IGY (International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958) Roundup
by Willy Ley

THIS piece was originally meant to be entitled "Half a Year of IGY" or "The First Six Months of the IGY" or something to that effect. The fact that the actual writing was delayed to the fourth of February makes a title change mandatory. It has to be "The First Seven Months of the IGY." I can't leave Explorer out.

As regards Explorer, I have to confess that the day of Friday, the 31st of January 1958, made me feel somewhat like Phileas Fogg after his return to England, before he realizes, the useful mistake he made. Through the months of December 1957 and January 1958, I was subjected to more than the customary number of radio, television and newspaper interviews, not to mention countless private questions. They all dealt with Vanguard, which had just suffered the most publicized failure of any rocket.

What people wanted to know was:

(1) What happened to Vanguard?

(2) Why was it publicized so much?

(3) How many failures did the Russians have before they got Sputnik I into an orbit?

(4) What were the chances of Jupiter?

My answers, naturally, were my own opinions and not those of the network or of the managing editor. And they ran as follows:

Question No. 1. After having watched the films taken of the takeoff that miscarried, I felt my first impression on hearing the reports more or less confirmed.

The films showed clearly that the rocket motor of the first stage burned well and that the rocket lifted. Just after lift-off, when it was roughly one yard above the launching table, something shot out of the tail and accompanied by flame; simultaneously, the exhaust blast of the motor seemed to weaken. It was not longer strong enough to carry the rocket, so the rocket settled back on its tail. Naturally it did not settle back to fit the launching table precisely. It split open, fell over and the fuel exploded.

My first impression had been that the fuel pump was stuck and that this ruptured a fuel line. (This happened to several V-2s in Germany and to at least one V-2 at White Sands, but at a high altitude.) It has been stated officially since then that the cause of the mechanical failure is now known, but it has not been said officially what it was. At any event, it was a loss of power, just at the most critical moment, due to a mishap in the motor compartment.

Question No. 2. The reason why Vanguard was publicized so much was paradoxically due to secrecy. As everyone knows, the Defense Department, during the years when Charles Wilson made all the many decisions stamped "I am twice as bright as anybody else," suffered a very acute attack of juvenile super-secrecy. Nothing was to be published about missiles. Not even their names were to be made known—of course, you could always read British aviation publications and find out what you wanted to know—and, in general, the taxpayer was not to be informed what was done with his money. Or whether anything was done with his money.

But it had also been decided that firing an artificial satellite by means of a military missile would "make a bad impression." For this reason, Dr. Werner von Braun's original Project Orbiter was scrapped and "the peaceful rocket" of Project Vanguard was substituted. This put the first American satellite into space roughly two years later than would have been the case if Project Orbiter had gone ahead.

But the other side of the coin was—hurray, hurray—that Vanguard was nor a missile. In fact, the Navy always referred to it very carefully as a "vehicle" and the Navy Public Relations officers then found out that most citizens considered a "vehicle" something in which a man rides. Hence they wanted to know what sort of man would ride the Vanguard. They wanted to know whether somebody had already been picked. And the Navy's public relations men had to explain over and over again that the "passenger" was to be a ball of instruments weighing 21 1/2 pounds.

To return to the theme: Vanguard was not a missile, so it was not classified. It could be talked about Some technical detail was not revealed, but a newsman of any kind—radio, television or newspaper—who wanted to know something about rockets, since he had to fill time or space, would be waved into a chair and told: "Now you realize, of course, that missiles are under wraps. Missiles cannot repeat NOT, be discussed. But the satellite project—Vanguard, that is—is not classified in that sense. So ask me anything you want about Vanguard and I'll tell you."

Thus Vanguard, for about two years, got all the publicity that would normally have been spread over a dozen different projects. And since everybody had been whipped into expecting wonders of Vanguard, the disappointment was obviously severe. Under normal conditions, the failure would have been just a plain failure. Such things will happen; on to the next test. But only Vanguard had been talked about—and there were two Russian sputniki (that’s the correct plural) overhead. Which brings me to:

Question No. 3. Of course the Russians, having an enormous land area, a political dictatorship and a secret police, could have hidden any number of failures. But when asked directly whether the shot that put Sputnik I in orbit had been the first attempt, they said that it had been.

