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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Showdown with the Soviets in Grand Central Terminal

This week marks the fifty-fourth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviet satellite that was the first to achieve a successful low Earth orbit. Sputnik was launched during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which ran from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. (The IGY was supposed to foster international scientific cooperation; it did that, but it also gave the Americans and the Soviets and excuse to try to out-do each other in what would soon be known as the "Space Race.")

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had announced in 1955 that they would put a satellite in orbit during the IGY. At first, the United States backed the U.S. Army's Explorer program, which planned to use a Redstone ballistic missile to launch a satellite. When the IGY began on July 1, 1957, the United States had little to show for it. So, the Chrysler Corporation, the Redstone's manufacturer, decided it would show the American public just how impressive its products could be, and arranged to have a missile installed in Grand Central Terminal.

In the first week of July, the missile arrived by train from Detroit; the cargo was shunted onto track 16, because the entrance to that track (today partially hidden by a food vendor) was the only one wide enough for the missile to pass through. Over the next few days, the sixty-eight-foot tall Redstone was assembled in Grand Central's main hall. Though the missile was short enough to fit, it needed to be held in place by wires at the top. To achieve this, a hole was punched into the roof--and it's still visible to this day. If you look at the zodiac on the terminal's ceiling, find the fish that make up Pisces; near one of the fish is a dark circle in the roof: that's where the missile was held aloft.

The Redstone stood for three weeks, allowing thousands of commuters to see the weapon that the New York Times said could "[deliver] an atomic punch 200 miles." Which was to say--we may not have a satellite in orbit yet, but we can blow you away.

By the time the Redstone was put on the display, the U.S. had moved away from the Army's Explorer program in favor of the Navy's Vanguard program. However, when Sputnik achieved orbit on October 4, 1957, it lit a fire under the United States and government rushed back to the Explorer program. On January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 achieved orbit and began the United States' exploration of space. The Explorer program is still active to this day.


Read more about Grand Central Terminal in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York

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