughly six feet long and not much bigger around than a rolling pin. First developed in the late 1940s, various generations of the Aerobee would serve for decades as reliable rockets for exploring the atmosphere and near space. As he turned to this particular rocket, Van Allen summoned some helpers and began to review what they had to do to make it airworthy.
A slightly built man of forty-three, with sloping shoulders and a soft, boyish face, Professor Van Allen hardly looked like a commanding figure. But he had spent more time at sea than most of the crew, and he directed them with a combination of certainty and respect that inspired cooperation. With help from Cahill he got the rocket out of its box. They tested its radio transmitter and attached a rope that would connect it to the balloon for a journey aloft.
The rocket was the tricky part. One had recently fired, accidentally, while it was being readied for use on the deck of another ship. Ignited by a signal from its own radio transmitter, the thing took off horizontally. The flame from its tail burned a ship's officer who stood nearby and blew the coat right off one of Van Allen's students from the University of Iowa Physics Department. It then smashed through a pair of sawhorses and headed straight for a sailor who was talking to the bridge via a deck phone. The rocket sliced through the cord on the phone, leaving the shocked crewman unscathed as he held the suddenly un-tethered receiver in his hand. The rocket finally crashed into a stack of helium canisters that were, to the relief of everyone on board, empty and not pressurized. Burning fuel and pieces of metal flew all over the deck.
Although the injuries from that accident included just the burns suffered by the officer and damage to the student's eardrums, it reminded every scientist, officer, and enlisted man involved with the rockoons that while they looked like mere gas bags trailing fireworks, they were potentially lethal.
Aboard the Glacier, as the moment for the October 4 launch approached, Lieutenant Stephen Wilson picked up a phone on the deck and contacted the ship's bridge. The balloon could be released only when the ship was traveling with the prevailing breeze, at exactly the same speed as the wind, so that the entire contraption would clear the Glacier's smokestack, antennae, and mast. To get the course and speed right, Wilson barked a stream of orders to a helmsman, who made adjustments. "If anyone looked at your ship's track when we were doing this," he would one day recall, "they would be convinced there was some drunk at the helm."
At 1:16 P.M., with Wilson keeping the ship steady, Van Allen signaled the men who held the balloon to let it go. The big clear bubble of gas rose, pulling behind it the rope and rocket and leaving the ship behind. Looking much like a jellyfish with a single tentacle, the balloon moved slowly at first, but as it climbed, and the atmosphere thinned, it picked up speed. Below, Van Allen watched through binoculars as the sunlit blob of plastic flew farther and farther away. Beside him a radioman, Petty Officer David Armbrust, stood wearing earphones and holding a special antenna that was made to track signals from the rocket.