NASA After Two Years

As 1960 drew to a close, NASA's manned space flight program was still limited to Project Mercury, but plans and hopes for a larger enterprise were rife. At the center of NASA's aspirations was a lunar landing program, endorsed by the Goett Committee in mid-1959 and [25] written into the agency's ten-year plan at the end of the year. This goal was framed on technical grounds, as a legitimate end in its own right and as the best means to focus further work on manned space flight after Mercury. Questions of politics, economics, and the other external forces that would decide whether the United States should actually undertake such a program played no part in the choice of the goal.104 NASA engineers were convinced that they could reach the Moon and that reaching the Moon made sense in technical terms. But the technical facts also forced NASA to settle for planning a lesser program for the 1960s. A landing on the Moon remained the long-range goal, but plans were scaled down for a partway effort, a trip around the Moon and back in Project Apollo.

NASA Ten Year Plan

1960
First launching of a Meteorological Satellite

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

1961
First launching of a lunar impact vehicle

First launching of an Atlas-Centaur vehicle

Attainment of manned space flight, Project Mercury

1962
First launching in the vicinity of Venus and/or Mars
1963
First launching of the two-stage Saturn vehicle
1969-1964
First launching of unmanned vehicle for controlled landing on the Moon

First launching of Orbiting Astronomical and Radio Astronomy Observatory

1964
First bunching of unmanned lunar circumnavigation and return to Earth vehicle

First reconnaissance of Mars and/or Venus by an unmanned vehicle

1965-1967
First launching in a program leading to manned circumlunar flight and to permanent near-Earth space station
Beyond 1970
Manned flight to the Moon
[26] The main factor in this less ambitious program was the limited weight-lifting capability of existing boosters, as well as those expected to be ready for the 1960s. The real force of this restriction rested on the widely held assumption that a flight to the Moon would be launched directly from Earth's surface on a very large booster. Outside NASA, workers in the new field of astronautics, picking up a lead from early space-travel writers, had proposed rendezvous as an alternative to direct ascent. Within NASA, this idea was slow to take hold, although a few isolated voices supported it and grew louder. The pressure for change came mainly from the field.

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.


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