International Geophysical Year

October 23, 1957 – Vanguard’s TV-2 Launched From Cape Canaveral

Vanguard Rocket Launch. Photo: United States Navy

On October 23, 1957, the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Vanguard program successfully tested a three-stage rocket designed to send an American Earth satellite into orbit.  The recent launch of the Soviet Union’s rocket bearing the first Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, created a sense of urgency for the U.S. to catch up with their Cold War nemesis, and the original timetable for American satellite deployment was put on a fast track.

In 1955, the United States government announced plans to create and successfully place an Earth satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year, running from July, 1957 through December of 1958.  Consequently, three branches of the armed services – the Army, Air Force, and Navy – all independently pursued their own rocket-development programs.  The Army’s Redstone project and the Air Force’s Atlas ballistic missiles were military in nature and of a top priority.  The NRL was always viewed more as a scientific organization and Vanguard was emphasized as a non-military project.

Two NRL program launches took place before October 23rd’s blast-off.  TV-0, launched December 8, 1956, tested telemetry systems, and TV-1 on May 1, 1957, tested the separation and subsequent second-stage ignition capabilities of the two-stage rocket design.  Several abortive attempts occurred over the summer of 1957, before TV-2 was able to test the 75 feet tall, 3.74 foot diameter, 22,156 pound, three-stage version.  TV-2 successfully demonstrated Vanguard’s ability for first-second stage separation and “spin-up” of the third stage.  Stages 1 and 2 were steered by gimbaled engines.  The third stage was “spin-stabilized, the spin being imparted by a turn-table on the second stage before separation”.  The engines worked, the turn-table worked, the telemetry and separation systems worked, but American rockets were still incapable of packing a satellite aboard.

Fast-tracking the Vanguard project in response to the threat posed by Sputnik resulted in disappointments and set-backs before achieving its ultimate goal.  Next test reservation date for Cape Canaveral’s LC-18A pad would be December 6th.  The suspense was mounting.

October 4, 1957 – Soviets Launch Sputnik 1

Sputnik 1. Photo: NASA


On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union upped the ante in the Space Race with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite.  Blasted through the atmosphere from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard a two-stage R-7 rocket, Sputnik 1 was a 23-inch diameter, 184 pound, aluminum-magnesium-titanium sheathed sphere with two whip-like antennae.  Powered by silver-zinc batteries, it entered a low, elliptical orbit emitting a radio signal which could be received on Earth by both Soviet scientists and the curious (and highly-alarmed) American public.  Sputnik traveled 18,000 miles per hour, completing an Earth-orbit every 96 minutes.  Radio transmissions continued for 22 days, until transmitter batteries were exhausted.  The history-making satellite spent 3 months in orbit, traveling a total of 37 million miles, before burning up in atmospheric reentry on January 4, 1958.

While not able to conduct as many experiments as the Soviets had initially hoped, Sputnik was able to gather information during its three-month run concerning the density of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, radio-signal distribution in the ionosphere, and meteoroid detection by penetration of the satellite’s outer hull.

The successful launch of an artificial satellite was one of the primary goals of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), inaugurated on July 1, 1957.  The Soviets had first proposed developing such a satellite on May 27, 1954, and President Dwight Eisenhower announced on July 29, 1955 that the United States would send their own version of the technological achievement into space during the IGY.  But Sputnik took America and its government by surprise.  Americans now had to take Soviet scientific abilities much more seriously.  A sense of vulnerability to attack led to panic reactions by the public, as they listened in to Sputnik’s ominous “beep-beep” when it passed directly overhead.  The US government responded with renewed commitment to scientific and technological research, and military and educational program revamping and investment.  ICBMs, missile defense systems, and satellites were all placed on a developmental fast-track.  After several failed attempts, the United States’ first successful launch of its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, occurred on January 31, 1958.

Numerous references to Sputnik in movies, television shows, and pop songs have made the term part of the American cultural landscape.  Replicas and models of the satellite can be found at the United Nations, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and the Science Museum in London.