How a satellite failure heralded the launch of NASA—and the revolution of Earth observation
On December 6, 1957, hot on the heels of Sputnik, the United States Navy readied the first American satellite, Vanguard, for launch. The grapefruit-sized device lofted 3 feet from Earth before it exploded. Press and public jeered, dubbing it “Flopnik.” (“The exact cause is classified,” says the crisp narrator in a vintage video [below] of the attempt.) A red-faced U.S. government redoubled their efforts. Within a year and a half, Vanguard’s replacement took the first measurements of Earth’s upper atmosphere and its successor, Vanguard II, the first scan of Earth’s clouds.