Star Bound №17: The Space Race Begins
Sputnik and the Creation of NASA
Note: The following is a chapter in a book I’m writing titled StarBound, a popular history of the American space program. Comments and questions are welcome.
Understanding the evolution of rocketry in the latter half of the twentieth century involves at least a brief consideration of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the murderous reign of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. It was the Age of Ideology: communism vs. capitalism, the United States vs. the USSR, East vs. West. Broadly speaking, nations that supported, or claimed to support, the power of the state to create equality and freedom for its citizens squared off against the nations of the West, which insisted that individual rights — at least for certain types of individuals — trumped the prerogatives of a central government.
There have been other periods of history when the fate of civilization seemed to hang in the balance. Europeans felt this way in the face of Muslim incursions all through the Middle Ages. Middle Easterners feared it during Mongol invasions of the 14th Century. Both Napolean and Hitler inspired such existential dread in their neighbors. But there has never been a more multi-faceted and wide-ranging struggle for world dominance than that of the so-called Cold War between 1945 and 1990. To be called a capitalist in a communist nation was a dire indictment, often a prologue to imprisonment, or worse. To be a communist in America in 1952 was a risk to one’s employment, academic career, and prospects for social advancement. Russian scientists invented missiles to kill Americans. American engineers built airplanes that could bomb Moscow. Proxy wars raged in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, on basketball courts and in hockey arenas, at the United Nations and in chess competitions. It was a spectacularly complicated and sustained period of paranoia and dread. It was, many thought, the most important struggle mankind would ever wage.
Enter Wernher von Braun, one of the great case studies in the long-standing philosophical debate about whether important ends can justify repugnant means. As the extent of Nazi atrocities before and during the Second World War became clear during the 1950s, western sentiment hardened. It was difficult for many Americans to understand why the nation should welcome as an ally a man who was instrumental in development of such a fearsome and indiscriminate weapon as the V-2. Tom Lehrer’s 1965 eponymous song summed up the matter well:
Gather ‘round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience
Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown
“Nazi, Schmatzie,” says Wernher von Braun.
Don’t say that he’s hypocritical.
Say rather that he’s apolitical.
“Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?”
“That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun for his part claimed that he was a scientist, not a soldier, and that he never intended for his work to be used as it was. Like many others in Germany, he said his participation in the Nazi war effort was mandatory, not elective. To disobey would have meant imprisonment or possibly death — and indeed, Von Braun was placed under house arrest for two weeks in 1944, accused of the vague crime of “defeatism” for wanting to build a rocket that could reach the moon, rather than just Belgium. The extent of his culpability for the crimes of his government has been vigorously debated for years. What is not debatable is the importance of his work, and the work of his colleagues, in getting Americans into space. Wernher von Braun was the man behind the Saturn V rocket — and the Saturn V rocket was the Big Boss, the Heavy Lifter that sent Neil and Buzz to the Sea of Tranquility. Justifiably or not, he was embraced by the United States government because the prospect of the Soviet Union besting the United States in a very visible scientific, technical, and possibly military competition seemed more important than holding von Braun responsible for his association with a criminal regime responsible for the deaths of millions of people.
Under the auspices of Operation Paper Clip, Von Braun and a number of his colleagues were initially sent to Fort Bliss, in far West Texas. Here and at the nearby White Sands Proving Ground, in southeastern New Mexico, they instructed Army personnel in rocketry and started resurrecting, and improving on, the V-2. A hastily assembled collection of V-2 parts had been collected from Germany and shipped over to the United States. Despite the challenges of starting over again in a new facility with these odds and ends, Von Braun and his team managed to construct and launch some 64 rockets between 1946 and 1952. In fact, the first photographs of Earth from space — 65 miles up, just above the Kármán line — were taken from a V-2 in October of 1946. The Germans were eventually moved to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal facility in Huntsville, Alabama. Here, working with American engineers, they developed the Redstone rocket, a lineal descendant of the V-2. The Redstone was first test-fired in 1953. By 1958, after many further tests, a Redstone climbed to an altitude of 47 miles, where it detonated a nuclear payload over the Pacific Ocean, creating a fireball that could be seen from some eight hundred miles away.
The 1958 Geophysical Year, which, confusingly ran for a period of eighteen months, from July 1, 1957 through December 31, 1958, was established by scientists to recreate the so-called International Polar Years of 1882–1883 and 1932–33. These earlier events had generated international exchanges of information regarding the planet’s antipodes. The 1958 project had a broader geophysical focus. In the spirit of the program’s aims, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the United States would launch a satellite into orbit in conjunction with the year. Washington initially chose the Navy’s Vanguard Project over both the Army’s Redstone program and a fledgling Air Force project to accomplish the deed. The Vanguard rocket was a descendant of the Viking and Aerobee rockets developed in the late 1940s for suborbital “sounding,” or atmospheric testing, flights. Eventually, though, the satellite was launched on the Army’s Juno rocket, a Redstone variant, due to its perceived advantages in design and reliability.
