The End of Project Vanguard and the Beginning of the Space Age

 

March 17th is the 59th anniversary of the successful launch of Vanguard 1. It was the second satellite put into orbit by America and the fourth satellite overall (the first two were Soviet satellites). The Vanguard 1 satellite was designed by my Dad.

In 1950, a famous meeting in Jim Van Allen’s house eventually led to declaration of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) from 7/1/57-12/31/58. This built on the polar years of 1882-3 and 1932-3. These 18 months were expected to be a solar maximum and various research projects were pursued. In 1955, both the US and the Soviet Union announced that they would launch a satellite during the IGY. The Eisenhower administration established the Stewart Committee, led by Homer J. Stewart of the Jet Propulsion Lab, to decide who would receive funding for the American satellite program. All three services made proposals, but the Air Force was focused on developing the Atlas ICBM and did not make a serious effort. The Atlas project was led Karel (Charley) Bossart who later become a family friend.

Von Braun sitting, Rosen standing far right.

Both the Navy, led by Milt Rosen of the Naval Research Lab (NRL), and the Army, led by Wernher Von Braun, made serious proposals. My Dad co-wrote the Navy proposal which won the nod. Milt had led the Viking Rocket program which conducted upper atmospheric research. Von Braun could not believe that he lost and had a second hearing which did not change the decision. The Vanguard proposal was superior from a scientific perspective and that was the major criterion. In 1955, few were considering the propaganda coup launching the first satellite would be. Milt commented in private that the Army have a rocket and he didn’t. One thought was that what became known was Project Vanguard at NRL was selected in since it would not divert energy away from building ICBMs. Instead, the opposite occurred. Martin, the primary contractor for both Viking and Vanguard since Vanguard’s first stage was an upgraded Viking rocket, won a contract to work on the Titan ICBM. Many of its best engineers were transferred away from Vanguard. Thus, work on an ICBM slowed down Vanguard.

My Dad helped design the space tracking system for Vanguard called Minitrack which used radio waves from the satellite’s transmitters. Air Force Col. Asa Gibbs suggested that the Vanguard test launches carry a small satellite. The full IGY launches would carry a 20” satellite. The TV (test vehicle) satellite, also designed by my Dad, was 6” and weighed 3.5 pounds. In spite of its small size, it carried two transmitters one of which used solar cells for the first time in space. The solar powered transmitter worked for six years (battery powered ones lasted for weeks or at most month or two). It also used transistors. The transmitters were designed to vary slightly based on the temperature so they provided an estimate of it inside and outside the satellite.

On October 2nd, 1957, a memo was sent out that there would be no more paid overtime on Vanguard. Two days later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 and the memo was ignored. Suddenly the money spigot turned on. Marty Votaw, who worked for my Dad on the Vanguard 1 and Minitrack, recalled that Dad called him on the evening of October 4th. It was the first time Marty had had guests for dinner in a long time. Dad said, “The Soviets have launched a satellite.” “Good, it proves it can be done”, Marty replied. “You don’t understand, we have to modify Minitrack to track it” [Sputnik 1 transmitted on 20 and 40 MHZ whereas the IGY specified frequency was 108 MHz]. Dad said. “Can I finish dinner first”, Marty asked. “Yes, but get here right afterwards.” They worked for three days straight and successfully modified the tracking system.

A month later, Sputnik 2 carried a dog into orbit to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Pressure on the Eisenhower Administration was intense. They announced that the first three stage Vanguard test would launch a satellite. That astounded the Vanguard scientists and engineers who thought it unlikely to be a full success. At the 75th anniversary of NRL in 1998, Milt Rosen said that he had no confidence that TV-3 would work since basic safeguards were bypassed given the time pressure. Dad said that they got three good rockets from Martin and successfully launched three satellites into orbit. Marty Votaw stated that they became prisoners of the time schedule. If it said that a rocket would be shipped to the cape on Day X, it was shipped on Day X rather than being fixed at the factory which was much easier. TV-3 lifted three feet off the pad and blew up on national TV. It was dubbed Flopnik. But the satellite survived and Dad put if back into its wood box, bought a seat for it, and carried it onto the plane back to DC. It sat in our house overnight and is now in the National Air and Space Museum. I told the story to Dava Sobel and she wondered what TSA would make of a passenger carrying a satellite on a commercial flight..

