‘Kaputnik’: America’s Disastrous First Attempt to Launch a Satellite

On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface and uttered the immortal words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” While five more Apollo crews would land on the moon over the next three years, for many that moment marked the triumphant end of the Space Race, which over the previous twelve years had pitted the United States’ scientific and industrial might against that of its arch-rival the Soviet Union. But while the Soviets never managed to match Apollo and launch their own manned lunar missions, the Space Race was not always so one-sided. Indeed, for the first several years of the Space Age the Soviets always seemed to be one step ahead, with the Americans constantly on the back foot and scrambling to keep up. And no single event epitomizes these desperate early days like Project Vanguard, the United States’ ill-fated first attempt to launch a satellite.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, into low-earth orbit. Though little more than a 58-centimetre-diameter aluminium sphere with two radio transmitters and four antennas broadcasting a steady pulsing signal, the satellite was nonetheless a stunning technical achievement –  and one which filled the Western world with a mounting sense of dread. For if the R7 rocket that launched Sputnik could carry a satellite into orbit, it could also carry a nuclear warhead – and drop it on any point on the globe. The Cold War had just taken on a terrifying new dimension.

But while Sputnik is commonly remembered as having taken the United States completely by surprise and triggered a national panic, the truth of the matter is rather more complicated. In fact, upon hearing news of the Soviet satellite, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower actually breathed a sigh of relief. Worried that a lack of reliable military intelligence would cause both superpowers to stockpile dangerous amounts of weapons, Eisenhower had proposed an ‘Open Skies’ policy whereby the United States would be allowed to conduct reconnaissance overflights of the Soviet Union and vice versa in order to keep an eye on each others’ military strength. The Soviets, however, flatly rejected the proposal, not least because at the time they possessed no means of overflying the continental United States. But as a nation’s airspace extends all the way out of the atmosphere, Eisenhower saw the launch of Sputnik – which passed over the United States several times a day – as the Soviets setting a precedent for open skies. This in turn encouraged the president to approve further overflights of the Soviet Union using the high-flying Lockheed U-2 spy plane. Unable to admit this ulterior motive, however, Eisenhower allowed himself to be portrayed by the media as an out-of-touch old man asleep at the wheel, as in a whimsical poem composed by Michigan Governor G. Mennan Williams:

Oh little Sputnik, flying high

With made-in-Moscow beep,

You tell the world it’s a Commie sky,

And Uncle Sam’s asleep

 You say on fairway and on rough,

The Kremlin knows it all,

We hope our golfer knows enough

To get us on the ball

Also contrary to popular belief, the launch of Sputnik was not entirely unexpected, nor was the United States completely unprepared to answer the challenge. In fact, a U.S. satellite program had been in the works for several years, with one of the first, Project Orbiter, being proposed in 1954 by a small team from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The leader of this team was none other than Dr. Wernher von Braun, who during the Second World War had led the development of the Nazi V-2 rocket, the world’s first operational ballistic missile, around 3,000 of which were launched against London and other Allied targets. Since the age of 16, von Braun had been obsessed with the dream of launching a satellite – and eventually humans – into space – so much so, in fact, that in 1944 he was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks by the Gestapo on the grounds that his work on the V-2 was focused more on his own spacefaring goals than the defence of the Third Reich. At the end of the war von Braun and many of his colleagues were captured by American forces, and under Operation Paperclip had their Nazi pasts expunged before being brought to the United States. There, building on their wartime experience, they developed the PGM-11 Redstone, essentially a larger, modernized V-2 and America’s first nuclear ballistic missile.

For Project Orbiter, von Braun proposed modifying a Redstone by elongating the propellant tanks and adding three additional solid-fuel rocket stages to create a vehicle he called Jupiter-C, which would theoretically be able to carry a small satellite into orbit. In order to come up with a suitable scientific payload for the satellite, von Braun asked his chief scientist, Ernst Stuhlinger, to find a “Nobel-level” scientist specializing in high-altitude physics. Stuhlinger immediately recommended Dr. James Van Allen of the University of Iowa, with whom he had worked on high-altitude cosmic ray research using captured V-2 rockets in the late 1940s. Using weather balloons and small research rockets, van Allen had discovered unusually high concentrations of cosmic radiation at high altitudes, and theorized that charged particles from the sun were being trapped and concentrated by the earth’s magnetic field into large belts of radiation. But without some means of reaching above the earth’s atmosphere, he could not confirm his theory. So van Allen readily agreed to von Braun’s proposal, and on January 26, 1956 at a symposium at the University of Michigan laid out the Army’s plan to develop and launch a small scientific satellite. Meanwhile, von Braun and his team developed the Jupiter C under the cover of an Army program to test the re-entry characteristics of ballistic missile nosecones. The first test flight, using only two additional rocket stages, took place on November 16, 1956, the rocket reaching an altitude of 1000 kilometres. Had the planned third stage been added it would have entered earth orbit, but von Braun was forbidden by the Pentagon to make the attempt.

