Fifty-nine years ago this week, the United States Navy Vanguard Program registered its first success with the orbiting of the Vanguard 1 satellite. The diminutive orb was the fourth man-made object to be placed in Earth orbit.
The Vanguard Program was established in 1955 as part of the United States involvement in the upcoming International Geophysical Year (IGY). Spanning the period between 01 July 1957 and 31 December 1958, the IGY would serve to enhance the technical interchange between the east and west during the height of the Cold War.
The overriding goal of the Vanguard Program was to orbit the world’s first satellite sometime during the IGY. The satellite was to be tracked to verify that it achieved orbit and to quantify the associated orbital parameters. A scientific experiment was to be conducted using the orbiting asset as well.
Vanguard was managed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This gave the Vanguard Program a distinctly scientific (rather than military) look and feel. Something that the Eisenhower Administration definitely wanted to project given the level of Cold War tensions.
The key elements of Vanguard were the Vanguard launch vehicle and the Vanguard satellite. The Vanguard 3-stage launch vehicle, manufactured by the Martin Company, evolved from the Navy’s successful Viking sounding rocket. The Vanguard satellite was developed by the NRL.
On Friday, 04 October 1957, the Soviet Union orbited the world’s first satellite – Sputnik I. While the world was merely stunned, the United States was quite shocked by this achievement. A hue and cry went out across the land. How could this have happened? Will the Soviets now unleash nuclear weapons on us from space? And most hauntingly – where is our satellite?
In the midst of scrambling to deal with the Soviet’s space achievement, America would receive another blow to the national solar plexus on Sunday, 03 November 1957. That is the day that the Soviet Union orbited their second satellite – Sputnik II. And this one even had an occupant onboard; a mongrel dog name Laika.
The Vanguard Program was now uncomfortably in the spotlight. But it really wasn’t ready at that moment to be America’s response to the Soviets. After all, Vanguard was just a research program. While the launch vehicle was developing well enough, it certainly was not ready for prime time. The Vanguard satellite was a new creation and had never been used in space.
History records that the first American satellite launch attempt on Friday, 06 December 1957 went very badly. The launch vehicle lost thrust at the dizzying height of 4 feet above the pad, exploded when it settled back to Earth whereupon it consumed itself in the resulting inferno. Amazingly, the Vanguard satellite survived and was found intact at the edge of the launch pad.
Faced with a quickly deteriorating situation, America desperately turned to the United States Army for help. Wernher von Braun and his team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) responded by orbiting Explorer I on Friday, 31 January 1958. America was now in space!
The Vanguard Program regrouped and attempted to orbit a Vanguard satellite on Wednesday, 05 February 1958. Fifty-seven seconds into flight the launch vehicle exploded. Vanguard was now 0 for 2 in the satellite launching business. Undeterred, another attempt was scheduled for March.
Monday, 17 March 1958 was a good day for the Vanguard Program and the United States of America. At 12:51 UTC, Vanguard launch vehicle TV-4 departed LC-18A at Cape Canaveral, Florida and placed the Vanguard 1 satellite into a 2,466-mile x 406-mile elliptical orbit. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, Vanguard registered its first success and America had a second satellite orbiting the Earth.
Whereas the Soviet satellites weighed hundreds of pounds, Vanguard 1 was tiny. It was 6.4-inches in diameter and weighed only 3.25 pounds. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev mockingly referred to it as America’s “grapefruit satellite”. Small maybe, but mighty as well. Vanguard 1 went on to record many discoveries that helped write the book on spaceflight.
Khrushchev is gone and all of those big Sputniks were long ago incinerated in the fire of reentry. Interestingly, the “grapefruit satellite” is still in space. Indeed, it is the oldest satellite in Earth orbit. As of this writing, Vanguard 1 has completed over 200,000 Earth revolutions and traveled more than 5.7 billion nautical miles since 1958. It is expected to stay in orbit for another 240 years. Not too bad for a grapefruit.