Saturday, January 1, 2011

Vanguard Revisited (Part I)

Vanguard TV-3 explodes shortly after launch, December 6, 1957. Photo source: NASA Images.

Pundits called it "flopnik," "kaputnik" and "sputternik." Time magazine suggested it be renamed Project Rearguard. Conventional wisdom regards it as one of the great national embarrassments of the 20th Century.

But does Project Vanguard deserve such derision?

A 2009 book titled Project Vanguard: The NASA History concluded that it was “a landmark on the unending road to new scientific knowledge.”

Paul Dickson is the author of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. He wrote in the introduction to the Vanguard book, “Historic inaccuracy often prevails over the subtleties of what really happened and the blurred conventional wisdom today sees Vanguard as metaphoric of failure.”

The book was originally published in 1970 by the Smithsonian with the title, Vanguard: A History. The 2009 edition added Dickson's introduction and made slight corrections to the original text. The authors were Constance McLaughlin Green, a 1963 Pulitzer Prize winner in history, and Milton Lomask, who had written about the Guggenheim Foundation's subsidizing the pioneering research of Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry.

They make a persuasive argument that Vanguard was smeared by the political hysteria of the era. Vanguard was never intended to be the front line of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But if one looks at the history of the entire program and not just one launch, Vanguard's successes were a remarkable achievement for its time.

It all began with the International Geophysical Year. In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed international scientific cooperation to study the Earth during an 18-month period from July 1957 through December 1958 that would coincide with a period of maximum solar activity.

The United States said it would particpate. So did the Soviet Union. To quote from the book:

While the American scientists in September 1954 did not discount the possible Russian challenge, some of them insisted that a satellite experiment must not assume such emphasis as to cripple or halt upper atmosphere research by means of sounding rockets.

The politics of the project were long and complicated; it's best to read the book for the details. In summary, the main issues were what experiment to perform, how much would it cost, who would pay for it, and who would have ultimate authority over the project.

Keep in mind that in the middle 1950s there was no civilian space program in the United States. Rocket development was the purview of the military. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists were working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. The Naval Research Laboratory was doing the same for that military branch. The Air Force also was performing rocket research.

This posed a problem for both the civilian scientists designing the American project, and for the Eisenhower administration. How could the United States perform a peaceful scientific experiment in space using a military rocket intended as an intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missile? But there was no escaping the fact that only the military had the capability of reaching space.

Proposals were solicited from the three military branches. It was decided to use the Navy's Viking program as the launch vehicle. Viking was a sounding rocket used for atmospheric research. On October 5, 1954, an NRL Viking rocket took the first picture of a hurricane and a tropical storm from an altitude of 100 miles.

Von Braun and the ABMA presented their own proposal, using a Jupiter rocket descended from the V-2 missiles brought over from Germany after World War II. These rockets were considered to be more powerful and were already established as a technology. So why wasn't the ABMA proposal chosen? "Conventional wisdom" has suggested many reasons. One was its link to von Braun and its Nazi heritage. Another was that the Jupiter was a military weapon, while Viking was a research rocket. The book suggests that it boiled down to the NRL making a much more impressive and detailed presentation, although most certainly there were many other competing factors, such as interagency rivalries and various political interests vying for control of the project.

One directive was clear — the Vanguard project was not to interfere with higher priority military research and development programs.

The 1957 newsreel reporting the failure of the Vanguard TV-3.

Vanguard's evolution suffered from the same problems that affect many nascent government cutting-edge technology projects to this day. Government officials and project scientists clashed with the private sector contractor, Glenn L. Martin. The factions fought for dominance. The rocket design had to be capable of lifting the payload's weight, but just what was the payload? That decision would come from the scientists. And the military at the Air Force Missile Testing Center in Cape Canaveral made it clear that Vanguard could not delay or interfere with other programs.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, went about developing their IGY program. It wasn't exactly a secret. They didn't talk about it much either. But they did talk about it.

The authors wrote:

When the impending start of the IGY brought a number of internationally known scientists to the National Academy in June 1957, the presence of several eminent Russian astronomers and geophysicists added greatly to the interest of the occasion. Contrary to later popular hearsay in the United States, the Soviets talked of their plans, and I.P. Bardin turned over to Lloyd Berkner a document entitled “U.S.S.R. Rocket and Earth-Satellite Program for the IGY.”

The authors concluded that American scientists and the military simply didn't take the Soviets all that seriously. Apparently that was a fear of the Soviets too. Sputnik I was designed to prove it was really up there more than any other reason, by emitting its infamous "beep-beep" sound. The frequency had circulated among amateur radio operators around the world; although the date was not known in advance, once the Soviets announced Sputnik had launched those with the frequency were able to quickly confirm its presence in orbit.