But as luck would have it, world events had just provided the Army project with a legitimate reason for existing. In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions announced the International Geophysical Year or IGY, an 18-month period lasting from 1957 to 1958 during which teams from 67 countries would collaborate on experiments in meteorology, oceanography, seismology, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, and other earth sciences. On July 29, 1955, James C. Hagerty, President Eisenhower’s press secretary, announced that as part of the IGY, the United States would launch a small satellite into orbit. Four days later, at an Astronautical conference in Copenhagen, Soviet scientist Leonid I. Sedov announced that the Soviet Union would also be orbiting a satellite in the “near future.” Nonetheless, Eisenhower emphasized that the U.S. satellite program was being undertaken in the spirit of international scientific cooperation and not as a competition with other nations. And in any case, few in the United States believed that the Soviet Union – viewed by many as a primitive backwater – actually possessed the technical know-how to deliver on their promise. So the U.S. program proceeded at a leisurely, unworried pace.

But by now von Braun was not alone in his bid to launch a satellite; the U.S. Navy was also developing its own competing program called Project Vanguard. The task of deciding who would make the attempt fell to the Ad Hoc Committee on Special Capabilities lead by U.S. Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson. Despite the Army already possessing a proven launcher, on September 9, 1955, the Committee announced it had chosen Project Vanguard over Project Orbiter to launch the United States’ first satellite. The decision was an entirely political one. Given the ostensibly peaceful civilian nature of the IGY satellite project, President Eisenhower believed that using an Army rocket would appear too aggressive and wished to, according to Dr. Van Allen: “…avoid revealing the propulsive capability of the United States [and] alarming foreign nations with the realization that a U.S. satellite was flying over their territories.”

Tying in to Eisenhower’s desire for open skies, it was believed that the Soviets might not object to a civilian research satellite overflying their territory, setting a precedent for future military overflights. Plus there was the awkward fact that the Army’s Redstone rocket had been developed by, well, literal Nazis. By contrast, the Vanguard rocket, while developed by the Navy, had been assembled entirely from components of civilian rockets designed for peaceful research. On August 3, 1955, Project Orbiter was officially canceled. Undaunted, von Braun attempted to convince the Navy to use the Jupiter C instead of its unproven Vanguard, even offering to write “Vanguard” in big letters on the side of the rocket. But the Navy turned him down, and von Braun contented himself with setting aside a complete Jupiter C rocket in case it was ever needed, under the guise of performing an experiment on the long-term storage of missiles.

With Project Orbiter now on ice, Dr. Van Allen wasted no time in jumping ship to Project Vanguard and proposing his cosmic ray experiment for the Navy’s satellite. But so small was the Vanguard rocket’s maximum payload that there was no room for Van Allen’s radiation detector or any other scientific instruments. Instead, the spherical, 15-centimetre-diameter Vanguard satellite carried only two 108-MHz radio tracking transmitters powered by batteries and solar cells, as well as two thermometers to monitor the satellite’s internal temperature. The spacecraft’s diminutive size was widely mocked by the Soviets, with Premier Nikita Khrushchev referring to it as “the grapefruit satellite.”

In spite of rumours that the Soviets were making swift progress on their own satellite project, work on Vanguard carried on at a steady pace, with the first suborbital test of the rocket’s first stage, TV-0, taking place on December 8, 1956. This was followed by the two-stage TV-1 test on May 1, 1957. In June of 1957 the Soviet press announced the radio frequency on which their first satellite would broadcast its signals, but once again few in the United States paid much attention. Vanguard TV-2, the first suborbital test of all three rocket stages, was scheduled for September of that year, but technical problems resulted in significant delays.

