THE VANGUARD field crew was still struggling at Cape Canaveral to put up TV-2, its third test vehicle-the one designed to test the first stage-when on Friday, 4 October 1957, the news broke that Sputnik I, a 184-pound sphere had been launched about 5:30 p.m. that day by the Soviet Union and was circling the earth.
Earlier in the week, on Monday, 30 September, scientists representing the Soviet Union, the United States, and five other nations had assembled at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., for a six-day CSAGI conference on the rocket and satellite activities of the International Geophysical Year. A speaker at the opening session was Sergei M. Poloskov, member of the Soviet delegation. Poloskov's subject was "Sputnik," the Russians' word for "traveling companion" and the name they had chosen for the satellite they were preparing to launch. The U.S.S.R. had long since served notice of its intent to develop a satellite-launching program as one of its contributions to the IGY. Nevertheless, there was a stir among Poloskov's listeners when he used an expression that could be literally translated as "now, on the eve of the first artificial earth satellite." There was another stir when he revealed that the transmitters in the projected Soviet satellite would broadcast alternately on frequencies of 20 and 40 megacycles. In l956, CSAGI, the international ruling body for the IGY, had adopted a resolution stipulating a frequency of 108 mc as standard for all IGY satellites. Speaking for the United States at the CSACI session in Washington, Homer Newell pointed out to the Russian scientist that Project Vanguard's radio tracking stations were set up to receive signals on the IGY established frequency. Since adapting the American Minitrack to receive the lower Soviet signals would require time and money, he asked Poloskov to specify when his country hoped to put its first satellite in orbit. The deftness with which Poloskov sidestepped Newell's question, along with similar questions from other delegates, produced a roar of laughter in which the Russian scientist himself finally joined. All he would say was that when the Soviet satellite materialized, he hoped the Vanguard tracking stations would collect the data it transmitted and send them to Moscow.5
On the following Friday evening the delegates to the conference were guests of a reception in the ballroom on the second floor of the Soviet embassy. Among the reporters on hand was Walter Sullivan of the New York Times. When shortly after 6 p.m., Sullivan received a phone call from his Washington editor, he made a point of getting as quickly as possible to Richard Porter, member of the American IGY committee and chairman of its technical panel. "It's up!" he whispered. Although Porter had been convinced for days that a Soviet launching was "indeed imminent," his normally red face was redder than usual as he and Sullivan wedged through the crowd in the embassy ballroom to relay the news to Lloyd Berkner, this country's official delegate to CSAGI. Berkner clapped his hands for silence, "I wish to make an announcement," he said. "I've just been informed by the New York Times that a Russian satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement."2
It was a gracious and dignified beginning to a period of mental turmoil and vocal soul-searching in the United States that can scarcely be described as dignified. In retrospect it is easy to smile at some of the exaggerated alarms and groundless assumptions that filled newspaper columns and trumpeted from public platforms as the significance of the Soviet feat became apparent. The smug chuckle of hindsight, however, cannot efface either the importance of the event or the intensity of the change it wrought in American thinking. Girdling the earth once every 96.17 minutes, the first Russian satellite-later referred to as Sputnik I to distingnish it from its successor-was a sphere approximately twenty-two inches in diameter, made of aluminum alloys and equipped with four spring.loaded whip antennas. It carried two continuously signaling transmitters and an instrumentation package primarily designed to disclose the effects of meteoritic collision. The power supply for telemetering information to ground stations was a chemical battery. The perigee of the initial orbit was 142 miles, the apogee 588 miles. The inclination to the equator was 64.3°; speed at perigee was 18,000 miles an hour, and at apogee, 16,200 miles an hour. The satellite itself would fall from orbit on 4 January 1958. Its two transmitters would fail twenty-three days after launch-but their arrogant beep-beep would continue to sound in the American memory for years to come. "Sputnik night," as the night of 4-5 October 1957 came to be called, was an historic watershed. Almost immediately two new phrases entered the language-"pre-Sputnik" and "post-Sputnik." In England the London Daily Mirror proclaimed the birth of the "Space Age" in huge headlines, and changed its slogan to claim, not the "biggest daily sale in the world" but the "biggest in the UNIVERSE." Gone forever in this country was the myth of American superiority in all things technical and scientific. The Russian success alerted the American public to deficiencies in their school system, to the need for providing their young people with an educational base wide enough to permit them to cope with the multiplying problems of swift technological change.3
American response to the Russian
triumph varied considerably, depending on its source. The alarm
exhibited by large sections of the public did not materialize
immediately. In New York City, on "Sputnik night," phone
calls poured into the offices of the Hayden Planetarium and the
American Museum of Natural History. Practically all were from
people seeking more information than the Soviet bulletin to the
American press had provided-mostly amateur astronomers and ham
radio operators eager to get down to the happy business of trying
to acquire and track the world's first man-made satellite. At
central police headquarters, a spokesman at the big switchboard,
the activity of which is regarded as an index to public anxiety,
reported no inquiries whatsoever. On the following day a Newsweek
correspondent in Boston wrote that the "general reaction
here indicates massive indifference." From Denver another
Newsweek writer wired his home office that there "is
a vague feeling that we have stepped into a new era, but people
aren't discussing it the way they are football and the Asiatic
flu." Before a week had gone by, New York's silence, Boston's
"massive indifference," and Denver's bewilderment had
melted away before a mounting and all but universal furor. To
the majority of Americans the Soviet feat came as a total surprise.
It needn't have, according to some of the commentators participating
in the storm of charge and counter-charge that followed. For some
time the United States government had been in possession of intelligence
reports showing that Russian missilry was well advanced and that
the U.S.S.R. had hardware capable of placing a satellite in orbit.4
In the confused post-Sputnik days, science reporters and others
contended that if the Administration had made its knowledge public,
the launching of the Soviet satellite would have had a less traumatic
effect on the American people. Perhaps so, perhaps not. In the
halcyon pre-Sputnik days the American people would probably have
paid little more attention to such information, its official source
notwithstanding, than they had paid to already existing evidences
that Soviet science was developing at a phenomenal rate. Most
Americans were aware that Russia had created an atom bomb more
quickly than American authorities had considered likely. They
knew that Soviet work on the hydrogen bomb had kept pace with
that of the United States. As recently as August 1957, the U.S.S.R.
had claimed a successful intercontinental ballistic missile test.
None of these facts, however, had registered deeply in this country.
Nor had the occasional story in the press hinting at an upcoming
space breakthrough by the Soviet Union. When Sputnik appeared,
the reaction of the public, taken as a whole, was a compound of
awe, surprise, chagrin, and fear. The Russians had beaten us into
space! More to point, if they could put up a harmless scientific
satellite-assuming it was harmless-what was to prevent
them in the near future from putting up a larger one equipped
with nuclear warheads! To be sure, not all was gloom and worry.
