The launching of the first two Sputniks was a terrible blow to America’s self-image of technical preeminence that had developed in the years following World War II . With the onset of the Cold War, America also developed a keen sense of paranoia about Communism in general and the secretive Soviet Union in particular. The Sputnik launches, and their military implications, just fed this paranoia (see “Sputnik: The Launch of the Space Age” and “Sputnik 2: The First Animal in Orbit”). Set against this backdrop was the infamous failure of the first Vanguard satellite launch attempt on December 6, 1957. Unfortunately this flight was touted by some as America’s response to the Sputniks. Being at the focus of world attention for what was initially suppose to be a simple test flight was the last thing the Vanguard program participants wanted. This public relations disaster marked America’s low point in what was quickly developing into a Space Race with its global rival.
Vanguard is Born
The Vanguard program had its roots in the mid-1940’s in a collection of U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) sounding rocket programs. In 1946, NRL sponsored the development of the Viking and Aerobee sounding rockets both of which served as upper atmospheric research tools. Viking was, for the day, a relatively large rocket built by the Glenn L. Martin Company (one of the corporate ancestors of today’s aerospace giant, Lockheed Martin). Starting in October 1947 Reaction Motors (which would merge with Thiokol in 1958) began testing Viking’s rocket motor which developed 89 kilonewtons of thrust by burning a combination of ethanol and liquid oxygen (LOX). The Phase I version of the Viking with a typical launch mass of about 3,600 kilograms, was 81 centimeters in diameter and stood 12.8 to 14.6 meters tall, depending on the size of its payload. No two Viking rockets were exactly the same owing to the experimental nature of rocket whose design evolved over time.
In its first flight on May 3, 1949, Viking 1 carried a 211-kilogram payload almost to the edge of space at a height of 80 kilometers. Six additional Phase I flights over the next two years were, with one exception, all successful. These flights lifted payloads as heavy as 436 kilograms and reached altitudes as great as 219 kilometers. The NRL-Martin team then spent the first half of 1952 upgrading the Viking to fly higher with heavy payloads. These upgrades included increasing the diameter of the stage to 114 centimeters which allowed more propellants to be carried and permitted longer burn times. While the first Phase II Viking, Viking 8, broke loose during static testing on June 6, 1952, the four following flights launched to the end of the basic program in February 1955 were all successes.
The Aerobee was a much smaller sounding rocket designed to carry more modest payloads to high altitude. This rocket was originally designed and built by the Aerojet Engineering Corporation (which today is part of Aerojet Rocketdyne) under the guidance of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. The name of the rocket was selected by Dr. James A. Van Allen who directed its planning and would one day discover Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts. The initial design called for a two-stage vehicle with a mass of 540 kilograms capable of hurling a 60 kilogram payload to an altitude of 125 kilometers. The main stage of the Aerobee was powered by a 12-kilonewton liquid propellant AJ-10-series engine burning red fuming nitric acid (RFNA) and a 65:35 mix of aniline and furfuryl alcohol. It was 5.74 meters long and 38 centimeters in diameter. It used a solid propellant booster stage at lift off to provide 93 kilonewtons of thrust for 2.5 seconds to get the rocket traveling fast enough for its fins to provide stability as it left its launch tower.
The first batch of 20 rockets was so successful that in 1952 the USAF and US Navy requested the development of an improved version initially designated Aerobee-Hi (and later called the Aerobee 150) that could send a 68 kilogram payload to a height of 275 kilometers. On October 16, 1957, a team led by Caltech’s Fritz Zwicky would use an Aerobee to loft an artificial meteor experiment which used shaped charges to launch metal pellets into solar orbit – the first man made objects to escape the Earth (see “Fritz Zwicky’s Solar Orbiting Pellets“).
The Navy wanted to improve its stable of sounding rockets to hurl payloads to higher velocities. In part this was so that higher altitudes could be reached but also so that nose cones could be tested under high-speed reentry conditions. This latter reason was to support the development of warheads for the long range ballistic missiles then being developed. One obvious choice was to lash together the two sounding rockets that were readily available: the Viking and Aerobee.