Then, on October 4, 1957, while TV-2 was still on the launch pad, the Soviets announced that Sputnik 1 was in orbit. The news sent shockwaves through American society, with many wondering how the supposedly backwards Soviets could have accomplished such a stunning feat. One U.S. General, referring to von Braun and his team in Huntsville, supposedly exclaimed “we captured the wrong Germans!” Vanguard TV-2 was successfully launched on October 23, 1957, but this accomplishment was immediately eclipsed on November 3 when the Soviets launched yet another satellite, Sputnik 2, into orbit. But this time, the spacecraft had a passenger: an 3-year-old Moscow street dog named Laika – the first living creature to orbit the earth.

With American military and scientific prestige at an all-time low, the formerly peaceful and scientific Project Vanguard suddenly took on new urgency as the United States’ last hope of answering the Soviet threat. While the engineers had originally planned to use a dummy satellite for TV-3, the first all-up orbital flight, under intense pressure from the American press they reluctantly agreed to install the genuine flight article. Finally, on December 6, 1957, two months after the epoch-making launch of Sputnik 1, the countdown for Vanguard TV-3 began at Cape Canaveral in Florida. At 4:33 PM Greenwich Mean Time the countdown reached zero, the first stage booster ignited, and the pencil-like rocket roared off the launch pad.

Then, disaster. A mere two seconds after liftoff, the engines suddenly cut out. Then, in front of millions of Americans watching on live television, Vanguard TV-3 fell back onto the pad and exploded into a giant fireball. The tiny Vanguard satellite was thrown clear of the explosion, and in a scene witnesses described as “pathetic,” the satellite, lying bent and broken on the concrete, began transmitting its tracking signal as  if it had successfully reached orbit.

The press had a field day with the disaster, headlines variously referring to to Vanguard as “Flopnik,” “Dudnik,” “Oopsnik,” “Stayputnik,” and “Kaputnik.” The Soviet Union also joined in the mockery, with a Soviet delegate to the United Nations offering the United States financial aid from a fund reserved for “undeveloped countries.” The cause of the launch failure was never fully determined due to a lack of proper instrumentation, with engineers variously pointing to low fuel pressure or a loose fuel connection. But whatever the cause, the damage was done: the United States’ sense of technological superiority had been shattered. Yet America was not out of the game just yet, for thanks to Wernher von Braun’s foresight she still had an ace up her sleeve. In the wake of the Sputnik Crisis, on October 9, 1957 Secretary of Defense Wilson resigned and was replaced by Neil H. McElroy. One month later McElroy authorized Redstone Arsenal to revive Project Orbiter.

It was the moment von Braun and his team had been waiting for. The Jupiter C – now known as Juno I – was pulled from storage and fitted with a third stage and a small 14kg satellite called Explorer I, which among other scientific instruments carried Dr. James Van Allen’s cosmic ray detector. On March 17, 1958, Explorer I roared off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral and became the first U.S. satellite to enter orbit. While only the third satellite to be launched after Sputnik 1 and 2, Explorer I made up for its tardiness by becoming the first spacecraft to make a major scientific discovery in orbit. Readings from its onboard instruments confirmed the existence of large belts of trapped radiation girdling the earth, now known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

To the American public, however, the launch of Explorer I meant only one thing: America was finally back in the Space Race. But it would be a hard road to the stars, for on May 15, 1958 the Soviets launched Sputnik 3, a massive satellite a thousand times heavier than Explorer I. This would be followed by a long string of Soviet space firsts, including the first spacecraft to reach the Moon, the first spacecraft to take pictures of the far side of the moon, the first animals to be safely recovered from orbit, the first man in space, the first planetary flyby, and the first man to make a spacewalk. It would not be until 1965 during Project Gemini that the Americans finally exceeded the Soviets in manned spaceflight capability – a lead they would carry all the way to the moon.

And despite being the poster child for America’s early failures in space exploration, the much-maligned Project Vanguard may have gotten the last laugh. On March 17, 1958, three months after the embarrassing TV-3 disaster, Vanguard I was successfully launched into orbit. It remains the oldest man-made object still in space, Sputnik 1 having decayed from orbit in January 1958, Sputnik 2 in April 1958, and Explorer I in March 1970. And while its radios stopped transmitting long ago, Vanguard I is still actively tracked by radar, the shape of its orbit used to map the earth’s gravitational field. It is expected to remain in orbit for another 1000 years, a lonely relic of the heavy and uncertain days at the dawn of the Space Age.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

 Over the years, a number of common myths and misconceptions have grown up around Sputnik and the early days of the Space Race. For instance, after Sputnik was launched, many people claimed to be able to see the satellite with the naked eye as it passed overhead. However, given the small size of Sputnik this is unlikely; what people were actually seeing was the much larger upper stage of the R-7 rocket that launched Sputnik and which entered orbit alongside it.

