The public failure and quiet success of America's first satellite

In July of 1955, the White House announced that the United States would attempt to launch a satellite into orbit around the Earth. The pending satellite, part of the nation’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year, garnered little public interest. In 1955, artificial satellites were little more than an abstract concept, but two years and two successful Soviet satellites later, the nation was rapt with anticipation as the Navy’s Vanguard rocket stood on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Perched on top was the TV-3 satellite, the one that could level the playing field between the Soviet Union and the United States in space.

The Vanguard rocket roared to life just before noon on December 6, 1957. It rose tentatively off the launch pad then, a second later, lost thrust. The rocket settled back down and collapsed on itself. The fuel caught fire and exploded violently. The satellite was thrown clear, and sprung to life and began broadcasting its signal from its resting place on the ground nearby. Usually, that's where the story of Vanguard ends. The next satellite attempt was the Army’s Jupiter C that successfully launched Explorer 1 into orbit, ending the chapter of America’s first satellite attempt.

But there’s more to Vanguard than a failed launch. The program that put Vanguard 1 into space (it's still in orbit) has deep roots, and its failure can be explained in part by the decisions that led President Eisenhower to pin the burden of launching the first satellite on the Navy in the first place.

The Birth of Space Exploration

The space age arguably began long before the Soviet Union launched the very first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. In the 1930s and 1940s, pioneer rocket scientists working in Germany, Austria, Russia, and the United States imagined perfecting their nascent technology to the point of launching satellites and humans into space.

The first working rocket capable of carrying a payload was the V-2, the German Army’s creation that came to maturity thanks to an influx of funding from the Nazi party. When the German rocket scientists surrendered to the United States after the war ended, they were brought stateside with full and partial V-2s in tow. In cooperation with the American Army, Navy, and university researcheres, the German scientists reassembled their V-2s and launched them from White Sands, New Mexico. Rather than bombs, they carried small science payloads. It was the first wave of atmospheric exploration.

The supply of V-2s was finite, and researchers interested in studying the atmosphere would need new rockets to launch their science payloads. Among those interested researchers was a group at the Naval Research Laboratory. In 1946, the NRL developed a rocket called Viking (designed and built by the Glenn L. Martin Company) for continued atmospheric exploration.

The Viking, a single-stage rocket that varied in height from 42 to 49 feet tall, was a stunning success for the Navy. It pioneered some important innovations in rocketry, including a gimbaled motor for steering and and intermittent gas jets that could stabilize the vehicle after the main engine cut off. Twelve Viking rockets were launched between 1949 and 1954, gathering the first data on temperature, pressure, and winds in the upper atmosphere, the electron density in the ionosphere, and the ultraviolet spectra of the Sun.

Seeking to build on the success of Viking, the NRL sought to build a larger rocket with two stages that could send science payloads even higher, potentially at speeds that would put them into orbit. This idea, after some development, became Project Vanguard.

A V-2 with a WAC Corporal second stage, the first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. NASA.

Vanguard and the International Geophysical Year

The seeds for Vanguard were planted right around the International Geophysical Year. In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed that a comprehensive series of studies into global geophysical activities be undertaken in the period from July 1957 to December 1958. Inspired by the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933, this International Geophysical Year was designed to enable scientists from around the world to collaborate on a series of coordinated observations of a variety of geophysical phenomena. As part of their International Geophysical Year activities, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced their intentional to launch modest satellites into orbit: the White House announced America’s intended satellite on July 29, 1955, and the Soviets announced their on August 2.

The next step for the United States was to pick its satellite provider from two leading contenders. Project Orbiter was a joint program from the Army (which at the time hosting Wernher von Braun and his team of former V-2 engineers) and the Navy. Using a Juno rocket, which was a Jupiter C rocket with an additional upper stage mounted on top, the project would launch the small Explorer satellite into orbit. Orbiter’s main competitor was Project Vanguard, the Naval Research Labs’s program to build and launch a small Vanguard satellite.

Picking the program fell to the Department of Defense, specifically the DOD Advisory Group known as the Stewart Committee. The committee ruled in favour of Project Vanguard. The majority of committee members felt that of all proposed programs, Vanguard had the highest potential for success within the timeframe. Another factor that carried some weight was Vanguard’s separation from military activity. The rocket’s roots and potential applications were purely scientific, and no part of the program had any connection to a national military missile program: Project Orbiter’s Juno launch vehicle shared technology with the Redstone missile. Additionally, Vanguard was an all-American program, while Orbiter was brought to life by former Germans.

Vanguard TV-3's explosion at launch in December of 1957. NASA.

