AMERICA STARTS FOR THE MOON: 1957-1963

Organizing for Space Exploration

The Soviet Union‘s launch of the world‘s first man-made satellite (Sputnik) on October 4, 1957, concentrated America‘s attention on its own fledgling space efforts. Congress, alarmed by the perceived threat to American security and technological leadership, urged immediate and strong action; the President and his advisers counseled more deliberate measures. Several months of debate produced agreement that a new federal agency was needed to conduct al nonmilitary activity in space. On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).2

When it opened for business on October 1, 1958, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 8,000 employees of the government‘s 43-year-old research agency in aeronautics, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).* Within a few months NASA acquired the Vanguard satellite project, along with its 150 researchers from the Naval Research Laboratory; plans and funding for several space and planetary probes from the Army and the Air Force; and the services of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) outside Pasadena, California, where scientists were planning an unmanned spacecraft (Ranger) that would take close-up television pictures of the lunar surface before crashing into the moon.3

Vanguard and JPL brought a strong scientific component into NASA‘s activities. Many of the Vanguard scientists became administrative and technical leaders at NASA Headquarters and at its new space science center (Goddard Space Flight Center** at Greenbelt, Maryland. JPL‘s contributions to the space program would be strongest in instrumented spacecraft for the planetary programs. It also shared with Goddard major responsibility for development and operation of the tracking and telemetry network used in deep space operations, including Apollo.4

These new acquisitions were grafted onto NACA, an organization that had played a leading role in the development of aircraft technology since 1914. After World War II, new aerodynamic and control problems had to be solved as the demand for military aircraft to perform at greater speeds and higher altitudes increased. By 1957 the X-15, one of a series of rocket-propelled piloted aircraft, was on the drawing boards. It was intended to be capable of exceeding Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound) and of climbing beyond 107,000 meters (67 miles) - above nearly all the sensible atmosphere. NACA was, in fact, approaching the conditions of space flight by extension of the operational limits of manned aircraft.

Other NACA engineers were working on other space-related problems. At Langley‘s Pilotless Aircraft Research Division, aerodynamicists were acquiring important data on aerodynamic heating at speeds of Mach 10, unattainable in the wind tunnels of the time, by flying models of aircraft and missiles mounted on rockets.5 When Sputnik went up, many of these engineers were already talking about the problems of putting humans in an earth-orbiting spacecraft.6

The necessity for thinking about humans in space was made apparent when, less than a month after Sputnik, the Soviets orbited Sputnik II, a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) satellite carrying a living passenger - a dog named Laika. With this dear evidence that the Russians intended to send men into space, both the Army and the Air Force resurrected dormant schemes to follow suit. Neither could produce a credible mission for humans in space, and both lost out to the new space agency in 1958, when President Eisenhower assigned all manned space flight projects to NASA.7 Before NASA was a month old, Administrator T. Keith Glennan chartered a Space Task Group (STG) at Langley and charged it with managing the United States‘ first project to put man in space: Project Mercury. In 1961 STG was redesignated the Manned Spacecraft Center, a connotation of its newly expanded responsibility for all manned projects, and located on 1,660 acres (6.5 square kilometers) of flat Texas pasture land 22 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of downtown Houston.8

Crucial to any ambitious program in space was the ability to launch large payloads into earth orbit and to send instrument payloads to the planets. Rockets far exceeding the capacity of existing launch vehicles were required, but only one was being seriously pursued. At the Army‘s Redstone Arsenal just outside Huntsville, Alabama, the Free World‘s most experienced rocket engineers - Wernher von Braun and the team built around the hundred-odd Germans who developed the V-2 rocket during World War II - were about to undertake construction of a vehicle called Saturn I, five times as powerful as the biggest then available. By 1959, however, the Army had lost its last tenuous foothold on space flight and had no use for Saturn - nor could it provide any other pioneering work for the ambitious von Braun. On July 1, 1960, rocket development at Redstone Arsenal followed some earlier Army space programs into NASA when von Braun and 4,600 employees, along with many of the facilities at Redstone, became the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.9 Thus by the end of 1960 NASA had the elements of a comprehensive space program in place. Marshall Space Flight Center would design, test, and launch*** the rockets and oversee their production by industry. The Manned Spacecraft Center would manage spacecraft design and testing, conduct flight operations, and train the astronauts. Goddard and JPL would be responsible for tracking, communication, and data management. At Headquarters, a triumvirate comprising the Administrator, Deputy Administrator, and Associate Administrator managed the overall program, determining policy, preparing budget requests, and defending the program and the budgets before congressional committees. Agency programs - science, manned space flight, advanced research - were managed by directors of Headquarters program offices. The field centers reported to the Associate Administrator, who coordinated the program offices and allocated resources to the centers.


* NACA‘s installations were Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Langley Field, Va., with its subsidiary Pilotless Aircraft Research Station at Wallops Island, Va.; Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, Calif.; Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, Cleveland, Ohio; and the High-Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Langley, Ames, and Lewis became ”Research Centers• under NASA, and the High-Speed Flight Station was renamed the Flight Research Center, later the Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Facility (honoring NASA‘s first Deputy Administrator and long-time Director of NACA, who died in 1965).

** Named in honor of the American pioneer of liquid-fueled rockets, Dr. Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945).

*** Marshall maintained a subsidiary Launch Operations Directorate at the Air Force‘s Eastern Test Range at Cape Canaveral, Fla., which was made autonomous in 1962 as the Launch Operations Center (renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center in December 1963), responsible tor final assembly, checkout, and launching of manned space vehicles.


2. Homer E. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science, NASA SP-4211 (Washington, 1980), pp. 87-99. Newell joined NASA in 1958 as director of the space science program, became Associate Administrator for Space Science (later Space Science and Applications in 1961 and Associate Administrator in 1967. He retired in 1973 and died in 1984. See also Arnold S. Levine Managing NASA in the Apollo Era, NASA SP-4102 (Washington, 1982), pp. 9-17, and Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1958-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966). pp. 37-47.

3. Rosholt, Administrative History, pp. 45-47. For a history of JPL‘s Ranger project, see R. Cargill Hall, Lunar Impact: A History of Project Ranger, NASA SP-4210 (Washington, 1977.

4. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere, pp. 104-105.

5. Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA SP-4201 (Washington, 1966), pp. 55-65. The NACA-NASA research in high-speed flight is treated in Richard Hallion‘s On the Frontier: A History of the Dryden Flight Research Facility, NASA SP-4303 (Washington, 1984).

6. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 73.

7. Ibid., pp. 99-102.

8. Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, NASA SP-4205 (Washington, 1979), pp. 4, 52-53.

9. Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo Saturn Launch Vehicles, NASA SP-4206 (Washington, 1980), pp. 26-42.


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