The Americans invented Sputnik jokes, and laughed at jibes originating
overseas. Bars around the country advertised "Sputnik cocktails,"
one third vodka, two thirds sour grapes. In Poland the people
quipped that at last Russia had a smaller satellite than Albania,
and in West Germany they coined a new name for America's still
unorbited Vanguard. They called it "Spaetnik," spaet
being the German word for late. After Russia had launched a second
and even more spectacular satellite, a reporter's query to Nikolai
A. Bulganin, the Soviet premier-"When are you putting up
the third one?"-brought the grinning riposte, "It's
America's turn now."5
(GRAPHICS MISSING: Cartoon reaction
to Sputnik I. (Courtesy Thomas Flannery, Baltimore Sun.))
Official reaction to Sputnik I-which is to say, high-level government reaction in Washington-was also marked by surprise, but of a different sort. The government was startled by what Defense Secretary Wilson described as the public's "jitters." At an October press conference and in two subsequent television appearances, President Eisenhower undertook to reassure an agitated nation. The chief executive conceded that the Soviet achievement was a "political defeat" for the United States. He stressed, however, that this country and the U.S.S.R. were not engaged in a space race, a statement that the Russian leaders, with the same indifference of officialdom to the facts of life, had also made. Granting the remote military potentialities of Sputnik, the President asserted that it "does not raise my apprehensions one iota" about the national security.6
Political reaction, emanating principally from Congressmen and state governors, ploughed a familiar furrow. Most of it was not so much concerned with what the Russians had done as with what the Americans had so far failed to do. Why was this country behind in the space race? Who was to blame? As always in cases of national distress, the White House headed the list of targets. Spokesmen from both major parties accused the Eisenhower Administration of "penny-pinching," "complacency," "lack of vision," and "incredible stupidity" where both the American missile program and Project Vanguard were concerned. They reiterated the President's frequently quoted description of scientists as "just another pressure group" and cited Secretary Wilson's confessed indifference to basic research and the avowed indifference of presidential aide Sherman Adams to "an outer space basketball game," a heavy-handed reference to the small Vanguard satellite. Former President Truman mirrored a segment of public opinion when he attributed the space-lag to the "[Senator Joseph] McCarthy era." He charged that "official persecution" of prominent scientists in the early 1950s had deprived America's missile and satellite programs of some of the country's "best brains," a statement scarcely calculated to flatter the highly capable scientists working with Project Vanguard.
American scientists, including those associated with Vanguard, had for some time been aware that the U.S.S.R. possessed the capacity to launch a satellite. It would be an exaggeration, however, to say that all of them had faced up to the full implications of their own knowledge. Even scientists are not immune to wishful thinking. Before Sputnik some of those in America had been as willing as the general public to discount Soviet claims. After Sputnik many were quick to praise. Joseph Kaplan, chairman of the American IGY committee, pronounced the Soviet launch "really fantastic." Kaplan pointed out that the Russians obviously had developed a launching vehicle of tremendous thrust, since the sphere they had orbited was eight times heavier than the larger of the two spheres then available to the American satellite program. A further indication of the power of the Soviet launching vehicle lay in the orbit the Russians had used because of the more northern latitude of their launch site. The Vanguard managers were planning to take advantage of the earth's rotational velocity, about a thousand miles an hour at the equator, by putting their satellite into a west-to-east orbit, between 30° north and south of the equator. Russia was denied much of this advantage. Circling roughly from 65° north to 65° south latitude, Sputnik's orbit was more north-south than east-west.
In the absence of an official explanation from the U.S.S.R., American scientists offered varying theories as to why the Russians had used 20-mc and 40-mc frequencies in their payload instead of the 108-mc frequency prescribed by CSAGI and used by the United States. One theory was that the Russians saw a propaganda value in using the 20- and 40-mc frequencies. These could be picked up by the sets of amateur radio operators around the world whereas the higher frequency required more sophisticated receiving equipment. Another theory held that the Russians simply did not have receivers capable of picking up signals at the higher frequency. A third theory, easily the most convincing in view of the advanced state of Soviet science and technology, was that the lower frequencies were more suitable to the scientific objectives of the Soviet launch and to the relatively low altitudes of Sputnik's orbit. Another subject of speculation among American scientists was whether or not the Russians were trying to follow their satellites with cameras. A few months prior to the launching of Sputnik I, a group of Soviet scientists participated in a symposium on cosmical gas dynamics at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory in Cambridge. Two members of the group, both famous astronomers, talked at length with Fred Whipple, director of the Observatory and head of the Vanguard optical-tracking program. Although the Russian astronomers were noncommittal as to their country's plans, Whipple got the impression that the U.S.S.R. had already developed some sort of optical-tracking system in connection with its satellite program.7
As for the reaction of the Vanguard managers to Sputnik I, the state of their feelings can be left to the imagination. It was one thing to have surmised, as many of them had, that Russia was on the verge of orbiting a satellite. It was another to realize that the satellite was actually up there. Lured before the television cameras of a news program on the evening of 4 October, before he could put his thoughts in order, Admiral Rawson Bennett dismissed Sputnik as "a hunk of iron almost anybody could launch." The statement was a tribute to the naval research chief's loyalty to Project Vanguard but as an assessment of the situation, to quote the Russian chairman Nikita Khrushchev, it was a "cosmic boo-boo."8
Russia's use in her satellite of
lower broadcasting frequencies than those of the United States
presented the Vanguard radio-tracking people with a severe problem.
Soon after the news of Sputnik reached Washington, Mengel and
his aides, accompanied by Joe Siry and other orbit-computation
experts, were on their way to the Vanguard control room on the
second floor of building 72 at the Naval Research Laboratory.
Most of them would remain there around the clock for the next
three days. The six prime Minitrack stations along the Vanguard
"fence" were ready-ready, that is, to receive signals
from a satellite transmitting on the IGY-established frequency
of 108 mc. The job of the tracking technicians was to convert
them to the Sputnik frequencies fast enough to enable the big
computing machines in Washington to calculate and predict the
course of the Soviet satellite. Toward the end of the summer building
crews had completed construction work on the six major Minitrack
stations, the men selected to operate them had reported for duty,
and the tracking-system heads were laying plans for a series of
dry runs to test the network. The dry runs never took place. Sputnik
arrived before they could start, and when three weeks later the
Russian satellite ceased transmitting, the network had become
operational, tracking Sputnik and relaying its position to Washington.
By that time, as an Army engineer remarked later, the U.S.S.R.
had provided Minitrack with "the wettest dry run in history."9
(GRAPHICS MISSING: Minitrack antenna
One of the difficulties created by the launching of Sputnik was that by fall 1957 the Signal Corps had not yet completed the communications network it was in the process of establishing between Vanguard headquarters and all Minitrack units. Direct communication from the Washington area reached only to the stations at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and Antofagasta, Chile. To reach the other prime stations, headquarters had to resort to slower means-commercial cable, the Inter-American Geodetic Survey radio net, amateur radio, and long-distance telephone. Over whatever means were available, messages went quickly from the control room at NRL, providing station crews with such technical information as the men at NRL could collect, and suggesting ways for putting emergency equipment to work and for modifying antenna arrays. In addition, NRL air-shipped special receivers to all stations.
