The Great Race

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1st Lieutenant
May 30, 2011
Cape Canaveral
Today is the 65th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1. Few people realize that in reality Sputnik 1 was a failure.

Both the USA and the USSR were going to send up the first artificial Earth satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year, a period of increased studies of the Earth's characteristics that a number of nations participated in. The US chose to launch its satellite, Vanguard, a satellite built by the US Naval Research Laboratory, on a new rocket named Viking. The US Army's Jupiter IRBM, while still not very close to the final configuration in which it would be produced as a weapon system, could have done the job. Why Jupiter was not chosen is not clear; one explanation is that the Eisenhower Admin did not want the space research effort to interfere with vitally important ballistic missile development. A more reasonable explanation is that it "just so happened" that Viking gave the US ARMY, the US Air Force and now the US Navy its own rocket program, an approach that the Denizens of DC consistently decry as wasteful while duplicating it every damn chance they get.

Of course Viking did not have the advantage of the years of liquid rocket engine development that went into the USAF Navaho program and that then flowed directly into the Atlas, Thor, and Jupiter programs. The Viking rocket used a different engine, built by General Electric, that was still quite new and untested.

As the Vanguard launch date approached, the USSR was in a panic. They wanted to beat the USA into orbit but the sophisticated IGY satellite being built by Lavochkin was not ready. So they cobbled together a small satellite with some batteries and a radio transmitter and launched it on the SS-6 Sapwood ICBM. Not carrying a heavier satellite or a warhead enabled them to throw the entire core vehicle into orbit, which made the Soviet achievement visible from the ground. But the fact was, the IGY objectives were not met and the satellite itself was practically useless from the scientific, IGY, standpoint.

The Vanguard satellite was launched on the Viking rocket on 6 Dec 1957; it failed, falling back onto the launch pad and exploding. Now desperate to match the Soviets, a Jupiter IRBM prototype was combined with a cluster of experimental solid AA rockets and it successfully launched the first US satellite, Explorer 1, on 31 Jan 1958. But while not the first satellite, Explorer 1 was a scientific triumph. making one of the most important discoveries, the Van Allen Radiation Belts.

And we were off to the races! Actual success was secondary to public perception.

By the way, after 2 more failures the Viking rocket finally achieved success on its 4th launch. That is the same number that SpaceX required to attain a launch success, too.
Sputnik 1 was launched in October 1957 by the Soviet Union in order to some extent gain a propaganda one-up against the United States, it wasn't really required to make many scientific investigations. It is generally considered a huge propaganda coup by the Soviet Union and a great success. Some scientific data was in any case gained during Sputnik's flight.
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