It was quickly recognized that optimizing the sizes of the Viking-Aerobee combination and adding a third stage would allow the launching of an Earth-orbiting satellite. Work through 1954 and 1955 ultimately resulted in a classified joint NRL-Martin feasibility study called simply A Scientific Satellite Study. One proposed configuration would use an improved Viking as a first stage and two solid rocket upper stages to place an 18-kilogram instrument-laden nose cone into a circular 347 kilometer orbit. The other would also use an upgraded Viking first stage but an enlarged Aerobee for a second stage and a newly designed solid propellant third stage to place a nine-kilogram nose cone into a 488 kilometer orbit. NRL was confident they could orbit a satellite within two years of a go-ahead.
The NRL study was only the latest in a long series of satellite proposals that had been completed during the previous few years. And like all the rest, this study would have languished gathering dust on a shelf somewhere were it not for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The IGY grew out of talks in international science circles for a Third International Polar Year. But by 1954, more scientific disciplines got involved and the scope of the endeavor broadened greatly resulting in the IGY which would run from July 1957 to the end of December 1958. On October 4, 1954 the Committee of the IGY met in Rome to consider the launching of small satellites as part of the program. On March 14, 1955 the National Committee of the IGY endorsed the Rome directive. Finally on July 29, 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the United States would launch a small satellite as part of their contribution to the IGY.
While the United States had committed to launching a satellite, it was not necessarily going to be the one proposed by the NRL. In September of 1954 Project Orbiter, a joint Army Ordinance Corps-Office of Naval Research (NRL’s parent organization) concept developed by Wernher von Braun’s team, was submitted to Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald A. Quarles for consideration (see “America’s First Satellite… Almost”). By January of 1955, Quarles invited the USAF to submit its own proposal to use an Atlas ICBM to launch a satellite (see “Vintage Micro: The Talking Atlas“). Quarles then deferred the decision on the satellite proposals to an Advisory Group on Special Capabilities. On July 5, 1955 NRL formally submitted their satellite proposal to Quarles’ Advisory Group as an all-Navy alternative to the others.
This last minute gamble paid off handsomely for NRL. On September 9, 1955 the Advisory Group on Special Capabilities voted seven to one for the NRL Viking-Aerobee satellite proposal. The NRL proposal had two things going for it. First, the proposal, while made by the Navy, made use of non-military rockets thus satisfying President Eisenhower’s intent that the American IGY satellite program be a “civilian” (or at least a non-military in appearance) program. Second, the development of the NRL satellite launch vehicle would not interfere with the Army’s Redstone or the Air Force’s Atlas development programs which were considered vital for national defense. On the day the Advisory Group made their selection, the Department of Defense (DoD) wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy authorizing the US Navy to proceed with the NRL proposal to launch a satellite during the IGY.
Vanguard Gets Started
While NRL was responsible for the design of the rocket, a technical panel, headed by Richard W. Porter, under the National Academy of Science’s IGY committee was charged with selecting the instruments for the NRL satellites. This panel recommended that instead of carrying a nose cone into orbit, a 76-centimeter sphere should be orbited to facilitate studies of upper atmospheric density. In the end a compromise was reached and the NRL satellite would now be a 51-centimeter sphere with a mass of about ten kilograms (see “Vintage Micro: The First Standardized Microsatellite”). This fundamental change in satellite design, along with other problems encountered early in the launch vehicle’s development, required a redesign of Vanguard in the fall of 1955 to accommodate this physically larger payload. This change would also cost the project much time and money since just slightly upgraded versions of the Viking and Aerobee could no longer provide the required performance – both stages would now be substantially different from their progenitors.
By March of 1956, not only was the redesign completed, but the program’s management structure and mission was settled. Considering the size of the program, it was felt that one of the regular divisions of NRL was not capable of taking on such a task. Instead a special group was formed with NRL’s John P. Hagen chosen as the program manager and the Viking program’s Milton Rosen was selected as the technical director. In fact it was Rosen’s wife, Josephine, who suggested the name “Vanguard” for the program which was officially adopted later on September 16, 1956. In the spring of 1956 the new management team defined exactly what Vanguard was: It was to be a complete system for space exploration. In the end this is why Vanguard is the only American satellite program to apply the same name to its rocket and satellite payload.