The 1958 International Geophysical Year was a success. Sixty-seven nations, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, participated. Among other achievements, a number of countries agreed to the Antarctic Treaty, which governs use and habitation of the South Pole and which is still in effect today. The year was also marked by a couple of significant discoveries. First, the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts, concentrations of electromagnetic energy trapped by Earth’s gravitational field, were confirmed through instruments on the Explorer I satellite. Second, joint British-American submarine reconnaissance discovered undersea “wrinkles” in the ocean bed that accorded with new thinking about tectonic activity.
As important as they were, though, such findings have always been overshadowed by a little satellite launched by the Soviet Union in October of 1957. It was called Sputnik. Americans were caught sleeping, sleek and happy, dreaming of shark-finned Cadillacs on endless interstates. Suddenly the sky was occupied. There were communists over Connecticut. There was a rat in America’s attic. It was time to wake up. And just as a slumberer often does when roused from sleep, the country stumbled as it took its first steps.
It wasn’t that Sputnik’s success was inconceivable. American scientists, military men, and policymakers were keenly aware that the Soviets might deploy the first satellite, and had fretted about the possibility for years. The Soviets had developed their own atomic and hydrogen bombs — thanks in part to spying on U.S. weapons programs — and in 1957 successfully tested the R-7, the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. No less an authority than Wernher Von Braun warned of the damage to U.S. prestige that might occur if the Soviets were first in orbit.
Then too the possibility of rocket-powered space travel had been a staple of pulp fiction and Hollywood hits for years, from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon to Forbidden Planet. Even before Robert Goddard fired off his first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, German scientists and pilots were touring the United States and Canada, touting the possibilities for rocket travel to the moon. Late in the decade, Herman Oberth proposed deliveries of mail from Germany to America by rocket; a U.S. diplomat said the project sounded promising, but that Washington would have to study the safety of the plan before agreeing. “German Aviation Circles Stirred by Rocket Plans,” read an unintentionally ominous September 30, 1929 headline in the Montreal Gazette. The Second World War made the destructive capacity of rocket-borne weapons clear, most obviously with the V-2 but also in connection with Germany’s plans, never realized, to use a radio-controlled rocket to attack on the United States. After the Roswell Incident in 1947, a small but insistent portion of the American population believed flying saucers had visited Earth and would soon do so again. A 1949 Republic Studios serial, King of the Rocket Men, spawned a slew of sequels, including the immortal Zombies of the Stratosphere, in which the heroically named Larry Martin uses his jet pack (“Down” and “Up,” say the controls) to thwart Martian ne’er-do-wells who want to shove Mars into Earth’s orbit. Disneyland’s “Rocket to the Moon” attraction, featuring a scale-model Trans-World Airlines-sponsored rocket ship, debuted in 1955. Signage at the base of the model explained that “the full-scale ship would be 240 feet in length and designed to use nuclear energy as fuel. Stabilized in flight by gyroscopes, it would be controlled by automatic pilots and magnetic tapes. Landing tail-first, no air-foils or wings would be necessary, its vertical descent controlled by its jets. The 3 retractable landing legs would be equipped with shock absorbers.”
All of this is to say that the space age was lurking around in pop culture and speculative fiction long before Sputnik flew. Nevertheless, the reality proved unsettling. This may have been in spite of the monsters-and-ray guns fantasies of popular culture. On the other hand, it may have been because of it. If rocket ships could take Buck Rogers to Mars, who knew what the Soviets might be able to accomplish with the technology? And where was Larry Martin when we needed him?
Midshipman First Class Bruce McCandless II was in his final year at the United States Naval Academy when Sputnik started circling the globe. Like other Americans, he was shaken by the flight of the unassuming orb, which was roughly the size of a beach ball and trailed a set of whiplike antennae like a protozoan with four flagella. The little spheroid entered Earth orbit on October 4, 1957, whence it emitted recurrent beeps via radio. An officer of the Academy’s radio club, McCandless hastily rigged a wire antenna to the Hallicrafters SX-71 shortwave receiver in his fourth-floor room. He dropped the wire out the window all the way down to the “moat,” the sunken cement walkway around the Academy’s Bancroft Hall, the enormous dormitory where the midshipmen lived. Sure enough, he and his buddies could hear the taunting tones of the Soviet satellite as it passed overhead. (“Beep. Beep. Beep,” McCandless would later remember. “That’s Russian for We will bury you.”) They listened off and on for the next three weeks, until the beach ball’s silver-zinc batteries died.
