In the 1950s, many US rockets were capable of reaching the lower limit of LEO altitude. Despite this, no one thought of making the launch vehicle / its payload orbit around earth, even for one revolution till the Russians did it on 4th Oct. 1957. Why so? Did the rockets then, were mere like advanced fire crackers, reaching very high altitude, and falling back on earth? Or was it because the technology to make something "orbit" around earth was snot developed then?

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    $\begingroup$ "no one thought of making the launch vehicle / its payload orbit around earth" is factually incorrect. "n July 29, 1955, James C. Hagerty, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's press secretary, announced that the United States intended to launch "small Earth circling satellites" between July 1, 1957, and December 31, 1958, as part of the US contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY)." Wikipedia article on 'space race' $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jan 14 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ The always useful what-if.xkcd.com/58 relevant here $\endgroup$ – GremlinWranger Jan 14 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble. Agreed, I have heard of it. I presume the announcement would have been based on some feasibility report. Either the report was too optimistic, or US ignored the importance of the launch, or they were technically not competent enough... What went wrong? US missed being the "FIRST" in an important event in space age. Also @ GremlinWranger. the site referred by you seems interesting. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Niranjan Jan 16 at 6:26

It's a matter of velocity. These rockets weren't capable of reaching Earth orbital velocity which is about 4.8 mi/s (7.7 km/s). Only at this velocity, when flying about parallel to the surface, the orbital perigee would no longer be within the Earth so that the craft would fall around the entire planet instead of falling onto the surface.

V2 rockets for instance could only fly a parabolic arc and fall back to Earth again. The Soviet R-7 that launched Sputnik 1 was the first rocket that could reach orbital velocity, and in America the Vanguard and Redstone rockets.

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    $\begingroup$ V2 rocket was designed as a single stage rocket, the R-7 had two stages. No single stage rocket ever reached an orbit. So reaching orbit was impossible for V-2. Even modified V2-bumper experimental two stage rocket tests could do. The R-7 was designed as an intercontinental military rocket for very heavy warheads, an orbit was possible for lightweight payloads. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jan 14 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Uwe You're right. So what? I made clear the V2 could only fly a parabolic arc, not reach orbit. Theoretically, single stage rockets could reach orbit when they have enough fuel, but that has nothing to do with my answer. $\endgroup$ – Greenhorn Jan 14 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Greenhorn. Ok , so achieving required speed was not possible for the US.. Thats what I can gather from your words. Perhaps US undermined the importance of orbiting a payload or they dint know how to do that... $\endgroup$ – Niranjan Jan 16 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Niranjan Wernher von Braun already had had concepts of orbital rockets, including a crewed rocket (Aggregat 9) and space stations, in the time of World War II, but America preferred to let the US Navy attempt orbital launches first, they didn't want a foreigner and an ex-National Socialist to do it for them. After the Vanguard failed (Kaputnik) they let Von Braun launch the Jupiter-C Redstone. $\endgroup$ – Greenhorn Jan 16 at 7:05

Despite this, no one thought of making the launch vehicle / its payload orbit around earth, even for one revolution till the Russians did it on 4th Oct. 1957. Why so?

This is not the case.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States were extremely interested in the capabilities that Nazi Germany had developed during World War II. Both attempted to capture (and succeeded in capturing) as much of the German rocket technology and technologists as they could. The Soviet Union did a better job at capturing the technology while the US did a better job at capturing the technologists.

The rationale for this interest was that both sides knew that the short range capabilities of Germany's V2 rockets represented a good start at a military capability that would be far more potent than the ability to bomb London from rockets launched from Holland. To be able to drop a rocket-based bomb on a city in Russia from a rocket launched from the United States (or to drop a bomb on a city in the United States launched from the Soviet Union) required significantly more thrust than the limited thrust from a V2. What Nazi Germany had accomplished was a good start, but only a good start.

Being able to drop a rocket-launched bomb on a city that is halfway around the world (as opposed to being able to drop a rocket-launched bomb on London from rockets launched from Holland) requires (near) orbital capabilities. The early stages of the space race between the (former) Soviet Union and the USA were driven by purely militaristic concerns. It was only when the two nations developed the militaristic ability to send objects into space that peaceful uses of space became apparent.