The first stage of the Vanguard rocket consisted of a substantially redesigned and lengthened Phase II Viking rocket to be built by the Martin Company. The Vanguard first stage would retain the 114 centimeter diameter of the Viking but the structure would now be about a third again longer with a length of 12.2 meters. This new rocket would be powered by a General Electric X-405 engine based on the one used in the Army’s Hermes rocket program. The turbopump-fed engine burned kerosene and liquid oxygen to produce 125 kilonewtons of thrust.
Unfortunately problems with this stage’s development were encountered almost immediately. The Navy had assumed that the original Viking development team at Martin would be available for Vanguard. Unknown to the Navy at the time the letter of intent was signed, Martin’s Viking team had already been broken up and most of its members were reassigned to work on the development of the USAF’s new Titan ICBM. Since the Titan program had a higher national priority (and was a much larger contract for Martin than Vanguard), NRL had to make do with the experience of their Vanguard group and what remained of the Martin engineering team.
As a result of the larger diameter Vanguard satellite design, the original 38-centimeter wide Aerobee was now too narrow for use as a second stage. A new larger-diameter stage designed by Aerojet-General would have to be used instead. The Vanguard second stage now had a diameter of 81 centimeters and a length of 9.4 meters. It incorporated a pressure-fed AJ-10-37 rocket engine that developed 33 kilonewtons of thrust using the storable propellants inhibited white fuming nitric acid (IWFNA) and unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine (UDMH). The guidance system, which was mounted on the second stage, would be developed by Minneapolis Honeywell Company.
The spin-stabilized third stage, which had a mass of about 230 kilogram, required a real leap in solid rocket motor technology in order to meet its performance and reliability requirements. As a result of the risks, two companies were selected to develop this stage in parallel. The Grand Central Rocket Company (which would be sold to Lockheed in 1961) would develop a solid rocket motor employing a metal case similar to those used in earlier motor designs. A more novel approach was proposed by the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory – a federal laboratory operated under contract for the US Navy by the Hercules Powder Company. This design, designated X-248, would use a much lighter weight fiberglass casing. The X-248 was a bit more risky to develop but it promised to allow heavier payloads to be orbited by Vanguard. When completed, Vanguard would stand 22 meters tall and have a launch mass of about 10,300 kilograms. Even today, it is one of the smallest satellite launch vehicles ever flown.
There was also the question of where the rocket would be launched. Most of the Viking rockets were launched from White Sands, New Mexico but the proximity of populated areas to where Vanguard’s rocket stages would fall during an ascent into orbit ruled out this site. Eventually Cape Canaveral, Florida, whose limited facilities were just being expanded for large ballistic missile test flights, was chosen. While NRL hoped to use or share existing assets, in the end they were forced to build their own launch facility at the Cape as well as establish tracking facilities downrange so that it would not interfere with military missile development. Bendix Corporation received the contract to develop, construct, and install tracking devices. The system, called “Minitrack”, was eventually used by many early American satellites. A network of optical and radio ground stations were also setup to track the satellite and receive data once in orbit.
Test Flights Begin
By the end of 1956, Project Vanguard was well underway and the first test flights were being prepared. The first test flight, designated TV-0 (Test Vehicle 0), had the fairly modest goal of training crews and testing the ground facilities required for all aspects of preparing, launching and tracking a Vanguard rocket. For this mission, the Viking 13 rocket was refurbished and fitted with a Vanguard telemetry system as well as a Minitrack transmitter. With the Vanguard launch facilities at Pad A of Launch Complex 18 (LC-18A) at Cape Canaveral still under construction, TV-0 would be launched from a standard Viking launch stand temporarily set up at the complex. The TV-0 rocket stood 14.8 meters tall and had a launch mass of 6,820 kilograms – the heaviest Viking ever launched.
With Vanguard’s new checkout facility at the Cape, called Hangar S, still under construction, TV-0 was moved to temporary facilities at Hangar C for prelaunch operations after its arrival in October 1956. The next month, the rocket was raised on its launch platform at LC-18A for the final preparations for the test flight. After a series of delays caused by problems on the ground and with a ship passing too close to the expected impact zone, TV-0 finally got off the pad at 1:05 AM EST on December 8, 1956. The Viking rocket burned for 105.9 seconds after accelerating to a peak speed of 1,920 meters per second. Two minutes after launch, a timer turned on the Minitrack transmitter and deployed its antennas. TV-0 reached a peak altitude of 203.5 kilometers before arcing back towards the Earth. The Minitrack transmitter was tracked throughout the flight until the rocket came down in the Atlantic Ocean 157 kilometers downrange. With the only major failure involving the post-boost attitude control system of the Viking rocket, the TV-0 mission was a resounding success.
