Civil-Military Relations

The most fundamental policy question to be addressed in the months fol­lowing the 1957 launches of Sputniks 1 and 2 was whether a new organiza­tion for space was needed, or whether all U. S. government space activities, including those with primarily civilian objectives, should be managed by the Department of Defense. In the weeks following the Sputnik launches, both the Army and the Air Force put forward ambitious space plans, and campaigned vigorously for primacy in the U. S. space effort. The Army claim was based in large part on the fact that German emigre Wernher von Braun and his rocket team worked at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) and that they constituted the country’s top reservoir of launch vehicle – related technical talent; in addition, the Army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had managed the development of the first U. S. satellite, Explorer 1, and could serve as the organization developing future satellites. AMBA in its struggle to gain an important space role developed ambitious plans in 1957 and 1958, beginning with a suborbital launch of a human and extending to establishing outposts on the Moon. The Army campaign was not suc­cessful, and by mid-1960, both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and von Braun’s rocket team had been transferred to the new civilian space agency NASA.13

The Air Force claim took a different approach. Its chief of staff, General Thomas White, argued that “there is no division, per se, between air and space. Air and space are an indivisible field of operations.”14 To make this point, the Air Force in early 1958 coined the word “aerospace.” The implica­tion was that the service was the natural choice for the space role. The Air Force also rapidly developed ambitious plans for its space efforts, including putting a man into orbit as soon as possible and eventually sending humans to the Moon.15

President Eisenhower, upset by the competition between the two mili­tary services, established a Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as an interim step. DARPA, rather than one of the armed services, was to manage all U. S. space efforts, civil­ian and military, but it was not successful in establishing itself as the lead U. S. space agency. After several months of discussion within the Eisenhower administration, a March 1958 memorandum to the president argued that “because of the importance of the civil interest in space exploration, the long term organization of Federal programs in this area should be under civil­ian control.” The memorandum recommended that “leadership of the civil space effort be lodged in a strengthened and redesignated National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.”16 That organization, known by most as NACA, had been the government’s primary aeronautical research and development organization since its creation in 1915. President Eisenhower accepted this recommendation, and on April 2, 1958, proposed the establishment of a National Aeronautics and Space Agency; his message to Congress included a draft bill “to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere and for other purposes.”17 After four months of debate by the Congress, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was signed by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. The shift in organizational des­ignation from “agency” to “administration” upgraded the status of the new space agency within the executive branch hierarchy.18

Eisenhower selected T. Keth Glennan as the first NASA administrator. Glennan was “a Republican with a fiscally conservative bent, an aggressive businessman with a keen sense of public duty and an opposition to govern­ment intrusion into the lives of Americans, and an administrator and an educator with a rich appreciation of the role of science and technology in an international setting.”19 He was an engineer by training and had had a wide-ranging career, including a stint as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. But he knew little about space science or technology, and had not followed the post-Sputnik debates leading to the creation of NASA; in his own words, “I didn’t have any idea what astronomy or geodesy or any of those things would mean in this strange world. I literally knew nothing.” Glennan agreed to take the position, but only on the condition that Hugh Dryden, the executive director of NACA, would be nominated as deputy administrator.

Many in Washington had expected Dryden to get the top NASA job; trained in aerodynamics, he had been the top official handling day-to-day affairs at NACA since 1949, and was a widely known and respected indi­vidual in the U. S. and international aeronautical research communities. However, some in Congress deemed his approach to space to be too cautious for the leader of the organization they had in mind, and thus had indicated to the White House that Dryden would not be acceptable as the first head of the space agency.20 This outcome was deeply disappointing for Dryden, but he overcame that disappointment to serve as NASA’s deputy administrator until his death in 1965. According to Keith Glennan, Dryden was “held in esteem by people all over the world” and was “gentle, quiet, wise, very wise, and an astute politician without being a politician.”21 Dryden stayed on in his position during the Kennedy administration and played a key role in the deliberations leading to the decision to go to the Moon.

NASA inherited three programs from the Department of Defense (DOD) that would later play important roles in the space efforts of the Kennedy administration. In August 1958, DARPA transferred its human space flight project (which in fact was originally an Air Force initiative) to NASA; the effort was soon named Project Mercury. According to the NASA history of the project, NASA “received authorization to carry out this primitive manned venture into lower space mainly because Eisenhower was wedded to a ‘space for peace’ policy. . . In 1958 there simply was no clear military justification for putting a man in orbit.”22 Even so, Eisenhower decided that the first U. S. people to fly in space, to be known as “astronauts,” should be drawn from the ranks of military test pilots.

Another DOD program inherited by NASA was a much more powerful launch vehicle than any rocket available to NASA in its early years. Known as Saturn C-1 and conceived and managed by the von Braun team, the lift-off thrust of the Saturn C-1 vehicle was to be 1.5 million pounds, four times more powerful than the 360,000 pounds thrust of the Atlas ICBM that NASA was planning to use for orbital flights in Project Mercury. The von Braun team also proposed developing a second version of the Saturn launch vehicle, known as the Saturn C-2. This version would have an upgraded ver­sion of the first stage of the Saturn C-1 and upper stages that would use very energetic but difficult to handle liquid hydrogen as its fuel; because of its very low temperature in a liquid state, this fuel was called “cryogenic.”

The third inherited DOD project was the very powerful F-1 rocket motor, designed to provide 1.5 million pounds of thrust, equivalent to the eight engines that were to power the first stage of the Saturn C-1. The F-1 was originally an Air Force project. During 1959-1960, the von Braun team developed the concept of an extremely powerful heavy lift launch vehicle called Nova, which was based on the use of up to eight F-1 engines in its first stage.23

By the end of 1959, just over a year after it began operation, NASA had developed a ten-year plan that identified various mission milestones and esti­mated the costs of achieving them. Among the highlights of the plan were the following:

1961-1962 Attainment of manned space flight, Project Mercury

1965-1967 First launchings in a program leading to manned circumlunar flight and to a permanent near-earth space station

Beyond 1970 Manned flight to the moon

The cost of this ten-year program was estimated to be between $12 billion and $13 billion.24

While the Army reconciled itself to a minor role in space with the loss of the von Braun team, the Air Force never accepted its loss of space leader­ship to NASA. Air Force leaders and supporters were encouraged by the tone of candidate Kennedy’s public statements on space, especially his stri­dent October 1960 response to Missiles and Rockets. The service by 1960 had gained the lead role for space within the Department of Defense from DARPA; then it turned its ambitions to recapturing from NASA the primary role overall in U. S. space activities. After the 1960 election, the Air Force launched “an intense public and internal information campaign to express Air Force views on space to congressmen, journalists, businessmen, and other influential people.”25 For example, The New York Times reported that “The Air Force has drafted a publicity offensive to stake out a major role for itself in the nation’s space program” and that “this offensive is clearly keyed to the change in administrations. It is the openly expressed belief of the Air Force that the Kennedy administration will look more favorably on military operations in space than does the Eisenhower administration.”26

To help in its campaign, the Air Force asked Trevor Gardner, former Air Force assistant secretary for research and development and a prime mover in the Atlas missile program, to chair a committee to recommend a more dynamic Air Force space program. As noted in the previous chapter, Gardner had been one of Kennedy’s advisers on missile and space issues during the presidential campaign. In December 1960 Gardner also became a member of the group President-elect Kennedy chartered to advise him on space matters during the postelection transition; this was interpreted as another sugges­tion that Kennedy favored a larger role for the military in space.