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    $\begingroup$ The only answer that really addresses the, ahem, thrust of the question. The US announced its Earth satellite program in 1955. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Jan 14 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @ David Hammen. As I understand, you are trying to say that US concentrated on developing rocket technology for WAR purposes, while (though not said so by you...) the Russians thought also about use of rocket technology for reaching outer space - may be with an ulterior motive of use in WARs.. But a nice reply. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Niranjan Jan 16 at 6:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Niranjan Both the US and the USSR developed rocket technologies for the purpose of war. Quoting from wikipedia, "The United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union raced to seize key German [rocket technology]. Von Braun and over 100 key V-2 personnel surrendered to the Americans, and many of the original V-2 team ended up working at the Redstone Arsenal. The US also captured enough V-2 hardware to build approximately 80 of the missiles. The Soviets gained possession of the V-2 manufacturing facilities after the war, re-established V-2 production, and moved it to the Soviet Union." $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jan 16 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ With regard to rocket technologists, the USA captured Wernher Von Braun, Ernst Steinhoff, and many, many others while the USSR captured Helmut Gröttrup and a few others. With regard to rocket technology, the USA captured some unused V-2 rockets while the USSR captured other unused V-2s and much of Nazi Germany's rocket manufacturing capabilities. Both countries, along with the UK, did this for war, not for peace. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jan 16 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ The USA did a much better job than did the USSR with regard to capturing the people who knew how to build and launch Nazi Germany's rocket technology, while the USSR did a much better job than did the USA with regard to capturing the technology itself. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jan 16 at 7:43

Getting to space is easy. Staying in space is hard. Staying in space is not about going up high. It is about going sideways really fast.

From Navi Mumbai to Hyderabad is 600 km, space is only 100 km away. So, you are about 6× closer to space and about 200–300 km closer to the ISS than to Hyderabad, according to your profile. With a high-performance car, you can drive 100 km in 30 minutes.

A small sounding rocket can go to space. Some experimental airplanes could go to space by accelerating and then pulling up, trading speed for altitude.

The problem is staying there. It's not like you reach space, and gravity suddenly turns off. In fact, at the altitude of the ISS, gravity is still about 90% of what it is on the Earth's surface, plus even at 400 km, there is still a tiny bit of atmospheric drag that slows down the ISS so that it needs to be re-boosted regularly.

Here's how orbiting works: imagine you have ball in your hand, and you drop it. It will fall straight down and land directly underneath the point where you dropped it. Now imagine you throw the ball just a little bit: it will still fall down at exactly the same rate as the ball you simply dropped, but it will also move forward at the speed that you threw it at.

Note that we are ignoring air friction here. The reason the ball drops down and stops flying is not because it is slowed down by air friction. It is because it is being pulled down by gravity. You can still play golf on the moon, for example, and the ball will not just go off into space.

Okay, now imagine you throw the ball harder: it will fly further until it hits the ground, and if you look at it from the side, the curve the ball follows will look shallower. And we can imagine shooting the ball out of a cannon, which will make it fly even further until it hits the ground.

All that "orbit" is, is that you throw the ball so fast that it falls down at the same rate as the curve of the Earth makes the ground "fall away". In other words, we want to make the curve of the ball match the curve of the Earth. So, you continue falling and falling falling, and the Earth is curving and curving and curving, and as a result you never stop falling and always "miss" the Earth.

It turns out that the speed needed for that, which we call Orbital Speed is really high: if there were no air (and no mountains that we could crash into), we could orbit just a few millimeters above the Earth's surface at about 7.9 kms = 28 440 kmh or over 140 times faster than our 200 kmh car from above. Orbital speed at LEO is still 6.9–7.8 kms = 24 840–28 080 kmh.

Just for comparison: if we were to take off at this speed, it would take us less than one minute to reach the ISS. But actually, most rockets are not even out of the atmosphere yet after one minute.

As you wrote:

In the 1950s, many US rockets were capable of reaching the lower limit of LEO altitude.

Yes, exactly. They were able to reach this altitude, barely. Then they were out of fuel and fell back to Earth.

In order to orbit, after reaching there, they would have had to turn sideways 90° and then accelerate from 0(!!!) to orbital speed, at least enough for an eccentric orbit that keeps them out of the thicker part of the atmosphere most of the time. (In reality, it is not very efficient to go straight up, then turn 90° and go straight sideways, instead, you gradually turn shortly after leaving the launch pad.)

  • $\begingroup$ Mittag. I am surprised and happily welcome the use of two words "Navi Mumbai" and Hyderabad. Anyway, that apart, I agree to what you have said. I wonder why did the Americans realized such orbital mechanics only after Russians did, what they did. Both US and USSR captured German V2 technology, although US had much higher resources, both improvised on V2s to reach higher altitudes, and longer ranges, but only the Russians had creative mind to put these crackers for better use. I was trying to figure out if the US did not have the requisite knowledge, or they had any other constraints!! $\endgroup$ – Niranjan Jan 16 at 6:57

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