At his blog Drew Ex Machina, Andrew Lepage writes about how, if things had gone differently, the United States might well have launched a satellite into orbit before the Soviet Union. This would have required, among other things, a reorganization of space research programs and perhaps also a perception in the US military of advantages to space travel like satellite surveillance.
In September 1954 the joint Army-Navy Project Orbiter proposal to launch a single satellite was submitted to the Department of Defense (DoD) for consideration. At about this same time, there was a building effort in scientific circles to organize the International Geophysical Year – an international scientific cooperative effort to study the Earth and its interaction with the Sun that would run from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958. With the US considering a commitment to launch a satellite during the IGY, the US Air Force (USAF) and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) submitted their own satellite proposals as well. With three choices before him, Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald A. Quarles deferred the decision to an Advisory Group on Special Capabilities.
On September 9, 1955 this group choose the NRL proposal which was eventually called Vanguard (see “Vintage Micro: The Original Standardized Microsatellite”). While Project Orbiter made the greatest use of off-the-shelf hardware and had the best chance to get a satellite into orbit first, the Eisenhower administration made it clear that they wanted to use as little military hardware as possible to launch America’s IGY satellite. This was to give the project as civilian a look as possible to ease establishment of the concept of overflight rights for Earth-orbiting satellites (making it easier for later military satellites, then secretly under study, to fly their missions). The Eisenhower Administration also wanted to minimize any potential interference between the satellite program and vital defense projects like the Army’s Redstone or the USAF proposed use of their Atlas ICBM then under development (see “The First Atlas Test Flights”). Another perceived weakness in the Project Orbiter proposal was that it would launch only a single satellite with no follow up. Of course this could have been easily remedied with additional resources to build hardware for more flights but it was felt that this could have had deleterious consequences for the Redstone development program.
With Project Orbiter officially shelved, development of von Braun’s proposed satellite launch vehicle was redirected in September of 1955 in an attempt to keep it alive in another guise. In addition to the Redstone, the ABMA, under the command of Major General Bruce Medaris, was developing the Jupiter IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile). With a range of 2,800 kilometers, Jupiter’s warhead would have to withstand much more extreme conditions upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere than the payloads of earlier, shorter range missiles. In-flight testing of this new warhead-laden entry vehicle was needed to verify its design but a purpose-built rocket for this task was not yet available. As a stop gap measure, a modified version of von Braun’s satellite launcher was proposed. While it was not powerful enough to loft the actual warhead, the rocket would be capable of accelerating a one-third scale RTV (Reentry Test Vehicle) with a mass of 140 kilograms to hypersonic velocities. The only major change required to von Braun’s satellite launcher was the removal of the fourth stage and the installation of an adapter for the RTV.
From the start, the development of this modified Redstone proceeded so that the satellite launch option would be preserved. This rocket was designated Jupiter C (“C” standing for “Composite”) to help disguise its heritage under the Jupiter program umbrella. This would not be the first Redstone to fly in support of Jupiter development, however. Starting in March 1956, modified Redstone missiles designated “Jupiter A” commenced flight testing key Jupiter IRBM components such as the guidance system in preparation of the first actual Jupiter test flights a year later. As development of the Jupiter C proceeded ostensibly to support the IRBM project, Medaris and von Braun continued to lobby civilian and military leaders in Washington to allow them to launch a satellite.