No one could take seriously the naïve
statement of one bitter but ill-informed observer that "Sputnik
caught Project Vanguard with its antennas down."10
Certainly they did not stay down long. In mid-October C. B. Cunningham,
senior NRL scientist for the station at Lima, Peru, was able to
send his superiors a glowing report.11 "Our first
track of the USSR satellite," he wrote-
occurred on Friday morning, 11 October. It was a thrill for all hands. Since that time we have tracked every passage but one. In accordance with the NRL request and instructions, we constructed two dipole antennas, tuned to 40 megacycles, which we mounted 34 inches above the 108 mc dipoles, and at the center of the 108 mc array. We used 2X4 end supports and lacing cord. We did have to improvise for coaxial panel connectors and T connectors. We just didn't have any, so we got along without them. Anyway, the antennas worked, and we received beautiful signals.
Our second major difficulty was the elimination of the beat note when we connected in the General Radio Oscillator. Thanks to a radio Conference on the amateur rig with Vic Simas, we were able to track down and cure the difficulty. However, after about 36 hours of operation the Hewlett Packard frequency counter gave up the ghost, and again we were off the air! This time it took the combined efforts of Jim Crane and myself to get the frequency counter working The difficulty was finally traced to an open-circuited resistor in a plug-in "trigger unit." To compound our difficulties, there was no adequate description of the unit in the instruction room, we had no spare unit, and we couldn't get to the unit to check the components under operation because of inaccessibility. Jim Crane finally soldered in leads from the plug in socket and wired them to the plug in unit outside the counter. The failure was finally traced to an open resistor which was in parallel with a second resistor for adjustment to an exact value. The open could be only detected by lifting each resistor from the circuit and testing. Needless to say, it was a long slow search, requiring about 8 hours. We did get the repairs made, and the counter operating about an hour before passage. At about -5 minutes the overheat cutout in the counter kicked out, and only by holding it in with a screwdriver could we keep on frequency. At- l minute we shifted to higher speed recording, and the pens stopped writing. After frantic shifting to several speeds, we finally got the pens to writing at maximum speed, so that the 5 minutes record used practically an entire roll of paper, but we did get a beautiful record. What an experience! Needless to say, we got everything ready by the next run, but it was a rough day.
In addition to trying to get the
minitrack running, we had the communication team working hard
on installing the communication equipment. Everybody really worked.
I was proud of the whole group. As of this date, the low power
transmitter (about l kw) is working, but there is trouble with
a water coil in the high power rig. Both rhombics are up, and
the teletype machines are clicking away like mad. The crew is
trying to learn army communication procedure, which is something
like learning the ancient Sanskrit in two weeks!
Similar activity was underway all along the Minitrack fence, with the result that long before the Soviet satellite ceased transmitting, five of the stations were capable of limited tracking at the Sputnik frequencies. The data they obtained, supplemented by data from amateur radio operators and visual and optical observers, although approximate, were sufficient to permit the computation experts to improve knowledge of the Russian orbit and to predict the course of the satellite days in advance. A measure of the spirited efficiency with which the Minitrack crews adapted their equipment to the Russian frequencies is found in the statement of Homer Newell, made during the opening session of the CSAGI conference in Washington, that it would take them "several months" to accomplish what in fact they succeeded in doing in a fortnight.12 Amateur radio operators played a substantial role in this achievement. On Sputnik night the national IGY committee got in touch with the American Radio Relay League in West Hartford, Connecticut, calling on its 70,000 member-all "hams"-to lend assistance. Although ordinary radio sets were unable to acquire the signals, those equipped with short-wave receivers and beat-frequency oscillators-standard equipment among the hams-could do so. In a matter of hours amateurs in this country and abroad were picking up the signals and logging them. On Sputnik night they forwarded their findings to the National Academy of Sciences, where Porter, Berkner, Pickering and other scientists had established a temporary control room, setting it up with such speed that they were able to compute the orbit of Sputnik and inform the press of its whereabouts by 8 o'clock the next morning. Subsequently the hams communicated with the permanent control room at NRL.13
Word of the Soviet launch reached the headquarters of the Vanguard optical-tracking program at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge at 6:15 Sputnik night. The Observatory Philharmonic Orchestra was holding its first rehearsal of the season, but one by one, as the session proceeded, members of the group quietly left the room. Whipple had been attending sessions of the CSAGI conference and was en route home from Washington. At the Cambridge Observatory his assistant, J. Allen Hynek, got the news in the form of a phone call from a Boston newspaper reporter, asking, "Do you have any comments on the Russian satellite?" An hour later Kittridge Hall, home of most of the tracking offices, was so ablaze with light that a woman living in the neighborhood reported that the building was on fire and a pumper and a hook-and-ladder went clanging to the scene.
No Baker-Nunn cameras were operational on Sputnik night, but with the aid of a hastily installed teletype machine and lavish use of the telephone, the SAO staff got the word to Moonwatch teams and astronomical observatories in this country and around the world. Fortunately some of the amateur units had undergone successful practice runs. During the night the Observatory received what Whipple described as "observations of a sort" and the early morning hours of Saturday brought "fairly good observations" from the Geophysical Institute in College, Alaska. From these data the Observatory was able to advise Moonwatch groups as to when and where they might be able to sight the satellite. The first confirmed observations came on 8 October. They were the work of Moonwatch teams in Sydney and Woomera, Australia. The first confirmed observation in the United States was the work of a team in New Haven, Connecticut. It came on 10 October. Thereafter observations came in steadily, with approximately 363 confirmed sightings, most of them by amateur teams, during the lifetime of Sputnik I. According to Whipple, none of these sightings was of the satellite itself. What his visual observers were seeing was the casing of the satellite's burnt-out carrier. This piece of hardware, the shell of the last stage of the launching vehicle, had gone into orbit with its payload and was chasing Sputnik I around the world. On the basis of reports pouring into the Cambridge center, Whipple concluded that the Russians had painted their payload black for reasons that were never made public.14
Although the first of the 12 Baker-Nunn cameras projected for the Project Vanguard optical-tracking stations had been completed some weeks before the Soviet launch, tests at the factory of its makers, Boller and Chivens in South Pasadena, California, had revealed defects, and the large and complex instrument was dismembered for repairs. On Sputnik night, consequently, the only Baker-Nunn in existence was "literally scattered all over the plant,"15 and some of its gears and other parts had been returned to contractors for refinishing or remachining. Even so, work on the camera was so far advanced that when on the night of 4 October news of the Soviet launch reached the people at Boller and Chivens, they hopefully started to assemble the camera for observation on the following night, only to desist after Fred Whipple informed them that at that time the Russian satellite could not be sighted from Pasadena. By the evening of 17 October the camera was in good operating condition and the orbit of the Russian satellite was within range of the California city. When the orbiting carrier-rocket of Sputnik I appeared, according to the Smithsonian Institution's report of the event,16 "it looked like a large airplane light." So low was it orbiting that "one probably could have photographed it with a Brownie camera." The satellite carrier went from horizon to horizon in approximately a minute and a half. During this period, the Baker-Nunn picked up "four or five" pictures of it, and would have had more if the operators of the camera had been more experienced in the handling of their intricate instrument. During the next few days the press carried the first pictures ever made of an artificial moon in orbit around the earth. On the Thanksgiving day following, scientists associated with a Harvard-sponsored meteor project picked up pictures of Sputnik I itself, the actual payload, with two super-Schmidt cameras in New Mexico. Their achievement prompted Whipple and Hynek to institute an interim program at some of their optical-tracking stations and elsewhere, utilizing super-Schmidt cameras and cinetheodolites, along with two small missile telecameras, borrowed from Army Ordnance. Started during the lifetime of Sputnik I, this backup phototrack program would remain in effect until mid-1958, by which time the full Baker-Nunn network was in operation.17
The swift accumulation of limited but usable information from the world's first artificial satellite was not the only product of the struggle to track Sputnik I. For those who participated in the effort, it would prove to be an unforgettable experience in international camaraderie. The sleepless experts at NRL and SAO, the crewmen straining to convert their facilities to the Russian frequencies at the prime Minitrack stations, the ham radio operators glued to their earphones, the Army technicians manning the Mark II stations they had installed, the men and women making up Moonwatch teams around the world-in the years to come all these people would be proud to think of themselves as members of a rule-less and officer-less organization fondly spoken of as ROOSCH or Royal Order of Sputnik Chasers. The foremost practical outcome of their cooperative labors was that the American tracking teams were ready when on 3 November 1957 the Russians sent their second satellite, Sputnik II, into orbit.
