But the Army’s secret satellite programme, masterminded by infamous Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun, was kept secret from President Dwight Eisenhower because he was believed to favour the Navy’s rocket program.
In fact the Navy’s Vanguard rocket exploded on the launch-pad on live TV – humiliating the US in front of The Soviet Union and the world.
Space Race spoils: But USA need never have lost race into space
However the Army secretly powered ahead and on September 20 1956, more than a year before Sputnik, a Redstone rocket called Jupiter C – actually a repurposed missile – was successfully launched.
But because the Government had given strict orders to scrap the project the rocket carried a dummy payload instead of a satellite – even though the satellite was ready to go and would have made the Soviet Sputnik look primitive.
Lee Webster, a physicist on the von Braun team said: “When we fired that we knew we could put a vehicle in orbit because we had the velocity required.
“If we’d been given the go-ahead we could have beaten Sputnik by a year.”
Explosive footage: US Vanguard rocket explodes in front of entire world
In the early 1950s Eisenhower had set up a contest to find the best way of putting a non-military satellite into space to establish the legal precedent that a nation state’s airspace ends at the edge of the atmosphere.
Despite often being portrayed as a man who failed to understand the importance of space Eisenhower was cannily planning to use the precedent to then put US spy satellites in orbit over the USSR.
To stress to the Soviet leaders Malenkov and Khrushchev the peaceful nature of the scientific endeavour Eisenhower was forced to back the purpose-built but untested Vanguard rather than the Army’s Redstone rocket which was basically a re-purposed military missile.
It is rocket science: Werner von Braun’s Redstone team
Author and von Braun expert Michael Neufeld said: “The question was would the Soviet Union accept an overflight by an American satellite over it’s territory or would that be a provocation to war?
“We needed to prove that airspace stopped at the top of the atmosphere – that space was a different environment.”
And John Logsdon, of the Space Policy Institute GWU said: “Eisenhower’s first priority was to create the precedent that you could fly satellites over other countries’ territory so we’d adopted a policy of not having a launch vehicle that was also a weapons carrier.”
There was also speculation that the all-American Vanguard system was favoured because the Army’s Redsone was master-minded by an ex-Nazi.
Rocket Scientist Lee Webster
Understandably von Braun’s team were furious and despite being told to scrap their space programme they continued to work in secret.
Randy Clinton, a physicist on von Braun team, said: “There was surprise and there was anger. We had worked hard and to lose top what we felt was a political decision.”
And fellow physicist Lee Webster added: “We were pissed off because we thought we had the best system.”
Aerospace Historian R.Cargill Hall said: “The Navy had the better scientific proposal but their rocket was weak.
“The Army had a far better booster but the Vanguard scientific payload was far superior.”
Von Braun felt it was an enormous mistake – and continued to develop the rocket in secret. And in conjunction with James Van Allen at the now famous Joint Propulsion Laboratories built a secret satellite.
Ernst Stuhlinger, a scientist on the von Braun team, said: “von Braun had a strict order from Washington not to build a satellite.
“So what we had to do was work at home in my garage because we weren’t allowed to do it officially.
At one point physicist Randy Clinton stashed the satellite in the boot of his car to evade Government inspection teams.
Mr Clinton said : “We could have beat them – that’s the thing that hurt the most. We knew ahead of time we could have beat them.”
They continued to work in secret on the Redstone project but in in August 1957 the Soviet Union flew a genuine Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) then on October 4 1957 made history wen the Sputnik satellite reached earth orbit.
Eight weeks later the American Vanguard rocket launched – and failed spectacularly, exploding on the Launchpad on live TV.
Physicist Lee Webster said: “ We were happy to see it blow up because we knew the only chance the United States had was our bird.”
But, despite rapid backpedalling in Washington ity wasn’t until January 31 1958 that the Jupiter C lifted off carrying the Explorer satellite.
Mr Clinton said: “Sputnik was defined not as a Russian success but as a US failure.”