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Fantastic four remember Explorer 1/Jupiter-C launch on 50th Anniversary of vital mission

Explorer 1 veterans (from left) Ike Rigell, Terry Greenfield, Norm Perry and John Meisenheimer Sr. reminisce recently inside the original blockhouse at Launch Complex 26 at Cape Canaveral AFS.  All four played critical roles in launching America’s first satellite and believe the mission vaulted America firmly into the Space Age.  (USAF Photo by Ken Warren)

Explorer 1 veterans (from left) Ike Rigell, Terry Greenfield, Norm Perry and John Meisenheimer Sr. reminisce recently inside the original blockhouse at Launch Complex 26 at Cape Canaveral AFS. All four played critical roles in launching America’s first satellite and believe the mission vaulted America firmly into the Space Age. (USAF Photo by Ken Warren)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- -- When George Bernard Shaw said, "Youth is wasted on the young...," he obviously hadn't met or envisioned twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings like Norm Perry, Terry Greenfield, Ike Rigell and John Meisenheimer. All four were youthful contributors to the dynamic launch team, which on Jan. 31, 1958 launched Explorer 1 -- America's first satellite. 

"We were a young bunch back then," said Ike Rigell, now 85. He worked the launch from inside the blockhouse at Launch Complex 26 and was in charge of the electrical network system. Mr. Rigell believes the average age of launch team members was late twenties. "When you're young you have the attitude, 'I can do it.' We all had great confidence in each other and worked as a team...and we did it." 

What they did was catapult America into the Space Age by successfully launching the modified U.S. Army Redstone ballistic missile (Jupiter-C rocket) that carried the small Explorer 1 satellite into orbit. 

Given that the Soviets had beaten America into space with the launches of two Sputnik satellites in 1957, many across the globe felt America was losing the space race - including military and civilian personnel at Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex. John Meiseheimer, Sr., now 74, was an Air Force lieutenant serving as a meteorologist with Det. 11, 4th Weather Group at Patrick. He was the launch weather officer for the mission. 

"Everybody down here was quite upset about Sputnik," said Dr. Meisenheimer, who went on to earn a PhD in chemistry after leaving the Air Force. "The Soviets were ahead of us, but starting with Explorer 1, we caught up very, very fast and surpassed them." 

On the night of the launch then-Lt. Meisenheimer provided weather forecasts to the launch management team throughout the countdown. After issuing the final forecast, he went up to the roof of the Central Control Building to watch the launch, which happened at 10:48 p.m. 

"I remember it being a clear night because I could see the top of the vehicle spinning," he said. "It was a beautiful launch. To some extent, I realized I was part of history. That was the night America got into the Space Age." 

Approximately two hours after launch, it was confirmed that Explorer 1 had successfully completed its first orbit around the earth. 

Word of that milestone spread like wildfire across America. Norm Perry, 74, helped build and test the rocket as employee with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala. He said celebrations broke out in the streets of Huntsville once they heard about the successful orbit. But Mr. Perry regretted not being at the launch site. "It was like building a race car and not being able to go to Daytona to see it go," he said. 

Fortunately, that wasn't the case for Mr. Greenfield, 77. He operated the cluster control panel inside the blockhouse - not very far from the fueled rocket on the launch pad. He, too, worked for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. "I wasn't worried about being so close to the pad in that blockhouse. We knew the rocket was going to work. The Redstone was the most reliable rocket we had in those days," he said. "This launch was all over the newspapers. It marked the resetting of America's commitment to space." 

Added Mr. Rigell, "You couldn't get tired of hearing the breaking news that we had a satellite in orbit. The nation reacted with exuberance." 

Like all of the veterans of the Explorer 1 launch team, Dr. Meisenheimer looks back fondly on that mission and the "old days" at Cape Canaveral AFS. "It was a very exciting time and place to be. The people I worked with and the things we accomplished were amazing. The experiences from that time of my life in the military toughened me up mentally and prepared me to handle anything in life," he said. "I still can't believe how far along the technology used to forecast the weather and launch rockets has come. But, I guess 50 years is a long time."