When the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space in 1957, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a protracted Cold War struggle. The issue was which political/economic system was superior and constituted the wave of the future which other nations would follow. Technology was a symbol of national capacity to lead. It was emblematic of national power.6 Sputnik came as a great psychological victory for the Soviets, even though President Eisenhower downplayed its military significance. But to most observers it seemed to indicate not only rocket-lifting capacity but national power generally—not only in military missiles, but also in scientific and technical education. Even fellow Republicans were angered that the Eisenhower administration had not been sufficiently vigilant and had let Sputnik happen. It grated that the Soviet Union was the first nation in space. America’s pride was bent and its prestige tarnished.
Eisenhower appointed a science advisor and science advisory committee in part to help him establish America’s course in space. Although Eisenhower did not want to engage in a “race,” he wanted the United States to be competitive, and that would take some time. The Soviet Union followed up Sputnik with other successes, while the U. S. effort floundered. There was no existing space agency. To the extent that there was space-related activity at all, it was found in only a few places in government and was an uncertain priority in all.
One place was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), an old agency that went back to World War 1 and housed a number of research laboratories to advance the field of aeronautics. Another place was the Department of Defense (DOD). There was a scientific group in the Navy (Naval Research Laboratory) active in space research and poised to launch an American satellite as part of a large international science undertaking at the time called the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Another body in DOD consisted of von Braun’s German rocketeers, who were working for the army on missiles. Also active was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which served the army via management by the California Institute of Technology. The political consensus that emerged in late 1957 and 1958 was that the American space effort was too fragmented and low priority and a new agency for which space science and technology was the mission had to be established.
Eisenhower was strongly influenced by his science advisors, as well as his own predilections, to establish a civilian space agency. The scientists feared that if DOD became the de facto space agency, it would concentrate space research on strictly military missions, and secrecy and classification would be the rule. The scientists immediately saw tremendous opportunities for space research in an agency with a nonmilitary orientation. Indeed, they wanted an agency with an agenda scientists could influence. Eisenhower, feeling pressures for space-oriented weapons which eventually helped compel him to warn against a “military-industrial complex,” agreed that a civilian agency was best for the country.
The NACA, with its 8 ,ooo-person civil servant staff, was selected to be the core of the new agency. NACA brought with it three major laboratories, or field centers: Ames in California, Lewis in Ohio, and Langley in Virginia. Other facilities would be grafted onto the new agency from DOD. These would include JPL, the von Braun team, and a naval science group. Von Braun and his associates would form the nucleus of the new Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The navy group would be the keystone for the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
As the White House and Congress worked on enabling legislation for the new agency, they decided that the new entity would have to have a broad charter in science and technology which would give it unusual flexibility. Space was seen as a new frontier, and no one was sure what it would entail. What was clear was that everyone wanted the agency to move quickly and begin competing with the Soviets as soon as possible. There was a general feeling that NACA was sluggish and bureaucratic.
Hence, there was attention paid, directly and indirectly, to the question of bureaucratic power. This was exemplified most clearly in giving the new agency a single leader. NACA was led by a committee and director under the committee. The other leading technical agency of the time was the Atomic Energy Commission. Again, there was plural leadership. The political architects drafting legislation wanted an individual to be in charge, one clearly responsible and accountable. The original bill created a National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). The word “Agency” was changed to “Administration.” The head would be called not a “director,” as originally written, but an “Administrator.” “Administration” and “Administrator” seemed to the political founders more substantial terms for an agency that would be charged with leading the U. S. drive against the Soviets, and which would have to work with formidable bureaucratic rivals, such as DOD.7
There was no question that NASA was going to have a strong robotic science emphasis, even if the human spaceflight side of the agency came to be dominant. Eisenhower’s science advisors and other scientists who testified during hearings leading up to the NASA bill pressed hard to have a science mission that was explicit in NASA’s legislative charter. That it did, the charter saying simply that the new agency should carry out “the expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” The legislation moved into law with relative ease, given the sense of urgency. On October i, 1958, NASA officially opened for business. The generality of the legislation and anxiety of the country meant that the first NASA Administrator, T. Keith Glennan, would have a lot of discretion in how he went about his job and organized NASA.