Unlike its predecessor, the second Soviet moon was not a special device, orbiting apart from its carrier. It was the last stage of the launching vehicle. Circling the world once every 103.7 minutes, Sputnik II had an apogee of 1,038 miles, a perigee of 140 miles. It remained in space 162 days, falling into the earth's atmosphere on 14 April 1958. Weighing at least 1,120 pounds, it carried the 11-pound test dog, Laika, in a sealed compartment, along with instrumentation for measuring cosmic rays, solar ultraviolet and x-radiation, temperature, and pressures. Although its transmitters functioned only seven days, they supplied the world scientific community with disclosures concerning the biomedical effect of space travel on animal life, solar influence on upper atmosphere densities, and the shape of the earth.18
For everybody connected with Project Vanguard the immediate post-Sputnik period was one of swiftly developing and often overlapping events. Some Americans had always been deeply interested in the earth satellite program: now the majority of them were. After 4 October 1957 the Vanguard scientists and engineers found themselves working quite literally in a goldfish bowl. Unofficially their mission ceased to be merely one of putting a payload in orbit during the IGY. It became instead an effort to salvage the national prestige. Their thinly funded, modestly conceived, no-priority undertaking had become the great white hope of a people profoundly wounded in its amour-propre.
Within hours after the first Soviet launch, the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee chairmanned by Lyndon B. Johnson initiated a "full, complete, and exhaustive inquiry into the state" of the nation's satellite and missile efforts. On 9 October Hagen and Admiral Bennett went "up the Hill" to tell the Vanguard story to attorney Edwin L. Weisl of New York, the Johnson subcommittee's chief investigator, and his staff. Accompanying them was Brigadier General Austin W. Betts of the Department of the Army, whose task was to answer questions concerning the possibility, then under intensive discussion, of using the Army's Jupiter C, a version of its intermediate-range ballistic missile, as the basis of a backup satellite-launching program for Project Vanguard. Most of the Senate investigators' questions reflected current criticisms of the manner in which the United States had handled its satellite program. Considerable discussion dealt with the President's order that the satellite effort be kept "separate and distinct" from the country's military missile effort. There were rocket men in and out of the Army who viewed this arrangement as an inadvisable "division of the indivisible." In answer to the Senate investigators' queries, Hagen and Bennett explained that "the decision" to separate the two programs arose from the fear that "the military program might be delayed if this were not done." They added that subsequent to the separate-but-highly-unequal decision, it had become "apparent that the Jupiter C missile of the Army" could be "used as a booster for an earth satellite. However, the time required to make the necessary modifications to the Jupiter C would not have resulted in a material saving in time and might have reduced the scientific value of the earth satellite." The investigators concluded the session with a request that the Vanguard managers supply them with a report on the background, status, and plans of the project. During the preceding summer, fortunately, Hagen had directed his aides to prepare a chronological history of the project. Within a reasonably short time, this and other pertinent material were on their way up the Hill, to be digested by the Johnson subcommittee staff in preparation for a projected series of hearings by the subcommittee itself.19
Eisenhower also requested a briefing, and a few days after Sputnik I, Hagen and William M. Holaday, recently appointed director of guided missiles for the Department of Defense called at the White House for this purpose. The official record covers Hagen's subsequent briefing of the White House staff on 15 October, but it fails to fix the date of his earlier session with the President, and those involved no longer remember. Later events, however, place it on 9 October at the latest, possibly the day before, since on the 9th Hagen was tied up with the Senate investigators on the Hill. In a fifteen-minute presentation to Eisenhower, Hagen and Holaday stressed the then experimental status of the Vanguard program. TV-2, then being prepared for firing at Cape Canaveral, was not a complete Vanguard vehicle, consisting as it did merely of a Vanguard first stage and two dummies in lieu of the second and third stages. So far no complete Vanguard vehicle had been flight-tested, and the one scheduled for launching in December-TV-3-was still at the factory. Moreover, this first complete Vanguard was not a mission vehicle; it was a test vehicle, designed primarily not to orbit a payload but to measure the performance of the launching vehicle itself. Plans, however, called for TV-3 to carry a minimal payload, an instrumented 6.4-inch, 4-pound satellite. Preliminary calculations indicated that it could put such a satellite into orbit, but no guarantee to this effect was possible under the circumstances. In short, were TV-3 to accomplish its mission, the Vanguard people would regard their success, in Hagen's words, as "a bonus."20 Having given the chief executive a realistic summary of the situation, Hagen and Holaday-and everybody else associated with the Vanguard program-were understandably startled and dismayed when on 9 October presidential press secretary James Hagerty informed reporters that during the forthcoming December, Project Vanguard would launch a satellite-bearing vehicle. "In May of 1957," the White House statement read in part, "those charged with the U.S. satellite program determined that small satellite spheres would be launched as test vehicles during 1957 to check the rocketry, instrumentation, and ground stations and that the first fully instrumented satellite vehicle would be launched in March of 1958. The first of these test vehicles is planned to be launched in December of this year."
