PALM SPRINGS — Fifty years ago this month, Henry Richter sat in a mosquito-infested Florida marsh, waiting to find out whether America had successfully put its first satellite in orbit.
Tension was high. Just four months earlier, the Soviets had humiliated the United States by launching Sputnik. In December, America's first attempt to catch up to the Russians failed when the Navy's Vanguard rocket blew up on the pad.
"Flopnik," cried the headlines.
In the wake of that embarrassment, the project landed in the lap of a little-known Army research center in Southern California called the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
So on the night of Jan. 31, 1958 -- less than 90 days after being given the go-ahead -- Richter and other scientists waited nervously on a stretch of beach called Cape Canaveral as Explorer 1 lifted off the pad.
Confirmation that it had reached orbit took longer than expected.
"It was a sweaty-palms time," recalled Richter, one of a handful of high-ranking scientists and engineers still living who worked on the Explorer program.
He finally got confirmation from an improvised tracking station at the Temple City sheriff's office. "Temple's acquired," it said.
Minutes later, the world learned America had joined the space race.
The launch of Explorer was the first step in a journey of exploration that would culminate a decade later with the Apollo moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
It also was a coming-out party for JPL, which emerged from its cloak of military secrecy with a reputation for scientific and technical prowess it has maintained for the last five decades. Its robotic spacecraft have visited every planet in the solar system. The two Voyager craft are now poised to become the first man-made objects to reach interstellar space.
The story of JPL's 90-day miracle became the stuff of scientific legend. Single-handedly, it seemed, JPL had proved that American know-how was alive and well at a time when the country badly needed a shot in the arm.
"It's an attractive story," JPL historian Erik Conway said of the crash program that built and launched Explorer in less than three months. "The problem is, it's not true."
The real story of Explorer 1, according to Richter, Conway and other space historians, was of a long and often frustrating journey wrapped in Cold War politics, secret missile tests and White House miscalculations.
All this took place against the backdrop of the race between the United States and the Soviets to develop and deploy the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of carrying nuclear weapons across the globe.
According to the modest and soft-spoken Richter, now 80 and semi-retired in Palm Springs, his involvement with the Explorer 1 project was mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills. The son of respected landscape painter Henry L. Richter, he spent his early years in Long Beach and Rolling Hills.
Always technically oriented, Richter graduated from Caltech in 1955 with a PhD in chemistry and then joined JPL.
At the time, the lab was doing ballistic missile research for the Army under the direction of a low-key New Zealander named William Pickering. The JPL group was also working with German rocket wunderkind Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists based in Huntsville, Ala.
The Germans had brought their V-2 rocket technology with them when they were whisked out of Germany at the end of World War II.
Working in secret, the two groups were building a missile capable of striking targets thousands of miles away. They hoped to build America's first ICBM, the foundation of the arms race that took off in the 1960s. (The Army version was eventually scrapped in favor of the Air Force's Atlas missile.)
From the first, the marriage of the Germans and the Californians was an odd one, Richter recalled.
"Von Braun was very Teutonic," he said. JPL was "very loose."
Carl W. Raggio, now 79, was a manager of the Explorer design team.
According to Raggio, the German-JPL team was developing a missile capable of striking targets in the Soviet Union. The three-stage rocket, known as the reentry test vehicle, was a combination of Von Braun's Redstone launcher, based on the V-2, and JPL's Sergeant missile.
In 1956, one of the rockets traveled 3,300 miles down the Atlantic test range, Richter said.
Richter, Raggio and Conway said that if a fourth stage had been added, the rocket could easily have reached orbit. All that was needed was the go-ahead from the White House.
"We could have launched, we were ready to go," Richter said. "We had flight-tested three rockets. But we had no permission."