Learn more about North Dakotans who were integral to the space race

This is the second installment in a series of stories about the space race during the Cold War.

Curt Eriksmoen online column signature
Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.

FARGO — The space race officially began in 1957 when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union both made statements announcing they planned to launch artificial satellites. It was a shock to most Americans when Russia moved ahead of the United States on Oct. 4, 1957, by successfully launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. The U.S. had capable rockets for the mission but did not have a properly tested propellant capable of launching the rockets.

Mary Sherman Morgan

Mary Sherman Morgan, who was born and raised on a farm near Ray in Williams County, had formulated a fuel, Hydyne, in 1956 that could launch a rocket carrying a satellite into space. However, it had not been tested sufficiently enough to use in an actual orbital launch. On Jan. 31, 1958, using a Redstone rocket fueled with Hydyne, the U.S. successfully launched Explorer 1 into orbit, the first American satellite.

The fact that Russia had surpassed us in the space race was not only a blow to our prestige, but it also meant that nowhere in the U.S. would be safe from a Russian missile. An alarmed U.S. Congress saw this as a national security threat and they passed the National Aeronautics Space Act, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed on July 29, 1958. This act authorized the creation of the National Aeronautics Space Administration to plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities.

The person Eisenhower chose as the first administrator/director of NASA was T. Keith Glennan, president of the Case Institute of Technology. Congress approved Glennan's selection on Aug. 15 and on Oct. 1 NASA began its official operation. Glennan's first challenge was to bring together various agencies, key interest groups, and scientists committed to work on space projects.

T. Keith Glennan, a native of Enderlin, N.D., served as the first director of NASA.
Contributed / NASA

Thomas Keith Glennan was born Sept. 8, 1905, in Enderlin. He graduated cum laude from Yale University in 1927 and, for the next 14 years, worked in the motion picture industry. In 1947, he became president of the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. Glennan built it from a local institution to rank with the top engineering schools in the U.S. While serving in that capacity, he was also a member of the Atomic Energy Commission.


As the first director of NASA, Glennan assembled the agency to launch satellites in orbit around the earth and selected and trained astronauts to venture into outer space, in a race to regain the lead in space supremacy over Russia. Glennan did not want this challenge to become a race. He said, "I never thought of it as a race. I was always convinced we would overtake the Soviets." Instead, he desired to create "a program that incorporated a healthy human spaceflight element with a solid science and application basis."

NASA absorbed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics intact, which included its laboratories and 8,000 employees. NACA was a U.S. federal agency, founded in 1915, to undertake, promote, and institutionalize aeronautical research. On Oct. 1, 1958, NACA dissolved and was absorbed and became the major component of NASA, which began operation on that date.

Glennan also incorporated several satellite programs, two lunar probes, and research and development of a large rocket engine from the U.S. Air Force. In December, he gained control of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory operated by the California Institute of Technology. NASA also inherited from the U.S. Air Force, the "Man in Space Soonest" program which it renamed "Project Mercury," dedicated to putting American astronauts in space.

By mid-1960, Glennan had secured for NASA primacy in the U.S. federal government for the execution of all space activities except reconnaissance satellites, ballistic missiles, and a few other space-related projects from the Department of Defense. In 1960, NASA awarded a contract with Western Electric for engineering and construction of a tracking system for the Project Mercury project.

With the election of President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, in 1960, Glennan left NASA early in 1961 and returned to Case, where he continued to grow the college in size and prestige. He retired as president of Case in 1970 and died on April 11, 1995.

One of the areas where the U.S. first passed Russia in NASA’s space race under the direction of Glennan was with the satellites it put into orbit. The U.S. satellites surpassed Russia in size, functionality, and several other aspects, and the person most responsible for creating and manufacturing these early satellites was Gilmore “Shelly” Schjeldahl.

Gilmore Tilmen “Shelly” Schjeldahl.
Forum file photo

Gilmore Tilmen “Shelly” Schjeldahl was born on June 1, 1912, in Esmond and grew up in Northwood, where he learned how different machines operated by carefully observing the mechanics and operators of the various shops and businesses in the town. Schjeldahl dropped out of high school and took classes at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton and North Dakota State University.

After seeing combat action during D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, Schjeldahl worked at Armour Laboratories in Chicago where he learned about a plastic called polyethylene. He then began his own business making food packaging bags. His company, G. T. Schjeldahl (GTS) began using a new type of plastic—Mylar—which Shelly discovered was an excellent material for making high-altitude aeronautical research balloons. In October 1957, GTS began receiving orders to manufacture balloons for the three branches of the military.


One of the major initial objectives of NASA was to put into space a communications satellite so that information could be quickly transmitted between two points many miles away. The name of this program was “Project Echo.” In 1959, NASA contracted with GTS to design, develop, fabricate, and test rigidized inflatable spheres for Project Echo. On May 13, 1960, the Echo satellite/satelloon was loaded onto a Thor-Delta rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Unfortunately, shortly after lift-off, the rocket plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

GTS then built another satelloon that was loaded onto another rocket on Aug.12, 1960. This time, the launch was successful. When the rocket reached the prescribed elevation of 990 miles above the earth’s surface, the satelloon was jettisoned from the rocket, inflated by the mixing of chemicals, and placed into orbit. The mission was celebrated as a huge success and GTS was considered a leader in space technology.

Up until that time, Russia had been the acknowledged leader in the space race, ever since it had launched its satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. However, that changed when Schjeldahl's satellite was placed into orbit. The success of Echo I far surpassed Sputnik in every aspect and reasserted the U.S. as the world leader in space exploration.

Sputnik was 23 inches in diameter, whereas Echo I was 98 feet in diameter. Sputnik lasted only two months in orbit before being pulled by gravity back toward earth. Echo I remained in orbit for eight years before falling out of orbit in May of 1968. Echo I was the first communications satellite and, because of it, coast-to-coast television transmission came into being in 1963.

This was the first of several space-related projects GTS would have with NASA. For NASA’s Echo II launch, they wanted a larger balloon than Echo I, and GTS constructed one that was 135 feet in diameter that was launched into orbit on Jan. 25, 1964. Later that year GTS fabricated the meteoroid detector panels for the PEGASUS satellite, and in 1965 GTS was deeply involved in the PAGEOS and Voyager space projects.

(Shelly and GTS continued to work with NASA as it moved into manned-space flights, which we will explore next week.)

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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