I may say here first that the scientists of all nations had been furnished with a date for the firing in about May 1957. The Russian rocket experts had started hinting very broadly that the year 1957 was not only the beginning of the International Geophysical Year but also the centenary of the birth of the great Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Eduardovitch Ziolkovsky.

Furthermore, they were planning a celebration worthy of the memory of a rocket pioneer. The date was September 17, 1957—when Ziolkovsky was born, the registrar noted his birthday down as September 5, 1857. But that was old style, the Julian calendar, and the Soviets have switched to the Gregorian calendar used by the rest of the world. So, to many people, the surprise was not that it happened at all, but that it did not happen on September 17. I wondered for several months whether they had tried on September 17 and failed, or whether they simply did not get ready until October 4, the date of the actual shot.

Of course I don't know. But the Russians said that their first shot succeeded. Offhand, there is no reason why one should not believe this statement. They used a production missile, the one they call the T-2, which is a two-stage liquid-fuel job. They put a third stage, almost certainly solid fuel, on top. In a production missile, the bugs which once inhabited it have been frozen or burned out before it became a production missile. Hence, if it is in production, a failure would be a surprise rather than the other way round. It was this reasoning which caused me to be very optimistic about:

Question No. 4. The Jupiter-C missile is a production missile too. At least its components are. The first stage of the Jupiter-C is a Redstone liquid-fuel rocket. The second stage is a ring-shaped cluster of a well-tested solid-fuel rocket, called Recruit (because it is a scaled-down Sergeant). The third stage is a smaller cluster of Recruit rockets placed inside the ring-shaped cluster which is the second stage. The fourth stage, finally, is a single such rocket, sitting more or less on top of the third stage.

So I assured everybody who asked me that Jupiter would jump into space in January. Naturally I felt like Phileas Fogg on January 31st. Then I was rescued like Phileas Fogg. Jupiter did jump into space, still in January. The takeoff time was 10:48 P.M. A wire service rang me up at a few minutes after midnight to tell me about it. And on the following day, I sent a wire to Werner von Braun, congratulating him and thanking him for having kept me an honest man by the margin of one hour and twelve minutes.

Of course, during the time that goes by between the writing of this column and its appearance on the newsstands, you must have read about all the things that Explorer did find out. I just want to point at one early item, its internal temperature.

The space travel men had said for years that the temperature in the cabin of a spaceship near Earth would be about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This figure was based on eat received from the Sun only and did not take into account how much additional heat would be generated internally by hot filaments in instruments and by the people. It also did not take into account the heat the ship would receive by reflection from the Earth when it was above the dayside of the Earth—between Earth and Sun, that is. Calculated in, this was expected to add between twelve and fifteen degrees. Explorer has reported that its internal temperature varies from 50 degrees to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Accurate predicting, eh?

But let's go on to other IGY activities now. And this time we really talk about the first six months because no later reports are in.

It must be said that Nature cooperated beautifully.

The first day of the IGY was July 1, 1957.

On June 28, 1957, there was an exceptionally large solar flare. The disturbance caused by that flare reached the Earth on the first of July.

Light from a solar flare needs only eight minutes to reach the Earth. Astronomers of Krasnaya Pakhra Observatory in Russia saw the flare first and reported it to IGY headquarters in Brussels. IGY headquarters declared an "alert" one day before the official beginning of the IGY. The disturbance caused by a solar flare shows mostly as a disruption of long-range radio communications.

Normally there are several ionized layers in the ionosphere (above 40 miles from the ground) which are used as "mirrors" to reflect radio waves of different wave lengths from the point of origin to the target. After a solar flare, this does not work for a while. The radio waves do not come back. Were they simply let out into space or were they absorbed? The latter was rnore likely by far, but one could not be absolutely certain.

On July 4, 1957, a research rocket was fired through the ionized layers to find out. The rocket reported that there was an additional ionized layer, extending to twelve miles below the lowest normal layer. The rocket also reported that there were no changes in the distribution of the ionized layers otherwise. The disruption of communications was due to the temporary formation of this extra layer, below all the others. At a later solar flare—to the eye, a solar flare is just an exceptionally bright spot on the face of the Sun—another rocket could establish that the extra layer was caused by X-rays coming from the Sun.

One of the things which scientists had never been able to answer was whether there was a "bipolarity of the auroras." Everybody has seen pictures of an aurora. If they occur near the magnetic pole in the north, they are called aurora borealis; if they occur near the opposite pole, they are called aurora australis. Now the auroras, all available evidence said, were also caused by solar activities. But if it was the Sun that caused an aurora, it should take place simultaneously at both poles—it should be "bipolar."