It is worth noting that the White House news release was an accurate enough reflection of the Hagen-Holaday briefing of the President. It did not say that the Vanguard people were going to place a satellite in orbit in December; it said only that they "planned" to launch one of their satellite-bearing "test vehicles," a far less difficult procedure, especially for a group of men who had already put up two test vehicles in a row and were on the verge of improving this record by their successful launching of a third one, TV-2, on 23 October. In the emotionally overwrought atmosphere of the early post-Sputnik era, however, it was perhaps too much to expect reporters to distinguish between a promised launch and a promised orbit. Apparently few, if any, did. The press bristled with stories saying that before the end of the year America's answer to the U.S.S.R. satellite would be circling the globe. Hagen and his staff had no choice but to regard the ill-timed White House release, or more exactly the news media's interpretation of it, as a command; and all units of Project Vanguard braced for an accelerated effort beset with uncertainties.21
What must have been welcome news to many anxious Americans came five days after Sputnik II with an announcement from the Pentagon that the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, a unit commanded by Major General John B. Medaris, had received permission to participate in the American satellite program on a backup basis. "The Secretary of Defense today," the department's 8 November release read in part, "directed the Department of the Army to proceed with launching an earth satellite using a modified Jupiter C. This program will supplement the Vanguard program.... The decision to proceed with the additional program was made to provide a second means of putting into orbit, as part of the IGY program, a satellite which will carry radio transmitters compatible with minitrack ground stations and scientific instruments selected by the National Academy of Sciences."22
To people close to the satellite
program this announcement was no surprise. They had been expecting
it since Sputnik I. Some of them had been discussing the
feasibility of such a move since the fall of 1955 when the Stewart
Committee rejected Project Orbiter, the Army's satellite-launching
proposal, in favor of the Navy proposal that had become Project
Vanguard. For Project Orbiter the Army-directed rocket team headed
by Wernher von Braun had designed a four-stage launching vehicle,
to consist of the liquid-fueled Redstone rocket, the Army's short-range
tactical missile, and three solid stages made up first of clusters
of Loki and later of scaled-down Sergeant rockets. When subsequently
the Army rocket experts embarked on a series of tests designed
to bring their nosecones safely back into the atmosphere during
flight, common sense dictated that they use the four-stage vehicle
they had planned for Project Orbiter as the basis for creating
a suitable test missile. To this end they had developed what by
1957 was known as the Jupiter C, the "C" standing for
"Composite Re-entry Test Vehicle," In this way the Army
was able to carry on its vehicle development under military priority,
an advantage denied the Vanguard program. Had the Jupiter missile
been chosen in the first place as the IGY vehicle, it too might
have had to undergo development outside military priority. Created
by the Army in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
of the California Institute of Technology, the Jupiter C was an
elongated Redstone with three solid-fuel upper stages-two of them
live, and the top one filled with sand to preserve the balance
of the vehicle.23
(GRAPHICS MISSING: Sketch of the
minimum six-inch satellite intended for TV-3.)
As early as 1956 the performance of one of the predecessors of the Jupiter C convinced the experts at Redstone Arsenal that they already had a vehicle capable of putting a small satellite in orbit. Later reentry tests, carried on with the more elaborate Jupiter C itself, further strengthened their conviction. Late in 1956 the Department of Defense authorized ABMA to develop and fire twelve Jupiter Cs as part of the Army's nosecone reentry development program. The first two shots, attempted in 1957, were failures, but a third, fired in August of that year. was such a definitive success that General Medaris, the ABMA commandant, ordered the reentry test program stopped and directed that the remaining Jupiter Cs-"nine precious missiles in various stages of fabrication"-be "held for other and more spectacular purposes."
By "other and more spectacular purposes," the dynamic ABMA chief meant a satellite launch. Twice, during the preceding year, he and his colleagues had requested permission to establish a backup satellite program; twice the Department of Defense had turned them down-but the Army missile team had no intention of taking "no" for an answer. Shortly after the successful reentry test in the summer of 1957, Medaris wrote Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, then Chief of Research and Development for the Army, that "we could hold two of the missiles in such condition that one satellite shot could be attempted on four months' notice, and a second one a month later." In his own vivid, engaging, partisan account of his stewardship of the Army missile program, Medaris confesses that in the summer of 1957 he was convinced that Project Vanguard's chance of effecting an orbit in the IGY was "so small as to constitute a ridiculous gamble."24
In October 1957 the Department of Defense was in the midst of a change of hierarchy. Secretary Wilson had announced his imminent resignation, and his designated successor, Neil H. McElroy, was making an "orientation" tour of the country's military installations preparatory to taking office. The fourth of October found McElroy at Redstone Arsenal. His party included Army Secretary Wilber M. Brucker, General Gavin, and other dignitaries. Their presence gave Medaris and von Braun an opportunity to renew their plea that the Army be given a role in the satellite effort. A briefing session and a tour of the arsenal were followed by an evening cocktail party. Hosts and guests were enjoying a relaxed chat when General Medaris' public relations officer hurried into the room. "General," he said, breaking into the conversation without apology. "it has just been announced over the radio that the Russians have put up a successful satellite! It's broadcasting signals on a common frequency, and at least one of our local 'hams' has been listening to it." There was a momentary silence. Then von Braun burst into speech. Medaris quotes the famous rocket scientist as exclaiming, "We knew they were going to do it. Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. For God's sake turn us loose and let us do something. We can put up a satellite in sixty days, Mr. McElroy! Just give us a green light and sixty days." Von Braun talked on compulsively. It was some time before Medaris could interrupt long enough to observe that "sixty days" was too fast. To prepare vehicle and payload for launch, the Army and its working partner, JPL, would have to have "ninety days." Neither von Braun's sixty days nor Medaris' ninety could be called an excessively optimistic prediction. The Jupiter C was already a flight-tested vehicle, and there was no reason to believe that the modifications required to make it operational as a satellite-launcher would take much time. Moreover, it was a foregone conclusion that the Army team would have at its disposal the tracking system developed by the Naval Research Laboratory along with one or more of the scientific experiments prepared for Project Vanguard under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences. Nothing could be more inaccurate than the subsequent popular impression that in a mere three months the Army team went through all of the time-consuming developmental work and testing necessary to produce an operational satellite-launcher.25
McElroy, of course, could make no commitments to the ABMA leaders, but by the time he and his entourage had departed on the following day, both Medaris and von Braun were under the impression that the "green light" would flash soon after the secretary-to-be took office on 9 October. Medaris' confidence took the form of immediate action. He ordered von Braun and his assistants to take "Missile 29," one of the Army's stored Jupiter Cs, off the shelf and start working on it. "I stuck my neck out," the ABMA chief would write later, but "I was convinced that we would have final word inside of a week, and that week was too valuable to be lost. If we still did not get permission to go, I would have to find some way to bury the relatively small amount of money we would have to spend in the meantime."
Even as Medaris and his aides pushed ahead in this informal manner, scientists connected with Project Vanguard were giving consideration to a cooperative Vanguard-Army venture that, in the opinion of some of them, just might permit the United States to launch a satellite within as little as thirty days. Basic to this scheme were calculations that Joe Siry of the Vanguard team had prepared. These indicated that the now tested and highly efficient solid-propellant third stage of the Vanguard vehicle could be fitted onto the basic Jupiter missile, thus providing a simple but powerful two-stage launching vehicle capable of establishing one of the small Vanguard satellites in orbit. In October Siry, Milton Rosen, and Commander Berg spent a day at Huntsville, where they presented Siry's figures to von Braun and his staff. The Army scientists agreed that Siry's scheme was feasible, and when the Vanguard men departed that night it was with the understanding that the two groups would pursue the matter further at a meeting of the Stewart Committee scheduled to be held in Washington a few days later. There, however, the matter ended. Siry's recollection, voiced ten years later, was that "after that first meeting it was somehow never convenient for us to get together again." Berg's guess, based on subsequent events, was "that apparently the scheme for marrying our rocket to theirs fell through because by the time we proposed it, the Army people were under the impression that they had a commitment from McElroy to go ahead with their Jupiter-C program. Under the circumstances a joint venture held no appeal to them, even though they conceded that Siry's calculations checked out." As for Rosen, his comment, also voiced a decade after the incident, was "that I don't really recall that occasion. Even if the Army had gone along with the idea, I don't believe I could have approved of it. No doubt the scheme looked good on paper, but difficulties involved in actually launching the proposed two-stage rocket would probably have put us behind rather than ahead of schedule. In those rather trying days, my feeling was that our best bet was to continue developing the Vanguard vehicle as planned and hope for the best."
