Dec. 6, 1957: Space Age Pearl Harbor?

 

In 1955, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced that they would launch a satellite during the International Geophysical Year (IGY 7/57-12/58). The Naval Research Lab won the competition with Wernher von Braun and the Army to launch the first American satellite. My father co-wrote NRL’s proposal and worked on Project Vanguard’s Mintrack system to track the satellite and designed the small test vehicle satellite which was to be used in the early Vanguard launches.

On October 4, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 which was the first human-made satellite. It has been called the shock of the century. A month later Sputnik 2 put the first living mammal, the dog Laika, into space. There was increasing pressure on the White House which announced that Vanguard TV-3 would launch the first American satellite. That surprised the Vanguard people since it was the first test with all three stages live and they thought it was unlikely to work perfectly.

The result was an explosion on December 6 about four feet off the pad which was dubbed Flopnik. The unfortunate fact that the next day was the 16th anniversary of Pearl Harbor added to the angst.

One of the people in the blockhouse, Alton Jones recounted in 2008:

We were in the blockhouse, a bunch of us, of course, and there were communication trenches that went out to the rocket. We powered the equipment directly from the blockhouse. The power supply was in the blockhouse and we had lines. And incidentally, we had quite a bit to do with the range because they had set 600 feet as being the minimum distance, which I think I figured out was based on the pushover site at White Sands. In the pushover site at White Sands, they pushed it over, let the propellants mix and then ignited it, and that simulated carrier deck just got blown all to pieces down there. But anyway, we were still stuck with, I think it was, 200 feet. We had been having some trouble, so the trench covers, which were heavy metal, had been removed and, for some reason, they were not replaced before the firing. If that rocket had come the other way, we would’ve been killed and I wouldn’t be sitting here today. The other part of that story is, after these events, we realized we didn’t have any air packs. There was no emergency air in the blockhouse. Of course, a lot of things changed by the time we tried it again.

My father in a 1996 interview told the tale of what happened to the TV-3 payload.

James Tugman:  I’d like to hear about an anecdote. Hear your side of the anecdote. The launch prior to successful test vehicle four was in March. This launch that was launched prior was televised, and it was a fiasco because the rocket launched, went up a few feet, and fell back down on itself in a fiery explosion. The anecdote has it that the satellite itself parted from its launch vehicle, rolled on the ground somewhere, and was later picked up by someone who said it was transmitting.

Easton:  We took it back up. I guess it went to the Smithsonian. We took it back up. I remember I had it in the kitchen.

I discussed this four years ago on the John Batchelor Show. Here’s TV-3 at the National Air and Space Museum with a picture of my father and his colleague Marty Votaw examining it in 2008.

My sister Joan and father with a test vehicle satellite (National Geographic picture).

The Army put up Explorer 1 on January 31st, 1958. Vanguard 1 was launched on March 17, 1958. I’m wearing the red coat next to it.

Vanguardians talked about it in 2008.

Published in Science & Technology
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  1. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    “Flopnik” haha  We used to make Sputniks by sticking toothpicks into balls of Play Doh

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  2. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    The Russians announced their projects after they were successful. We took our lumps in public.

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  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    As a young kid I was aware of these flops, and that they came in for a lot of criticism.  I wasn’t worried. I knew our side would figure it out in time. Same when the Russians beat us to sending the first guy into space. 

    Where I got those ideas and that kind of confidence at that age, I don’t know. (I had just turned 9 when Sputnik launched.)  It wasn’t something we ever discussed at home.  I probably learned about the criticisms and controversies at school, but I’m not sure of that, either. 

     

    • #3
  4. Quietpi Member
    Quietpi
    @Quietpi

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    As a young kid I was aware of these flops, and that they came in for a lot of criticism. I wasn’t worried. I knew our side would figure it out in time. Same when the Russians beat us to sending the first guy into space.

    Where I got those ideas and that kind of confidence at that age, I don’t know. (I had just turned 9 when Sputnik launched.) It wasn’t something we ever discussed at home. I probably learned about the criticisms and controversies at school, but I’m not sure of that, either.