All very logical, but was it?

The difficulty was that one pole has daylight when it is night at the other pole. You probably could not see an aurora in bright sunlight, increased by the glare from the snow on the ground, even if one took place. Moreover, you never had observers both in the far north and in the far south at the same moment.

But, during the IGY, you do have observers all over. And they were aided by new instrumentation which would have sounded like magic in the days of Nansen. Now proven: the aurorae are bipolar.

Much attention was devoted to something that few people even knew existed, the so-called "whistlers." The whistler can be heard only with radio equipment; it is one more radio disturbance, this time of the low frequencies.

The origin of a whistler seems to be a stroke of lightning. The Earth is large enough for about a thousand thunderstorms to go on at any given moment, so there is no shortage of lightning strokes. But obviously not every stroke produces a whistler. Only occasionally is the wave which is originated by the lightning capable of penetrating the reflecting ionized layers of the upper atmosphere.

When one does, the resulting and rather faint disturbance travels back and forth between the northern and the southern hemisphere. It travels in space, outside the ionosphere, and it does go very far out, judging by the time that elapses. The whistlers must travel along the so-called magnetic lines; more precisely speaking, they travel through an arc along which the intensity of the Earth's magnetic field remains the same. Could the "whistler effect" be used for communications at times when solar flares produce this extra layer which ruins the customary method of radio communication?

There is no answer to this question yet, but by the end of the IGY we may know.

Still staying at the fringes of the atmosphere, another phenomenon has to be discussed. The two principal gases of our atmosphere are nitrogen, not quite 80 per cent, and oxygen, around 21 per cent. The little difference indicated by the words "not quite" is argon, neon, krypton, xenon, helium and hydrogen, all together amounting to roughly one per cent. On occasion, you can read somewhat different figures; for some purposes, it is more convenient to list the weight rather than the volume.

Here is a comparison of both:

volume weight percent percent Nitrogen 78.03 75.514 Oxygen 20.99 23.147 Argon, etc .94 1.292 c o 2 .03 .046 Hydrogen .01 .001 The point this table makes is that the various gases have different specific gravities. A cubic yard of oxygen does not weigh quite the same as a cubic yard of nitrogen. A cubic yard of hydrogen would be much lighter than either, and a cubic yard of carbon dioxide much heavier than anything else that exists in the atmosphere.

If the atmosphere were, or could be, completely at rest, the various gases could be expected to separate into layers. Of course the atmosphere is not at rest; it is warmed by the Sun on one side and radiates its heat into space on the other. It circulates, mixes and travels about.

Originally the idea of separate layers just did not exist. But some sixty years ago, when more about the higher levels of the atmosphere became known by way of balloon flights, it suddenly looked as if all the turbulence was confined to the first six miles or so. The French scientist Leon P. Teisserenc de Bort even coined the name stratosphere for the "upper air" because up there the air seemed to be stratified.

Some years later, between 1915 and 1925, you could find neat diagrams of the atmosphere, all based on the idea that the gases should separate according to their specific gravity. No layer would be perfectly pure, but as you went up the percentage of helium should increase, for example, and the percentage of hydrogen with it. In fact, there probably was one pure layer, namely an outer hydrogen layer.

Here we had a case of logical reasoning which did not seem to hold true in reality, for the first V-2 rockets thoroughly ruined the whole concept. Eighty miles up, the composition of the atmosphere was still the same as near the ground. Naturally the density had dropped to almost nothing, but the composition of the little there was corresponded with what you could measure one mile up. No layering.

This dictum was firm and definite as of January 1, 1957. On January 1, 1958, it was not so firm any more. An IGY research rocket, fired from Fort Churchill in Canada in late summer 1957, carried a device for analyzing the composition of the air. The still somewhat tentative result is that the air is completely mixed up to sixty miles. But above sixty miles there were faint indications of separation according to the specific gravity of the gases involved.

The attempt to measure this brought up the question of what is "normal" density at high altitudes. A series of Aerobee and Nike-Cajun rockets was fired from Fort Churchill for just this purpose. The rockets, going as high as 120 miles, reported all kinds of effects which could not be detected on the ground.

