65 Years Ago – US is Humiliated in its First Attempt to Launch a Satellite into Orbit

Posted by Guy Pirro   12/10/2022 10:03AM

65 Years Ago – US is Humiliated in its First Attempt to Launch a Satellite into Orbit

The Vanguard rocket explodes on the launch pad shortly after liftoff on the first attempt by the US to place a satellite into orbit on December 6, 1957. During 1955, the US committed itself to placing a satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which ran from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958.  The Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard rocket was chosen to perform the launch as it was derived from a sounding rocket (Viking) used for scientific purposes, as opposed to a military ballistic missile. After Vanguard’s failure, the US turned to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), an agency within the US Army dedicated to missile development. Explorer I was eventually launched on January 31, 1958 by the ABMA in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). (Image Credit:  NASA)


65 Years Ago – US is Humiliated in its First Attempt to Launch a Satellite into Orbit

The Vanguard launch vehicle was selected by the US for its first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit around the Earth as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). The USSR had already launched two Sputnik satellites, with one carrying a dog into orbit, as the US prepared for its first attempt. The program was designed to test the launch capabilities of a three-stage Vanguard launch vehicle and study the effects of the environment on the Vanguard satellite and its systems in Earth orbit. It also was to be used to study micro-meteor impacts.

On December 6, 1957 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Vanguard booster ignited, but about 2 seconds after liftoff, after rising about four feet, the rocket lost thrust and began to crash back down onto the launch pad. As it sank into the launch pad, the fuel tanks ruptured and exploded, destroying the rocket and severely damaging the launch pad. The Vanguard satellite was thrown clear and landed on the ground a short distance away with its transmitters still sending out a beacon signal as it rolled across the ground. Today it is now on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

The exact cause of the accident was never determined. Presumably it was due to a fuel leak between the fuel tank and the rocket engine, possibly due to a loose connection in a fuel line or low fuel pump inlet pressure allowing some of the burning fuel in the thrust chamber to leak back into the fuel tank.



By 10:30 on Friday morning, December 6, 1957, the countdown for the launch of Vanguard had reached T-60 minutes - the beginning of the final and critical phase of the procedure. At this point the big gantry crane began its slow withdrawal, leaving the vehicle standing alone on its flight-launch structure. A weather check, ten minutes later, showed winds of 16 mph at pad level with gusts up to 22 mph. For later Vanguard flight tests, the Martin Company (builders of the rocket) would design a retracting launch stand that permitted the vehicle to lift off in surface winds up to 35 mph, but on that day, the original stationary stand was in use and Martin studies had fixed the allowable ground wind for liftoff at only 17 mph. In higher winds the engine nozzle, as it rose from the clearance hole in the platform of the stationary stand, might crash against the surrounding piping.

At T-50 minutes, weather conditions were touch-and-go, but otherwise all looked well. At T-45 minutes the electronics telemetry crew in the backroom of the blockhouse began receiving "all clear" signals from the stations of the radio tracking network. At T-30 minutes fierce blasts from the bullhorn warning system on the launch pad sent people scurrying from the area. Some retreated to their assigned posts in the blockhouse, others made off in their cars to safe distant points.

At T-25 minutes the heavy blockhouse doors clanged shut and tension was high. At T-19 minutes the blockhouse lights went out and the "No Smoking" sign blinked on. At T-45 seconds, the so-called "umbilical cords" that supply the rocket right up to liftoff began dropping away. At T-1 second the command to fire was given and an engineer flipped the main toggle switch.

In the crowded blockhouse control room all eyes were on the big windows overlooking the pad. Sparks at the base of the rocket signaled that the pyrotechnic igniter inside the first stage had kindled the beginning of the oxygen and kerosene propellants. With a howl, the engine started. Brilliant white flames swiftly filled the nozzle as the vehicle lifted off. The time was 11:44.59 a.m.

The rocket achieved an altitude of… 4 feet. Then all hell broke loose.

Two seconds later, someone in the blockhouse control room screamed out: "Look out! Oh God, no!" As those in the blockhouse gazed on the spectacle outside, it seemed "as if the gates of Hell had opened up." With a series of rumbles audible for miles around, the vehicle, having risen about four feet into the air, suddenly sank. Falling into the firing structure, the fuel tanks ruptured and the rocket toppled to the ground in a roaring, rolling, ball-shaped volcano of flame.

In the control room someone shouted "Duck!" Nearly everybody did. Then the fire-control technician pulled the water deluge lever, expelling thousands of gallons of water onto the steaming wreckage outside, and everybody straightened up. The next voice to be heard in the room was that of Dan Mazur, the Field-manager, issuing orders: "OK, clean up; let's get the next rocket ready." Already the stunned crew had taken in a startling fact. As Vanguard crashed into its bed of flame, the payload in its nosecone had leaped clear, landing apart from the rocket. The satellite's transmitters were still beeping, but the little sphere itself would turn out to be too damaged for reuse.

A wave of outrage swept the country. "Failure to launch test satellite," the New York Times announced in big headlines, "assailed as blow to US prestige."

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson spoke for millions when he termed the situation "most humiliating."

In New York City, members of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations sarcastically asked American delegates if the United States would be interested in receiving aid under USSR's program of technical assistance for backward nations.

On the morning after the explosion sell-orders on Martin Company stock reached such proportions that at 11:50 a.m. the governors of the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading in it. In the words of Donald J. Markarian, the Martin Company's project engineer, "Following the explosion, Project Vanguard became the whipping boy for the hurt pride of the American people."

But by the end of the year, America’s attention was riveted on the efforts of the Army-JPL team to prepare Jupiter-C for an Explorer I satellite-launch attempt, tentatively scheduled for late January l958.


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