United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program

Project Vanguard marked the first attempt by the United States to launch an artificial satellite into Earth orbit. Although remembered mostly for its spectacular failure just after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 program, Project Vanguard would successfully launch three satellites and contribute to the technology of satellite and launch-vehicle design, rocket propulsion, and satellite tracking and telemetry.

Summary of Event

In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions International Council of Scientific Unions proposed that the eighteen-month period from July, 1957, through December, 1958, be designated the International Geophysical Year International Geophysical Year (IGY), during which the nations of the world would conduct research spanning the range of earth sciences. Recognizing that developments in instrument miniaturization and rocket technology made it possible to observe Earth from space, the United States and the Soviet Union announced plans to orbit artificial satellites carrying research instruments during the IGY. Project Vanguard
Satellites, artificial;early experimental programs
Space program, U.S.;Project Vanguard
[kw]United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program (Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959)
[kw]Vanguard Satellite Program, United States Launches (Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959)
[kw]Satellite Program, United States Launches Vanguard (Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959)
Project Vanguard
Satellites, artificial;early experimental programs
Space program, U.S.;Project Vanguard
[g]North America;Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959: United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program[04950]
[g]United States;Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959: United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program[04950]
[c]Space and aviation;Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959: United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program[04950]
[c]Science and technology;Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959: United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program[04950]
[c]Engineering;Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959: United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program[04950]
[c]Communications and media;Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959: United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program[04950]
[c]Cold War;Sept. 9, 1955-Sept. 18, 1959: United States Launches Vanguard Satellite Program[04950]
Hagen, John P.
Markarian, Donald J.
Rosen, Milton W.

Vanguard explodes on the launch pad after losing thrust during a 1957 test launch.

(U.S. Navy)

For the satellite development and launch program, the U.S. Army proposed using a modified Redstone rocket, while the U.S. Air Force proposed using the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile, then under development. The U.S. Navy proposed an idea suggested by Milton W. Rosen, an engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory Naval Research Laboratory, U.S. (NRL), which was based on combining two high-altitude research rockets. In August, 1955, the U.S. Department of Defense selected the Navy’s proposal, which appeared most likely to succeed in launching a satellite before the end of the IGY and had the additional advantage that it would not interfere with developing missiles required for national defense because it would not use a military rocket. The NRL was given overall responsibility, with John P. Hagen named director and Rosen appointed technical director of the project. (Rosen’s wife suggested the name “Vanguard” for the project.) The NRL would design and build the satellites and establish Minitrack stations to collect the data. The Glenn L. Martin Company Glenn L. Martin Company received the contract to develop and manufacture the launch vehicle. A team led by Donald J. Markarian designed the rocket.

Beginning in 1946, the NRL had managed the Viking program Viking program to develop the high-altitude research rocket. Twelve Vikings, manufactured by Martin, were launched between 1949 and 1955. Vanguard would use a modified Martin Viking rocket Rockets as its first stage, an Aerojet Aerobee-Hi liquid-propellant rocket as its second stage, and a (new) solid-fueled third stage.

Vanguard would be nearly 73 feet tall, have a maximum diameter of 45 inches, weigh about 22,600 pounds at liftoff, and be capable of placing a 24-pound satellite into orbit. The original plan called for six Vanguard “test vehicles” (TV 0 through TV 5) that would be launched before production of six Vanguard satellite launch vehicles (SLV 1 through SLV 6). The first Vanguard test vehicle (TV 0) was a single-stage Viking rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on December 8, 1956, carrying the new Minitrack radio transmitter to test telemetry and tracking systems. The second rocket (TV 1) was a two-stage vehicle, combining the Viking first stage with the third stage. TV 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral on May 1, 1957, to test the stage-separation mechanism. Both tests were successful.

The third Vanguard (TV 2) was launched from Cape Canaveral on October 23. This rocket combined the first stage with inert second and third stages, the shape and weight of the actual rockets, to test the stage-separation mechanisms and the spin-up mechanism used to stabilize the third stage. The flight met all test objectives and reached an altitude of 109 miles.

Sputnik 1 Sputnik program , the first Earth-orbiting satellite—launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957—attracted worldwide attention and embarrassed the United States, which considered itself the world’s leader in technology. A small satellite that weighed 3.25 pounds was added to Vanguard TV 3 in response to the launch of Sputnik. Both the NRL and the Martin Company emphasized that the TV 3 mission was to be a test flight only, but the press viewed it as the first satellite launch by the United States. On December 6, TV 3 rose only a few feet into the air, then settled back onto the launch pad and exploded. The satellite detached and transmitted as it bounced along the ground. The press and the public viewed this failure as a major embarrassment—another one—for the U.S. space program.

