The launch vehicle for the Luna E-1 series was a modified R7 named Vostok. The Vostok had three stages. The first and second stage were the standard R-7 which we covered in Episode 9. A 5.1 meter long by 2.4 meter diameter third stage was added to the top of the R-7. The third stage weighed 1472 kg and was capable of delivering 54.5 kiloNewtons or 12,252 lbs of thrust. This was the probes booster stage that gave it enough speed to escape Earth’s gravity.
In late March, 1958, President Eisenhower publicly announced the United States’ intention to launch a spacecraft to the Moon. He assured the nation that this was not science fiction. It was an achievable goal presented by leading scientists. The announcement came less than 2 months after the first US satellite had reached orbit. The President was committing the nation to a space race to the moon with the Soviets. If all went well the country would have a spacecraft in orbit around the moon before the summer was over.
At approximately 12:48 a.m. EST, the first listening stations began reporting that they had received radio signals from the “Explorer” satellite. The first station to confirm the signals was the San Gabriel Valley Amateur Radio Club near Pasadena, California. However, ABMA officials were waiting for confirmation from the Goldstone radio tracking station in Earthquake Valley, California. Finally, 1 hour and 57 minutes after launch the confirmation was finally relayed to ABMA officials in the form of the simple phrase, “Goldstone has the bird!”
“It seemed as if the gates of hell had opened up. Brilliant stiletto flames shot out from the side of the rocket near the engine. The vehicle agonizingly hesitated for a moment, quivered again, and in front of our unbelieving eyes, began to topple. It sank like a great flaming sword down into the blast tube it toppled slowly breaking apart, hitting part of the test guard and ground with a tremendous roar that could be felt and heard even behind the 2 food concrete wall of the blockhouse. For a moment or two there was complete disbelief. I could see it in the faces. I could feel it myself.”