Vanguard TV-3

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Vanguard TV3
Vanguard tv3.gif
Vanguard TV3 satellite.
Mission typeEarth science
OperatorNaval Research Laboratory
Spacecraft properties
ManufacturerNRL / Bell Laboratories
Launch mass1.36 kilograms (3.0 lb)[1]
Start of mission
Launch dateDecember 6, 1957, 16:44:34 (1957-12-06UTC16:44:34Z) UTC
RocketVanguard TV3
Launch siteCape Canaveral LC-18A
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeMedium Earth
Perigee altitude654 kilometers (406 mi)
Apogee altitude3,969 kilometers (2,466 mi)
Period134.2 minutes

Vanguard TV3, also called Vanguard Test Vehicle Three was the first attempt of the United States to launch a satellite into orbit around the Earth, after the successful Soviet launches of Sputnik 1 and 2. Vanguard TV3 was a small satellite designed to test the launch capabilities of the three-stage Vanguard and study the effects of the environment on a satellite and its systems in Earth orbit. It was also to be used to obtain geodetic measurements through orbit analysis. Solar cells on Vanguard TV3 were manufactured by Bell Laboratories.

At its launch attempt on December 6, 1957, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the booster ignited and began to rise, but about two seconds after liftoff, after rising about four feet (1.2 m), the rocket lost thrust and fell back to the launch pad. As it settled the fuel tanks ruptured and exploded, destroying the rocket and severely damaging the launch pad. The Vanguard 1A satellite was thrown clear and landed on the ground a short distance away with its transmitters still sending out a beacon signal. The satellite was damaged, however, and could not be reused. It is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.[1]

The exact cause of the accident was not determined with certainty, but it appeared that the fuel system malfunctioned. Other engines of the same model were modified and did not fail.

Satellite construction project[edit]

The Vanguard rocket explodes on launch.
A team of Vanguard I scientists mount a Vanguard I satellite in the rocket nosecone.

The history of the Vanguard TV3 project dates back to the International Geophysical Year (IGY). This was an enthusiastic international undertaking that united scientists globally to conduct planet-wide geophysical studies. The IGY guaranteed free exchange of information acquired through scientific observation which led to many important discoveries in the future.[2] Orbiting a satellite became one of the main goals of the IGY. As early as July 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced, through his press secretary, that the United States would launch "small, unmanned, earth-circling satellites as part of the U.S. participation in the I.G.Y." [3] On September 9, 1955, the United States Department of Defense wrote a letter to the secretary of the Navy authorizing the mission to proceed. The US Navy had been assigned the task of launching Vanguard satellites as part of the program. Project Vanguard had officially begun.[4]

Satellite design[edit]

TV3 satellite on display at the National Air and Space Museum, 2009

The payload of the TV3 was very similar to the later Vanguard 1. It was a small aluminium sphere, 15.2 cm (6.0 in) in diameter and with a mass of 1.36 kg (3.0 lb). It carried two transmitters: a 10-mW, 108-MHz transmitter powered by a mercury battery, and a 5-mW, 108.03-MHz transmitter powered by six solar cells mounted on the body of the spacecraft. Using six small aerial antennae mounted on its body, the satellite primarily transmitted engineering and telemetry data, but the transmitters were also used to determine the total electron content between the satellite and the ground stations. Other instruments in the satellite's design included two thermistors, which were used to measure the satellite's internal temperatures for the purpose of tracking its thermal protection's effectiveness. Although the satellite was damaged beyond reuse capability during the crash, it was still transmitting after the incident.[1]

Launch vehicle design[edit]

The Vanguard TV3 utilized a three-stage launch vehicle known as the Vanguard designed to send the satellite into orbit around the earth. The fins were removed from the rocket as a way to reduce the drag and instead, the launch motor was mounted in gimbals which allowed it to pivot and direct its thrust for steering. The second and third stages of the rocket were also gimballed.[5]

The first stage caused the rocket to rise under the thrust of burning liquid oxygen, ethanol, gasoline and silicone oil which propelled the vehicle to a velocity of 4,000 mph (6,400 km/h), lifting the satellite through the denser layers of the atmosphere in 130 seconds. Next the second stage burned its fuel carrying it away from the stage one motor and tanks. The satellite rose to an altitude of 300 miles (480 km) above the earth. The flight path had been programmed to tilt from a vertical into a more horizontal course. Then, the third stage took over to provide spin and the final boost, shoving stage three into orbit at 18,000 mph (29,000 km/h). The satellite slowly disengaged from the third-stage rocket where at this speed, it falls toward earth at the same rate earth's surface curves away from it. As a result, the satellite's distance from the earth remains about the same.[6]

