SPACE: A Few Seconds on Infinity

Pad 17A at Cape Canaveral was bathed in a fluffy, gently swirling fog. Cradled in its candy-striped gantry, breathing icy puffs of liquid oxygen, was the Air Force's 88-ft. Pioneer moon-probe missile. In the blockhouse, the countdown droned on for nearly 24 hours, finally ticked through the seconds to zero.

Just after zero, the blast burst down into the undulating swamp fog; there came a cloud of fiery gold that swept smoke and flame into eddying billows. As the rocket rose roaring, 100 newsmen cheered from the observation post a mile away, and...