One thing is certain. Throughout October the assumption that the Department of Defense was on the verge of authorizing an Army backup program prevailed at Huntsville. For General Medaris, to be sure, it was a less than comfortable period. Having ordered his men to go to work on the Jupiter C, he shortly found that his technically unallowed expenditures were becoming worrisomely large. When first one week and then three more weeks passed without a word from Washington, the general began awakening in the middle of the night and talking to himself. He would have rested better had he known that one of Eisenhower's last orders to Charles Wilson, his retiring defense chief, was a directive on the morning of 8 October "to have the Army prepare its Redstone at once as a backup for the Navy Vanguard." It was a month later, however, before the official directive establishing the Army satellite program, subsequently known as "Project Explorer," wended its way from DoD to Redstone Arsenal.26
It would be gratifying to report that the Vanguard people welcomed the Army to the satellite fold with expressions of delight and that the Army team refrained from gloating-gratifying but inexact. The Vanguard people detected in the situation causes for resentment that cannot be cavalierly dismissed as normal to interservice rivalry. Many of the difficulties confronting their project grew out of the government's decision in 1955 to keep the country's scientific satellite effort separate from its missile program. The Vanguard leaders can be excused for viewing the government's swift reversal of this position in the face of the Sputnik crisis as something short of an expression of faith in their endeavors. A further source of resentment lay in their conviction that the Army missile team had jumped the gun by preparing for a satellite shot years before getting authorization to do so. Apprised of this frequently advanced charge years later, former President Eisenhower expressed surprise, saying "but that would have been a court martial offense!" As for the men in charge of the rocket team at Huntsville, Medaris concedes that their feelings were ambivalent. "We were angry and frustrated," he writes, "at having our country so badly outmaneuvered. On the other hand, we were jubilant over the prospect of at last being allowed to get our own satellite off the ground."27
During November the Johnson subcommittee investigators in Washington completed their preliminary study, and Room 318 of the old Senate Office Building became the scene of a series of open hearings and executive sessions dealing with the country's satellite and missile problems. Hagen's appearance before the subcommittee in late November had its light moments. At one point the noisy grinding of the television cameras brought complaints from some of the senators: they were having trouble hearing the soft-spoken Project Vanguard director. Chairman Johnson told the cameramen to do their work more quietly or get out. At another point a bulb suddenly tumbling from the chandelier gave rise to an exchange of pleasantries relative to "these strange flying objects" everybody seemed to be seeing in the heavens these days. One question came up repeatedly: could the United States have beaten the U.S.S.R. into space if the government had given Project Vanguard a higher priority? Quite likely yes, was Hagen's reply, provided, he took care to add, the project had been given also the things that go with a higher priority, namely "men, materials, funds." When Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee grumbled that "Well, Congress has given you all the money you asked for," Hagen patiently pointed out that this was one of those cases of things looking better than they were. He reminded the senator that for almost two years all of Project Vanguard's money had come out of the Defense Secretary's emergency fund. "The procedure," he explained, "was that we would go to the Department with a... request for funds for the remainder of that particular year, and some months, it would be 2 or 3 months after the request [before] the funds would be forthcoming." Congress' recent action in authorizing 34.2 million dollars to carry Vanguard to completion constituted the project's single contribution from that source, and even it was not a direct appropriation to the satellite project. Apparently the senator from Tennessee found food for thought in Hagen's words. At a subsequent hearing he saw to it that the subcommittee record included the statement published in a national magazine by Clifford C. Furnas, formerly assistant secretary of defense for research and development, that from the beginning Project Vanguard was "stymied by the chronic monetary constipation of the Armed Forces wherever expenditures which they consider non-military are concerned. Money was squeezed from odd corners of the various military budgets, and we got all the help which the National Science Foundation could give us. But the funds were dribbled out in such a manner that work was often slowed up for weeks and months at a time."28
While worried statesmen on Capitol
Hill looked for answers to the country's space-age dilemma, the
Vanguard Operating Group at Cape Canaveral strained to fulfill
its commitment to put a payload in orbit before the end of 1957.
For the members of the field crew the happiest outcome of the
successful launching of TV-2 in late October was that it freed
them to concentrate on preparing their first complete test vehicle,
TV-3, for a flight test in December. The scheduled test of this
vehicle, which would carry a small payload equipped with a beacon
transmitter, would mark the first attempt to flight-test the second
stage, the highly advanced liquid-propellant rocket that Martin's
subcontractor, Aerojet General, had designed-and for many months
the Vanguard vehicle experts had been struggling with a problem
connected with the thrust chamber of the Aerojet rocket. To function
successfully in flight the second-stage thrust chamber had to
have a burning time in the neighborhood of 150 seconds, which
is to say it had to be able to fire that long over and above whatever
time it had been fired for testing purposes prior to flight. Static
tests conducted at the Aerojet plant in 1956 and 1957 showed that
in this connection a steel thrust chamber presented no difficulties.
Indeed the one steel chamber fabricated at the factory eventually
accumulated 600 seconds of firing time without any evidence of
erosion. Unfortunately a steel chamber raised a weight problem
beyond the capacity of the Aerojet engineers to solve in the limited
time at their disposal. To get around this they fabricated a series
of lightweight thrust chambers, using tubes of 5052 aluminum,
hand-welded and wrapped with stainless steel wire. The aluminum
chamber weighed twenty pounds less than the steel one, but during
the summer of 1957 test firings yielded discouraging results.
Four of the aluminum chambers developed internal leaks after 327,
240, 364, and 278 seconds of accumulated firing time respectively.
Jim Bridger, the Vanguard vehicle chief, and his colleagues viewed
a chamber lifetime of something less than 278 seconds as inadequate,
and instituted an intensive search for a coating capable of extending
the lifetime of the chamber, preferably to as much as 540 seconds.
This proved to be a time-consuming process. Weeks of experimenting
preceded the discovery that the application of a tungsten carbide
coating to the chamber walls was the best available answer to
the problem. In October the project managers ruled that beginning
with TV-5 all second-stage thrust chambers must be so treated.
Bridger would have liked to see a tungsten carbide-coated chamber
in the second stage of TV-3, but that called for more time than
Project Vanguard's accelerated post-Sputnik schedule permitted.
For TV-3 the field crew used a second-stage thrust chamber that
had been testfired for only 50 seconds; hopefully it would last
for another 150 seconds in flight-assuming that the first complete
Vanguard vehicle lifted off successfully.29
(GRAPHICS MISSING: Sketches of propulsion
systems for first and second stages of Vanguard.)
