The space age dawns


When a team of German rocket experts surrendered to the US Army in May 1945 and General Holger ‘Ludy’ Toftoy, an artillery officer serving as Chief of Ordnance Technical Intelligence in Europe, set out to arrange their relocation to the USA, the V-2 missile was seen as an important military technology. However, this perception changed with the introduction of the atomic bomb in August against Japan. In the immediate post-war years the US military felt that strategic aircraft carrying atomic bombs would enable it to defeat any enemy. In this context, a ballistic missile which could fly only several hundred kilometres to deliver about 1,000 kg of conventional explosive was insignificant. Consequently, upon being settled in El Paso, Texas, the German team led by Wernher von Braun found themselves with little to do.

Although the ballistic missile had seemingly become obsolete as a weapon, it held out the prospect of serving a more benign role, and in November 1945 the US Navy recommended the development of a satellite. The Army Air Force agreed. However, each service felt that it alone should be assigned this task.

In 1946 the RAND Corporation, created as a ‘think tank’ for the Army Air Force, said: ‘‘The achievement of a satellite craft by the United States would inflame the imagination of mankind, and would probably produce repercussions in the world comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb. […] Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques. To visualise the impact on the world, one can imagine the consternation and admiration that would be felt here if the US were to discover suddenly that some other nation had already put up a successful satellite.’’

Meanwhile, von Braun was showing the Army how to assemble, prepare and fire V-2 missiles at the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico. They were made from parts either recovered from Germany or manufactured to his specifications in America. In 1948, while in Texas, von Braun wrote a book, Das Marsprojekt, in which he outlined how an expedition to explore Mars might be undertaken. It was a

‘grand design’ which left the details to be developed in due course. He set out “more or less to project the technology that existed then’’ to motivate young engineers. He argued that a mission would be feasible ‘‘in 15 to 20 years’’ if a nuclear-powered ion engine could be created. The expedition would involve ten space ships with a crew totalling around 70 people. The ships were to be assembled in Earth orbit, with three carrying ‘landing boats’ for Mars. Later in 1948, von Braun’s team was relocated to the Redstone Arsenal of the Army Ordnance Corps in Huntsville, Alabama. It was a new establishment on the site of facilities used by the Chemical Corps in the Second World War, and was to undertake research and development of rockets and missiles.

In September 1949 the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb – at least 3 years earlier than the US had expected. Although the Soviet bomb was not yet a weapon, it was evident that America would soon lose its monopoly. In early 1950 President Harry S. Truman authorised the hydrogen bomb. In 1951 funding was made available for preliminary work for what would become the Atlas intercontinental-range ballistic missile. The hydrogen bomb test at Eniwetok Atoll on 1 November 1952 was not a viable weapon, because it weighed 60 tonnes. But as the bomb’s weight was reduced for carriage by aircraft it was realised that if it were to prove possible to make the device even smaller, it might become feasible to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering it. The Air Force (which had gained its independence from the Army in 1947) created a committee chaired by physicist John von Neumann. This was asked to predict the trend in weight-to-yield ratio of hydrogen bomb development, estimate the warhead that a ballistic missile might deliver over intercontinental range by the end of the decade, and assess whether the probable accuracy would make a warhead of that yield a viable weapon. In February 1954 the committee reported that progress with warheads would make missiles viable. The RAND Corporation endorsed this conclusion. Although the Air Force responded by assigning the development of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile ‘top priority’, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson, who was in tune with the ‘economic conservatism’ of the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower deliberated on the matter for over 12 months until informed in 1955 that a recently established radar intelligence station in Turkey that was operated by the US had discovered that the Soviets were well advanced in the development of their own intercontinental-range ballistic missile – test flights were launched from a site east of the Black Sea and passed across Soviet territory to fall near the Kamchatka Peninsula. America had felt safe because the USSR had no strategic bombers, but a ballistic missile would be able to circumvent America’s air defences. The risk was that when the Soviet missile entered service with a nuclear warhead it would be able to wipe out the US bomber bases in a ‘first strike’ which would prevent retaliation against the Soviet Union. The US therefore simply had to have its own fleet of missiles.

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