Click the arrow to watch on YouTube the 1958 film, “Vanguard: A Rocket for Science.” Video source: Air Force Space & Missile Museum YouTube channel.
This week's retro film is Vanguard: A Rocket for Science produced by the Engineering Division of the now-deceased Glenn L. Martin Company of Baltimore.
Vanguard has always fascinated me, because of that singular moment on December 6, 1957 when a test launch exploded on the pad just after liftoff. If it hadn't blown up, it might have changed the course of U.S. space history.
As I wrote in July 2013, NASA exists in part because of Vanguard's failure.
Vanguard was the U.S. contribution to the International Geophysical Year. Sputnik was the Soviet contribution; it was no secret, but few in the West took seriously Soviet technology. When Sputnik 1 was placed into orbit, and followed by Sputnik 2 one month later, it shook to its foundation the American sense of technical superiority.
Sputnik launched atop the Russian R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. The U.S. had the Atlas ICBM in production, but it wouldn't be operational until 1959. Vanguard was a nominally civilian program, for political reasons, and never intended to be a military weapon.
The media, politicians, and much of the American public thought otherwise, so the December 6 test flight was perceived inaccurately as the American response to Sputnik.
Dubbed TV-3 (Test Vehicle 3), the launch was originally intended to show the rocket could place an object into orbit. It wasn't the real thing. The object was an inert six-pound ball.
But technically speaking, that six-pound ball would be America's first satellite, even though it did nothing.
What if TV-3 hadn't exploded?
It's a fascinating question.
By December 1957, both the House and the Senate were holding emergency hearings into the supposed inferiority of U.S. launch capabilities. The Senate hearings were chaired by Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas. Both houses had Democratic majorities, while the man in the White House — Dwight Eisenhower — was a Republican.
The TV-3 failure was used to ratchet up the hysteria, and gave fodder to Democratic claims that the Eisenhower administration was weak on defense.
If TV-3 places that inert ball into orbit, does everyone calm down?
Do the hearings come to an end?
The legislation that eventually created NASA came out of those hearings, crafted in part by Johnson.
The failure of TV-3 also contributed to Dr. Wernher von Braun's rise as the pre-eminent rocket expert in the United States.
Von Braun had argued for years he could use the Redstone to orbit an object. His Army Ballistic Missile Agency lost the IGY bid to the Naval Research Laboratory, which built Vanguard.
In mid-October 1957, after Sputnik 1, the White House directed ABMA to develop a backup program for launching a satellite. Von Braun said he could do it by the end of January 1958. Dr. James Van Allen and the folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory scrambled to build a satellite cobbled together out of Vanguard satellite spare parts.
If TV-3 puts its inert ball into orbit, does the White House direct ABMA to stand down and let the Vanguard team proceed as planned?
If so, then von Braun doesn't become a national hero ... and what happens when President John F. Kennedy contemplates a human lunar flight by the end of the 1960s? Does von Braun have the star power to convince the Kennedy administration that his Saturn C-5 can do the job?