First launching of a Passive Reflector Communications Satellite
First launching of a Scout vehicle
First launching of a Thor-Delta vehicle First launching of an Atlas-Agena-B vehicle (by the Department of Defense) First suborbital flight of an astronaut
First launching of an Atlas-Centaur vehicle
Attainment of manned space flight, Project Mercury
First launching of Orbiting Astronomical and Radio Astronomy Observatory
First reconnaissance of Mars and/or Venus by an unmanned vehicle
NASA's field centers, though under tighter rein than NACA's had been, nevertheless were far from being mere agents of Headquarters. The precise ordering of relationships between Washington and the field has, in fact, been a continuing source of tension and a factor in the frequent reorganizations that NASA has undergone. Policy and long-range planning have tended to center in NASA Headquarters, design and development at lower levels. But what goes on at one level has not always seemed to mesh with what goes on at another. Headquarters policy has sometimes appeared to be nothing more than a belated ratification of work already under way in the field. This is the way rendezvous entered the space program.
Some form of rendezvous in Earth or lunar orbit appeared to offer the prospect of making do with lesser boosters than the giant Nova. While simple in theory, however, orbital rendezvous might well present problems in practice. A program designed to test the technique was beginning to look like a prudent move. This pointed to another aspect of NASA activity during 1959 and 1960, and to a still smaller step between Project Mercury and a lunar landing. Suitably altered, the Mercury capsule might become the basis for a new program. Given a certain eager optimism, such changes might be seen as nothing more than an effort to improve the experimental machine and convert it to an operational model. By 1960, proving rendezvous techniques was beginning to emerge as a logical task for the improved Mercury.
Prospects for a larger program at the end of 1960, whether lunar landing, circumlunar flight, or even rendezvous development, were not, in fact, good. During the last quarter of the year, Project Mercury suffered setbacks that strained STG morale and raised questions about the American manned space flight program.105 The political climate was bleak. President Eisenhower rejected NASA's request for Apollo funds in the coming year's budget and leaned toward the view that Project Mercury was the only manned space flight program the United States needed. NASA's prospects under newly elected President John F. Kennedy seemed not much better.106 Policy, however, was one thing, technology another. NASA could, and did, pursue its technical planning. When the climate changed, NASA was ready.
104 Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon, p. 40.
105 Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 291-93.
106 Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon, pp. 34-38., 71-75.