A half century ago Sputnik I — the first earth satellite launched by the USSR — not only heralded the Space Age, it also revolutionized American science and engineering education. Dr. Raynor Duncombe, who joined the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics faculty in 1976, had already made history by tracking Sputnik across the sky. On Saturday, 5 October 1957, Raynor Duncombe was summoned to the Computation Center in Washington, D.C. as part of an emergency response team. At the time, he was “on loan” from the Naval Observatory to America’s own satellite program, Vanguard.

Sputnik Display

In 1957, Duncombe was then one of a handful of scientists trained in orbital mechanics. And he was much needed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t know where or how Sputnik was launched, its path, what it carried, or what might be coming next. What we did know was that Sputnik I was a 22” sphere weighing 184 lbs. We could see the satellite as it passed overhead every 96.2 minutes.

When he reached the Vanguard Computation Center, Duncombe was handed a wastebasket full of measurements. Dr. Paul Herget, who had just arrived from Cincinnati, said “See if you can make anything out of them.” Herget, who had been up for many hours, took a nap while Duncombe set to work. Using only azimuth angles for each observation of the Russian satellite (taken by passive horizon surveillance radar near Alexandria, Virginia), Duncombe remembers that he, Gerald Clemence, and Paul Herget plotted a circular orbit which had the correct period, correct inclination, and correct time for the satellite in its orbit.

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