Marty Votaw and my Dad with TV-3.

In January, 1958, the Army launch Explorer 1 into orbit. On St. Patrick’s Dad, Vanguard had the luck of the Irish and TV-4 was renamed Vanguard 1 with its successful launch. A week or two before this, Dad brought the Vanguard 1 satellite home for some family pictures.

I’m wearing the red coat in first six seconds of this video.

Milt and Sally Rosen, March 2008.
Vanguard 50th with my wife.

NASA was established effective 10/1/1958. Most of the NRL people who were working on Vanguard transferred to NASA but Dad stayed at NRL where he invented the obscure system known as GPS (some in the Air Force disagree about this).

I met Milt and Sally Rosen in 2009. Sally said that they were in Paris when Sputnik 1 was launched. Their Parisian friends wondered when the Soviets would fire an ICBM at Paris. In 2008, many NRL people met for the 50th celebration of Vanguard 1. Alas, few of them are still with us.

Suggested further reading:

The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites by Matthew A. Bille and Erika Lishock – wonderful book

and of course, you won’t get away without my mentioning my own book.

http://www.gpsdeclassified.com

Jim Lovell holding a fine tome.

There are 24 comments.

  1. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    Here I am on the Space Show with my Dad discussing the early space program. The first six minutes of the program are announcements.

    http://www.thespaceshow.com/show/28-sep-2008/broadcast-1025-special-edition

    • #1
    • March 8, 2017, at 4:19 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. Boss Mongo Member

    Outstanding. Thank you, Mr. Easton. Haven’t read your book yet–but it’s in the queue. Every time I read about the titans that initiated and grew the space program (in all its facets), I’m both proud and humbled.

    • #2
    • March 8, 2017, at 5:39 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  3. Crazy Horse Inactive

    Richard, this is a triumph. Thank you for investing such diligent work and personal family history to make this tboiroughly enjoyable read. Hands down the best one this month. Fantastic.

    • #3
    • March 8, 2017, at 6:20 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Rapporteur Inactive

    Wow. It’s hard to conceive of a scientist picking up the remains of a satellite, taking it home, and then flying it to DC. It was a different age.

    Thanks for enlightening all of us.

    • #4
    • March 8, 2017, at 6:58 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    JLock (View Comment):
    Richard, this is a triumph.

    I’m making a note here: huge success.

    (Couldn’t help myself).

    • #5
    • March 8, 2017, at 7:00 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. RightAngles Member

    Wow! Quite a family history. We used to make Sputniks out of Play Doh with toothpicks sticking out of it.

    • #6
    • March 8, 2017, at 7:20 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  7. Boss Mongo Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Wow! Quite a family history. We used to make Sputniks out of Play Doh with toothpicks sticking out of it.

    Could you please stop being so technical, ma’am? We’re talking about science, not doing science.

    • #7
    • March 8, 2017, at 7:26 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  8. RightAngles Member

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Wow! Quite a family history. We used to make Sputniks out of Play Doh with toothpicks sticking out of it.

    Could you please stop being so technical, ma’am? We’re talking about science, not doing science.

    Oh sorry, I forget how all my extra IQ points can intimidate.

    • #8
    • March 8, 2017, at 7:32 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  9. The Reticulator Member

    I remember where I was when I heard about Sputnik in orbit, just like I remember where I was when I heard that JFK was shot, etc. Rev. Carl Pullman was describing it to my dad in our living room. We didn’t have TV, but he was using hand gestures to describe it. I had just turned 9.

    It’s good to hear some of the back stories. Thanks.

    • #9
    • March 8, 2017, at 8:21 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  10. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    John Hagen was the head of Project Vanguard. At the 50th anniversary, his son commented that he was upset when Explorer became the first American satellite. His Dad said don’t be upset, it’s a good thing that we have an American satellite in orbit. Just like I have a letter from an Aerospace engineer who worked on putting an Aerospace transmitter on NTS-2. Aerospace and NRL were rivals, yet he was welcomed and made to feel like he was part of the NRL team. There are a couple of funny stories about attempts to synchronize systems which went wrong in an amusing way.

    • #10
    • March 8, 2017, at 8:33 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  11. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    Great post!

    • #11
    • March 9, 2017, at 1:54 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  12. Eb Snider Member

    Interesting historical info from someone with a personal connection to it. Something to be proud of. Thanks.

