1955: The U.S. and U.S.S.R. Announce Satellite Programs

 

In 1950, Jim Van Allen had a party at his house. They discussed having an International Geophysical Year during the next solar maximum of 1957-58. The last surviving participant in the party, Fred Singer, died last year. On July 29th, 1955, the U.S. announced that it would launch a satellite during the IGY. Several days later the Soviet Union made a similar statement.

The U.S. set up the Stewart Committee to decide which proposal would be supported to launch a satellite. The major rivals were Milt Rosen from the Naval Research Laboratory and Wernher von Braun from the Army. On August 4th, 66 years ago, they selected the Navy proposal which became Project Vanguard. The Army protested and there were additional hearings which resulted in another vote in favor of Vanguard. My father worked on Vanguard;  he heard that von Braun thought that he “had it in the bag” and talked down to the committee. The Navy’s proposal was superior in its scientific aspects but the Army’s proposal required less development of the rocket. Milt said privately that, “They have a rocket and we don’t.”

Milt Rosen is standing far right in the 1954 photo. Wernher von Braun is seated in the front.

Milt and Sally Rosen in 2008. Sally came up with the name Project Vanguard.

Here’s part of the April 1955 proposal for Project Vanguard which mentions that satellites could be used for navigation. After the Soviets launched the first two satellites, the U.S. took a big lead in application satellites such as for weather, communication and navigation.

Here’s my father in the December 1957 National Geographic. His Vanguard 1 satellite carried the first solar cells into orbit and is the oldest satellite still in orbit.

My sister Joan and my father holding a test vehicle satellite.

Published in Science & Technology
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  1. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    So cool.

    • #1
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Very awesome and worth remembering. Thanks.

    • #2
  3. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    The solar cells on the test vehicle look to be about the same size as those on the post lights on my front steps. My lights were about $20 each. I wonder how much those satellite solar cells cost and what that would amount to in today’s dollars.

    I suppose that when the navy thought of using satellites for navigation that no one would have imagined that we would be navigating  across town in our cars using GPS.

    • #3
  4. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Richard Easton: The Navy’s proposal was superior in its scientific aspects but the Army’s proposal required less development of the rocket.

    I think that Vanguard was a Navy payload, launched on an Army rocket, from an Air Force facility. A joint effort.

    • #4
  5. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Richard Easton: The Navy’s proposal was superior in its scientific aspects but the Army’s proposal required less development of the rocket.

    I think that Vanguard was a Navy payload, launched on an Army rocket, from an Air Force facility. A joint effort.

    No – Vanguard used an upgraded Viking rocket as the first stage with new second and third stages. The Army used its own rocket to launch Explorer 1. Vanguard was launched from an Air Force facility. The Army Corp of Engineers built the Minitrack stations.

    • #5
  6. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Bishop Wash (View Comment):

    Richard Easton: The Navy’s proposal was superior in its scientific aspects but the Army’s proposal required less development of the rocket.

    I think that Vanguard was a Navy payload, launched on an Army rocket, from an Air Force facility. A joint effort.

    No – Vanguard used an upgraded Viking rocket as the first stage with new second and third stages. The Army used its own rocket to launch Explorer 1. Vanguard was launched from an Air Force facility. The Army Corp of Engineers built the Minitrack stations.

    I’m thinking of the first Space Test Program launch. When I was working there about fifteen years ago they had an anniversary celebration and told of the history. Their first launch ended up joint but not really by design. I thought STP had its roots all the way back there.

    • #6
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Richard Easton (View Comment):
    Vanguard was launched from an Air Force facility. The Army Corp of Engineers built the Minitrack stations.

    So it was a fully joint project, with a Naval system launched from Air Force facility with the blue suit side of the Army Corps of Engineers building the tracking stations, keeping tabs on not only our stuff but also the Soviets’ objects in space.

    • #7
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Sputnik has been treated as a national shock on a par with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and no doubt for most people it was, but with Pearl Harbor the Japanese didn’t publish their plans two years in advance, or announce their transmitter frequencies months in advance for the benefit of anyone who wanted to listen in. It’s a strange case of “everybody knew/nobody knew”.

    • #8
  9. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    Here are brief clips from the Vanguard 1 50th in 2008. That’s my wife and father at 15 seconds.

    https://youtu.be/pJQYd_Tt8Os

    • #9
  10. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    re Sputnik…according to the Russian rocket developer Boris Chertok, one of the drivers for the project was this:  they were having problems with the re-entry on their ballistic missile project…well, an earth satellite doesn’t *need* re-entry–maybe we should do this in the meantime!

    According to Chertok, they expected some minor PR benefit from the satellite project, but nothing like what actually happened.

    https://ricochet.com/683280/archives/book-review-rockets-and-people/

     

    • #10
  11. Richard Easton Coolidge
    Richard Easton
    @RichardEaston

    JoelB (View Comment):

    The solar cells on the test vehicle look to be about the same size as those on the post lights on my front steps. My lights were about $20 each. I wonder how much those satellite solar cells cost and what that would amount to in today’s dollars.

    I suppose that when the navy thought of using satellites for navigation that no one would have imagined that we would be navigating across town in our cars using GPS.

    My father talked about this in 2008 interview with Rick Sturdevant. Sturdevant wrote the foreword to my book GPS Declassified

    • #11
  12. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Such an awesome post, thank you!

    • #12