The American Satellite Debacle
The first artificial satellite project of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)was dubbed Project Orbiter. But a competing satellite, Project Vanguard, from the Naval Research Laboratory was chosen instead. Project Vanguard was the more complex of the two, and it took so long to develop that the United States lost the space race: the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. A second Sputnik soon followed. The rushed Vanguard project set up its first launch, the Vanguard TV3, for December 6, 1957. TV3 failed on national television in a fiery explosion when the rocket lost thrust.
JPL meanwhile revived its Project Orbiter design in collaboration with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. In only 84 days this project, the Explorer Program, culminated in the launch of Explorer 1, the first U.S. artificial satellite, on January 31, 1958. This success was JPL's first achievement in space, but was by no means its last.
At right: Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, also the first to carry scientific instruments. Courtesy of NASA.