     

    I was 10 years old when Explorer 1 was launched.  I remember knowing at the time that all Sputnik did was fly around transmitting beeps.   Already intrigued by radio communication all it could bring, I was unimpressed.  Explorer 1 actually measured some things and transmitted the data.  

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  5. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    The first few chapters of “Ambassadors from Earth” are a detailed history of Dr. Van Allen, who was on a ship in the Pacific launching sounding rockets into the ionosphere when Sputnik happened. He and two of his grad students calculated Sputnik’s orbit by observing how the Navy guy in the radio shack had to adjust his tuning to keep the signal as it passed overhead.

    I narrated “Ambassadors from Earth” early last year and it remains one of my favorite books. Among other things it describes the Eureka moment when a grad student at JPL looked at some numbers and realized that a spacecraft could visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune with gravity-assist “slingshot” maneuvers. Then he had to get someone to pay attention to the idea. Ultimately we got Voyager, one of which passed within 500 miles of Neptune in order to image its moon.

    As with most of my audiobooks, I have review copies to give away, and would be delighted to share them with Ricochet members. If you want a copy of “Ambassadors from Earth,” @richardeaston‘s excellent “GPS Declassified” or one of my other books, send me a message here and I’ll slip you a freebie or two.

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

    Heres a 4/57 photo taken at NRL. Jim Van Allen is in the first row. My father is in the 4th row far left.

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    The first few chapters of “Ambassadors from Earth” are a detailed history of Dr. Van Allen, who was on a ship in the Pacific launching sounding rockets into the ionosphere when Sputnik happened. He and two of his grad students calculated Sputnik’s orbit by observing how the Navy guy in the radio shack had to adjust his tuning to keep the signal as it passed overhead.

    I narrated “Ambassadors from Earth” early last year and it remains one of my favorite books.

     That was a good one to listen to.

     

     

    • #7
  8. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    What extraordinary timing. My novel, Crazy Red Moon, has just gone up on Amazon. It is set in October, 1957, and Sputnik appears in it! Not history and not serious lit, it’s a cozy-ish mystery (a.k.a. a bit of fluff.) 

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  9. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Actually, the Russians probably did us a favor by launching Sputnik, jolting us out of any smugness about our technological superiority before it resulted in any real harm to us.

    Sort of as if the Japanese had, a year before Pearl Harbor, conducted a major airshow to show off the capabilities of their aircraft and pilot and had invited everybody to come.

    • #9
  10. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    As Bob Hope observed:  Sputnik didn’t prove much. Only that the Russian German rocket scientists were better than the American German rocket scientists. See “Operation Paperclip”

    • #10
  11. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Actually, the Russians probably did us a favor by launching Sputnik, jolting us out of any smugness about our technological superiority before it resulted in any real harm to us.

    Sort of as if the Japanese had, a year before Pearl Harbor, conducted a major airshow to show off the capabilities of their aircraft and pilot and had invited everybody to come.

    In the book I just finished recording, “A Long Journey to the Moon” about Apollo 17 astronaut Ron Evans (launched today, btw) Evans and Cernan both express the opinion that Kennedy saw great value in setting up a way of competing with Soviet Russia that didn’t involve warfare. They raise the interesting question of whether there might have been a nuclear exchange without Apollo.

    • #11
  12. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Actually, the Russians probably did us a favor by launching Sputnik, jolting us out of any smugness about our technological superiority before it resulted in any real harm to us.

    Sort of as if the Japanese had, a year before Pearl Harbor, conducted a major airshow to show off the capabilities of their aircraft and pilot and had invited everybody to come.

    No one could have predicted it at the time. but Apollo was a strong economic driver that produced whole new industries and management techniques. There is a RAND study that Apollo returned $6 to the economy for every $1 spent on it.

    I only wish we could take the money spent on stupid things, like industrial wind “farms,” and put it toward projects like Hubble and the JWST.

    • #12