he scientific mind is a curious thing. It probes what others take for granted, including, on one night in 1950, a multilayered chocolate cake. Some of America’s brightest scientific minds were focused on that cake at the home of James Van Allen, who was to become famous as the discoverer of the earth’s radiation belts and who was hosting a dinner for the eminent British geophysicist Sydney Chapman. With admirable attention to detail, the collective scientific intellect verified that the cake had twenty-one layers. That cake did much to put the scientists in the kind of mood from which expansive conversation flows and big ideas are born.
Led by Lloyd Berkner, the talk turned to science. Berkner was a charismatic individual, head of the Brookhaven National Laboratory and a veteran of one of Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions. Like his fellow diners, Berkner was fascinated by the new insights into the earth’s environment that instruments aboard V2 rockets captured from Germany had been providing since 1946. These high-altitude sounding rockets were invigorating the earth sciences. Was the time right, asked Berkner, to promote an international effort in geophysics, one that would exploit new and established technologies in a world-wide scientific exploration to illuminate global physical phenomena?
This conversation was to lead to the establishment of the International Geophysical Year of 1957/58. The IGY was the enterprise that by inadvertently dovetailing with a key element of President Eisenhower’s national security policy—establishing the freedom of space for reconnaissance satellites—was to become the cradle of the space age.
At Van Allen’s dinner party in 1950, Berkner and his fellow diners were not considering spacecraft, though they all knew of the imminent technical feasibility of launching satellites and were to play important roles in the opening years of the space age.
Berkner’s suggestion for a geophysical year captured Chapman’s attention. These two agreed to “talk the idea up” among their many contacts in the international scientific community. Chapman sent an account of the dinner party to the journal Nature. Within a few years, Berkner and Chapman had secured enough interest to win the backing of the International Council of Scientific Unions for the IGY. Chapman became president of the IGY and Berkner the vice president.
Scientists had already established the idea of international collaboration in 1882 and 1932 when they had undertaken to study geophysics from the earth’s poles. Expanding the concept of the International Polar Years to encompass the whole earth was, agreed the diners, a good idea, and the best time for such an effort would be between July 1, 1957, and the end of 1958. They chose the dates to coincide with a period of maximum solar activity, when there would be much to study.
During solar maxima, which occur once every eleven years, the sun throws out huge flares of matter and energy more frequently than at other times, adding peaks of intensity to the solar wind that is always racing through the solar system. Numerous terrestrial effects result. The northern lights, for example, move to lower latitudes than usual as more charged particles precipitate along magnetic field lines into the ionosphere, an area of charged particles at altitudes of between 60 and 1000 kilometers above the earth’s surface. Studying the ionosphere was to account for a significant portion of the IGY, including science that was important for long-range communication, missile development, and, as it turned out, the space age.
Others in 1950 wanted to set up observation posts in places where meteorological data were sparse. Some wanted to organize expeditions to places where they could observe total eclipses. And some, like Lloyd
available to McDougall, that the Eisenhower administration wished to finesse a satellite into orbit in order to establish the freedom of space. See also The Eisenhower Administration and the Cold War; Framing American Astronautics to Serve National Security; by R. Cargill Hall (in Prologue, Quarterly of the National Archives, spring 1996). Cargill Hall’s article, which is based on additional, recently declassified documents, makes the argument more explicitly that the IGY and national security policy were linked.
Berkner, were intrigued by the physics and chemistry of the upper atmosphere.
So, with endorsements from the international scientific community, the participating countries got down to business. Each needed a detailed research plan. And they needed money.
In the U. S., scientists turned for leadership to Joseph Kaplan, a professor of physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. He had proven his organizational abilities by cofounding the university’s Institute of Geophysics in 1944 and by campaigning successfully for degree programs in sports. As chair of the U. S. National Committee for the IGY, he concealed the habitual tension that turned him into a five-cigar man during sporting events.
The first meeting of the U. S. National Committee for the IGY took place at the National Academy of Sciences on the afternoon of March 26, 1953. For a day and a half, the group struggled to define a program and budget. Frustration mounted. One scientist suggested that they should forget the whole thing. Berkner, a consummate committee man, smoothed over such moments, and by the end of the twenty-seventh they had outlined their aims. In the meantime, they had solicited thoughts from their colleagues around the country.
Ideas poured into the academy during April. Many of them would sound familiar today. Issues were raised that today’s scientists continue to address. Paul Siple wrote, “There is evidence that the earth is undergoing a significant climate change, advancing from cooler to warmer conditions… our knowledge is still imperfect as to the exact cause of climate changes.”
