Watching the Space Race: A Pratfall to the Stars

by Walter Staples
This is tagged as Vanguard 2.  Couldn't find Vanguard 1 photo. --Karina

The scene on the little Admiral portable TV was a graded mixture of grays punctuated by details of black and grayish white given a greenish cast by the sunglasses I wore. The bedroom itself was dim with the shades drawn that Friday forenoon. Why sunglasses in a darken room? I was down with a case of the German measles and Dr. Greer at the clinic said it was the only way I could watch TV.

It had been a lousy fall so far. In the Shenandoah Valley, it seemed to be raining constantly, even when it wasn't. There was no iron work for my father. According to him, it was President Eisenhower’s fault somehow—being six, going on seven, the reasons were kind of beyond me—something to do with Stevenson losing the year before. My birthday a few days before Thanksgiving had been okay, but this year my father failed to get a deer. But the very worst happened in the early parts of October and November—the Soviets had put not one, but two Sputniks into orbit! The second even carried a dog named Laika (the adults were careful not to mention to us kids that hers was a one-way trip). But today it was all going to turn around. About noon, Eastern time, America was launching her first satellite!

The Vanguard rocket on the screen looked more like a #2 pencil than a proper rocket like those flown by Rocky Jones: Space Ranger and Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. It lacked the streamlined bullet shape and flaring tail fins ending in landing shocks that anyone who'd watched “Destination Moon” knew were required for a true spaceship. But Vanguard was going work in spite of its lack. We knew it would. Best of all, it wasn't a war rocket like the Reds had used—it was civilian through and through (at that age, it didn't really occur to us kids to wonder why the Navy was building and launching a civilian rocket).

The TV broadcast cut into the countdown. I called to my mother, in the other room, that they were going to launch the rocket. In return, I received a, “That's nice, dear.” I shrugged. The ways of adults are many and strange. The countdown progressed, “...T-minus ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-zero-Fire.” And fire it did. A great boiling ball of flame engulfed the lower half of the rocket, which fell over as its nose cone came off, and totally disappeared in a larger fireball. Time stopped. Apparently, the TV announcer was frozen just as was I. His silence stretched.

I don't remember what came next that soggy 6th of December in 1957. It didn't really matter anymore.


Project Vanguard was one of three programs in the running to loft the first American satellite. The Army was pushing its Explorer program to launch using a modified Redstone ballistic missile. The Air Force was pitching a program using their as then unbuilt Atlas missile. The Navy's Vanguard used an outgrowth of an atmospheric sounding rocket, the Viking. As the White House was unsure just how the Soviets were going to react to an American satellite passing overhead every 90-some minutes, it was decided to go for a launch system without the merest hint of military development in its linage. Vanguard got the nod as the least warlike.

The mission of Vanguard TV3 (or, as we knew it at the time, Vanguard I) was three-fold officially: Put a satellite in orbit for the International Geophysical Year, do at least one experiment while in orbit, and be successfully tracked from the ground while in orbit. Its unofficial mission was to ameliorate our looking like fools before the world.

The reaction of the American public, once it got over its collective cringe at Vanguard's failure live on TV within the 48 U.S. states (our ability to make fools of ourselves live on TV broadcast all over the world would come later with Telstar—a event five years in the future), was a combination of wry humor and a determination to get it right next time.

The gallows humor took the form of jokes such as:

            “How does a Cape Canaveral countdown go?”
            “...5-4-3-2-1-oh, hell!”

Even in the 1961 movie comedy “One, Two, Three,” an East German character when asked why he wants to build rockets for the Russians answers, “Because with Russian rocket, Mars! Venus! Jupiter! With American rocket, Miami Beach!”

The determination to succeed was signaled when concerns about the launch vehicle's bloodlines were cast to the winds and Wernher von Braun and the Army came up to bat.

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Kaye Jeffreys said...

“How does a Cape Canaveral countdown go?”
“...5-4-3-2-1-oh, hell!”

Never heard this bit of history before. I had no idea the Russians were that far ahead of us. It wasn't well covered in the history books nor mentioned when I watched a manned launch back in the first grade.

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