Compared with the difficulties the
Vanguard field crew had experienced in preparing TV-2 for launch,
those arising during the preparations of TV-3 were encouragingly
minor. On 11 October the vehicle arrived at Hanger S, the project's
permanent assembly building at the Air Force Missile Test Center.
Inspection revealed a crack in the second-stage engine. This problem
the Martin company took care of, promptly removing an engine from
another test vehicle and shipping it to the field. Early in November
TV-3 made the four-and-a-half-mile journey from Hangar S to launch
complex 18A. Static firings of the two lower stages, erection
of the vehicle on the launch stand, electrical system tests, instrumentation
system tests, other preflight operations-all proceeded smoothly.
The last weekend of the month found thousands of people converging
on Cape Canaveral, ostensibly to witness America's first attempt
to put an earth satellite in orbit, actually to watch the first
test of the vehicle designed to carry out this job. Hopefully
scheduled for Wednesday, 4 December, this test-as was true of
all similar operations during this early period of rocket technology-should
have been carried out in a quiet atmosphere. Unfortunately the
Presidential news release of the previous 9 October30
had been interpreted by the newspapers and then the public to
mean that this was indeed Project Vanguard's first serious launch
attempt. The fat was in the fire, and the field crew had no choice
but to proceed as though this was indeed a scheduled attempt to
launch a satellite. Before the weekend was over accommodations
had become hard to find in the sparsely settled Cape Canaveral
area, and local stores were out of binoculars. A New York Times
reporter provided his readers with a colorful picture of the
scene. "Last night from one of the coarse sandy beaches where
the 'bird watchers' of the missile age watch the Cape Canaveral
spectacles," he wrote on Sunday, the first day of December,
the Vanguard tower was clear against
a starry sky, two bright white lights glaring at its base and
a red beacon shining at its top. This morning the alternating
red and white horizontal stripes of the big crane stood out against
the chill morning. From the beach, the Vanguard crane is one of
a community of launching structures service towers, some taller,
some broader than others. But the Vanguard clearly has next billing
at the sprawling missile theater here
The audience includes
Project Vanguard officials and correspondents from as far as Europe.
For Florida the weather was disappointing. Sunday's temperatures were near freezing. Of greater concern to project officials were the wind velocities. These ranged from 20 to 30 mph. Field-manager Mazur and his staff could only hope for an improvement by Wednesday. According to NRL's aerodynamics specialists, a successful launching was unlikely in the presence of surface winds having a velocity in excess of 17 mph. Involved in these calculations was the "von Kármán effect," named for Theodore von Kármán, the scientist responsible for its formulation. The von Kármán effect refers to the tendency of air as it flows past an object and reaches the other side to curl or produce eddies. The eddies set up an oscillation that may be reinforced by the natural frequency of the structure. The effect of this on a rocket standing on a launch stand, especially after its service tower has been withdrawn some sixty minutes prior to flight, is a strong vibration with destructive possibilities. In an effort to minimize the von Kármán effect, Vanguard technicians equipped their seventy-two-foot vehicle with black rubber spoilers. These fin-like strips extended down the sides of the structure for about two thirds of its length. At the top of each was a protruding shoe, designed to catch downrushing air and strip off the spoilers at about a thousand feet altitude.31
Director Hagen was not among the project officials at the launch site. He remained in Washington, supervising activities in the Vanguard Control center at NRL. At the Cape his deputy, J. Paul Walsh, who was in charge of operations acted as project spokesman. On Monday he answered reporters' questions. One wished to know if the success or failure of the impending launch could be judged by whether or not the "baby moon" on the top of the vehicle went into orbit. "It depends on who's judging it," Walsh replied. "Don't misunderstand me. We'll be pleased if it goes into orbit. We'll not be despondent if it does not." The schedule called for the countdown to begin at 9 o'clock Tuesday evening, but satisfactory completion of some of the last-minute tests took more time than anticipated. It was 4:30 Wednesday morning, with giant searchlights bathing the rocket with a blue-white light, before the countdown began. At 10:30 that night, two holds and eighteen hours later, Mazur scrubbed the shot for three reasons: a frozen shutoff valve, fatigue on the part of his crew, and meteorological readings showing that winds in a jet stream located over the launching site had reached velocities considered marginal for flight firing.32
Wednesday night's cancellation of the initial attempt to launch TV-3 was followed by an announcement that the field crew would start another countdown late Thursday afternoon with liftoff scheduled for 8 a.m., Friday, 6 December. Speaking at a business meeting in Florida on Thursday, George S. Trimble, Jr., a Martin Company vice president, flatly asserted that the first complete Vanguard vehicle would not succeed in placing its payload in orbit. He based his prediction on "the prevailing mathematics of trial and error." According to these calculations three failures for every seven tries were normal in "this kind of testing experiment." At a news conference in Chicago on the same day the chairman of the IGY committee, Joseph Kaplan, was only a little more optimistic. Cautioning reporters about "risk of failure in tomorrow's shot," he assured them that before the end of the International Geophysical Year on 31 December 1958, the United States "will have a full-fledged earth satellite in orbit." These last-minute efforts to prepare the American people for the worst are of interest in view of the events of the next twenty-four hours.33
The second countdown began shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday, approximately on schedule, Shortly thereafter a long hold became necessary because of delays encountered in verifying the operations of the vehicle controls system. Subsequent holds were of short duration and of no significance. By 10:30 Friday morning the countdown had reached T-60 minutes, the beginning of the final and critical phase of the procedure. At this point the big gantry crane began its slow withdrawal, leaving the vehicle standing alone on its flight-launch structure. A weather check, ten minutes later, showed winds of 16 mph at pad level with gusts up to 22 mph. For later Vanguard flight tests, the Martin Company would design a retracting launch stand that permitted the vehicle to lift off in surface winds up to 35 mph; but on 6 December 1957 the original stationary stand was in use and Martin studies had fixed the allowable ground wind for liftoff at only 17 mph. In higher winds the engine nozzle, as it rose from the clearance hole in the platform of the stationary stand, might crash against the surrounding piping. At T-50 minutes, in short, weather conditions were touch-and-go, but otherwise all looked well. At T-45 minutes the electronics telemetering crew in the backroom of the blockhouse began receiving "all clear" signals from the stations of the radio tracking network. Photographers in the employ of Pan American Airlines, responsible for range servicing and general engineering, were busily immortalizing the occasion, snapping pictures of equipment and individuals. At T-30 minutes fierce blasts from the bullfiddle warning horn on the launch pad sent people scurrying from the area. Some retreated to their assigned posts in the blockhouse, others made off in their cars to safely distant points. At T-25 minutes the heavy blockhouse doors clanged shut. The air of tension generated by the busy occupants of the building edged upwards from high in the direction of unbearable. At T-19 minutes the blockhouse lights went out, the "No Smoking" sign blinked on. A report that surface winds were now "fifteen knots" brought a shrug from Dan Mazur. The figure was high, but the trend was downward. Indications were that by liftoff, the wind velocities would be acceptable. At T-5 minutes, propulsion-expert Kurt Stehling detected a "quaver" in the voice of his assistant, Bill Escher, who was counting off the minutes