By May the list of subjects to be studied included geomagnetism, solid-earth investigations, atmospheric electricity, climatic change, geodet- ics, cosmic rays, ionospheric physics, high-altitude physics, and auroral physics.
It is hard to imagine any study of these subjects today that would not rely partially or wholly on satellite observations. Then satellites did not exist, and the National Committee of the IGY did not initially consider that satellites should be developed. It was, however, clear to them that they needed a strong program of sounding rockets to probe the upper atmosphere. Some scientists were concerned that the rockets would cost too much, and perhaps price dissuaded them from adding satellites to their agenda.
The estimated price tag for this unprecedented research proposal, between 1954 and its closure at the end of 1958, was $13 million—$2.5 million more than the National Science Foundation (NSF) was requesting as its total budget for fiscal year 1954. The NSF and the academy undertook the task of requesting the money from Congress.
Behind the scenes, Kaplan lobbied hard. There were times when the project seemed doomed. A scientist in the administration told him, “Joe, go home. Such a beautiful program does not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting support.” Yet, it did.
Through the end of 1953 and 1954, planning for the IGY went ahead in the U. S. Concurrently, support for launching a satellite, despite deep skepticism from many, was gaining momentum among a vocal and persuasive minority in the military, industry, and academia. Some saw the IGY as the natural home for a satellite program, and they set in motion events that led to the General Assembly of the IGY endorsing the inclusion of satellites in its program.
This was in Rome in the fall of 1954. The night before, Berkner and others who were to become leading space scientists had debated until the early hours whether their enthusiasm was getting ahead of their ability, and whether they should seek the approval of their international colleagues. Slowly the enthusiasts converted the cautious. As they argued and won their case the next day, the Soviets simply observed—in silence. It was October 4, three years to the day before the launch of Sputnik I.
The International Geophysical Year was now close to its decisive encounter with the Eisenhower administration’s national security policy. While Berkner and his colleagues prepared for the Rome meeting, a top – level scientific panel, authorized by President Eisenhower in July 1954, was in the process of assessing the technological options available to prevent a surprise attack on the U. S., particularly by the Soviet Myacheslav-4 intercontinental BISON bombers. This panel, headed by James Killian, a confidant of President Eisenhower and the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, separated its task into three areas: continental defense, striking power, and intelligence capabilities.
Their final report contained a recommendation that the administration fund development of a scientific Earth satellite to establish the freedom of space in international law and the right of overflight.
The report was finally completed in February 1955, and later that month, Donald Quarles, the assistant secretary of defense for research and development, discreetly asked some members of the U. S. National Committee for the IGY to formally request a scientific satellite.
In response to the Rome resolution, the national committee had already asked a rocketry panel, which met for the first time on January 22, 1955, to “ … study and report on the technical feasibility of the construction of an extended rocket, from here on called the long-playing rocket, to be launched in connection with scientific activities during the International Geophysical Year.” “Long-playing rocket” was a euphemism for satellite launcher, and the new panel was told that its discussions should remain private.
By early March the panel had concluded that a satellite launch was feasible within the time frame of the IGY, but that guidance would be difficult. On March 9, the executive committee of the U. S. national committee debated whether to accept the panels findings. After some heated discussion, the report was accepted and the national committee requested that a satellite program be included in the IGY.
Quarles took the request to the National Security Council, which accepted the IGY’s satellite project on May 26, 1955. The next day, Eisenhower, too, endorsed the project. On July 29, President Eisenhower told the world that the U. S. would launch a satellite as part of the IGY. Thanks to Eisenhowers national security aims, the scientists who had campaigned for science satellites had what they wanted. Many of them, of course, did not know of the underlying agenda that had furthered their aims.
Within days of Eisenhowers announcement, the Soviet Union, by then a participant in the IGY, talked openly about its satellite plans at a meeting of the International Astronautical Federation in Copenhagen.
Leonid Sedov, an academician and chair of the impressively named Commission for the Coordination of Interplanetary Flight, made the announcement. He dropped into one of the sessions and, through his interpreter, called a press conference at the Soviet embassy During the conference, Sedov said that the Soviet Union planned to launch a satellite in about eighteen months, six months earlier than the earliest American estimate. The plans he outlined were for a much larger satellite than those the U. S. was planning. For those whose job it was to analyze Soviet intentions, here was public confirmation of the heavy-lift launch capabilities that the Soviets aspired to and a clear announcement that missiles capable of intercontinental distances were in the offing.
Sedov’s prediction of the Soviet launch date was wrong by ten months. But the Soviets did launch first, and their satellite was bigger than anything American scientists really believed in their hearts that the Soviets were capable of.