December is synonymous with the holidays, family, and eating far too much rich food. But for some, the month is also synonymous with America’s first major public failure in space.

On Dec. 6, 1957, the nation watched as its collective dreams to catch up to the Soviets in space went up in flames.

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A lot of things happened in America in the wake of Sputnik’s Oct. 4, 1957 launch, among them President Eisenhower’s decision to fast track the nation’s satellite program.

He had a few systems to choose from, namely the Army’s Jupiter and the Navy’s Vanguard rockets. Jupiter, built by imported German engineers led by Wernher von Braun, was a reliable and orbit-ready rocket modified from the Redstone family of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The American-built Vanguard, on the other hand, had no military affiliations (aside being built by the U.S. Navy). This turned out the be the deciding factor for Eisenhower. He chose Vanguard as America’s first satellite launch vehicle.

To speed things up, Vanguard’s third launch vehicle — Test Vehicle 3 (TV-3) — was re-designated as the first satellite launch attempt. The Soviets had already launched two Sputniks when this announcement was made in November; there was no reason to put off the launch.

TV-3′s payload was a modest, spherical satellite about the size of a grapefruit weighing a shade under three pounds (1.3 kg). Inside were two transmitters, one powered by a mercury battery and the other by six solar cells, that would enable scientists to track its orbit and determine the electron content between the satellite and ground stations. Two thermistors would send data on the satellite’s interior temperature, answering questions about thermal protection in space. But the real test was going to be of the three-stage Vanguard rocket.

Vanguard was wheeled from the hangar to its stand at Launch Complex 18 in mid-November, 1957. It stood there for more than two weeks. On Dec. 4, the launch countdown started. Technicians moved through the 20+ page checklist while engineers sat, chain smoking and sweating, monitoring the rocket’s vitals at consoles in a nearby blockhouse.

But problems arose with a frozen liquid oxygen valve, and the launch was scrubbed at 10:08 p.m. that night. The gantry was moved back to the rocket’s side and engineers grudgingly set a new start time for the prelaunch countdown: 1 a.m. on Dec. 6.

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It didn’t take long for things to turn sour when the countdown was restarted. Error readings on the engineers’ consoles forced a hold as technicians scrambled to fix electric connections, a dangerous task since the rocket’s self-destruct system was armed. Half an hour before launch, a spike in the rocket’s voltage system forced another hold. But with a half hour to go, things smoothed out.

The steel doors on the blockhouse were shut twenty-five minutes before launch. With nineteen minutes to go, the blockhouse lights were dimmed so the men inside could have a better view of Vanguard disappearing into the sky. Five minutes to launch, all remaining workers cleared the pad. With five seconds to go, water started pouring onto the launchpad to clear the flames.

At 11:44 a.m. that morning, Vanguard ignited.

The rocket rose slowly off the pad for a full four seconds, gaining about two feet of altitude. Then, it lost thrust. It looked for a second like the rocket was going to settle nicely back down on the pad, but it didn’t. Vanguard buckled under its own weight, its fuel tanks ruptured and exploded. The rocket was destroyed and the launch pad badly damaged as both were engulfed in flames.

Within the carnage, the satellite interpreted the loss of thrust as weightlessness in orbit and separated from the rocket. It was thrown clear, landing a short distance away with its transmitters proudly sending out a beacon signal.

The exact cause of the failure was never determined, though a fuel leak was identified as the likeliest culprit. A leak in a fuel line or low pressure in the fuel tank could have let burning fuel back in the tank, causing the loss of thrust and beginning the explosion. The satellite, though it escaped the fireball and broadcast its signal, was damaged beyond repair. It was promptly transferred to the Smithsonian museum for display.

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But it was, perhaps, the nation’s ego that sustained the most damage. At the end of 1957, the Soviet Union had put a dog into orbit and America had destroyed a launch pad. Luckily for America’s collective self-confidence, von Braun had a variant Jupiter rocket on hand called Juno, and it was ready to launch. Eisenhower authorized the Army’s launch attempt, and as Jan. 31 rolled into February 1, 1958, Juno put the Explorer 1 satellite into orbit.

Vanguard did eventually find success. On March 17, 1958, a Vanguard rocket sent the Vanguard 1 satellite into orbit. Loaded with radios and temperature sensors, it was the first satellite to be powered by solar energy, and tracking it from the ground helped geologists confirm the Earth’s slight pear shape. And it’s still up there. Vanguard 1 reached such a high orbit that it won’t fall back to Earth until the 22nd century.

Image: The Vanguard rocket explodes on the pad shortly after a tentative lift-off. Credit: Public domain