An Immature Satellite Attempt

Vanguard officially commenced on September 9, 1955. The first launch came more than a year later, on December 8, 1956. This single-stage rocket launch was a test to evaluate the performance of the rocket’s internal telemetry system and its mini track transmitter to evaluate its flight attitude control system. The flight was a partial success, although no data regarding the flight attitude in coast stage was successfully gathered.

The second launch came on May 1, 1957. It was a test of the prototype third stage, and it was another successful flight.

The third Vanguard launch was scheduled for the end of October, and it was the most complete test to date; it was to be a test of the rocket’s first stage, second stage retrorockets, third stage spinup system, and an overall test of the rocket’s structural integrity. But before it flew, the Soviets launched Sputnik, and suddenly, the Soviets had a satellite orbiting the Earth every 96 minutes. Three weeks later, America had a successful three-stage Vangaurd rocket test, an achievement that paled in comparison. A month after Sputnik, on November 3, the Soviets launched a second satellite, Sputnik 2, which was larger and far more sophisticated. It even had a passenger on board, a dog named Laika.

Success in space was suddenly all about the Soviet Union, and America needed a way to catch up. Seeking the level the playing field in space, American leadership made a bold decision: attempt a satellite launch aboard the next available Vanguard rocket, a "test vehicle" called TV-3. At the time, the rocket was still in the factory, and the program, though successful, wasn’t nearly ready to attempt a satellite launch. TV-3 was meant to be the last in a series of test launches that would collectively prove the Vanguard rocket was ready to attempt an orbital launch, a final test of the rocket’s performance. But there was a chance that if everything worked perfectly, it could put a modest payload into orbit: a four pound spherical satellite measuring just 6.4 inches in diameter.

Under the circumstances, it was best chance the United States had, albeit an unlikely one. As a backup method, on November 8 the DOD authorized the Army to attempt a satellite launch of its own in January of 1958. Vanguard had until the end of December, 1957. A second window for the Navy-run program would open on February 3, 1958, giving the Army just a month to prepare and launch Explorer 1.

An impression of Vanguard 1 in Earth orbit. US Navy.

Vanguard’s Eventual Success

It was thus with the hopes of the nation firmly on its back that Vanguard exploded on the launch pad on December 6. The Army then moved in and launched America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit on January 31, 1958.

The Army’s success stemmed in large part from the integration between its satellite and missile programs. The Jupiter-C (C for “Composite Re-entry Test Vehicle") was a descendent of the V-2 and Redstone rockets, two successful missiles that had been honed over years of work. With this pedigree, early Jupiter launches were far more successful than the early Vanguard launches. While the Navy’s rocket was still in the a phase in the fall of 1957, Jupiter’s test phase was cut short. A flight in August of 1957 was so successful that remaining test flights were cancelled so the rockets could be put towards satellite launches.

Vanguard TV-3 might have failed, but it wasn’t the only rocket in the pipeline ready for a satellite launch attempt. There was a backup vehicle — TV-3BU — ready to leave the hangar and try for a launch. There was also ample interest in continuing the program: a memorandum from the President in the wake of Explorer 1’s launch outlined the President Science Advisory Committee’s continued support of America’s multiple satellite programs. It was determined that, while Vanguard had an even chance of success in the wake of the TV-3 failure, the chances for success could only improve as the program progressed and the technology improved. Vanguard would continue.

TV-3BU was moved to the launch pad in early February of 1958. Identical to TV-3, the rocket roared to life on February 5. It was a stunning sight as the rocket lifted off the pad. Fifty-seven seconds later a flight control system malfunctioned, disrupting the rocket’s attitude control. It broke up in flight, meaning another failure for Vanguard. On March 5, the Army’s Explorer 2 satellite also failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s third stage failed to ignite.

The third time proved to be the charm for Vanguard. Another rocket, designated TV-4, was prepared for the same flight profile as TV-3 and TV-3BU. It had a small spherical satellite on board with the goal of placing it in orbit. The flight launched on March 17, 1958 with incredible success. The guidance program produced an overall error of less than 1 degree for the satellite’s injection angle, putting it into a 406 by 2,466 mile elliptical orbit. Vanguard 1 is still orbiting the Earth today, and will for another two centuries, though it went quiet long ago. Its batteries died in June of 1958, and its solar-powered transmitted stopped working in May of 1964.

In total, there were 14 launches as part of the Vanguard program, some testing portions of the rocket and others aimed at putting satellites into orbit. Only three satellite ever made it to space, Vanguard 1, Vanguard 2 on February 17, 1959, and Vanguard 3 on September 18, 1959. It wasn’t a strong success rate, but the data gathered and lessons learned contributed to the first wave of American space exploration. When the Vanguard program ended, some 200 of its key scientists moved to what was then the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Sources: US Navy; US Navy; Eisenhower Archives Online; NASA; NASA; “Vanguard: A History" by Constance McLaughlin Green and Milton Lomask; NASA.

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