How America Chose Not To Beat Sputnik Into Space
ON SEPTEMBER 20, 1956, MORE THAN A YEAR before the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, a four-stage Jupiter-C rocket stood on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral. It had three stages—sections that fire in turn and then are jettisoned. The rocket was almost identical to the one that would lift America’s first satellite into orbit 16 months later, and Wernher von Braun, director of development for the U.S. Army’s rocket program, was well aware of its capabilities. All he had to do was give it a functioning fourth stage, and with that much more power, the Jupiter-C could launch a small payload into Earth orbit—barely a decade after the end of World War II, and well ahead of anything the Soviet Union might accomplish.
But von Braun was not the only one who knew what the rocket could do. As he sat in his office overseeing the pre-launch preparations, the telephone rang. It was his boss, Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris. “Wernher,” said the general, “I must put you under direct orders personally to inspect that fourth stage to make sure it is not live.”
It was indeed a dummy, but the rocket’s first three stages soon showed their power. Firing successfully in sequence, they boosted the top stage to an altitude of 682 miles and a range of 3,335 miles. Both achievements set records, and von Braun came away from the launch fully aware that with only slightly more oomph, the top stage would have flown into orbit. Yet there was a reason for Medaris’s order, one with a background that went back 10 years.
The path to that phone call had its start in 1946, in the nascent RAND Corporation. This was a think tank, founded as a branch of the Douglas Aircraft Company, that specialized in weapons studies so futuristic they verged on science fiction. Space flight quickly emerged as a specialty of the house. A report issued in May 1946, “Preliminary Design of an Experimental WorldCircling Spaceship,” anticipated the orbiting of a 500-pound satellite. Follow-on work at RAND investigated the potential uses of such spacecraft in military reconnaissance, with camera-equipped satellites flying hundreds of miles in the sky, far out of reach of enemy aircraft and missiles.
THEN, IN OCTOBER 1950, ANOTHER RAND ANALYST, PAUL Kecskemeti, raised a question: Even if America could launch such satellites, would the Soviets stand for it? Kecskemeti pointed out that Moscow would view the orbiting cameras as a major threat: “Fear of loss of secrecy is constant and intense. A picture of the outside world as engaged in penetrating Soviet secrets is likely to be highly anxietyprovoking.” The Kremlin might respond not just with diplomatic protests, which would receive a sympathetic hearing in many regions, but by directing threats against nations that provided military bases for the Americans.
Kecskemeti asserted that before proceeding with satellite launches, the United States would have to establish the legal right to conduct overflights as a matter of international law. No such right existed for aircraft; the Soviets were free to shoot down anything that flew over their territory. And they exercised this right, most famously with Francis Gary Powers’s U-2 spy plane in 1960. But the question of overflight in space was open. Such a right, if established, could parallel the freedom of the high seas.
“Perhaps the best way to minimize the risk of countermeasures would be to launch an ‘experimental’ satellite on an equatorial orbit,” Kecskemeti’s report suggested. The spacecraft would be small, carrying no camera. It would also steer clear of the Soviet landmass, which would remain well to the north of its orbit. By pursuing research rather than military objectives, it might overfly a number of countries without drawing complaint. In so doing, it could establish freedom of space as a legal principle. Still, there was no guarantee; the Soviets would remain free to object to later flights over their territory.
As rocketry advanced during the next few years, the Cold War deepened. In the spring of 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with advisers and warned that he feared a new Pearl Harbor, a surprise nuclear attack by Soviet long-range bombers that would destroy whole cities rather than battleships. The advisers included Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera. In his section of a committee report to Ike the following February, Land wrote, “We must find ways to increase the number of hard facts upon which our intelligence estimates are based, to provide better strategic warning, to minimize surprise in the kind of attack, and to reduce the danger of gross overestimation or gross underestimation of the threat.”
