- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

It is only six inches across and weighs only three pounds, but Vanguard I is one tough hunk of aluminum.

The tiny satellite marks its 50th year in orbit above Earth tomorrow — and is now the oldest man-made object in space. Studded with a half-dozen slender antennae and just larger than a softball, Vanguard I has circled the planet almost 200,000 times, officially deemed by NASA and the Navy as “100 percent successful in meeting its scientific objectives.”

Indeed. Launched from Cape Canaveral on March 17, 1958, the polished metal orb is still so sturdy and predictable that the space agency estimates it will remain in orbit for another 2,000 years — besting its old Soviet-made rival Sputnik I, which long since has fallen from the sky.

Vanguard I is in many ways a showcase for American ingenuity, not to mention persistence.

“I remain in awe of it, really. The original team accomplished phenomenal things, once they were given this assignment by President Eisenhower in 1955,” said Peter Wilhelm, director of the Naval Center for Space Technology at the Naval Research Lab.

The facility — adjacent to Bolling Air Force Base on the Potomac River — built the original satellite from scratch, along with much of the tracking equipment for nine new ground stations scattered across the United States and South America.

“Keep in mind that each of these stations took up 10 to 20 acres. Vanguard required a new launch vehicle and had to produce a radio signal that could be detected on the ground. These developments were all firsts, and they were accomplished in 2½ years,” Mr. Wilhelm said.

The diminutive Vanguard I caught some flak in its time, though. Its size, compared to the Soviet Union’s two-foot diameter, 200-pound Sputnik I, caused Premier Nikita Khrushchev to dub Vanguard “the grapefruit satellite.”

The “grapefruit” got the proverbial last laugh, however.

At the time, a sobered but determined U.S. was racing to match Soviet space exploration, following the successful launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. Initial efforts foundered, including the “spectacular televised failure” of America’s first prototype satellite, which rose four feet then exploded on the launch pad on Dec. 6, 1957. A critical Yankee press crowned it “Kaputnik” and “Ike’s flopnik.”

“A wave of outrage swept the country,” according to Navy historical accounts.

American determination prevailed, however. Three months later, Vanguard I soared into space at 7:15 a.m. on a clear St. Patrick’s Day and has been there since then. Sputnik’s batteries gave out, and the satellite was incinerated upon reentering the atmosphere just three months after it entered orbit.

Vanguard I continues its journey. It has traveled close to 7 billion miles on its course about 2,400 miles up. Among its accomplishments: Vanguard was the first solar-powered satellite, and its tracking data ultimately revealed to surprised geophysicists that the Earth is not perfectly round but bulges a bit, like a pear.

The satellite also has a long-term, “institutional knowledge” about the earth’s atmosphere, with an orbit so stable that it has varied by only a few miles over the decades.

Vanguard I provided an extra benefit. Navy scientists laid out “Minitrack,” a worldwide tracking method to follow its progress, using the research to later develop NAVSPASUR, a surveillance system that detects “unannounced” or radio-silent satellites passing over the U.S.

“Vanguard still inspires a lot of people, even 50 years later,” Mr. Wilhelm said.

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