WASHINGTON –On Sept. 9, 1952, the U.S. Defense Department made what is now widely regarded as an ill-fated decision to make the Vanguard rocket the center of America’s effort to launch the first satellite into Earth orbit.
In choosing the Vanguard more than two years before the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, the Pentagon passed up the U.S. Army’s Redstone, America’s first operational ballistic missile, and the U.S. Air Force’s proposed Atlas rocket, which would become the first successful U.S. ICBM.
The Vanguard, it turned out, had the political advantage of relying on a civilian sounding rocket that was based on the U.S. Navy’s Viking rocket.
The goal of the program was to launch a satellite during the planned International Geophysical Year, which was scheduled to last 18 months – from July 1957 to December 1958. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted the first U.S. satellite to appear as non-military as possible in order to establish an Open Skies precedent, said Roger Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum here. An Open Skies precedent would establish that a nation could orbit a satellite over another nation’s territory without violating that second nation’s sovereignty.
Eisenhower thought an Open Skies policy could be established more easily with a non-threatening science mission, rather than something launched by a military rocket, Launius said.
The Vanguard was selected after an August 1955 study by the Defense Department’s Committee on Special Capabilities detailed the options that were available and recommended the Vanguard, Launius said.
Astronomer John P. Hagen, the director of the National Science Foundation, led the selection effort, which recommended the Vanguard. The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory managed the project, which got its initial funding from the National Science Foundation. After NASA was formed, Hagen became the space agency’s director of spaceflight development.
The effort to launch the world’s first man-made satellite into Earth orbit was “all about international prestige and politics,” Launius said. In January 1955, the Soviet Union announced that it would launch a satellite for the International Geophysical Year and many in the United States did not want the nation’s Cold War rival to launch a satellite first, according to the NASA History Web site.
A deciding factor in the selection of the Vanguard proposal was what were considered “verbal marching orders” from Eisenhower: to ensure the effort did not interfere with ICBM or reconnaissance satellite programs, Launius said.
The Vanguard proposal thus fit the bill better than the Wernher von Braun-led team at the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Command, which was heavily involved in ICBM development.
While it is often said that Vanguard was a more civilian program, it was nonetheless managed by the Navy, Launius said.
Vanguard’s advantages for Eisenhower’s purposes were that it had no real military application because it could not be used as a ballistic missile since it lacked the power necessary to hoist a heavy payload like a warhead and therefore also did not impinge on military programs, Launius said.
While the Vanguard program was approved in 1955 for around $10 million, the program’s team was constantly asking for funding increases, eventually topping out at about $110 million, Launius said. In the summer of 1957 an annoyed Eisenhower joked that the Vanguard team was building a “gold-plated satellite,” he said.
Eventually, the Soviets made it to space first, launching Sputnik 1 Oct. 4, 1957, and Sputnik 2 on Nov. 3, 1957.
The first attempt to launch a Vanguard, which contained a spherical satellite designed to map hydrogen distribution in the atmosphere, ended in failure Dec. 6, 1957, just two seconds after liftoff when the rocket crashed back onto the launch platform at Cape Canaveral, Fla., exploding before a live audience watching on national television.
That launch originally had been intended to test the Vanguard rocket, but following the successful launches of the first two Soviet Sputnik satellites, Hagen yielded to public and political pressure to make it the official first launch instead, the NASA History Web site said.
After the failure, the United States switched gears and hurriedly prepared the Explorer 1 satellite, designed and built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and launched it successfully Feb. 1, 1958, aboard an Army Ballistic Missile Agency Redstone rocket – the same rocket von Braun and the Army had originally proposed.
On Feb. 5, 1958, the second Vanguard mission also ended in failure. A Vanguard finally launched successfully March 17, 1958, on the program’s third try.