The CIA’s initial response was the high-altitude U-2 spy plane. Even before it began its overflights, however, it was viewed as merely a stopgap, for those flights would be violations of Soviet air space that could be viewed as acts of war. But in March 1954, just before Ike’s meet- ing with his advisers, analysts at RAND had issued classified reports with detailed discussions of possible methods of satellite reconnaissance. The studies had gone forward under the name Project Feed Back; their summary alone filled two volumes. These methods included recording images on videotape and sending them when the satellite passed over the United States, as well as taking still photographs and then scanning and transmitting them like Wirephotos.
As Ike’s advisers shaped their recommendations, events provided a fortuitous public cover for the RAND schemes. A worldwide organization, the International Council of Scientific Unions, was proceeding with plans for the International Geophysical Year, which would last 18 months in 1957 and 1958. During the IGY, scientists from around the world would cooperate in studies of the Earth and its atmosphere. Lloyd Berkner, an American leader within the ICSU, held a meeting in October 1954 to consider whether scientific satellites might be part of the IGY’s agenda. He found great enthusiasm among scientists, and the IGY gave its blessing. Still, only the Defense Department had rockets that could launch such a satellite, so the issue went to the Pentagon.
By this time von Braun was quite prepared to build a satellite-launching rocket for the scientists. He was already developing the Redstone ballistic missile, with a 200-mile range, for the Army. To expand it into a satellite launcher, he proposed to mount clusters of small solidpropellant rockets atop the missile, with these clusters serving as the second and third stages. The fourth stage, a single small rocket, would add enough velocity to reach orbit along with a lightweight package of instruments.
VON BRAUN WAS AMERICA’S MOST EXPERIENCED ROCKET man, and his approach was eminently feasible, calling for the use of rocket stages that already existed and had flown. However, there was a problem. Under the government’s plan, the scientific IGY rockets were to provide a fig leaf for the military reconnaissance program. Von Braun’s Redstone concept, based on an unambiguously military missile under military control, would make the fig leaf a little too transparent, especially since von Braun had previously developed the fearsome V-2 rocket for Germany during World War II. The Soviets, with the memory of Hitler’s invasion still fresh, were not likely to trust someone who had worked so effectively for the Nazi cause. If freedom of space was to win acceptance as a new legal principle, von Braun was not the man to do it.
An alternative concept, put forward by the Navy, had a more peaceful pedigree, though it was less well advanced. It was based on the existing Viking research rocket, which would be improved with a new engine that did not yet exist. Its second stage would be based on the Aerobee rocket, which had been flying since 1948. The timing would be tight, but if the new first-stage engine worked well, this Navy rocket just might fly in time for the IGY.
The Navy’s proposal was more acceptable than von Braun’s because it was based on rockets that had been designed and built for scientific research. Using them to launch satellites was a natural extension. Moreover, the IGY project would be overseen by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, in Washington, D.C., which was widely known for its scientific endeavors, particularly in geophysics. Its maps of the sea floor and its studies of long-distance radio propagation had set the pace for research in those fields.
In July 1955 James C. Hagerty, the White House press secretary, announced that the United States intended to launch “small, earthcircling satellites as part of the United States participation in the International Geophysical Year.” The Navy quickly received official approval for its proposal, which took the name of Project Vanguard. Von Braun still had his Redstone and his dreams, but for the moment he had no permission to put either into orbit.
Still, the military was in the midst of a major push toward ballistic missiles, and von Braun, ever helpful, was already showing that he could do more in this area. Intercontinental missiles lay well in the future, but for the short term the Pentagon had a strong interest in missiles of 1,500-mile range. The Air Force pushed for its own missile of this type, Thor, and won approval later in 1955. Von Braun wanted to build one for the Army, called Jupiter.
When the Jupiter missile won Pentagon approval in November 1955, von Braun lost no time in proposing a vigorous flighttesting program. Flights of nose cones were a prime topic of interest, and Army nose-cone research was running well ahead of the Air Force’s. Von Braun fully expected this work would help the Army and the nation, but he was well aware that the plan might also give him a second opportunity to launch a satellite—and perhaps beat Vanguard.