With ground crews getting their first flight experience at the Cape under their belts, Project Vanguard pushed forward towards the TV-1 test flight with a hoped for launch date of February 1957. For this flight, the primary objectives centered on testing of a flight prototype of the Vanguard rocket’s third stage from spin up, to ignition and its subsequent flight. Secondary objectives were focused on gaining more experience in ground handling procedures, techniques and equipment as well as inflight instrumentation and its associated equipment. Once again, a Viking rocket would be employed to meet the TV-1 objectives. Viking 14 was subsequently modified with the addition of a spin table and the Grand Central solid rocket motor acting as the second stage of the rocket. TV-1 stood 14.4 meters tall and had a launch mass of 6,818 kilograms.
TV-1 arrived at Hanger C at Cape Canaveral in January 1957 with hopes of a launch the next month already quickly slipping out of reach. A long series of minor problems took up valuable time to resolve and it was late March before the vehicle was erected on its launch table at LC-18A. The TV-1 mission lifted off at 1:29 AM EST in the early morning hours of May 1, 1957. After burning for 99.9 seconds, the main engine of the Viking shutdown at a speed of 1,689 meters per second. The Grand Central motor then successfully spun up and ignited burning for a total of 32 seconds. The payload reached a peak altitude of 195 kilometers before returning to Earth to impact 726 kilometers downrange. With all test objectives being fully met, TV-1 was Vanguard’s second flight success in a row.
The Vanguard program continued its step-wise flight test program with TV-2. This would be the first test flight to use a rocket with an external configuration identical to that of a Vanguard satellite launch vehicle. The objectives of the TV-2 flight were primarily concerned with evaluating Vanguard’s first stage which would fly for the first time. Aside from testing the second stage’s retrorocket system and the third stage’s spin up system, the 1,800-kilogram upper stages of TV-2 were inert.
The delivery of the initial Vanguard first stage was delayed by months as a series of issues consumed engineers at Martin. TV-2 arrived at the Cape in early June 1957 and was provisionally accepted knowing that Martin engineers still had a long list of problems to resolve with the flight hardware. By August 22 prelaunch preparations had reached the point where static testing at the new Vanguard launch pad at LC-18A could be attempted. A series of new problems cropped up resulting in a scrub and a second static test attempt on August 26. Problems encountered during this test resulted in the removal of the GE X-405 engine and swapping it out with that of the newly arrived TV-2BU (Test Vehicle 2 Back Up) to save precious time. Three more scrubbed test firings created further schedule delays but the fourth attempt of September finally met its objectives.
With the vital static test firing completed, preparations pushed forward towards launch. At 2:22 PM EST on October 23, 1957, Vanguard TV-2 successfully lifted off from LC-18A. Much to the relief of all involved, the TV-2 first stage performed as expected accelerating to a speed of 1,900 meters per second before its X-405 engine shutdown. The systems all performed superbly with the rocket reaching a peak altitude of 175 kilometers and eventually impacting the Atlantic 539 kilometers downrange. Despite months of frustration, TV-2 marked the third successful test flight in a row of the Vanguard program. But with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union 19 days earlier, the public spotlight had now turned to the next test flight, TV-3.
The TV-3 Test Flight
At this point, the plans for the balance of the Vanguard test program called for four additional test flights to be followed by seven “operational” flights. And with the successful test of Vanguard’s solid rocket third stage on the TV-1 flight, in July 1957 the decision had been made that all test flights from TV-3 onwards would employ three live stages in an attempt to orbit a satellite. However, these initial test flights would not orbit the ten kilogram-class satellite intended for the operational flights. Originally a simple nose cone was to be carried but in July it was decided that a small 1.47 kilogram test satellite would be used instead to exercise the tracking stations (see “Vintage Micro: The Original Nanosatellite”).
