In the Museum: Second, But Still Up

Fifty years after launch, Vanguard 1 remains in orbit.

Conservator Hanna Szczepanowska assesses the solar cells on a replica Vanguard satellite; the original will remain in orbit until at least 2109. Eric Long

An hour before liftoff, things were going as planned. The thousands of spectators who had converged on Cape Canaveral in Florida to witness America's first attempt to put a satellite in orbit were safely out of the way. The big gantry crane had withdrawn from the launch pad, and the wind speed, although high, was deemed acceptable. At T minus 45 minutes, photographers finished shooting the scene on the launch pad and put the caps back on their lenses. By T minus 30 minutes, anyone lingering near the blockhouse hustled inside. As the seconds ticked down, the rocket's umbilical cords dropped away, and the test conductor gave the command to fire.

And then, at 11:44 a.m. on December 6, 1957, Vanguard Test Vehicle 3 lifted briefly from the launch pad, collapsed, and burst into flames. The rocket's grapefruit-size satellite was thrown clear; with antennas bent and transmitters still beeping, "it lay on the beach next to the launch pad until somebody thought to collect it," says Michael Neufeld, chair of the space history division at the National Air and Space Museum, where the satellite is now on display.

Vanguard's unsuccessful liftoff "was a blow to United States pride and prestige," reported the Christian Science Monitor. Time magazine quipped that Project Vanguard should be renamed Project Rearguard, and jokes about the botched flight began circulating immediately. (Why is Vanguard like a civil servant? Because it won't work, and you can't fire it.) "In New York City," reported NASA's official Project Vanguard history, "members of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations asked American delegates if the United States would be interested in receiving aid under the U.S.S.R.'s program of technical assistance to backward nations."

Vanguard's aborted launch "gave the program a bad reputation that I don't think it really deserved," says Neufeld. "The Vanguard launch came after the success of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2, which was a one-two propaganda punch by the Soviets that was of great concern to the United States' leadership—and to many people in this country who were upset by the Soviets' achievement and that we had failed to launch a satellite on time."

In 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was tasked with an unprecedented engineering feat: design, construct, and test a rocket that could place an artificial satellite, containing one or more scientific experiments, into orbit around Earth during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). Staff and funding were cobbled together from government, military, and private sources. NRL astronomer John Hagen led the project. In little more than two years, the Vanguard team developed—from scratch—a three-stage rocket, a worldwide satellite-tracking system, and a serviceable launching facility.

As the United States waited for Vanguard to re-launch, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency launched Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, on January 31, 1958 (see "Then & Now,"). Chris Hagen, son of Vanguard director John Hagen, remembers the event well. "I was a 13-year-old kid, and all my friends were saying, ‘Why isn't your daddy's satellite up?' And then the first Explorer went up. I said something—because I was a competitive kid—I said ‘Phooey, rats, darn.' Dad looked at me, smiled and said, ‘No, this is a good thing.' The idea of a race between the Vanguard group and the Explorer group was secondary to getting a satellite up."

On March 17, 1958, Vanguard 1 blasted off against a sunny sky and sent its satellite into orbit, circling Earth every 107.9 minutes. Amateur stargazers, inspired by director Hagen's enthusiasm, gathered on hilltops and in open fields to track Vanguard with their telescopes, transmitting their data to the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The data received from the little satellite was significant. It helped establish that Earth is more pear-shaped than round, provided scientists with information on the density and temperature ranges of the atmosphere, proved that a satellite could be powered by solar energy, and helped cartographers improve the accuracy of world maps.

Vanguard continued to transmit data for seven years, and while Sputnik reentered Earth's atmosphere sometime in 1958, scientists say that because of its solar cells, Vanguard will remain in orbit until at least 2109.

In addition to the satellite that failed to leave Earth in December 1957, visitors to the National Air and Space Museum can see a backup satellite from the successful March 1958 launch. Both are located in the Museum's Space Hall, where they serve as important reminders of American ingenuity and persistence.