    Dad said, “The Soviets have launched a satellite.” “Good, it proves it can be done”, Marty replied.

    I like Marty’s attitude here. He didn’t freak out and focused on what they were doing. I always had a fascination in the early space programs and in aviation development period.

    I also believe that Sputnik in the long run did more for the USA than it ever did for Russians. Yes, Russia could say they were the first and it was a ‘proof of concept’, but Sputnik helped focus the USA on technological development and encouraged the fueling of a ton of research. Today we live with the benefits of the technology derived from this period and institutional support for science & tech in the USA. My father had the opportunity to get support in research when he worked on his PhD and obtained the opportunity to do some additional supported research. I call the Sputnik generation.

    • #12
    • March 9, 2017, at 3:50 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  13. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    Eb Snider (View Comment):

    Dad said, “The Soviets have launched a satellite.” “Good, it proves it can be done”, Marty replied.

    I like Marty’s attitude here. He didn’t freak out and focused on what they were doing. I always had a fascination in the early space programs and in aviation development period.

    I also believe that Sputnik in the long run did more for the USA than it ever did for Russians. Yes, Russia could say they were the first and it was a ‘proof of concept’, but Sputnik helped focus the USA on technological development and encouraged the fueling of a ton of research. Today we live with the benefits of the technology derived from this period and institutional support for science & tech in the USA. My father had the opportunity to get support in research when he worked on his PhD and obtained the opportunity to do some additional supported research. I call the Sputnik generation.

    You honed in on a critical question. What would have happened if von Braun had been allowed to launch a satellite in September, 1956. We can’t know, but it’s likely that there would have been less fierce competition in space. There was a proposal to launch a Navy satellite on von Braun’s rocket. We almost certainly would have beaten the Russians. But it’s unlikely we would have landed on the Moon in 1969.

    • #13
    • March 9, 2017, at 3:58 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  14. tigerlily Member

    Great post as usual Richard! I really enjoy your historical review of the early days of space exploration.

    • #14
    • March 9, 2017, at 4:53 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  15. John Stanley Coolidge

    By the Russians going first, they set a standard of “overflight” in space. This would prove to be useful in deploying spy satellites.

    • #15
    • March 9, 2017, at 6:48 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    John Stanley (View Comment):
    By the Russians going first, they set a standard of “overflight” in space. This would prove to be useful in deploying spy satellites.

    Marty Votaw may have been the first person to leave NASA. He joined it with most of the Vanguard veterans but soon returned to NRL. He designed the GRAB satellite which could be called the first spy satellite. It was an ELINT not a photography satellite. I’ll post some links and pictures when I get home.

    • #16
    • March 10, 2017, at 10:55 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    Here are some details about GRAB:

    Shrouded in secrecy for nearly 40 years, SOLRAD-I also shared the first U.S. Navy electronic intelligence (ELINT) instrumentation for Cold War reconnaissance. The project was originally called “Tattletale,” but was renamed the Galactic Radiation and Background satellite system, or GRAB, to conceal its purpose from the Soviets. Having successfully developed and installed radar detectors on submarine periscopes, NRL scientist Reid Meyo of the Countermeasures Branch developed the idea that the success of his submarine periscope antenna could function equally well in orbit aboard a satellite.

    NCST designed and built the GRAB satellite (shown mounted atop the Transit IIA satellite) and a network of overseas data collection facilities. The launch was approved by President Eisenhower in May 1960, just four days after a CIA U-2 aircraft was lost on a reconnaissance mission over Soviet territory.

    The GRAB receivers were used clandestinely to catalogue the waveforms and pulse repetition frequencies of Soviet air defense radars. The data was recorded on magnetic tape and couriered back to the NRL, then evaluated, duplicated, and forwarded to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland and the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Neb., for analysis.

    https://www.nrl.navy.mil/media/news-releases/2011/nrl-center-for-space-technology-reaches-century-mark-in-orbiting-spacecraft-launches

    Here’s Marty with GRAB.

    • #17
    • March 10, 2017, at 8:59 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  18. Grosseteste Member

    This is a great post, thanks for taking the time to assemble this for us, including the pictures and video. The museum box really emphasizes the size factor here (i.e., small).


    This conversation is part of a Group Writing series with the theme “Endings”, planned for the whole month of March. If you follow this link, there’s more information about Group Writing. The schedule is updated to include links to the other conversations for the month as they are posted. Please sign up for an open date!