Sputnik posed no military threat, but it wasn't spun that way by the American media, especially after the USSR launched Sputnik II with a dog aboard. Time magazine ran an article in its November 11, 1957 issue titled, THE NATION: A Time of Danger. It concluded:

The U.S. needs to reawaken to the whole sense of the struggle. Specifically, it needs to re-gear and speed its missile program, and to reshape its alliances with a far greater sense of urgency than Washington has thus far displayed.

The Vanguard project people were puzzled. What's the big deal? The goal was defined as the launch of a scientific research payload into orbit by the end of December 1958. Vanguard was not a military weapon. The United States military had plenty of ballistic missiles capable of attacking the Soviet Union, and had nuclear superiority.

Whether or not the hysteria was justified, the nation's eyes turned to Cape Canaveral and focused on the next Vanguard launch test. It was titled TV-3, short for "Test Vehicle #3," and that's exactly what it was intended to be — a test. (The actual missions would be labelled SLC-1 through SLC-6, for "satellite-launching vehicle.") But the media spun it as if this launch was America's response to Sputnik, which it was never intended to be. The Vanguard project had fourteen total launches planned, including the tests before the real thing.

TV-3 launched live on national television, from Launch Complex 18 at 11:44 AM Eastern time on December 6, 1957. It rose four feet, then two seconds after liftoff it lost thrust and fell back onto its launch stand. The fuel tanks ruptured and exploded.

The satellite payload miraculously survived. It was found in the nearby brush, too damaged to launch again but still intact.

The damaged TV-3 satellite is now in the hands of the Smithsonian.

The December 16, 1957 Time magazine issue reported:

News of the failure of TV3 was flashed out around the nation and the world. Impact: shock, scorn, derision. Almost instantly the U.S.'s tiny, grounded satellite got rechristened stallnik, flopnik, dudnik, puffnik, phutnik, oopsnik, goofnik, kaputnik and—closer to the Soviet original—sputternik. At the U.N., Soviet diplomats laughingly suggested that the U.S. ought to try for Soviet technical assistance to backward nations. An office worker in Washington burst into tears; a calypso singer on the BBC in London strummed a ditty about Oh, from America comes the significant thought/Their own little Sputnik won't go off. Said a university professor in Pittsburgh: "It's our worst humiliation since Custer's last stand." Said Dr. John P. Hagen, director of Project Vanguard, as he got ready to face a doleful press conference in Washington: "Nuts."

But the article correctly noted:

... Vanguard's Boss, Dr. Hagen, handed out some afterthoughts. "This program," he said, "has had unprecedented publicity in the development stage, which is not usually the case, and in many respects I think it is unfortunate. In this case, I think the enthusiasm of the country carried people beyond the point where the fact that this is a test phase was lost sight of."

He was right: somewhere between accurate reporting and scientific enthusiasm the U.S. and the world lost sight of the fact that the complete Martin rocket had never before been test-fired, and first firings of test missiles are remarkably uncertain affairs.

That opened the door for ABMA and von Braun to make history.

After Sputnik I, the Army was authorized to go ahead with their proposal as a backup should Vanguard fail. On January 31, 1958 from nearby Launch Complex 26, ABMA launched a modified Jupiter-C rocket with Explorer I aboard.

That's usually where the story ends.

But if the story-telling continues, Vanguard went on to achieve several space-pioneering landmarks.

Vanguard I launched on March 17, 1958. To quote from the NRL web site:

Vanguard I achieved the highest altitude of any man-made vehicle to that time and established beyond doubt geologists' suspicions that Earth is pear shaped. It carried two radios and a temperature sensor and was the first orbiting vehicle to be powered by solar energy. Photovoltaic silicon solar cells provided the electrical power to the 6.4-inch, 3.5-pound satellite until its experiments and transmitter fell silent in 1964. Vanguard I orbits Earth today as the oldest man-made satellite and will remain in orbit well into the 22nd century.

Vanguard II also remains in orbit. Intended to map the Earth's cloud cover, it developed a large precession causing it to move erratically.

Vanguard also pioneered the use of miniaturized circuits and solar cells. The Air Force bought the rocket's second- and third-stage designs for use in Thor-Able, an early ancestor of today's Delta rockets.

The authors concluded:

All in all, the record is clear. Project Vanguard justified the faith of its supporters not only by putting instrumented satellites into orbit during the IGY but by developing a vehicle with "growth potential," and, in the process, by advancing the art at a cost in money that, in 1961, looked incredibly small to experts.

NEXT: A photographic visit to the remains of Launch Complex 18.


  1. Vanguard TV-3 explodes shortly after launch, December 6, 1967

    I think you mean December 6, 1957. ;)

    Otherwise, great historical post!

  2. Fixed, thanks ... Amazing how I can stare at text over and over, yet never see the typo. :-)