Space Jam: The oldest thing in space


Rahul Rao

Last Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the launch of an obscure satellite named Vanguard 1. On March 17, 1958, at the time when Dwight D. Eisenhower was the American president, when Nelson Mandela was a minor activist charged with treason for publicly opposing apartheid, when the ancestor of the European Union was less than a year old and when “An Unearthly Child” was still five and a half years away from being born, a three-stage rocket planted Vanguard 1 into Earth’s orbit with the mission of conducting upper atmosphere observations.

I could go on about how those atmospheric observations were crucial to later American space launches and satellites, but that wouldn’t be interesting. To be honest, there really isn’t anything romantic to say about Vanguard 1. Both Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 (the latter complete with Laika, the unfortunate dog, onboard) had beat it into space by several months. It isn’t even America’s first satellite; the Americans had successfully launched Explorer 1 a month and a half earlier, not to mention two other failed attempts in a rush to match the Soviets.

Vanguard 1 isn’t even aesthetically impressive. It’s a little aluminium orb, no more than a kilogram and a half in weight, the size of and shape of a large citrus. Nikita Khrushchev even called it “the grapefruit satellite.” There’s newsreel footage of human beings effortlessly holding it in one hand. It’s pockmarked with solar panels and studded with six antennae, giving it the ungainly appearance of a postmodern naval mine. Those solar panels were a first (earlier satellites had used battery power) but, especially as far as the then-intensifying Space Race is concerned, this is hardly an earth-shattering accomplishment. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, given the proper materials, Vanguard 1 could probably be built in a day by a school science class.

The only reason Vanguard 1 is at all worth mentioning is that none of its predecessors still exist, all three having long ago re-entered the atmosphere and burnt up (both Sputniks in 1958 and Explorer 1 some time later, in 1970). Vanguard 1, however, has floated on through time even after its mission ended in 1964, when its power failed. It’s orbited haplessly, little better than a piece of space debris, for over five decades. It will likely continue orbiting for several centuries.

Why am I talking about it, then? In the grander scheme of things, Vanguard 1 is almost completely forgettable. But it says a lot about how time plays out that an insignificant aluminium sphere has become the oldest thing humanity has put into space.