Screenshot of Vanguard VT3 coverage. Image: NASA Langley CRGIS/YouTube

Watch the Spectacular Inferno of America’s First Satellite Attempt

The story of ‘Kaputnik,’ the failed American answer to Sputnik.

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Dec 6 2015, 2:00pm

Screenshot of Vanguard VT3 coverage. Image: NASA Langley CRGIS/YouTube

Vanguard TV3 launch newsreel. Video: bonefireyouth/YouTube

When Sputnik was launched into orbit on October 4, 1957, people around the world understandably flipped out. Even today, Sputnik is remembered less as a scientific experiment than as a cultural sea change, and the spectacular cold open of the Space Race.

It's no wonder that the US reacted to this naked demonstration of Soviet technology by rushing its own satellite to the launchpad as quickly as possible. This American counterpart to Sputnik was Vanguard TV3 (Test Vehicle 3), and according to this 1957 issue of Popular Mechanics, it was originally scheduled for launch in the spring of 1958.

But when Sputnik peaced out into orbit—followed only a month later by Sputnik 2, carrying the ill-fated space dog Laika—the US had to act fast. The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) had been actively testing parts of the Vanguard rocket family at Cape Canaveral, but had never launched a complete version of the vehicle before. With the Soviets doing orbital victory laps around the planet, the Eisenhower Administration decided to slap a satellite on the very first all-up test of the fully functional Vanguard.

It all went down exactly 58 years ago, on December 6, 1957. And by "went down," I mean "went down in a fiery ball of eviscerated American pride." Watch the glorious, horrific spectacle that was America's first attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

The root cause of the explosion is still unknown though it likely had to do with a fuel leak near the rocket engine. But one thing is certain: Vanguard TV3 was cataclysmically embarrassing for the US. The way the vehicle hesitantly hovered a few feet above the launch pad before tipping over and exploding into is almost comical. Moreover, the satellite itself was thrown clear of the wreckage. "It had somehow been shot away from the inferno and was triumphantly transmitting its signal as though it had reached orbit," space reporter Amy Shira Teitel writes in Breaking the Chains of Gravity.

Sure, it's a miracle that the satellite survived at all, and yet somehow the fact that it thought it was sailing through orbit while lying stationary on the Florida coast seems sadder than if it had gone down with its ship.

Even worse, however, was the fact that this event drew crowds of hopeful spectators to Cape Canaveral, and was broadcast live on television. In contrast to the super-secretive launch of Sputnik, everybody saw Vanguard engulfed in flames. For Americans, the experience was traumatizing. For Soviet leaders, it was gratifying.

Indeed, Teitel notes that the USSR went so far as to rub "salt in the wound by offering assistance to the United States through a United Nations program that gave technical assistance to primitive nations." What a diabolically sick burn.

In the wake of this humiliation, Vanguard TV3 was saddled with many nicknames like Failnik, Flopnik, Stayputnik, and my personal favorite: Kaputnik. It was the epitomization of Apollo Program architect Wernher von Braun's warning that "crash programs fail because they are based on theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month."

But that said, it could also be argued that the failed launch defined the burgeoning American space program for the better. After all, when you start at rock bottom, you can only move up. Despite the widespread mockery of the crash, President Eisenhower stayed the course with Project Vanguard, which succeeded in sending Explorer 1, America's first satellite, into orbit on January 31, 1958. Explorer 1 was joined by another American satellite, Vanguard 1, less than two months on March 17.

While the Sputniks and Explorer 1 have all since self-immolated in the atmosphere, Vanguard 1 still streaks across our skies as the oldest artificial satellite in orbit; the Methuselah of spaceflight. Sputnik may have been the first object to untether itself from its Earthly bonds, but for what it's worth, Vanguard was the one to outlive them all.