over the public address system. Five minutes later Escher changed the count to seconds. At T-45 seconds, the so-called "umbilical cords" that supply the rocket right up to liftoff began dropping away. At T-1 second test conductor Gray gave the command to fire and Paul Karpiscak, a young Martin engineer, flipped the toggle switch on his oblique instrument panel. In the crowded blockhouse control room all eyes were on the big windows overlooking the pad. Sparks at the base of the rocket signaled that the pyrotechnic igniter inside the first stage had kindled the beginning of the oxygen and kerosene fumes. With a howl the engine started, brilliant white flames swiftly filling the nozzle and building up below it as the vehicle lifted off. The time was 11:44.559 a.m. Two seconds later, a scream escaped someone in the blockhouse control room: "Look out! Oh God, no!" To Kurt Stehling, his gaze on the spectacle outside, it seemed "as if the gates of Hell had opened up." With a series of rumbles audible for miles around, the vehicle, having risen about four feet into the air, suddenly sank. Falling against the firing structure, fuel tanks rupturing as it did so, the rocket toppled to the ground on the northeast or ocean side of the structure in a roaring, rolling, ball-shaped volcano of flame. In the control room someone shouted "Duck!" Nearly everybody did. Then the firecontrol technician pulled the water deluge lever, loosing thousands of gallons of water onto the steaming wreckage outside, and everybody straightened up. The next voice to be heard in the room was that of Mazur, issuing orders: "O.K., clean up; let's get the next rocket ready." Already the stunned crew had taken in a startling fact. As TV-3 crashed into its bed of flame, the payload in its nosecone had leaped clear, landing apart from the rocket. The satellite's transmitters were still beeping, but the little sphere itself would turn out to be too damaged for reuse. It rests today in a file cabinet of the NASA Historical Archives, a battered reminder that "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/ Gang aft a-gley." At the Vanguard assembly building, four and a half miles northwest of the blockhouse, Paul Walsh was on the phone to Hagen. The open hangar doors gave him a view of the launching pad. At T-O, he passed on the news: "Zero, fire, first ignition." His next statement was a single word: "Explosion!" At the Washington end of the line, project director Hagen was equally succinct. "Nuts!" be said.34
All components of the first stage of the Vanguard vehicle had functioned in a "superior" fashion during the successful launching of TV-2 in October. What had gone wrong with those same components during the flight firing of TV-3? Did the fault lie in the first-stage engine, the X-405 liquid-propellant engine developed by GLM's subcontractor, General Electric? Or did it lie in the other major component of the stage, the tankage built by GLM itself? During TV-3's two seconds of life after liftoff, its onboard telemetry worked. Consequently the General Electric and GLM investigators had on hand a collection of telemetered data concerning the behavior of the rocket that Walsh described as "worth its weight in gold." They also had ground instrumentation records and a series of photographic films of the disaster. Technicians of the two companies studied these, and came up with different answers. The Martin people traced what they called an "improper engine start" directly to a low fuel tank pressure which was responsible for a low fuel injector pressure prior to the start of the turbopump operation. The low injector pressure allowed some of the burning contents of the thrust chamber to enter the fuel system through the injector head. According to this version of the accident, fire started in the fuel injector before liftoff, resulting in destruction of the injector and complete loss of thrust immediately after liftoff. The General Electric investigators dissented. They traced the immediate cause of the explosion to a loose connection in a fuel line above the engine. Their reading of the telemetered and photographic data was that there was no "improper start." On the contrary, the engine had come to full thrust, only to lose thrust when a little leaked fuel on top of a helium vent valve blew down on the engine.
In a remote sense the General Electric investigators held the Martin work crew at fault. They claimed that members of the crew had used the fuel lines as "ladders" while working on the vehicle; hence the loose connection. At a conference attended by representatives of the companies and NRL, Milton Rosen, the project technical director, cut short what gave signs of becoming a heated argument. Conceding unofficially that the cause appeared to be "indeterminate," Rosen said the Project managers would accept GLM's findings. Although GE continued to hold to its position, its spokesmen appreciated the wisdom of Rosen's decision under the circumstances. In the aftermath of the TV-3 catastrophe, the time pressures on Project Vanguard were too severe to permit the luxury of a protracted family quarrel. In accordance with a specification change negotiated with Martin, GE increased the minimum allowable fuel tank pressure head of its engine thirty percent, and provided for manual override of the regulator to assure that this condition could be met. Time would confirm the practicality of this procedure. In fourteen subsequent flight and static firings of the first stage, the engine as altered started without incident.35
These technical matters were of no
moment to the American people. A wave of outrage swept the country.
"Failure to launch test satellite," the New York
Times announced in big headlines, "assailed as blow
to U. S. prestige." Senator Lyndon B. Johnson spoke for millions
when he termed the situation "most humiliating." In
New York City, 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. On the morning after the explosion
sell-orders on Martin Company stock reached such proportions that
at 11:50 a.m. the governors of the New York Stock Exchange suspended
trading in it. When they permitted a resumption of trading at
l:23 p.m., the stock was at 36 3/8, off 1 3/8. At the end of trading
it was 35 1/2, off 2 1/4. In the words of Donald J. Markarian,
the Martin Company's project engineer, "Following the TV-3
explosion, Project Vanguard became the whipping boy for the hurt
pride of the American people." A few weeks after the event,
Markarian encountered trouble in getting a painter to do some
work at his Baltimore home. "Finally," the tall, dark,
broad-shouldered engineer would recall later, one of the men I
approached had the courtesy to level with me, 'To tell you the
truth, Mr. Markarian,' he said, 'I don't feel much like working
for anyone connected with Project Vanguard.' From the quantity
of criticism that came hurling at us, you'd have thought we had
committed treason." Here and there the voice of reason emerged.
To Detlev Bronk, president of the National Academy of Sciences,
President Eisenhower put a pertinent question. "Were we Americans
the first to discover penicillin?" he asked. "You know
the answer to that, Mr. President," was Bronk's reply. "And
did we kill ourselves because we didn't?" Eisenhower asked.
Bronk allowed that the President knew the answer to that too.
In a letter to Hagen, Vice President Nixon wrote that at "a
time when you have been 'catching it' from all sides, I want you
to know that I, for one, feel you should have every support
Keep up the good work." Senator William F. Knowland of California
pointed out that "Everyone understands we may have some failures
in these launchings. The Soviet Union may well have had a dozen
before they launched the first Sputnik." At a press conference
in Washington, Hagen rebuked the newspapers for "excessive
publicity." Murray Snyder, Assistant Secretary of Defense
for Public Affairs, said there was no excuse for the exaggerated
optimism with which reporters had covered events leading up to
the unfortunate launch. "The Department of Defense,"
he said, "exercised great restraint in its announcements,
stressing the fact that a preliminary test was involved and if
the test satellite was put into an orbit that would exceed the
purpose of the test." Reason, of course, had little popular
appeal for the time being. What Americans wanted was an answer
to the Russian Sputniks. With the failure of TV-3, Project Vanguard
had ceased to be their great white hope. By the end of the year
their attention was riveted on the efforts of the Army-JPL team
to prepare Jupiter C for a satellite-launching attempt, tentatively
scheduled for late January l958.36