This “minimum satellite” would consist of a simple 16-centimeter polished aluminum alloy sphere equipped with two Minitrack transmitters (one battery-powered and the other solar-powered) operating at frequencies around 108 MHz. While this test object did not carry any instruments, tracking it would provide information on atmospheric density, the shape of the Earth’s geoid as well as confirm that orbit had been achieved.
Several days after the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, William M. Holaday (who was responsible for guided missile development in the Office of the Secretary of Defense) and John Hagen briefed President Eisenhower on the status of Vanguard and the plans for the upcoming TV-3 flight. It was stressed that TV-3 was to be a test flight meant to verify the performance of all three stages of the Vanguard launch vehicle including the second stage which would be making its first test flight. And since this would be the first all-up test of the Vanguard rocket, there was no guarantee that the test satellite would actually reach orbit. Future plans for Vanguard would depend on the results of this test. On October 9, 1957 the White House released a statement that the next Vanguard launch would carry a satellite. Immediately the press went overboard misinterpreting the intent of the TV-3 test flight. Instead it was billed as a satellite launch and the de facto American response to Sputnik.
On October 11, 1957, the components of TV-3 arrived at the newly completed Hanger S at Cape Canaveral to begin preparations for launch. After the AJ-10-37 engine of the second stage was found to be cracked, it was replaced by Aerojet using a unit from another test vehicle. By early November, the stages of TV-2 were sent to LC-18 for static test firings and final preparations for launch. Unlike the earlier test flights with their many delays, preparations proceeded smoothly towards a test flight scheduled for December 4.
About 18 hours before the scheduled launch, the first two stages were prepared for fueling with the formal countdown starting at the T-5 hour mark. For the first time, a one hour hold was built into the Vanguard countdown to allow for inevitable delays and ensure that launch would take place during a window meant to meet the science objectives of the satellite payload. With initial preparations taking longer than expected, the 9:00 PM EST start of the TV-3 countdown on December 3, 1957 was pushed back to 4:30 AM EST the next morning. After 18 long hours and two holds, the launch attempt was finally scrubbed at 10:30 PM due to a frozen shutoff valve, crew fatigue and excessive high altitude winds.
With the launch on December 4 scrubbed, the next attempt was scheduled for 8:00 AM EST on December 6. The countdown for the second launch attempt started a bit behind schedule at 5:00 PM on December 5. By 10:30 AM the next morning, the countdown had reached the T-60 minute mark and the service gantry was rolled back. Finally at 11:44:56 AM EST on December 6, the first stage of TV-3 ignited and began to lift itself off its launch stand. Only about a meter off the pad and two seconds into the flight, the GE X-405 engine lost thrust. Unknown to everyone at the time, a loose connection in the fuel line resulted in a loss of pressure allowing combustion products to work their way back up the lines. As if in slow motion, TV-3 settled back onto its launch pad, toppled over and exploded. The tiny grapefruit-sized test satellite hit the ground and rolled across the pad to safety as it continued to transmit while TV-3 burned.
The failure of what was suppose to be a just an initial test flight of a new rocket struck America to its core. Immediately Vanguard was dubbed “Kaputnik” and “Flopnik” by an unforgiving press. With this failure following months of delays in the program, American leaders and the public were quickly losing faith in the program. While the next test flight, TV-3BU, would fly within the next couple of months, the DoD and White House needed more options before this public relations disaster turned into a political and military one. This would provide Wernher von Braun and his team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency the chance they wanted to launch their own satellite using their existing Jupiter-C rocket.
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Here is some color footage showing the preparations and the launch of Vanguard TV-3.
Here is some black and white news reel footage of the failed Vanguard TV-3 launch.
“Vintage Micro: The First Standardized Microsatellite”, Drew Ex Machina, July 5, 2014 [Post]
“Vintage Micro: The First Nanosatellite”, Drew Ex Machina, February 5, 2015 [Post]
David Baker, The Rocket, Crown Publishers, 1978
Constance McLaughlin Green and Milton Lomask, Project Vanguard: The NASA History, Dover Publications, 2009
John P. Hagen, “The Viking and the Vanguard”, in The History of Rocket Technology (ed. Eugene M. Emme), pp 122-141, Wayne State University Press, 1964
Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway III, History of Rocketry & Space Travel, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1966