Thor-Agena rocket at Vandenberg AFB.
Fifty Years ago on December 12, 1961, the U.S. Air Force Space Division launched Discoverer 36 from a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The orbit of the 300+ pound capsule reached as high as 280 miles. The main experiments included testing space equipment, researching radiation in space, and detecting nuclear explosions. All the experiments were successful.
On this flight, the Air Force allowed a hitch-hiker. A 10 pound satellite named OSCAR (Orbital Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) was lifted aloft on the rocket to test beaming signals to HAM radio operators back on Earth. This was also a success. Even today, HAM radio operators often have opportunities through NASA programs to use amateur radios to contact astronauts on space missions such as the International Space Station.
Discoverer 36 would re-enter the Earth's atmosphere four days later after 64 orbits. The rocket itself burned up on March 8, 1962. The mission was one of the most successful launches of the Discoverer series.