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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