Another commonly reported fact is that the steady beeping signal transmitted by Sputnik conveyed no telemetry information and was simply used to track the satellite. But this is not quite true; encoded in the pulses was data from a sensor which monitored the pressure inside the satellite’s body. This was essential, as a leak would have caused the satellite to fail. Soviet avionics were based on vacuum tubes rather than transistors and could not operate in a vacuum, so Sputnik’s body was filled with nitrogen gas and sealed shut. While somewhat bulky and crude compared to American transistorized systems, the Soviets would continue to use this unusual arrangement for years. For example, when Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man to take a spacewalk on March 18, 1965, he had to exit through an inflatable airlock attached to the Voskhod 2 spacecraft’s hatch because the cabin could not be depressurized without causing the avionics to overheat. This in turn lead to the mission being plagued with problems as both the airlock and Leonov’s spacesuit ballooned in the vacuum of space, preventing him from fitting back through the hatch. Leonov had to partially deflate his suit, risking the Bends, before he was able to climb back aboard.

Another mission shrouded in myth and misconception is Sputnik 2 – especially regarding the ultimate fate of its passenger, the dog Laika. Following the success of Sputnik 1, the Soviet Politburo urged the space program’s chief designer, Sergei Korolev, to design and launch another satellite in time for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in early November. This tight deadline left no time to design a recovery system, meaning that from beginning Laika was destined to die in orbit. Indeed, the satellite’s designers even placed a poison pellet in Laika’s food dispenser to euthanize her at the conclusion of the mission. Early Soviet reports variously claimed that Laika had died of oxygen deprivation or been euthanized after four days in space, but more modern sources indicate that she died mere hours after reaching orbit, the victim of heat exhaustion caused by a faulty cabin thermostat. It would not be until the Sputnik 5 mission on August 20, 1960 that living creatures – the dogs Belka and Strelka – would be recovered safely from orbit.

But perhaps the greatest myth of the early Space Race is that the Soviets enjoyed success after success while the American program was plagued with endless mistakes and failures. However, this notion is largely the result of the very different way in which the American and Soviet space programs were organized. The establishment of NASA as a civilian government agency meant that the U.S. space program was from its inception an open and transparent undertaking. This meant, however, that both failures and successes would take place in full view of the public. The Soviet space program, by contrast, was run by the military and carried out under the strictest of secrecy, with few details being revealed even to the Soviet people. Missions were not announced until after they had launched, and cosmonauts’ names were not even revealed until they had reached orbit. To the outside world this gave the impression of an unbroken string of unqualified successes, when in reality the failed missions were simply not reported. And there were a lot of failed missions. For example, 23 of the 59 R-7 rocket launches conducted between May 1957 and February 1961 were unsuccessful – a failure rate of 39% and comparable to that of the closest American equivalent, the SM-65 Atlas missile. This is not to say that Soviet achievements in space were not impressive or important; only that they should be evaluated in the context of the secrecy and propaganda that pervaded the depths of the Cold War.

Expand for References

Swenson, Lloyd; Grimwood, James & Alexander, Charles, This New Ocean, NASA History Series, 1989, https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4201/toc.htm

Ludwig, George, The First Explorer Satellites, October 9, 2004, http://www-pw.physics.uiowa.edu/van90/ExplorerSatellites_LudwigOct2004.pdf

Vanguard – a History, NASA History Series, https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4202/toc2.html

Ackmann, Martha, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight, Random House, 2003

Berger, Eric, The First Creature in Space Was a Dog. She Died Miserably 60 Years Ago, Are Technica, November 3, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20171201182453/https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/11/sixty-years-ago-the-first-creature-went-into-space-a-stray-moscow-dog/

Share the Knowledge! FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Enjoy this article? Join over 50,000 Subscribers getting our FREE Daily Knowledge and Weekly Wrap newsletters:

Subscribe Me To:  | 

One comment

  • What Armstrong actually said was “That’s one small step for *A* man…” Radio transmission made that difficult to hear.

    It makes no sense the way you quoted it.