Increasing U. S. Rocket Lifting Power

Linking Soviet space achievements to the Russian ballistic missile program, as John Kennedy had done during the presidential campaign, was a reason­able thing to do, since even in the 1957-1960 period it was well known in U. S. intelligence and technical circles that the Soviet Union had used its initial R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile as its space launch vehicle. Soviet engineers had been developing this missile since the early 1950s, giving them a several-year head start on the United States. The launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, was thus not only a propaganda loss for the United States; it was also a very visible demonstration that the Soviet Union possessed the capability to launch a nuclear warhead across intercontinental distances, and that the United States could be vulnerable to a Soviet nuclear attack.33

Among their other impacts, the launches of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 demonstrated that the Soviet Union possessed the capability to lift much heavier payloads into space than did the United States. Sputnik 1 weighed 184.3 pounds, and Sputnik 2 weighed 1,120 pounds. Moreover, the second stage of the R-7 booster also went into orbit on each launch, so in reality the Soviet Union had placed some 12,000-13,000 pounds into space; it was the rocket’s upper stage, not the satellite itself, which was visible to the naked eye of observers around the world. By contrast, the first U. S. satellite, Explorer 1, which was launched by the Army team led by Wernher von Braun on January 31, 1958, weighed only 30.8 pounds, with half of that weight being the satellite’s last-stage booster rocket.34

This disparity in satellite-lifting capability was the by-product of the dif­ficulty the Soviet Union had several years earlier in designing a warhead for an ICBM launch. The three megaton nuclear warhead which was the payload for the R-7 ICBM weighed approximately 11,000 pounds, thus requiring the development of a powerful booster to send it on its intercontinental trajec­tory. By contrast, the United States a few years later was able to develop a thermonuclear warhead weighing only around 1,600 pounds; this meant that U. S. Atlas and Titan ICBMs did not have to be nearly as powerful as the Soviet R-7 in order to accomplish their military mission. This was accept­able in terms of strategic rocket relationships, but meant that the United States was at a severe disadvantage in sending heavy payloads into space. The United States might be able to launch scientifically sophisticated satellites, but it would not be able to match the Soviet Union in publicly visible space achievements using a converted ICBM as a launch vehicle.

There were two approaches taken during the Eisenhower administration to closing the U. S.-USSR gap in rocket-lifting power. One was to develop the Saturn C-1 launcher, with its first stage having 1.5 million pounds of lift-off thrust. The other was to develop the large F-1 rocket engine, which at some future time could be used to power a much larger launch vehicle. President Eisenhower on January 12, 1960, had indicated his strong support for the Saturn program, and on January 14 told Glennan that “it is essential to push forward vigorously to increase our capability in high thrust space vehicles.” Four days later, the Saturn project received the highest national priority, DX, authorizing the use of overtime work and giving it precedence for scarce materials and other program requirements.35

However, the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) was determined that the bud­get to be submitted by Dwight Eisenhower a few days before he left office in January 1961 would be balanced, and this determination took priority over Eisenhower’s support for accelerating the Saturn program. NASA had hoped to get a FY1962 budget of $1.4 billion approved; such a budget would have enabled NASA to accelerate its booster and rocket engine development efforts. After tough negotiations with BOB, NASA was held to a $1.1 billion total.36 At that budget level, there would necessarily be a delay in closing the weight-lifting gap with the Soviet Union. It would be up to the new presi­dent to decide whether this was an acceptable situation.