Although the Army had been prohibited from launching satellites on Project Vanguard’s authorization, Sputnik 1 led to the prohibition’s reversal. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Army Ballistic Missile Agency, U.S. with the help of the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, quickly assembled a Jupiter-C rocket, which was based on the Redstone rocket, and launched a 31-pound satellite called Explorer 1 Explorer program on January 31, 1958. The Vanguard TV 3 backup vehicle (TV 3BU) was launched on February 5 carrying another small satellite, but the guidance system malfunctioned and the rocket broke up 57 seconds into the flight. Vanguard TV 4, launched on March 17, succeeded in placing Vanguard 1 into an elliptical orbit ranging from 406 to 2,465 miles. Vanguard 1 still orbits Earth. It is spherical in shape, just 6 inches in diameter, and weighs about 3.25 pounds. It carries radio transmitters and sensors that record the satellite’s temperature. Because of its high orbit, Vanguard 1 is expected to continue to circle Earth for more than two hundred years; its predecessors, Sputnik 1 and 2 and Explorer 1, fell to Earth quickly.

Vanguard TV 5, the last of the six planned test vehicles, was launched on April 28. The second-stage rocket shut down early, failing to place into orbit a 21-pound X-ray and environmental satellite. The first production version of the Vanguard rocket, SLV 1, was launched on May 27, carrying a satellite similar to the one destroyed on TV 5. Attitude-control problems caused the third stage to fire at an angle, making it impossible to achieve orbit. Both SLV 2, launched on June 26, and SLV 3, launched on September 26, failed because of problems with the second stage.

The civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration;Project Vanguard (NASA), created in October of 1958, took control of Project Vanguard. The first NASA-directed Vanguard flight was SLV 4, launched on February 17, 1959. It placed the world’s first weather observation satellite, Vanguard 2 (which weighed 23.7 pounds), into orbit. Vanguard SLV 5 was launched on April 13 and carried two satellites—one to monitor Earth’s magnetic field Earth, magnetic field of
Magnetic field of Earth and the second, an expandable sphere, to measure the drag of Earth’s atmosphere more accurately than was possible with smaller satellites. Vanguard SLV 6, launched on June 22, was designed to measure solar radiation and its reflection from Earth. Both SLV 5 and SLV 6 failed to reach orbit because of problems with the second stage.

NASA used the remaining backup vehicle, TV 4BU, in a final attempt to launch a third Vanguard satellite. The Vanguard 3 satellite, carrying a magnetometer, an X-ray device, and environmental measuring systems, was launched successfully on September 18. Although many launches had failed, Project Vanguard achieved most of its goals. The three satellites that were launched successfully provided new and significant geophysical, atmospheric, and environmental data.


Project Vanguard introduced much of the technology applied in subsequent U.S. satellite programs. For example, a battery-powered radio on Vanguard 1 transmitted for only about a month, until its battery failed, but a second transmitter powered by six solar cells, the first use of solar cells on a space mission, operated for more than six years. Radio and optical tracking of the Vanguard satellites provided valuable information on the structure of Earth’s atmosphere as their orbits were distorted by air drag. Tracking data showed that Earth is not perfectly spherical but “pear shaped,” with the narrower end at the North Pole.

Vanguard 2 was the world’s first weather satellite, using photocells that scanned Earth as the satellite rotated to measure the intensity of sunlight reflected from clouds and the ground. Although the experiment worked properly, data were poor because the satellite’s spin axis was not oriented correctly. Nonetheless, Vanguard 2 demonstrated that a satellite could monitor the weather, beginning an era when satellite images of cloud structure and movement could be used in daily weather forecasts.

Vanguard 3 carried a magnetometer that provided a comprehensive survey of Earth’s magnetic field. It also carried X-ray ionization detectors that measured the X-ray emission from the sun and micrometeoroid detectors that recorded impacts by dust particles from space.

Although the design of the Vanguard launch vehicle was based on two proven rockets, Viking and Aerobee, it was also highly innovative. Vanguard was the first large rocket to use gimballed engine nozzles, rather than fins, for stability; fins produced drag and therefore lessened the vehicle’s performance. The final Vanguard (TV 4BU) employed a new third stage, the Altair, which enabled the launching of a heavier payload. The combination of the Aerobee with the Altair was later used as an upper-stage combination for Thor Able and Atlas Able launch vehicles. Project Vanguard
Satellites, artificial;early experimental programs
Space program, U.S.;Project Vanguard

Further Reading

  • Bille, Matt, and Erika Lishock. The First Space Race: Launching the World’s First Satellites. Austin: University of Texas A&M Lightning Source Titles, 2004. A thorough history of the U.S. Army’s and Navy’s roles in launching the first U.S. satellites and of Project Vanguard.
  • Cadbury, Deborah. Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. An account of efforts to launch the first satellite and to send humans to the Moon. Although focusing on the two chief designers, Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, this 384-page history includes an excellent account of Project Vanguard.
  • Caidin, Martin. Vanguard! The Story of the First Man-Made Satellite. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1957. A 288-page account tracing the development of the instruments, tracking, and telemetry for the satellites and the Vanguard launch vehicle. Incomplete since it was published before the successful launching of Vanguard 1.
  • Green, Constance M., and Milton Lomask. Vanguard: A History. NASA Historical Series. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1970. This 308-page book traces the history of Project Vanguard from inception through completion. An appendix contains flight information for the Vanguard launches.
  • Parkinson, Claire L. Earth from Above: Using Color-Coded Satellite Images to Examine the Global Environment. Sausalito, Calif.: University Science Books, 1997. A book for general readers on how to read and interpret satellite images. Includes many maps, photographs, and fifty color satellite images.

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