    • #18
    • March 10, 2017, at 9:13 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  19. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    I’m back in Illinois and found a few more pictures. Here’s one I posted previously from April, 1957.

    Note my Dad and Marty Votaw in the back left. George Ludwig second row right built the instruments for Jim Van Allen (of the VA belts).

    Here are the four panelists from the Vanguard 50th. L-R Dad, Dr. John Townsend, Alton E. Jones and Marty Votaw. Dr. Townsend was at the Soviet embassy in DC on October 4, 1957 when Sputnik’s launch was announced.

    Space pioneers 3/18/2008 – George Ludwig is standing just to the right of the Vanguard 1 rocket.

    • #19
    • March 11, 2017, at 6:22 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  20. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    I hope that people don’t mind some more details about the 50th. I found my notes and here’s part of Dad’s presentation (due to word count, it will be in a couple of posts).

    He first described an unrelated example. The 1919 solar eclipse verified Einstein’s relativity. A golfing expert, Henry Crouch, wrote in the New York Times that Einstein was writing a book on relativity which only 12 people could understand. The only problem with his account was that all of his facts were wrong: Einstein was not writing a book and Relativity was well understood by physicists. This story is from David Bodanis’s book E=mc^2 as summarized in a 2002 Discover magazine article. He then cited an article in the October, 2007 issue of Physics World (UK) which contained several serious errors. His letter to the editor is as follows:

    • #20
    • March 13, 2017, at 10:18 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    After spending some months with you and Mr. Chalmers on the article on Global Navigation I was surprised to find a number of errors in Mr. Corfield’s article titled, “Sputnik’s Legacy.” In the first paragraph the article states about the Vanguard that: “The satellite it had contained-a hastily put together contraption of wires and circuitry designed only to send a radio signal back to Earth-rolled a few feet across the launch pad beeping forlornly.” This statement demonstrates real ignorance of the satellite’s origin. For the Vanguard satellite was developed over several years-it was put together carefully using the best techniques of the time. Its transistors were of the latest Bell Laboratories/Western Electric design. We have pictures of the units, if anyone would like to see the design. 

    Rather than one transmitter, it had two and the two crystal-controlled oscillators with crystals cut so their frequencies depended on the temperatures they experienced. One crystal measured the temperature of the satellite shell and one, the internal package. This design is described more fully in an article in The Review of Scientific Instruments for February, 1959. This description also describes the solar panels used to power one of the transmitters for about 6 years.

    • #21
    • March 13, 2017, at 10:19 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  22. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    The reason that Vanguard was selected over the Army’s Explorer I for the IGY was that the Vanguard proposal was superior and actually had a scientific purpose: namely, to locate islands in the Pacific where the local verticals are displaced. The Explorer proposal by Dr. von Braun mentioned upper air research but did not delineate what research or how it would be conducted.

    As Mr. Corfield states, the explosion of Dec. 8, 1957 should “be considered a routine hazard of flight-testing.” New technology naturally is not proven technology. The attempted launch was not a complete loss since the satellite worked despite the explosion of the rocket. Explorer I was successful in part because it used Vanguard transistors and a transmitter. In fact Explorer I could have been launched without Vanguard technology but there would have been no signal to tell anyone that it was in orbit. The Explorer II launch did not go according to plan in that the fourth stage did not fire so the satellite did not achieve orbit. No one has ever called this set-back a disaster.

    How do I know these things? I proposed the design of the Vanguard 1 satellite and supervised its construction after Dr. John Hagen approved my proposal.

    • #22
    • March 13, 2017, at 10:22 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  23. Richard Easton Member
    Richard Easton Post author

    I spent a lot of time teasing Marty Votaw at dinner after the celebration about the incorrect description of the TV-3 satellite:

    “The satellite it had contained-a hastily put together contraption of wires and circuitry designed only to send a radio signal back to Earth-rolled a few feet across the launch pad beeping forlornly.”

    Geeze, I told him, what where you doing putting together a hastily put together contraption of wires and circuitry designed only to send a radio signal back to Earth. He laughed heartily and we had a grand time at dinner.

    • #23
    • March 13, 2017, at 10:26 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  24. Boss Mongo Member

    That is awesome. Thank you, Mr. Easton.

    • #24
    • March 13, 2017, at 2:16 PM PDT
    • Like