It seems that one cannot ask about the "normal" density a hundred miles up without specifying quite a number of things. This density is not the same during the day and the night. It is not the same on the first of August and the first of December. And it is not the same, on the same day, under 30 degrees of northern latitude and under 60 degrees of northern latitude.

Density of the atmosphere at very high altitudes, then, is influenced by the geographical latitude, the season of the year and, most especially, the time of the day.

Let’s come out of the atmosphere now and put our feet on the ground. Or rather on the ice, because we have to talk about Antarctica next. Even though Antarctica is almost "settled" by IGY stations ( I count 38 on my checkmap, run by, in alphabetical order, Argentina, Australia, Chile, England, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, USA and USSR), the results must be spotty, for the Antarctic ice sheet measures six million square miles.

A number of soundings have shown that the ice extends to below sea level where "land" was expected. Still, the experts are careful not to conclude that Antarctica is really an archipelago which is tied together by ice. The drilling may just conceivably have hit a frozen fjord.

The geography of Antarctica is still quite uncertain, but we are making progress. But the end of the IGY, we may have a reasonably good map. Or at least one that is good enough to serve as a guide to further studies.

Something quite unexpected has shown up at the other end of the globe, the polar sea. Several stations in the western hemisphere are involved, most of them Canadian, one or two Norwegian, one American. The stations on the other side of the Arctic Ocean are Russian, of course.

One day, one of the Canadians noticed a sea level rise of about four inches which could not be accounted for by tides or anything known. He first checked with his colleagues in the western hemisphere. Yes, they had observed it too. Then they checked with the Russians, who had looked at the same thing with amazement. But there was a difference in time. The sea level rise on the Russian side did not take place at the same time as it did on the American side.

The phenomenon may be compared with the motion of the water in a round washtub that has been shaken. The water first laps up on one side and then travels to the opposite side. Then it comes back. Naturally it takes many hours for a basin as large as the Arctic Ocean.

Nobody has any idea of how this can be explained. The main problem is that it is a newly observed phenomenon. We don't know whether it existed in the past. We don't know whether it was stronger in the past or weaker. If we knew when it started, it might tie up with a major volcanic catastrophe. But we don't know. It is something to be watched for a long time to come.

Another surprise that turned up in the oceans—in the Atlantic Ocean, in this case—is something that might be called a Counter Gulf Stream.

The work was done by two oceangoing laboratories, the Atlantis (U. S. A.) and the Discovery II (Great Britain). They investigated the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream which flows in a general northeasterly direction. They found that, at a depth of 6500 feet below the Gulf Stream's eastern edge, the water either shows no movement at all or else that the movement is very erratic, the equivalent of a turbulent zone in the air. But at 9000 feet there is a current flowing opposite to the Gulf Stream on top, at the rate of eight miles per hour, which is rather fast for an ocean current.

Nothing on such a scale has yet been reported from the southern Atlantic Ocean, which is under investigation by the Vema (U. S. A.) and the Bahia Blanca (Argentina). But the Vema could report something new in the biological field. They recovered—alive—a small shellfish and a worm one-quarter of an inch in length from depths of 13,200 and 16,200 feet, respectively. This is believed to be the greatest depth from which living organisms have been brought up so far, alive or dead.

About 200 IGY stations occupy themselves with measuring sea level and tides. It is possible that, with the change of the seasons, very large amounts of sea water shift from the northern to the southern hemisphere. But, so far, only one change of seasons has been observed and that incompletely. Which is, incidentally, the reason why the IGY runs through eighteen months—all observations can be made through overlapping seasons.

Well, this is about what is now known. The full results of the IGY will not even be known at the end of the IGY because it will take years to correlate all the information gathered and to interpret it correctly.

It is quite possible that important discoveries have already been made, needing only time and study to be found and confirmed.

Both in the Arctic and in Antarctica, long "cores"—samplings of ice from great depths—have been taken. The forty-odd research vessels engaged in the program have taken large quantities of samples of bottom mud from all the oceans. Observatories, stations, ships, rockets, balloons, instruments and human watchers are amassing mountains of data that must be broken down, analyzed, tested, compared, checked and rechecked. And some, like the photographs of Pluto made years ago, will have to wait for theory to point the way to their true significance.

There is no way of prophesying how many scientific papers and books in the future will begin with the words: "It was first noticed during the IGY that . . ." but it's certain that the number will not be small.

— Willy Ley


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