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With Cold War tension high, a young weatherman was all that stood between America and space

John Meisenheimer, meteorologist on America’s first satellite launch, delayed America's entrance to space by two days with his "no-go" calls for the launch of the nation's first satellite, Explorer 1.

STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL

By CHABELI HERRERA | Orlando Sentinel | Published: January 31, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — On a chilly January day at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 1958, all that stood between America and space was a scrappy, 24-year-old lieutenant from a rural town in Illinois.

The nation had been gripped by fear and anxiety since Russia had bested it by putting two Sputnik satellites into orbit in the three months prior. The U.S. Army was on an ambitious timeline to put an American satellite into space that month or risk losing to the Navy, which also wanted the glory of accomplishing the feat.

On the morning of Jan. 29, 1958, the Army had 48 hours left to deliver — and it planned to launch.

But John Meisenheimer, the range’s only meteorologist, wasn’t budging.

A strong jet stream with recorded wind shear of up to 225 mph in some pockets threatened to blow the 70-foot, Juno-1 rocket off course. It could explode, doubling America’s embarrassment after its first attempt in December, the Navy’s Vanguard rocket, had only risen 4 feet off the ground before falling back to Earth and bursting into flames.

Wind — not politics, or the Russians or Cold War fears — threatened to thwart America.

Meisenheimer went up to the man in charge of the operation, Army general named John Bruce Medaris, a tough “Patton-like character” with a chevron mustache and a tidy comb over. It was a no-go.

“He right cussed me out,” recalled Meisenheimer, now 85 and living in Orlando. “He said, ‘You want to make the Army look bad.’”

Being responsible for the country’s next misstep would likely be worse than delaying its next success, Meisenheimer reasoned. Besides, he was “a patriot.”

“I wanted to get that satellite up successful for the United States,” he said, “and I didn’t care if it was the Army, or the Navy or the Air Force or who was putting it up there.”

But American glory would have to wait another day still. Meisenheimer issued a second no-go call on Jan. 30, 1958, infuriating Medaris who had been sending up weather balloons almost every hour seeking a glimmer of hope.

More than 200 reporters who had sussed out what the U.S. government was planning were bearing down on the gates of the Air Force Station. Desperate to get Meisenheimer to change his forecast, the Army called in the commander of the Cape’s Air Force Missile Test Center, Major Gen. Donald Yates.

On the morning of Jan. 30, Yates called Meisenheimer at his home on the base, a duplex apartment he shared with his wife, Alice May, and his 4-month-old son, John Meisenheimer, Jr.

But lucky for Meisenheimer, Yates had served as chief meteorologist on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff when the then-president was an Army general. Yates was instrumental in picking the date for D-Day, the Allied Forces’ invasion of Europe during World War II. The general took his side.

“You call it the way you see it,” he told Meisenheimer.

The next day, Jan. 31, was the Army’s last chance. And that’s when Meisenheimer saw it: A window of opportunity from 10:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. when the winds should die down just enough to allow the rocket to blast its Explorer 1 satellite into orbit. He finally had good news for Medaris.

Meisenheimer doesn’t quite recall Medaris’ response — it was 61 years ago Thursday, after all. But it was unremarkable compared with what the general later revealed he’d been thinking at the time, according to Matthew Brzezinski’s “Red Moon Rising,” a 2007 book on the space race.

“‘Every man on the crew was conscious that hopes of a nation were riding with us,’” Medaris reflected. “The hell with it. He would gamble the hopes of the nation, and the future of 5,000 employees, on the word of a 24-year-old kid.

“‘Fuel the rocket,’” he ordered.

Later that night, with his forecasts done, the pressure subdued and the launch just minutes away, Meisenheimer left the blockhouse and zipped over to the central control a short drive away. He climbed the ladder on the side of the building to the second floor, where he was so close to Juno-1, he could clearly see the satellite atop the first stage of the rocket. It was spinning.

Alone on the stairs outside, Meisenheimer watched as the engines ignited. Despite the pressure of the past 48 hours, he was sure, still, that his forecast was correct.

At 10:48 p.m., the night lit up. Juno climbed and climbed, leaving clouds of smoke in its wake, until it disappeared overhead.

By midnight, the satellite’s signal came back to the Cape. Medaris, a grin on his face, picked up the phone and relayed a message to the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles: “You can send this off to the Secretary, that our satellite is definitely on orbit.”

The ordeal was over. America had officially entered the space race.

After Explorer 1, Meisenheimer returned to graduate school to pursue his true calling: chemistry.

Weather forecasting, he said, was a maddening business.

“I never said a dirty word until I started forecasting the weather,” he said.

From 1963 to 1999, Meisenheimer taught chemistry at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, where he was named an EKU Foundation Professor, the school’s highest honor. He tried to keep classes fun for his students. Sometimes they’d investigate the properties of moonshine, other times they’d try to make pure DEET insecticide.

In that time, Meisenheimer had a second son, Ben, now an anesthesiologist in Texas.

His eldest son, John, better known as Lucky, became a prominent Orlando dermatologist, host of an almost daily lake swim at Lake Cane called Lucky’s Lake Swim, a science fiction author and the owner of the world’s largest collection of yo-yo’s, totaling more than 5,000 individual units and certified by the Guinness World Records.

His father’s accomplishments at the age of 24 are a point of pride, Lucky Meisenheimer said in a recent interview.

“You grow up with a person who is just dad, and then you read about what he did when he was a young man,” he said. “From my perspective, he is really the first space-age meteorologist.”

For most of his life though, Meisenheimer thought his place in history had been forgotten.

He thought back to it only on occasion, but more so after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986, which claimed seven lives. It was later revealed that a group of engineers who had tried to stop the launch was overruled despite trying to convey that their data showed the rubber seals on the shuttle’s booster wouldn’t work properly in the cold temperature that awaited the crew on launch day, Jan. 28, 1986.

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