Sixty years ago, a grapefruit-sized aluminium sphere with six antennas and some tiny solar cells was launched into Earth orbit. The Vanguard 1 satellite is still up there and is the oldest human-made object in space. It’s our first piece of space archaeology.
Other early satellites – such as Sputnik 1, the first satellite to leave Earth in 1957, and Explorer 1, the first US satellite – have long since re-entered the atmosphere and burnt up.
Vanguard 1’s legacy, as we enter the seventh decade of space travel, is a new generation of small satellites changing the way we interact with space.
Making the first road map for space
By the early 1950s, the second world war’s rocket technology had developed to the point where the first satellite launch was imminent.
The global scientific community had been working towards a massive cooperative effort to study the Earth, called the International Geophysical Year (IGY), to take place in 1957-58. What could be better than measuring the Earth from the outside?
Everything we knew about the space environment we had learned from inside the envelope of the atmosphere. The first satellite could change everything.
The IGY committee decided to add a satellite launch to the program, and the “space race” suddenly became real.
Six nations were predicted to have the capability to launch a satellite. They were the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Australia.
This was before NASA existed. The United Nations space treaties had not yet been written. The IGY was effectively building the first road map for using space.
Waging peace in the Cold War
Vanguard 1 was intended to make the US the first nation in space – hence its name, meaning “leading the way”. The term also refers to the advance troops of a military attack.
Space exploration was not just about science. It was also about winning hearts and minds. These first satellites were ideological weapons to demonstrate the technological superiority of capitalism – or communism.
The problem was that the IGY was a civilian scientific program, but the rocket programs were military.
Project Vanguard was run by the US Naval Research Laboratory. Public perception was important, and they tried to give the satellite a civilian spin to present the US’s intentions in space as peaceful.
This meant the launch rocket should not be a missile, but a scientific rocket, made for research purposes. Such “sounding rockets” were, however, part of the military programs too – their purpose was to gather information about the little-known upper atmosphere for weapons development.