This year marks the 59th Anniversary of the Vanguard I satellite’s launch into space. Part of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) Vanguard Program, this satellite was launched on March 17, 1958. The first of three successful Vanguard launches, this satellite was America’s second foray into space after Explorer I, the first of which to be powered by solar energy.

When a United States representative was needed to participate in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an international effort to study the physical properties of Earth, NRL was well prepared to take on the task according to NRL’s Acting Historian, Dr. Angelina Callahan.

“Vanguard illustrates how NRL’s cross-section of S&E disciplines keeps the Navy equipped to ply emerging fields of study,” says Callahan. “Post-WWII research had started to bring together diverse NRL talents in high-energy physics, propulsion, electronic components, optical sciences, and upper atmospheric research. Thus, when President Eisenhower issued his 1955 call for satellite proposals, NRL stood poised— like no other institution— to usher the U.S. into the space age.”

The team at NRL brought valuable insight to the Vanguard Project. “Vanguard researchers predicted what was technologically viable for a first generation satellite system, defined scientific/exploration priorities, and brought forth a proof-of-concept system for characterizing operations in the near Earth space environment,” says Callahan.

Vanguard I Satellite

Vanguard I Satellite

Vanguard I broke barriers not just with its mere existence, but with the information that it gathered on its voyage. The satellite successfully demonstrated the utility of solar power systems in space, using photovoltaic silicon solar cells to harness the rays of the sun. The satellite also verified that the Earth is not a perfect sphere, but is slightly pear-shaped.

To accommodate its newest creation, NRL made history as it constructed the first complete satellite-launching facility in the country at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to take the satellite to “new heights,” achieving the highest altitude of any man-made vehicle at the time period. NRL also developed the Mini track, the first ever satellite-tracking system to determine the orbit of the satellite.

The importance of the Vanguard I satellite still resonates across NRL’s campus, particularly with Mr. John Schaub, Director of the Naval Center of Space Technology (NCST) at NRL.

“Vanguard I paved the way for NRL to leave our mark in the space technology field,” says Schaub. “We continue to draw inspiration from the innovation and uniqueness of the Vanguard Project, perpetuating our legacy of changing the way we see space down here on the surface.”

Vanguard I still orbits Earth today, remaining the oldest satellite made by man currently in space.

For more information on the Vanguard Project, visit the Vanguard Project page on NRL’s website.

For the recent accomplishments of the Naval Center of Space Technology at NRL, visit NCST’s home page.

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