On October 23, 1957, the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Vanguard program successfully tested a three-stage rocket designed to send an American Earth satellite into orbit. The recent launch of the Soviet Union’s rocket bearing the first Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, created a sense of urgency for the U.S. to catch up with their Cold War nemesis, and the original timetable for American satellite deployment was put on a fast track.
In 1955, the United States government announced plans to create and successfully place an Earth satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year, running from July, 1957 through December of 1958. Consequently, three branches of the armed services – the Army, Air Force, and Navy – all independently pursued their own rocket-development programs. The Army’s Redstone project and the Air Force’s Atlas ballistic missiles were military in nature and of a top priority. The NRL was always viewed more as a scientific organization and Vanguard was emphasized as a non-military project.
Two NRL program launches took place before October 23rd’s blast-off. TV-0, launched December 8, 1956, tested telemetry systems, and TV-1 on May 1, 1957, tested the separation and subsequent second-stage ignition capabilities of the two-stage rocket design. Several abortive attempts occurred over the summer of 1957, before TV-2 was able to test the 75 feet tall, 3.74 foot diameter, 22,156 pound, three-stage version. TV-2 successfully demonstrated Vanguard’s ability for first-second stage separation and “spin-up” of the third stage. Stages 1 and 2 were steered by gimbaled engines. The third stage was “spin-stabilized, the spin being imparted by a turn-table on the second stage before separation”. The engines worked, the turn-table worked, the telemetry and separation systems worked, but American rockets were still incapable of packing a satellite aboard.
Fast-tracking the Vanguard project in response to the threat posed by Sputnik resulted in disappointments and set-backs before achieving its ultimate goal. Next test reservation date for Cape Canaveral’s LC-18A pad would be December 6th. The suspense was mounting.