A documentary about the history of technological developments in the field of space exploration, particularly in the United States and the Soviet Union.

This examination of the history of space flight and the "space race," hosted by Mike Wallace, begins its story in 1898 with Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, whose theories on the development of rocketry and the advancement of space travel inspire future generations. Tsiolkovsky coins the term "Sputnik," meaning "fellow traveler," as a term for space vessels. His early scientific theories on the nature of space travel inspire an American, Robert H. Goddard, to conduct his own experiments on the practicality of rocketry, beginning his research in 1913. Wallace speaks with Goddard's widow, who talks about how he was ridiculed in the 1910's and 20's for his at the time fringe theories and his supposed lack of knowledge of physics. She recounts recording his early tests of fuel-powered rockets in Auburn, Massachusetts in the late 1920's. Realizing that their tests are too dangerous to conduct in populated areas, the Goddards and their assistants relocate to the barren desert of Roswell, New Mexico, where they develop hundreds of patents and launch craft exceeding speeds of 700 miles per hour.

In post-World War I Germany, several scientists inspired by men like Tsiolkovsky and Goddard form their own organization, the German Society for Space Travel. They are led by physicist Hermann Oberth and count among their number a young, brilliant scientist named Wernher von Braun. They expand on Goddard's ideas and conduct a number of different tests with the aim of eventually unlocking the secrets of space flight. When their funding depletes, they are approached by famous filmmaker Fritz Lang, who is shooting the 1929 film "Frau im Mond" ("Woman in the Moon"). He offers to pay the organization to serve as technical advisors for the film, lending their expertise to scenes in the film of a rocket launch. Lang himself devises the idea of a "countdown" as a dramatic touch. Eventually the club exhausts their funds again and is approached by the Nazis, hoping to use rockets as long-range weapons against England, since the Versailles Treaty has no provisions against rocket-based weapons. The Gestapo all but forces the scientists to comply with their wishes.

In 1936, the Nazis set up a rocket research facility in the small fishing village of Peenemünde. They appoint hundreds of Germany's top scientists, and von Braun is put in charge of civilian research. It is here that the "Vengeance-2" rocket, known as the "V-2," is developed as a new type of rocket design capable of bombarding targets from space. It is nearly operational by 1943, but the Allies become aware of its existence due to several misfires which sent test rockets crashing into Sweden and Poland. The Allies respond quickly: on August 17th, 1943, an English bombing squad launches a massive raid against the Peenemünde facility, rendering it inoperable. The Germans move their rocket production facility to the village of Nordhausen, where the scientists carry out their research in underground laboratories. Hitler begins to harbor doubts about the effectiveness of the V-2 program and orders it to be shut down. The scientists decide to shoot a film of the project's successes, and it is screened before Hitler and his aides in the Reichstag. Hitler is impressed and restarts the V-2 project, using V-2 rockets to bombard London. However, by then it is too late and the Allies are able to achieve victory.

As World War II closes, military leaders from both the United States and the USSR become interested in the German rocketry research. This sparks the beginning of the space race between the two global superpowers. Immediately the facilities at Peenemünde and Nordhausen are targeted by both sides for supplies and equipment. Wallace interviews Major General Holger N. Toftoy, who was responsible for ordnance intelligence in Europe who led the early efforts to recover V-2 personnel and equipment. Toftoy recounts hearing about von Braun's work and advising that the United States recruit him and other scientists for their own rocket project. He gets approval from the Pentagon to bring von Braun and over a hundred other German scientists into the United States in what is called "Operation Paperclip." He and his men manage to reach Nordhausen and extract supplies and rocket parts from the facility mere days before the Russians arrive, although the Russians are able to raid Peenemünde and strip it clean. At first Toftoy believes von Braun and his associates have sided with the Russians, but soon von Braun appears and decides to work for the United States instead, thus proving the success of Operation Paperclip. Von Braun and 127 other German scientists are set up in a laboratory in Texas.

However, the sense of urgency about the new rocket project fades into the background in the light of the United States' post-war attitudes and industrial prosperity. In the Soviet Union a movement for better education, particularly in the sciences, manifests. Their scientific progress outpaces the United States, and they begin extensive missile testing. The United States rocket program works on combining the V-2 design with a new rocket design, the WAC Corporal, the United States' first two-stage missile. The Soviets begin launching animals into space and recording information about the effects of weightlessness and cosmic radiation. In August 1956, Nikita Khrushchev announces that the USSR is developing the world's first intercontinental ballistic missiles, and that they are planning on launching a man-made satellite into orbit in 1957. The United States responds with a similar plan.

That promise, however, does not come to fruition immediately, as the government determines that the already-completed Jupiter-C rocket design is unsuitable for launching the satellite. This is in part due to the fact that it is a military space vehicle, and they feel the satellite should be a purely scientific endeavor in accordance with the upcoming United Nations survey of space. They reject the Jupiter-C in favor of the untested Vanguard rocket design, despite objections from von Braun and his team. In addition, the Department of Defense orders that press conferences and public discussion of space flight should not be permitted. However, this restriction is lifted when, on October 4th, 1957, the Russians launch Sputnik-1, earth's first man-made satellite, into orbit. The tiny module captures the interest and imagination of people worldwide, and the United States gives its own space flight program more serious attention. Soon thereafter, the Soviets launch the Sputnik 2 satellite on November 3rd, 1957, this time containing the dog Laika, the first animal to be launched into orbit.

The United States attempts to launch its Vanguard rocket, but it explodes on the launching pad, proving the Vanguard's unsuitability. On December 6th, 1957, John Medaris, commander of the United States Army Ballistic Missile Agency, calls a meeting in Huntsville, Alabama to announce that they have been given charge of the United States satellite project, and that von Braun and his team have been given 90 days to complete the launch. Due to the relatively short timeframe, the work is split into three units: Dr. von Braun and his team of over 3,000 engineers and technicians design the rocket carrier in Huntsville; the instrumentation for the rocket is designed by Dr. James Van Allen and his associates at the University of Iowa; and the upper stage of the rocket is constructed by Dr. William Pickering and his team in Pasadena, California. The satellite is dubbed "Explorer 1." After an exhaustive effort the launch begins at Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 31st, 1958. The tense countdown concludes with the rocket's successful launch despite a last-minute technical problem. At midnight, the team learns that the satellite is in orbit, and the team responsible for the project's success is hailed as public heroes in a new age of space exploration. The documentary concludes with Wallace's comments about the future of manned space flight. Commercials deleted.


  • DATE: April 28, 1960 7:30 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:52:20
  • COLOR/B&W: B&W
  • CATALOG ID: B:15216
  • GENRE: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: Public affairs/documentaries
  • SERIES RUN: ABC - TV, 1960


  • David L. Wolper … Producer, Director
  • Jack Haley Jr. … Associate Producer
  • Mel Stuart … Researcher
  • Jim McDonough … Researcher
  • James Scheer … Researcher
  • M. R. Morris … Researcher
  • Laurence E. Mascott … Writer
  • Elmer Bernstein … Music by
  • Mike Wallace … Host
  • Esther Christine Kisk … Guest
  • Holger N. Toftoy … Guest
  • Kurt Debus
  • Robert H. Goddard
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Nikita Khrushchev
  • Fritz Lang
  • John Medaris
  • Robert Moser
  • Hermann Oberth
  • William Pickering
  • Marie Tsamburova (audio id only)
  • Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky
  • James Van Allen
  • Wernher von Braun