Sputnik eventually fell back into Earth’s atmosphere, burning up on its way toward the planet’s surface. There wasn’t a whole lot of science to it by modern standards, but the effect of Sputnik’s flight on the American public was electrifying. RUSSIANS LAUNCH FIRST SPACE SATELLITE; CIRCLING EARTH AT 18,000 MILES AN HOUR, announced The Washington Post. THE SPACE AGE IS HERE, trumpeted New York City’s Daily Express. The Russians had managed to supplant the Germans and the Japanese as America’s sociopolitical bogeymen soon after World War II. Watching their aggressive brand of authoritarian communism, and a military that during the course of the fifties had managed to develop atomic and hydrogen weaponry to match the destructive power of the West, the United States had come to believe it was locked in a cage match for control of the globe with the soulless fanatics of Moscow. Most Americans simply assumed their country was bound to prevail. Sputnik, then, was a slap in the face — a highly visible and embarrassing rip in the nation’s casual assumption of scientific preeminence. With one swift stroke, the Red Menace had established a significant and very obvious lead in the technologies of remote surveillance, orbital mechanics, and, presumably, celestial ass-whipping.
Nor was the satellite’s flight the only blow. The Gaither Report, compiled by a blue-ribbon panel of experts appointed by President Eisenhower and issued just after Sputnik’s flight, warned of the USSR’s expansionist tendencies and ever-increasing nuclear missile — that is, rocketry — capabilities. On October 6 the Post ran the following banner headline: SATELLITE FLASHES PAST D.C. 5 TIMES; TRACKERS FAIL TO FIND IT ON 6TH TRIP; RUSSIANS MAY HAVE ‘ULTIMATE WEAPON.’ And then, on October 10: PRESIDENT PROMISES SATELLITE; MISSILE PROJECT SPEED-UP DUE; RED ‘MOON’ STILL GOING STRONG.
The U.S. attempted to answer the challenge just two months later. On December 6, 1957, the Navy launched its Vanguard TV-3, which carried a small artificial satellite quite similar in appearance to Sputnik. It was a short flight. The rocket rose about four feet off the launch pad before losing power and settling back down on the pad and then exploding. The so-called “Four-Foot Launch” was televised live, and almost as big an embarrassment for the country as being beaten by Sputnik in the first place. Its satellite was re-dubbed “Kaputnik” in the press. At the United Nations, a Soviet diplomat inquired publicly whether United States would like to avail itself of the Soviet financial aid available for governments of undeveloped nations.
Washington had for years been content to leave rocketry research to the armed forces. No more. Politicians of all stripes agreed that it was time to make the space race a national priority, under centralized supervision. America’s space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), was established in July of 1958, with its official birth date, October 1, just a few days short of the first anniversary of the Sputnik flight. NASA inherited the work, employees, and budget of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), assumed control of four space-related facilities (now known as the Langley, Ames, Glenn, and Armstrong Research Centers), and took over direction of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the Redstone Arsenal facility, now the Marshall Space Center, from the Army. NASA also commissioned and began to build new facilities: the Johnson Space Center in Houston; Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi; and, perhaps most familiar of all, Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, launch site of the agency’s crewed rocket launches. Interestingly, the cape is not far from Tampa, where Jules Verne planted his fictional space-launching gun.
There are good reasons for launching from the Sunshine State. First, Florida is relatively close to the equator, near where the Earth is spinning fastest as it rotates. Second, because the Earth rotates to the east, launching eastward from the Atlantic coast actually gives an ascending rocket a small but worthwhile boost — almost as if it’s taking a running start. Launching to the east, over the Atlantic, provides a large unoccupied area where debris and even errant spacecraft can fall without hurting anyone below. And finally, the cape had been used for years by the Army and Air Force, so there was some existing infrastructure — but little else — in the area.
As ambitious as the physical facilities were, though, the new agency lacked a guiding goal. This was remedied when President John F. Kennedy visited Houston in September of 1961, shortly after the city was chosen as the site for the Manned Spacecraft Center. At Rice University, on an afternoon so hot and humid that even the birds seemed to sweat, the movie star president issued a remarkable challenge. The United States, he said, would land a man on the moon and bring him safely back home by the end of the decade. The end of the decade! Using materials, the president casually added, that hadn’t been INVENTED yet! There were smiles and cheers all around — even, it’s rumored, a random yeehaw or two. The smiles on the faces of NASA administrators, however, were notably short-lived. The agency was still congratulating itself on launching a man from Florida and landing him somewhere in the 41 million square miles of the Atlantic Ocean. Landing a man on the moon was the stuff of Saturday morning serials and flyboys in the funny papers. It was a daunting task. It was an impossible task.
And suddenly the clock was ticking.