FIRST AMONG EQUALS : THE ORIGINS OF THE SELECTION PROCESS

 
The Impact of the Sputniks and the First Vanguard
 
Sputnik I
 
The unexpected launch of Sputnik I produced a major upheaval in American science and engineering. Moscow radio announced the news on a Friday evening, and within hours virtually every American ham radio operator, physicist, and radio astronomer from Boston to San Diego, and on ships at sea, was either listening or feverishly assembling equipment to listen to Sputnik's beeps. 29, 30 Newspapers and radio stations carried the time and direction for people to watch Sputnik as it passed overhead. Over the weekend, nervous groups assembled in backyards and on hillsides to speculate on the significance of the faint, man-made star, one that crossed from horizon to horizon in minutes. Americans left work Friday evening as Earth-bound humans to return on Monday still Earth-bound, but living in a new age, the space age.
 
The surprise launch of Sputnik profoundly affected American scientists and engineers involved in space research. Frustrated scientists, thanks to their Soviet colleagues' secrecy, did not have instruments ready to receive Sputnik's radio transmissions. Chagrined aerospace engineers had to answer the same nasty question over and over: How could the Soviets, who had apparently started work a year after the Americans, launch a satellite weighing six times as much as Vanguard? Their frustrations were just beginning, and none, not even far-sighted Berkner, anticipated the growing anger and impatience of Americans as they settled down before their television sets to watch the United States and the Soviets race to see who would become the leader in space.
 
Sputnik II
 
They did not have long to wait. A month later, on November 3, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, a half-ton satellite that carried a female dog, Laika, into orbit. Although Sputnik I shocked and irritated Americans, it did not particularly frighten them. Assured by the President and the media, they believed a U.S. satellite would have been first if Eisenhower had permitted the use of classified military rockets. Annoyed that the Soviets were "first into space," they were still confident that U.S. technology was far ahead of that of the USSR.
 
Sputnik II, however, shocked everyone. It weighed more than 1000 pounds and carried a dog. Neither of the big rockets under development, the Atlas or the Titan, could orbit 1000-pound payload. Highly classified reconnaissance satellites, with reentry capsules to recover their film, were under development, but the United States had not started to develop a spacecraft with a life support system. Most aerospace engineers regarded Laika's flight as a precursor to manned flight. Clearly, the USSR had demonstrated that it was ahead of the United States in manned space flight and in the size of satellites that it could place in orbit.
 
Let The Race Begin
 
The media, the politicians, the "military-industrial complex," and the scientists immediately began to exploit the public concern about "space," each for its own purpose. A steady chant arose; "When are we going to catch up with the Russians?" Thin chant did not stop until Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon in 1969. Then it was abruptly replaced with a new theme "Let's stop wasting all this money on space."
 
On November 7, 1957, two days after the launch of Sputnik II, President Eisenhower, in an attempt to quiet the public clamor, announced that the United States had successfully tested a reentry nose cone. He also named Dr. James R. Killian* to the newly created post of Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. 31
 
After Sputnik II, President Eisenhower abandoned his policy of using only Vanguard to launch satellites. On November 8, 1957, Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy directed the Army to launch an IGY scientific satellite using a modified Jupiter C launch vehicle.** 32 On December 5, McElroy announced the formation of a new Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) that would direct all defense-related space activity. For the next ten months, until NASA began operation in October 1958, ARPA managed all U.S. space activity, civilian and military.
 
The Congress, controlled by the Democrats, responding to the public clamor after the first two Sputnik launches, turned the "loss of leadership in space" into a major political issue. Immediately after the second Sputnik launch, the Military Preparedness Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, chaired by Lyndon B. Johnson, held 20 days of hearings on the subjects of satellites and missiles. 33
 
The First Vanguard Fails
 
On Friday, December 6, a month after the launch of Sputnik II, assorted dignitaries, reporters, and TV cameramen confidently assembled at Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the first American satellite. Seconds into the launch, in horrified disbelief, they saw the rocket burst into flames, crumple and dump the satellite back onto the launch pad. Over the weekend, Americans watched replays of the crumbling rocket and saw the little satellite bounce on the pad. The Soviets had led the world into the space age and the Americans could not even follow. Not since Pearl Harbor, sixteen years before, had American pride and prestige suffered such a blow.

These three events-two successful Sputnik launches, followed by the failure of the first Vanguard launch-unleashed a mighty effort on the part of American scientists, engineers, and politicians to try to restore American pride and prestige. Even American taxpayers seemed willing to dig into their pockets to pay for the technical effort necessary to beat the Soviets. If the December launch of Vanguard had been successful, the hysteria might have died down over the Christmas vacation, but the Sputniks succeeded, Vanguard failed, and Americans would not rest until they led the world in the exploration of space. As 1958 began, the question was not whether the United States should try to catch up with the Soviets, but what needed to be done and how quickly it could be accomplished.


* President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

* The Jupiter C was the vehicle that the Army had develeyed to launch satellites. When the President selected the Navy's Vanguard to launch the scientific satellites, the Army began using the Jupiter C to test nose cone reentry techniques.


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