During the mid-1950s, the Air Force sponsored work on the feasibility of building large, single-chamber engines, presumably for boost-glide aircraft or spaceflight. This work provided the basis for fast response when the nation felt the need to catch up with the Russians in launch vehicle capability.
In 1956, the Army's missile development group, under the technical direction of Wernher von Braun, began studies of large launch vehicles. The possibilities opened up by Sputnik accelerated this work and gave the Army an opportunity to bid for the leading role in launch vehicles. The Air Force, however, had the responsibility for the largest ballistic missiles and hence, a ready-made base for extending their capability for spaceflight. One example of this was Centaur, the hydrogen-oxygen upper stage for the Atlas ICBM.
During 1958, actions taken to establish a civilian space agency, and the launch vehicle needs seen by its planners, added a third contender to the space vehicle competition. In this chapter, we will examine these activities during 1958 and how they resulted in the initiation of a large rocket engine and the first large launch vehicle.