PART III : 1958-1959

9. The Early U.S. Space Program



The Navy's Vanguard


[173] When the National Security Council endorsed the concept of a scientific satellite in May 1955, it was based on two conditions: peaceful purposes were to be stressed and no interference with the development of ballistic missiles was to be permitted.1 Donald A. Quarles, Deputy Secretary of Defense, charged with selecting a suitable vehicle for the scientific satellite, appointed a committee headed by Homer Joe Stewart, a rocket expert at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and professor at the California Institute of Technology. The Stewart committee recommended a vehicle proposed by the Naval Research Laboratory. It consisted of a Viking first stage,* a second stage using liquid propellants, and a third stage using solid propellants. A modification of this combination became the Vanguard launch vehicle, and the Navy managed its development.


[174] Vanguard was a slender vehicle, 21 meters tall and 1.1 meters in diameter, weighing 10 250 kilograms at launch. The first stage was powered by a General Electric X-405 rocket engine of 120 kilonewtons (27 000 lb thrust) using kerosene and liquid oxygen. The second stage was powered by an Aerojet rocket engine of 33.4 kilonewtons (7500 lb thrust) using a hydrazine compound (unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine-UDMH) and nitric acid as propellants. The third stage was driven by a solid propellant rocket of 13.8 kilonewtons (3100 lb of thrust).2


Vanguard development was treated like a second-class program from the start, particularly when it came in conflict with high-priority ballistic missile programs. Even the funding was second level, coming from an emergency fund of the Secretary of Defense for two years. By the spring of 1957, however, development was proceeding satisfactorily. Two successful test flights had been made and the third (TV-2**), with a live first stage and dummy upper stages, was on schedule. Confidentially, the Navy ordered Glenn L. Martin to make the remaining test vehicles with live upper stages and capable of launching a satellite. In the months that followed, however, the Vanguard team encountered problems and was still struggling to patch and fly TV-2 when Sputnik was launched.


The Vanguard team then found itself suddenly in the spotlight. John Haugen, the quiet, scholarly Vanguard director, briefed President Eisenhower. John Hagerty, the White House press secretary, relying on the optimistic part of Haugen's briefing, announced five days after Sputnik that the first of a series of test vehicles carrying a small satellite sphere would be launched in December 1957. Although Hagerty added that the first fully instrumented satellite would be launched in March 1958, the media emphasized the December date as the time the U.S. would match the Russian accomplishment. The Vanguard team finally launched the recalcitrant TV-2 successfully in October and on 6 December prepared to launch the three-stage TV-3. A large gathering of reporters and spectators saw TV-3 rise from the pad about a meter, fall back, and collapse into a giant fireball.3 That was the low point in the trouble-filled Vanguard development. Success came on 17 March 1958 when Vanguard I launched its tiny but well-instrumented satellite which transmitted signals for seven years. Meanwhile, a U.S. Army team, under the technical direction of Wernher von Braun, had launched the first American satellite.


* Viking, built by the Glenn L. Martin Co., was powered by a Reaction Motors rocket of 89 kN ( 20 000 lb thrust) and used alcohol and liquid oxygen as propellants

** TV-2 was the second of the Vanguard test vehicles; the earlier two vehicles flown were a leftover Viking and TV-1.