Cause of failure[edit]

The exact cause of the accident was not determined with certainty due to limited telemetry instrumentation at this early phase,[7] but Martin-Marietta concluded that low fuel tank pressure during the start procedure allowed some of the burning fuel in the combustion chamber to leak into the fuel system through the injector head before full propellant pressure was obtained from the turbopump. GE, on the other hand, argued that the problem was a loose fuel connection. In hindsight the first problem appeared to cause the second. Investigation concluded that tank and fuel system pressure were slightly lower than nominal, which resulted in insufficient pressure in the injector head. As a result, hot combustion gas backed up into the injector head and caused a large pressure spike. The injector rings completely burned through, followed by rupture of the combustion chamber. At T+1 second, a shock wave in the thrust section of the booster ruptured a fuel feed line, completely terminating engine thrust. GE technicians had failed to catch this design flaw during testing and a temporary fix was made by increasing tank pressure. Eventually, a further modification was made by using ethane gas to increase fuel force and prevent rough start transients.[8] The X-405 engine did not fail again on subsequent launches and static firing tests.


After the launch failure, trading in the stock of the Martin Company, prime contractor for the project, was temporarily suspended by the New York Stock Exchange.[7]

Newspapers in the United States published prominent headlines and articles describing the failure with plays on the name of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, such as "Flopnik",[9] "Kaputnik",[10] "Oopsnik", and "Stayputnik".[11] The failure, reported in international media, was a humiliating loss of prestige for the United States, which had presented itself to the world as the leader in science and technology. The Soviet Union, the United States' rival in the Cold War, exploited the disaster.[12][13] A few days after the incident, a Soviet delegate to the United Nations inquired solicitously whether the United States was interested in receiving aid earmarked for "undeveloped countries".[14]

The concurrent project Explorer 1 proved successful a few weeks later, on 31 January 1958.[15]


  1. ^ a b c "Vanguard TV3". NSSDC Master Catalog. NSSDC, NASA. Retrieved 2011-02-26.
  2. ^ Lina Kohonen. "The Space race and Soviet utopian thinking" Sociological Review; Vol. 57, May 2009, page 114
  3. ^ John P. Hagen, "The Viking and the Vanguard", in Technology and Culture, Vol. 4, No. 4, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), Autumn 1963, page 437)
  4. ^ John P. Hagen, "The Viking and the Vanguard", in Technology and Culture, Vol. 4, No. 4, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), Autumn 1963, page 439)
  5. ^ Fred L. Whipple & J. Allen Hynek, "Stand by for Satellite Take-off" in Popular Mechanics Magazine, H.H. Windsor Jr, Illinois: the Hearst Corporation, July 1957 issue, page 66.
  6. ^ Fred L. Whipple & J. Allen Hynek, "Stand by for Satellite Take-off" in Popular Mechanics Magazine, H.H. Windsor Jr, Illinois: the Hearst Corporation, July 1957 issue, page 67.
  7. ^ a b McLaughlin Green, Constance; Lomask, Milton (1970). "Chapter 11: From Sputnik I to TV-3". Vanguard - A History. NASA. Retrieved 2011-02-26.
  8. ^ "The Vanguard Satellite Launching Vehicle an Engineering Summary | Rocket | International Geophysical Year".
  9. ^ Sparrow, Giles (2007). Space Flight. Dorling Kindersley. ISBN 978-0-7566-2858-1.
  10. ^ Burrows, William E. (1999). This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. Modern Library. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-375-75485-2.
  11. ^ Alan Boyle (1997-10-04). "Sputnik started space race, anxiety". NBC News. Retrieved 2008-03-17.
  12. ^ Catchpole, John (2001). Project Mercury: NASA's First Manned Space Program. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-85233-406-2.
  13. ^ Jones, Thomas (2002). "Early Frustrations: Project Kaboom (A.K.A Vanguard)". Complete Idiots Guide to NASA. ISBN 978-0-02-864282-6.
  14. ^ Charles A. Murray & Catherine Bly Cox, in Apollo: The Race to the Moon. (United States of America: Simon & Schuster Inc.), 1989, page 23-24)
  15. ^ McDonald, Naugle (2008). "Discovering Earth's Radiation Belts: Remembering Explorer 1 and 3". NASA History. 89 (39): 361–363. doi:10.1029/2008EO390001.

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