"U.S. Moon Rocket Wrecked"
Under this dramatic but misleading headline, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported the launch failure of a Vanguard rocket carrying America's first satellite, the Vanguard TV3. Lyndon Baines Johnson, then Democratic Senator from Texas, declared it the "most humiliating failure in America's history." Project Vanguard did not aim for the Moon — rather it was the United States' first effort to place a satellite in orbit. In the wake of the launch of the Soviet Sputnik on October 4,Vanguard took on new, highly charged significance — as the American answer to the Communist challenge. As expressed by Johnson and others, Vanguard's failure seemed to signal further national shortcomings.
The deep symbolism of the failure led to the satellite's donation to the Smithsonian. As launch neared on December 6, the slim 22-meter (72-foot) Vanguard rocket stood on a Cape Canaveral pad, ready to orbit the TV3 satellite, a 16-centimeter (6.4-inch) aluminum sphere that looked, with its folded antennae, like a robotic daddy longlegs spider. The rocket started to rise on a cushion of fire and smoke, only to settle back after a few pitiful feet, crushing into the pad, and consuming itself in flames. The nose cone shroud split off from the disintegrating rocket. The satellite disgorged onto the tarmac, beeping as it fell. It was recovered after this spectacular explosion and eventually presented to John P. Hagen, the director of the Vanguard program. In the early 1970s, Hagen lent and then donated the crumpled satellite to the Museum, which dramatically exhibited it in the Apollo to the Moon gallery in 1976.The satellite sat in the outstretched hand of a statue of Uncle Sam as a symbol of how Vanguard's failure shaped American political resolve in the early space program.
Before the fall of 1957, TV3 seemed but one part of the growing interest in space exploration. In 1955, President Eisenhower announced that the United States planned to launch a small Earth-orbiting satellite as part of the country's participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a coordinated, multination scientific undertaking to study the Earth, from mid-1957 to mid-1958. The military services competed for the project, but the Navy's proposal-Vanguard-won out, based on the perception that it derived from peaceful civilian scientific technologies fostered at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).
The laboratory assumed responsibility for the project, with funding from the National Science Foundation. As part of the effort, NRL, based in Washington, D.C., built three prototype satellites for a series of test flights. Each satellite in the Test Vehicle (TV) series included a simple payload: seven mercury cell batteries, in a hermetically sealed container, two tracking radio transmitters, a temperature-sensitive crystal, and six rectangular clusters of solar cells on the surface of the sphere.
The Navy finally successfully launched a Vanguard satellite, TV4, in March 1958. Identical to TV3, the satellite achieved a stable orbit, and its radio continued to transmit until 1965. Tracking data from the satellite helped to improve knowledge of the shape of the Earth. In late 1958, the Vanguard program was transferred to the newly created NASA. The program drew to a close with the launch of Vanguard 3 in 1959.
Journalists, pundits, and historians have long debated the meaning of the Vanguard failure. Was it a "legitimate test failure," an "inexcusable example of over publicity," as a Christian Science Monitor reporter wondered immediately after the launch, or did it represent the United States' "most humiliating failure"? The TV3, dented and bent, brings to life these questions and the extreme pressures of the Cold War in the late 1950s.