Chapter 10

Tests Versus Time in the Race for Space

(January - April 1961)

[303] ON January 3, 1961, two years and three months after it was formed, the Space Task Group officially became a separate, autonomous NASA field element charged with the conduct of Project Mercury and any other manned space flight programs that might follow it. The Task Group, now composed of 667 people, was still located physically on the Hampton Roads side of the Langley Air Force Base and was supported by the Langley Research Center, but now the administrative marriage of STG with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville, Maryland, was annulled.1 The Mercury team had not yet managed to launch a manned rocket, but neither apparently had their Russian counterparts. The United States still had a good chance to place the first man in space, at least for five minutes. The Soviet lead in orbital flight tests argued heavily against the first manned satellite being American, but to score first would still be some consolation.

In only three years and three months since Sputnik I, the Soviet Union and the United States had launched into space a total of 42 vehicles, 38 of which were Earth satellites, three were solar satellites, and one was a lunar probe. The box score in the "space race" between the United States and the Soviet Union was 33 to 9 in favor of the home team, as far as publicly successful space launchings were concerned. But with only nine acknowledged launchings the U.S.S.R. had hoisted some 87,000 pounds (as opposed to the U.S. total of 34,240 pounds), the Soviets had hit the Moon and photographed its backside, and they had recovered two dogs from one Earth orbital flight. Of the 33 American space launches, only three had been done by NASA launch vehicles and crews. Of the remainder, 24 had been launched by Air Force rockets, five by Army boosters, one by the Navy. In contrast to the responsibility for launching these 31 Earth satellites and two solar satellites, the credit for building the instrumented payloads was spread more widely; the Air Force counted 15 successes, the Army and Navy four each, and NASA 10 spacecraft. Already the complexity of accounting properly for mankind's successful satellite and space probe projects was reaching formidable proportions.2

[304] On January 11, 1961, three Soviet tracking ships were reported moving into the central Pacific once again. The next day, in his final State of the Union address, President Eisenhower commended the young space administration for its "startling strides" and "real progress toward the goal of manned space flights. " After listing all the successes of American instrumented payloads in space, Eisenhower said:

These achievements make us unquestionably preeminent today in space exploration for the betterment of mankind. I believe the present organizational arrangements in this area, with the revisions proposed last year, are completely adequate for the tasks ahead.3
At this same time, President-elect John F. Kennedy announced that Jerome B. Wiesner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who had chaired the Democratic science advisory committee for the campaign, would become the new Presidential special assistant for science and technology. And with this announcement Kennedy released most of a special report made to him by Wiesner's committee of nine campaign advisers on the state of the Nation's security and prestige. A political document, the "Wiesner Report" called for a sweeping reorganization of the national space program. It was critical of past leadership and direction, and it called for more effective use of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, better coordination with the Department of Defense, stronger technical management, and a closer partnership with industry. On top of all this came the uncorroborated news that an Army officer had told a seminar of almost 500 civilian and military participants that the United States had good evidence that at least one and probably two Soviet cosmonauts had been killed in unsuccessful attempts to orbit a man during Premier Khrushchev's visit to the United States in September 1960.4


1 NASA Fifth Semiannual Report to Congress, October 1, 1960, through June 30, 1961, 153. This report, not published until July 11, 1962, is highly anachronistic (see pp. 5, 6) and should be used with caution. See also memo, Aaron Rosenthal to Dir., Office of Space Flight Programs, "Temporary Reassignment of Manpower Spaces," with enclosures on STG complement requirement for fiscal 1962, Dec. 5, 1960.

2 Eugene M. Emme, Aeronautics and Astronautics: An American Chronology of Science and Technology in the Exploration of Space, 1915- 1960 (Washington, 1961), 134, 139-151; STL Space Log (Jan. 1961), 24, 3- 8. Charles S. Sheldon II has corrected the poundage figures in terms of lifting capacity to 100 nautical mile altitude. Official comparisons sometimes unfairly counted the weights of U.S. rocket casings and not those of U.S.S.R. casings.

3 Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 88 Cong., 1 sess. (1963), Documents on International Aspects of the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, 1954-1962, May 9, 1963, 186.

4 The informant was Lt. Col. Paul D. Hickman, of the Armed Forces Industrial College. See House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 1 sess. (1961), A Chronology of Missile and Astronautics Events, 139-140; House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87 Cong., 2 sess. (1962), Aeronautical and Astronautical Events of 1961, 1-2; and "U.S. Officer Says 2 Reds Died in Space," Newport News Daily Press, Jan. 15, 1961. Soviet spokesmen later denied this report, of course, and most informed American opinion credits the Soviet denial. Two U.S.S.R. attempted launchings of Mars probes on October 10 and 14, 1960, may have confused this issue. For an important demurrer, see the letter by Julius Epstein, a research associate of the Hoover Institute of Stanford University, reprinted in the Congressional Record on Aug. 6, 1965: "Open Versus Secret Procedures in Space Programs," pp. 18813-18814.


Previous Next Index