For the early nose-cone flights, von Braun used a launch vehicle called Jupiter-C that closely resembled his proposed satellite launcher. Its first flight, the one in 1956 that brought the phone call from General Medaris, tested this multistage rocket as a system and showed that it could fly as predicted. The program achieved full success in August 1957, when another Jupiter-C launched a nose cone that flew to a range of 1,330 miles. It was recovered at sea and proved to be in good shape.
Two months later, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets placed Sputnik 1 in orbit. Von Braun heard the news at a cocktail party, accompanied by Medaris and the incoming Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy. He exploded in anger: “We knew they were going to do it! Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. For God’s sake, turn us loose and let us do something. We can put up a satellite in 60 days, Mr. McElroy! Just give us the green light and 60 days!”
It seemed a reasonable request. By being first into space and overflying the United States without protest, the Soviets had established the principle of freedom of space, so the rationale for Vanguard had ceased to exist. Yet von Braun didn’t get his green light, not just yet, since Vanguard still had official approval.
Ike held a press conference a few days after the Sputnik 1 launch and reassured the nation. He said that the Soviet achievement “does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota.” They had “put one small ball in the air.” Public opinion shared this lack of concern. In Boston, Newsweek found “massive indifference.” In Denver the magazine reported “a vague feeling that we have stepped into a new era, but people aren’t discussing it the way they are football and the Asiatic flu.” On October 5 the front-page headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel read: TODAY WE MAKE HISTORY . It referred to the first-ever World Series game played in that city.
Then, on November 3, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 . Weighing more than half a ton, it was six times as heavy as Sputnik 1 , and it carried a dog named Laika as a passenger. Laika died while in orbit, but it was easy to see that Sputnik 2 foreshadowed the orbiting of a man. Suddenly the country became worried. With Vanguard now a rear guard, McElroy promptly did an about-face, issuing an order on November 8 that gave von Braun his green light. Vanguard still had priority, and on December 6 the program made its first launch attempt. The satellite weighed only three pounds, but it would show the Soviets that America could join them in orbit.
The rocket flared, began to lift, and then sank back onto the launch pad, disintegrating into an enormous fireball. “How long, how long, oh God, how long will it take to catch up with Russia’s two satellites?” wailed the Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson. In London the Daily Herald ran the headline OH, WHAT A FLOPNIK , while its rival, the Daily Express , declared u.s. CALLS IT KAPUTNIK .
BUT ON JANUARY 31, 1958, JUST 84 DAYS after receiving his go-ahead, von Braun launched the craft that could have flown in 1956 and placed Explorer 1 in orbit as the first American satellite. The Jupiter-C’s first stage, a modified Redstone, had far more thrust than Vanguard, but the constraints imposed on von Braun by his need to work quickly meant its upper stages weren’t optimally designed to take full advantage of this thrust. As a consequence, it could put up only a very small satellite. The Soviets remained the heavyweight champions; while Explorer 1 weighed a little more than 30 pounds, Sputnik 3 , which flew to orbit in May, weighed nearly a ton and a half.
In the realm of showy space feats, the United States remained a step behind the Soviets for years. In secret, however, America was building and deploying CORONA, a spacebased reconnaissance system. In 1961 it revealed that Soviet missile capabilities were much less than had been thought only a year earlier. Subsequent flights provided detailed maps of the U.S.S.R.’s submarine bases, anti-aircraft batteries, and tank deployments. By the late 1970s satellites were sending real-time images with details as small as six inches across. Because of the U.S. decision to hold back on launching a satellite in 1956, the Soviets got to spend a few years exulting in the “missile gap.” But this was a small price to pay for the wealth of satellite intelligence that uncovered strategic weapons, allayed fears of Soviet breakthroughs, helped ratchet down tensions, and ultimately hastened the end of the Cold War.